In my last post, we discussed a few of the reasons that there is no “one size fits all” solution when it comes to improving one’s fitness and health.
At this point, there just begs one question – how in the world do we get started if we’re all so different?
This is one hell of a question and I’ve probably re-written the introduction to this post a gazillion times, so bear with me.
The thing is, I really like frameworks – principles, systems, context.
I like having a set of fundamental ideas through which to filter what I read or hear to determine if it is valid or potentially useful.
These fundamental ideas might also be used to determine plausible courses of action in novel scenarios.
For instance, if you approach a situation that you’ve never encountered before, you can fall back on the framework of the fundamental ideas that you generally hold to be true in order to determine how you might proceed in handling it.
So, given what we know about how our human bodies work, I’d like to provide you with a framework you might use when determining what steps you might take to get wickedly healthy – an “evolutionary” framework.
This framework goes many names – “ancestral”, “paleo”, and “primal” being some of the more popular.
Now, due to the bastardization of that middle term by marketers and yo-yo dieters, I understand if you’re a bit triggered at the moment or are becoming skeptical of where I’m headed.
I don’t blame you, there’s a lot of misapplication of this framework at play, and it’s making my job as an advocate for such an approach much more difficult than I’d prefer.
That’s why I’ve been so thorough in my preceding posts as well as the introduction to this one.
So, in this post, I’ll share with you what ancestral, paleo, and primal mean to me, and why I’ve chosen to use such a framework as the foundation for my approach to optimal health and wellness.
Different but similar
We’ve all got slightly different genomes – sets of genetic instructions that tell our cells how to grow, function, and respond to their environments.
We’ve all also got different epigenomes and microbiomes – chemical markers and bacteria that affect how our genes are expressed, and that have been shaped over the course of not only our own lives but those of our parents and even their parents.
However, genetically speaking, we’re much more similar than we are different – each one of us is roughly 99.9% similar to any other one of us.
No matter how our individual genetic switches are being expressed, we’ve all generally got the same set of genetic switches, even if those switches are being expressed a bit differently.
After all, every one of us has a backbone and spinal cord, brain, heart, two legs, two arms, and requires adequate water, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals, sleep, physical stimulus, and sunlight to thrive, with the exception of rare (often genetic) disorders.
Even though the specific details of what each of us might need to do to dial in our health and fitness efforts, we should be able to identify some basic “best guess” habits and behaviors to get started, considering that we’re largely working with the same physiological machinery.
Since we’ve already discussed that the role our genes play in determining our fitness and health, it would be a worthy use of time to discuss the concept that health is the norm and poor fitness and disease are the anomaly.
Health and physical fitness are the norm
When we look around at the human population as a whole, it seems almost as though being in poor physical condition is the norm, and as though we must go out of our way to be healthy.
While we do often have to go out of our way to be healthy, and disease is becoming more commonplace, common is not the same as normal, and disease – however common it may be – is not the norm so far as the historical human condition is concerned.
Modern advances in medicine and infrastructure have helped us take massive steps forward in terms of addressing many factors that in the past nearly guaranteed death and ill health – starvation, predation, and infectious diseases like tetanus, smallpox, and polio.
All of these things are nearly unheard of in today’s world, particularly in developed nations.
However, the further we look into the past, the less evidence we see of chronic diseases of lifestyle like obesity, atherosclerosis, heart disease, hypertension, cancer, stroke, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and autoimmune disorders.
Even today, it appears that these diseases are more prevalent in populations that have forsaken their traditional diets and lifestyles and adopted more westernized diets and lifestyles.
Indigenous Australians and the Pima of North America are recent examples of populations that have seen a tremendous decline in physical health since transitioning from their traditional ways of living to those that more closely resemble the cultures of those that have inhabited their environments.
Much like threats of predation, competition of resources, and infectious disease are increasingly rare today, chronic disease is nearly non-existent in up until recent history, and even now are less prevalent in more traditional populations.
Some (accurately) point out that one of the reasons that we don’t see evidence of such chronic disease in traditional, non-westernized societies is because they don’t (or didn’t) live long enough to see the progression of such diseases.
This is true, as many of these diseases develop at stages of life not commonly achieved without modern medicine, infrastructure, and other conveniences.
However, when looking at various specimen of humans back to a time before agriculture, we see that those who did manage to avoid infectious disease, predation, injury, and starvation died with a relatively clean bill of health.
Pre-agricultural remains of humans also appear to be taller, have larger brains, and be in general better physical condition that post-agricultural man.
One suggested reason for this physical degeneration over time is a growing discordance between our genes – which are not only roughly 99.9% similar across humans alive today, but also similar across the past several tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of years – and our modern environment.
Our species – modern man – is thought to be about 200,000-300,000 years old and to have evolved along with other primates from a common genetic ancestor, estimated to have lived approximately 6 million years ago.
Over the course of this time, our genes have been shaped by selective pressure to survive and thrive in their environment(s).
Part of this evolution has occurred due a process called natural selection, which is based on four principles – variation, inheritance, competition, and selection.
“Variation” represents the idea that species and individuals will exhibit different physical traits and behaviors, based largely on their own genetic makeup.
“Inheritance” represents the idea that these physical traits and behaviors are passed from one generation of a species to the next, depending on whatever genetic mix-and-match might occur during reproduction.
“Competition” represents the idea that all members of an ecosystem – including those of similar and different species – compete for limited resources necessary for survival.
“Selection” represents the idea that, facing competition of limited resources, those individuals and species most well-suited for their environment – based on their traits and behaviors – will survive and pass on those traits and behaviors to the next generation through their genetic makeup, while those who are not so well-suited for their environment will be removed from the gene pool.
Thus, over millions of years of natural selection, the genetic cream rises to the top, and the traits and behaviors most suited to a given environment will prevail as those traits and behaviors not suited for that environment are eliminated from the gene pool.
The thing is, while our genes have changed over the millions or even billions of years (depending on how far back into our genetic lineage you’d care to venture), we’re not that genetically different at all from humans who lived 200,000 years ago.
Even when we compare our DNA to those of chimps, with whom we’re thought to share a genetic ancestor, we’re about 95% similar.
Compared to Neanderthals, our closest extinct genetic cousins, we’re about 99.5% similar, even though we appear to have branched away from a common ancestor some 300,000-400,000 years ago.
While our genes haven’t changed relatively much over the past hundreds of thousands of years, however, our environments have changed drastically as of late.
We no longer face the environmental pressures that necessitate a lean, strong, healthy body to survive.
If it weren’t for modern infrastructure like food systems, shelter, transportation, power generation, and in particular medicine, many of us simply would not live to a ripe old age – especially those of us suffering from problems like obesity, physical incapacity, and other various physical diseases that make survival even in today’s world a challenge.
Not only do we not face the same environmental pressure that we used to, but also many of the genetic survival mechanisms that would have been advantageous in a world in which we’d have to compete for resources are now probably contributing to our poor physical condition.
Take, for example, the optimum foraging theory.
This theory hypothesizes that we’ve adapted to seek out the most nutrient and calorically dense food possible while expending the least amount of time and energy possible.
Sure, this would have been an advantage in which these resources – nutrients, calories, time, and energy – were scarce, but in today’s world this can lead to a variety of problems, not the least of which are obesity, immobility, and a host of maladies associated with those two conditions.
We can drive to the nearest supermarket, or even press a button on our smartphones, and choose from an almost limitless selection food items that are more nutrient and calorically dense than anything we’d even imagined until recent decades, and we don’t even really have to move at all – certainly not to the same extent as what would be required to gather plant foods or kill, clean, and cook an animal
An evolutionary framework
While chronic disease has been skyrocketing over the past several decades, the decline of man’s physical health actually began much longer ago – roughly 10,000 years ago – when we switched from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to an agriculture-based society.
At this point, we started to not only have access to much more food with much less physical effort, but the kinds of foods we ate and many other aspects (which we’ll cover elsewhere) of our lives changed dramatically.
The period of time before the advent of agriculture is referred to as the Paleolithic period, while the period of time following that transition is referred to as the Neolithic period.
As mentioned before, paleolithic populations had to struggle with several issues that we don’t have to struggle with today – fear of dying from infectious diseases, contending with other predators for territory and food, starvation, and exposure to the elements.
However, those paleolithic humans that survived to the ages that we are reaching in the modern world due to advances in medicine, we see that they appear to have been largely free of chronic, modern diseases, and were taller, had larger brains, and were more physically capable than we Neolithic humans are.
These observations are the basic premises behind the paleo diet – a way of eating that is based around the idea of eliminating foods that were introduced in the neolithic era while replacing them with foods that paleolithic man would have eaten.
Now, you might think that this is where I tell you that you should be eating a paleo diet, and that this will solve all of your issues.
You’d be wrong.
The thing is, I do see a lot of justification for using the “paleo” concept as a good starting point for working to improve one’s health and fitness.
In my opinion, it only makes sense that – if the expression of our genes as the result of their interaction with our environments determines the state of our physical health and fitness – we should look to recreate the environment in which they were shaped.
However, the oft-used blanket recommendation to “eat like a caveman” misses out on a few key details that need to be considered when determining exactly what steps we might want to take in order to be achieve optimal health and wellness.
I think that consideration for our genetic ancestry provides a great lens through which to assess our efforts to improve our health and fitness, but there are additional thoughts to consider.
While I’d love to launch right into sharing these thoughts, this is already a bit lengthier of a post than I’d prefer, and I’d like to get a few other things done before crushing a movement session, so I’ll shelve those thoughts for another post.
For now, though, you might start to look at your own lifestyle and ask yourself, “how does the way I’m living fit into an evolutionary framework?”
In what ways you are creating an environment that promotes fat loss, physical preparation, and health, and in what ways you are creating an environment that promotes poor physical condition and disease?
We’ll explore these ideas more in coming posts, I assure you.
Until then, hope you have a most excellent day!