Simplify: Wired to Eat — RobbWolf

Let me start by saying I am not a ‘dieter’.

I enjoy sports, have always been natural average, and yesterday ate 5 chocolate creme eggs.

Health is something I have only been concerned with from a distance. I am happy to go for a run and immediately get a McDonald’s after. So why did I read this?

If I am honest, the colour of the book first. The second is I know I am a fiend for sugar. Third, I was going on holiday and it looked the most interesting.

My best takeaway (pun intended)

The author (a former research biochemist) pushes hard on the idea that our modern food has been made to be nice. That is human nature — to make things better. Make sweets sweeter, make flavours more flavourful.

The problem is our body isn’t designed for it and as such we will have way too much sugar in our blood and that makes problems. Furthermore, if our food is easy to digest, it will be easily digested… Before you say “no sh*t”, the author points out that there are then consequences for the gut, specifically deterioration in quality as we essentially incentivize bacteria to grow in huge numbers at the front of the gut but create ghost towns nearer the end of it.

Putting it all together, easy modern food leads to problems with your blood and your gut.

The answer is to eat foods more akin to how we used to. This is essentially the Paleo diet.

Paleo is just meat, right?

No. Imagine back to a time when we were hairless monkeys wandering around. Yeah sure they would kill things every now and again but they would mostly eat fruits and veg and basically anything they could find.

They wouldn’t walk around and find loaves of bread and cookies lying around. There is the difference.

“Ahhh I must have got it confused with Keto”

No. Keto is something different. The Keto diet is a diet that makes your body go through ketosis. When our naked monkey ancestors were chasing meat and didn’t catch it could mean they wouldn’t eat that day. We wouldn’t have survived very long if one day of not eating made you slower the next day. Instead, bodies go through ketosis which essentially starts using fats stored in your body as a food source.

So the Keto diet is a Paleo diet with intermittent fasting.

Point 1: Modern life and our evolution is mismatched

For millennia, we have constantly been focused on food. But we have also always had to be active and have little control over our environment.

Now though our typical sleep patterns, an abundance of food, sedentary lifestyles, and more don’t reflect what our ancestors endured.

Point 2: How do we know what is too much

Something called palate fatigue. Try eating 7 pork chops. It is hard. Not only may our stomach physically inflate but our brain also says no.

He describes an eating contest by Adam from Man v Food. In this, he ate 2 gallons (16lbs/7kg). Halfway through he asks for some super salty chips.

Why? Well, he was tricking his palette.

Palette fatigue was making him nauseated.

Palette fatigue is an evolutionary response to save over consumption and then shock from mild poison. Adam from Man v. Food knew this and used it to his advantage. He also finished his chips.

Palette fatigue is different for different flavours too. There is academic research to say protein fills you with the least, then fiber-rich carbs and then fat.

Robb Wolf (the author) does say though he sees variation with some people becoming much more satisfied with higher fat intake with protein and hence eating as much of it as they want they will still reduce calorie intake.

Point 3: Food Porn

Referencing the book Your Brain on Porn by Gary Wilson, Wolf talks about super-normal stimuli and how the extreme amount of choice can cause large issues. In the reference material, it focuses on men able to achieving sexual performance without porn through conditioning themselves to need super-normal stimuli.

Regarding food, the vanilla sex equivalent is a simple chicken and veg meal. We can’t eat healthily because we have conditioned ourselves to expect the incredible range of flavours our modern food has.

This conditioning is all down to Serotonin ultimately and how once we have had one dose of it, we need larger doses. “healthy meals are so lacking in stimulation relative to our nearly limitless options”.

Point 4: The opposite of helping

Wolf also notes the widespread behaviour of people when they learn one person is trying to eat better.

“the person is at least questioned and at worst heckled, cajoled or guilted” [into giving up]

Yet if someone is “eating themselves to an early death”, no-one will say anything.

As such, our environment, evolutionary biology, our society, and our social circle can all be at odds with the typical ‘eat less and move more’ advice.

Point 5: Studying poo is studying you

Digestion is the entry point for food to our bodies, the mouth just takes it there. Digestion makes things smaller. Starches, proteins, and fats are broken down into sugars, amino acids, and fatty acids.

Carbs are built from sugars, starch, and fibre and each food item has a different mix of these. Of the sugars, there are two common types: fructose and glucose. Hence depending on the carb, we eat we can have vastly different bodily responses.

Protein begins breaking down in the stomach from the acid, but carbs get their bulk digested in the small intestine. This is where the broken down parts (amino acids and sugars) will come into contact with the villi and microvilli aka the intestine wall. The wall can distinguish between the vast amount of bacteria that exists in us and only lets in what we want. If the gut lining is damaged, things that shouldn’t get through do, and stuff that we do want in is less efficiently absorbed. The fats though really struggle to be absorbed and nutrients that need to be transported with the fats fail to and hence issues can arise quickly.

Credit: Linda Carney MD in Science Inspired

When we eat highly refined, easy to digest food, it is broken down very quickly. Previously carbs would take a long time to travel through the intestine, constantly being broken down but giving a consistent amount of sugars off as it goes. Now with easy to digest the food that consistent stream of sugars doesn’t happen. Instead, the beginning of the small intestine gets a huge dose of sugar which doesn’t leave much for the bacteria later in it. This can affect the microbiome of bacteria in our small intestine as the ones later on in it no longer get the consistent supply of sugar, whereas the ones at the front get loads to which they quickly grow in number which may cause us issues.

Credit: me

After the small intestine is the large intestine and colon. Large ecosystems of bacteria help ferment the starches and fibres here, hence giving us more nutrition from our food than we could retrieve alone but they are also starved through early consumption in the small intestine with refined food. Also if our digestion in the small intestine has been poor due to poorly gut linings and unbalanced bacteria microbiomes, we may find large amounts of undigested fats and other food pieces which can cause large growth in bacteria in our large intestine and colon which can cause “Ulcers, Crohn’s disease irritable bowel syndrome and a host of other GI [gastrointestinal] and non-GI related problems”.

Poo analysis can show us all of this.

Point 6: Endocrinology is hormonal

Endocrinology “ is a branch of biology and medicine dealing with the endocrine system, its diseases, and its specific secretions known as hormones” [Wikipedia]. We typically have heard of hormones like insulin, estrogen, and testosterone. Essentially, hormones are chemicals that change our bodies and cells. Let’s talk about one:

Insulin regulates glucose levels in the blood. If you eat a banana, you will get glucose from your intestine which will eventually go into your blood. Sugary blood will trigger insulin to be released which will bring glucose levels down to normal. Insulin keeps blood sugar stable. More specifically, insulin triggers cells to know glucose is available in the blood and hence they should let it in. Now that cells know it is there and start to use it the amount of glucose in the blood drops.

Credit: Tradewinds

Insulin resistance is when our cells don’t respond to insulin saying there is glucose available and hence glucose levels stay high in the blood (this is type two diabetes behavior but this can be seen in anyone). If we stay with high levels of sugar we can damage the pancreas which produces insulin (essentially overwork it until it fails and then we can no longer make enough insulin and then will have to inject it ourselves), which can cause hardening of blood vessels (atherosclerosis) or become hyperglycemic (headaches, blurred vision, and more). This is a great article on hyperglycemia. Why do people become insulin resistant? As with any hormone, the more you have of it the less you are receptive to it. The body produces fewer receptors for it, the more you have it.

Point 7: What happens when we don’t eat

We have low insulin levels (because there isn’t much glucose) but high levels of stress hormones (cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon). The liver starts releasing stored glucose and fat cells and proteins that get damaged will be broken down to be recycled. If we still aren’t getting enough sugar something called Ketosis begins to happen. This is where fatty acids are converted into ketone bodies which are essentially a substitute for glucose. This can be great for general health. There is one issue, ketone bodies are acidic. In low levels, this is fine and hence is called ketosis. In high levels, it is called ketoacidosis and can cause comas and death. It is starvation.

Point 8: What happens when we eat too much

The body is “meant to store some fat as a hedge against starvation” but as this increases the body starts to get creative with how it stores it. It fills the liver first, then the muscle cells, and then stored as fat cells (on top and in-between the muscles). If this still isn’t enough it will continue to build fat but also start storing fats and sugars in the blood. This can cause a whole host of problems! The brain doesn’t do well in high (and low) sugar levels. It can be toxic to the brain, and the kidney's capillaries. Our body combats this with satiation by making us feel full but our diets are doing the same trick the Man v Food guy did to ignore palette fatigue (sugary dessert after your main anyone?).

To compound issues, the cells become insulin resistant and hence we think we are starving. Our bodies create stress hormones that demand we eat more and hence demand more food, and hence more glucose. This raises our glucose levels higher!

Not only that but our bodies, who think we are starving, start breaking down muscle cells which means we have even fewer places to store fats.

And there is more. I am not going to carry on but the author continues and states clinical links between obesity and free-radicals causing cancer, neurological issues, and cardiovascular disease. Suddenly, we are in a death spiral of symptoms. Obesity is a normal body response to an abnormal environment.

Point 9: The hygiene hypothesis

The hygiene hypothesis is the idea that our body to some extent relies on illnesses to fine-tune our autoimmune response. Without interaction (now that we are saved from these diseases and illness) means we have weaker, less well-tuned systems which have lead to asthma and allergies. This has been applied to the gut too because:

  1. Non-westernized populations gut bacteria is wildly different to western
  2. Children in Western society but raised around animals have a more diverse gut bacteria profile too
  3. People with ‘Western guts’ (ie not the two groups above) contract allergies and bowel issues much more commonly (though this hasn’t been proven to be because of the bacteria diversity, it is hypothesized)

Point 10: Ancestral diets

On ancestral diets people naturally eat until they are full, over-consumption is difficult to do as the food is very satiating, gut microbiomes are healthy and hormones and our cell's responses are healthy.

Point 11: Use the scientific method

In science, if you want to know the response of a system you check it with a variety of inputs. Researchers (Zeevi et. al) have done this with people: monitoring the glucose in their blood and what food they are eating. This way we can see how well people digest sugars into the blood and how long the cells take to consume it (through how long the blood sugar level stays high).

They found that this response was influenced by genetics, exercise, body fat levels, and the gut microbiome.

The researchers also used machine learning to be able to predict what foods would cause what blood sugar response. Then they used this to recommend carbs type and amount.

In the future, the hope is that a personal AI meal coach can take in information about your exercise levels and weight loss while going through diets to help people lose weight but also help them explore “latitude in their eating”.

Variability is huge in each person and hence individual personalized nutrition is what needs to be established. The author highlights this with this graph, showing polar opposite responses between people on the same food:

Data from Zeevi et al. Image Credit: Weizmann Institute

Point 12: You are like a navy SEAL

The author talks next about a friend called Dr. Kirk Parsley, a physician, and retired Navy SEAL. While working as a physician in the SEALs, he saw a pattern of declining performance physically and mentally by young people. They would exercise hard to stay in shape but also to help them get tired and sleep, would taking huge doses of sleep medication and wake up with loud music and energy drinks. They would regularly work long ‘night ops’ becoming nocturnal and when awake in the day would have their full gear on once again working to exhaustion. Not many of us could survive this regime. Some of these guys that should be fine also were struggling.

Dr. Parsley focuses on sleep, a resource the SEALs got desperately little of. “No-one really knows what sleep is,” says Dr. Parsley. “Get hit in the head with a brick and you would most certainly not be aware of sight, sounds, smells or feelings” but this is not sleeping. Sleeping aids like prescriptions and alcohol (or bricks) do not help you sleep. They make you unconscious. You are not benefiting from all the benefits sleep provides.

Sleep restores us. Tissues are healed. Immune systems are rebooted. Inflammation reduces. Digestion has a break to heal. Not sleeping blocks all this.

Additionally, studies have shown poor sleep reduces our sensitivity to insulin (hence have type 2 diabetic symptoms), increase gut permeability (because it cant heal hence fails to absorbs what it should and instead lets things in it shouldn’t), increases systematic inflammation across the body, decreases our immune systems efficacy, and impairs hormones that control the growth of muscle and fat, make us crave things (bad food, habits etc).

Oh, and it also impairs cognition — not just slightly either. Studies have compared poor sleep to alcohol impairment and seen that reaction times are the same!

Parsley also warns of “wearing sleep loss as a badge of honor”. Yeah sure sometimes needs must but ensure it isn’t in your normal schedule.

Point 13: Sleep with the sun

We use to get up when the sun did and sleep when it did. Even in 1970’s America, the population slept 2.5 hours more on average than it does now. That is huge!

Sunlight actively triggers a chemical change to help us wake. We spend most of our days out of the sunlight now. Then when we get home, our lights, TVs, and mobiles flood our eyes with this light, tired from the day's activity but woken from the light. “Ahh damn, I can’t sleep” and perhaps we have a nightcap…

Studies have even show 8 hours isn’t the same everywhere. Midnight to 8 is not the same as 10 to 6.

Point 14: Exercise won’t make you healthy

An (almost) hour-long swim for me is only 400 calories:

A damn long swim session. Screenshot from my Strava.

That is the equivalent of a medium McDonald’s chips portion. When I go, I assure you I can’t just get some chips only. I extend a large effort swimming and ruin it because I feel like I deserve the McDonalds 1,000 cal hit. As the author says:

We can not out-exercise a bad diet.

He says don’t exercise, move. Walk, garden, dance; just do something you enjoy doing and that makes you move.

He suggests:

  • get out and move most days — 10,000 steps is a good goal
  • do some strength stuff to keep you flexible and stop you wasting. He suggests ‘calisthenics’ which to you and me is essentially gym stuff. You don’t have to use weights, just your own body weight. The point is to keep muscle mass and bone density as we get older.
  • do short hard bursts of exercise every now and again. Going walking? Walk up a hill as quickly as you can. The point here is to raise your heart rate high! Why? Well, it helps the heart to shock it every now and again.
  • do some Yoga. Why? Flexibility and range of movement. This goes quickly. Want to be able to pick things off the floor when you are older?

With all of these the best thing to do is get social. Loop your friends and family in if you can. Make new ones in searching for this. We aren’t and don’t want to be athletes but we do want to be active. Pick something you do now which you want to stop or reduce and allocate that time to this thing. Get people to join or join you.

Point 15: Measurement

There are a few metrics that you can use to measure progress — which you should measure. Waist-to-hip ratio and hypertension (blood pressure) is the easiest.

Blood pressure measurements give two numbers: pressure when your heartbeats, and pressure when it isn’t. The normal levels are anything below 120 and 80. Anything higher is cause for concern. The author also argues thought that this normal, it’s normal against a bad population. In non-westernized cultures, it is not abnormal to see numbers 20 points less on the two readings.

The author links this pressure to the pressure-induced from elevated insulin levels. The release of insulin also triggers the release of aldosterone — a hormone that makes cells keep hold of water and hence cells keep hold of water. The more things you have in one space, the more pressure.

One criticism of low carb diets is that most of the weight loss is actually water — but the author points to the number of health problems this can solve.

The author also suggests getting diabetes tests. He points to the fact that some diseases are binary — you have malaria or you don’t. We treat diabetes like this despite the fact it is about sensitivity to insulin which is not a binary option. The point is that the signs are very clear well before yet we do not monitor it. Do you know how close to a clinical diagnosis of diabetes is for you? If you did know it was close would you feel more inclined to eat better now? He points to A1C, Fasting Plasma Glucose or the Oral Glucose Tolerance Test, though once again the normal range is skewed beyond what actually may be normal.

Point 16: The 30 day reset test plan

As promised this is a scientific method to dieting to help build a personalized nutrition plan for yourself.

First, we should plan for 3 meals a day with Protein (115–170 grams), Carbs (75–150 grams) and the natural fat that comes with that (ie. don’t track it but don’t avoid it either). The size variation should be dependant on your size.

It doesn’t sound like much food per meal but you need the conversion. If you source your carbs from fruit and veg it is a huge amount to eat versus around 500 grams of rice to get the required amount.

Point 17: Throw out the pantry

Don’t have junk food around. Simple as that. Give it to a food bank. “We are not wired for self-control”. Instead bring in as many spices you can think of to give yourself the flavor variation — saving you from chicken and peas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Also, of the food you eat, enjoy the variation! Try meats you don’t usually. Shop in bulk, cook in bulk, don’t get caught without food.

For snacks — almonds, cashews, walnuts, and pistachios.

Point 19: Print this out

Use the food matrix to make your meals. If you really want to get OTT to make some way to generate meals or decide them with some dice or something. Do whatever you need to do but have fun with it.

If you don’t like something, don’t make it. If you have other ideas add them.

Breakfast in ‘normal-land’ is dessert — pastries, jams, chocolates. Avoid them. Treat breakfast like any other dinner. If you have leftovers have that.

Plan your meals. Select the ones ahead of time.

“The best is the enemy of good… get a rotisserie chicken”.

Point 19: Do you really need a snack?

The author says by all means (healthy) snack if you need to. Nuts tend to be a winner. Make sure the amount is in moderation. But do ask yourself a question before: Am I ‘hangry’, is it just because it is in-sight, did I eat enough or am I bored?

If you are bored, get up and do something else — make yourself busy. Drink some water. If it is just in-sight, move it or give it to someone — a colleague or a food bank. If you didn’t eat enough, take a note and increase everything but the carb content. If you are ‘hangry’, did you eat a lot of carbs? That is likely the cause, try to experiment with less of it.

Also, don’t plan snacks. Using anticipation and treating yourself is just highlighting you don’t want to eat better.

Point 20: Alcohol

Beer is full of calories and gluten. Sadly, say no. Dry wines are much better. Gin and Tonic’s or other spirits with sodas can be better so long as they don’t have high sugar content.

As we have said, alcohol doesn’t help you sleep.

Point 21: Moderator or Abstainer

Some things you can have a few of and be done; some things you will devour. Know which is which and keep them away from you. I will destroy chocolate but won't be bothered by a packet of crisps.

Point 22: A shorter summary

Sleep: go to bed early, wake naturally.

Food: Palm-sized meat servings. No potatoes, rice or bread (or very small amounts). Ditch liquid calories like fizzy drinks or fruit smoothies (they don’t fill you).

Move: Get sun on your skin and do as much as you can.

Point 23: Ketosis

Only recently have humans had a stable food supply. Not every day would have been successful and hence humans have survived without eating every day. If the brain only runs on glucose, would one day of missing food cause us to start walking into trees and forget to breathe? No, our biology solved this with Ketosis. This is the body’s process of converting fat to a fuel that can act like glucose — called ketones.

The story of Angus Barbieri : Credit

In the 1960’s a morbidly obese man went on water (and tea) only fast — for 382 days. He offered himself as a study to the doctors.

Assuming it wouldn’t last long they agreed and regularly had blood tests. The blood sugar level (including both ketones and glucose) did drop in the first few days but then stayed consistent for 40 days. Ketones dramatically increased.

Obviously, there was a lot of fat that could be used in Ketosis for him which allowed the length of this fast to be huge. It should be noted that all doctors would point out the HUGE risk of people going into ketoacidosis which would be expected in anything like this prolonged ketosis stint.

Ketoacidosis will kill you by turning your blood acidic. Ketogenic diets can be dangerous if you do not fully understand them and do not plan them well. It should be supervised and monitored.

Point 24: And the final point

Try the 30 day reset. Maybe try the 7 day carb test.

The carb test makes you try a variety of carbs and measures your blood response.

The 30 day reset makes you move to a Paleo diet with good sleep and exercise.



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