This post is a follow-up to Loosening the Paleo Collar, where I try and determine what aspects of the Paleo diet were responsible for the benefits I experienced. Instead of following an ever increasing stricter interpretation to achieve more results, I took the opposite approach and started removing behaviors to see where the true benefit resided. Besides having a curiosity on these matters, I had another motivation and that is the topic of this post.
Peanuts Are Unhealthy, Right?
In early 2009, I watched Art De Vany’s Evolutionary Fitness Seminar. I was very new to the Paleo diet. I wanted to learn more, so I took notes and started thinking about ways I could make changes in my diet and behavior. At one point in the lecture De Vany mentions how we shouldn’t eat peanuts, because they contain a carcinogenic toxin know as aflatoxin. This wasn’t a problem for me. I loved almond butter just as much as peanut butter, so I formed a new food rule and avoided peanuts for almost 2 years.
Then at a Thai restaurant I had a dish made with a peanut sauce. My mouth turned instantly numb. I had trouble speaking, almost like I had been injected with Novocaine. This had never happened to me before. I stopped eating for a moment and instead of panicking, I calmly told myself that I was going to be OK. I slowly finished eating my meal and by the time I left the restaurant the numbness was gone and I was fine. Since that incident, I purposely expose myself to peanuts 2-3 times a year without getting any side effects. Dealing with a numb mouth is one thing, what if I had gone 5 or 10 years without peanuts and then had a far worse exposure?
That incident got me thinking.
The Resiliency Axis
It is not enough that we pursue a path of becoming more healthy. If we aren’t developing resiliency, then we could just be building up a new form of fragility. When we become fully committed to a diet, be it Paleo or whatever, we construct a bubble between us and what we see as toxic. This is a safe environment for losing weight and getting healthy, but we are still in a bubble in a toxic world.
Intermittent Fasting is about building resiliency over eating schedules and being comfortable with the state of hunger. Weight training and cold weather exposure are other strategies used for increasing resiliency. Why not dietary hormesis?
Maybe this post won’t make sense to those that don’t follow a strict diet, but I am aware of a lot people in the Paleo and WAPF (Weston A Price Foundation) groups that get exponentially more neurotic about elements of their diet that have the least impact. Everything must be grass-fed, organic and free range to them. I’m not kidding when I say that I know people who spend hours every week investigating the practices of local farms. While I am glad that someone is keeping tabs on what Local Farmer X is feeding to his heirloom chickens, I don’t see these people as having greater health outcomes than me. In fact, I see the opposite.
Obsessing about what is unhealthy is unhealthy. It makes you less resilient. It is important to discover what your dietary enemies are, but unless you have a life threatening allergy, running from them 100% of the time may not be the most healthy response. During my trip to Ohio, some gluten exposure gave me a severe headache and stomach pains. What if I had exposed myself to trace amounts of gluten on the days leading up to my trip? Would I have felt better and enjoyed my trip more? Sure it isn’t healthy, but my resiliency would likely have been greater.
Another one of my amazing graphics. 😉
RED is the path I see many in the PALEO/WAPF groups following. In their obsession with becoming more healthy, they lose resiliency. The GREEN path is the alternative. Once you’ve become healthy and realize that any additional incremental benefit introduce greater fragility then shift focus to resiliency.
Pick Your Poisons
We live in a toxic world. Constructing walls of super clean eating is excellent way to get healthy, but once you’ve healed, the next step might be to focus on increasing your resiliency to that toxic world by carefully picking your poisons in small doses. It has been over two years since I posted on what I eat and what I don’t eat. In my next post, I will revisit this topic with a bias towards resiliency.
May 4, 2012 — 11:16 am
Nice post! I think Taleb mentioned this during his most recent appearance on EconTalk, but imagine what would happen if you spent years in a perfectly sterile environment and then got on a crowded train in NYC.
May 4, 2012 — 11:19 am
@Greg – Taleb is definitely one my mentors. BTW, I’m loving the EconTalk podcast. I’m going through the archives a few more hours every week. Thanks for reminding me about that podcast.
May 4, 2012 — 12:01 pm
very interesting. there is definitely a fine line we walk. if we eliminate all risk in our life, we will become weak and vulnerable. we definitely have to measure the risk/reward of most everything when we consider health and happiness.
kinda like a hunter gatherer digging into a bee hive to get the honey. sure they will probably be stung but the honey is damn good to eat.
May 4, 2012 — 2:37 pm
Excellent post. I’m still trying to eliminate things, but this is good to keep in mind. I am purposefully mindful of not becoming one of those people that disrupts the groups plans because of my dietary desires, but this will allow me a little flexibility going forward.
May 4, 2012 — 2:42 pm
I’ve listened to a few EconTalks– the ones I remember are Taleb’s and Christopher Hitchens’s. You certainly hear a lot about Hitchens being a wonderful speaker– he speaks more eloquently than most people write– and after hearing his EconTalk interview, the only words I have are “verbal baller”.
May 4, 2012 — 3:35 pm
Great post. And you are without a doubt the GraphMaster 😉
May 4, 2012 — 7:56 pm
I’ve found that beyond a 80/20 rule type paleo diet, diminishing returns set in pretty quickly. There are obviously real dietary allergies and it does matter what you put in your mouth, but the big picture can play an even more important role. If you’re eating the ‘wrong’ things but in a way that’s fun, social or generally life enhancing, then maybe that part of it is more important than the food. Stress and worry about micromanaging diet counts just as much as other kinds of stress. I always liked Chris Kresser’s line about his 9 steps: “whichever of these sounds stupid to you or like it doesn’t matter is exactly the one you should focus on”.
BTW-I liked your line on Carbsane’s latest Kruse post (ancestral pathways lol). This is what always turned me off about him -beyond his incomprehensible writing style. All those specifics about his leptin reset just didn’t make any sense and the cold exposure stuff just seemed like an outright farce- he always sounded like he was just making stuff up and now there’s a bit of proof he’s not adverse to doing so.
May 5, 2012 — 6:29 am
Good stuff MAS. You’re right about dietary hormesis. And this is, of course, the basis for homepathic medicine. The challenge is getting the right dose – is it 1/2 a peanut, or three peanuts?, etc.
May 5, 2012 — 7:55 am
Great post. I haven’t seen anyone in the paleosphere put it together in this way (although Richard did hint at it with his Moderate Carb Flu post). I always take pause when I read the accounts of supposedly badass paleo/crossfit types when they report that they ate some non-paleo item and were knocked out of commission for seven days. Really? A Twinkie knocks you out for a week? Maybe it’s time to adjust a bit.
May 5, 2012 — 8:31 am
This is fun stuff.
I’ve never heard of hormesis before (interesting write up) but I have heard of wobble, and how living organisms do need to vary their routine, as much to see if what they’re doing is still optimal as anything else. And human culture does make provisions for breaking the rules from time to time – eating too much on Thanksgiving, drinking too much New Years Eve. It seems to be necessary to cheat from time to time to stay balanced.
And is eating dirt to develop a healthy immune system the same sort of thing?
May 6, 2012 — 6:10 am
MAS – Do you think this idea has application to training as well as diet? Yesterday I spent the afternoon clearing a trail. It required me to cut, pull, and lift stumps and branches in situations where I wasn’t in the mechanically strongest or safest positions (no chainsaws were involved). The work got me thinking that there might also be a similar resiliency benefit to infrequent bouts of lifting or moving from positions of mechanical disadvantage or without using perfect form.
I’m not talking about highly unsafe nonsense like heavy overhead squats standing on a Swiss ball. My thought is more along the lines of an occasional set of 10-20 light kettlebell swings where the pulling starts in the lower back and arms, a set or two of light presses using an imbalanced weight, or a few intense cycles of sledgehammering standing on an uneven surface. Another option may be to use a partner to nudge or bump you lightly to challenge your balance and stability as you perform a very light one arm press or stiff leg deadlift.
Of course those moves shouldn’t/wouldn’t/couldn’t consistute the bulk of any sane long term, training system, would be done only rarely after a thorough warm up, and would not go anywhere close to failure.
I suspose any possible resilency benefit could be outweighed by the detriment of “grooving” an improper movement pattern through deliberately imperfect practice, but might there be some resiliency benefit to occasionally calling on the body to do some “unsafe” work? Do you think in the fitness world it might be better to simply let those occasions arise spontaneously as my trail work did?
May 6, 2012 — 6:43 am
Thanks for all the comments.
@Karl – Kruse is an interesting character. He may be onto something, but I suspect he is likely taking things too far. If I were 20+ pounds overweight, I would absolutely be doing some form of cold exposure, but not nearly as much as he is doing. My personal experience is that Cold Exposure has diminishing returns as one gets to their optimal weight. I could be wrong.
@Glenn – I hadn’t thought too much about the proper dose. For peanuts, it might be a few sprinkled on top of a Pad Thai dish. For gluten, I’m thinking 1/3 of a lager beer. If the response is too extreme then I’ll either scale back the next exposure or increase the frequency of the dietary hormesis.
@Erik – I’m downloading the Hitchens show from EconTalk right now. Thanks.
@Geoff – I really don’t know, but I suspect that just being stronger is the best defense against injury when it comes time to engage in unpredictable potentially unstable movements. My other thought is to just experience diverse movement with low injury risk on a regular basis. The combination of the two might be the best strategy. If I screw up a meal, I might feel like crap for several hours. If I screw up an exercise, I might be sidelined for weeks or months, with a wide range of medical outcomes. So, I won’t be pursuing deliberate “unsafe” movements. I probably did enough in my life already. 🙂
May 7, 2012 — 7:38 pm
Best post I’ve read in a long time. Awesome sauce!
May 8, 2012 — 7:59 am
@Ryan – Glad you liked it. Thanks.
Sep 25, 2014 — 9:05 pm
MAS wrote: “Then at a Thai restaurant I had a dish made with a peanut sauce. My mouth turned instantly numb. I had trouble speaking, almost like I had been injected with Novocaine.”
… Could be a severe reaction to peanuts, but there is another possibility: MSG.
Thai food is loaded with MSG (very few exceptions).
Thai peanut sauce is also loaded with sugar.
A dangerous combination.
… Since MAS wrote that he used to eat a lot of peanut butter, with no complaints, I’d bet the villain in this case was an over-dose of MSG.
Sep 26, 2014 — 5:10 am
@Peter – No it was peanuts. MSG doesn’t affect me.
Sep 26, 2014 — 6:21 am
MAS wrote: “No it was peanuts. MSG doesn’t affect me.”
Good to know that — thank you.
It supports the concept of resiliency that you’ve been discussing — with small, modest, exposures, in order to avoid one big overload.
I hope you’ll write more about that approach.
Sep 10, 2015 — 2:37 am
I think this article can add some more food for thoughts in similar fashion