“Betcha can’t eat just one!”
If you’ve ever been caught elbow-deep in a bag of Fritos, you’re not alone.
Why are we hungry all the time?
And why is it impossible to stop eating?
Because Big Food hires legions of brain scientists, chemists, and marketers getting paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to keep you addicted.
The good news is that you can use the same concepts—evolutionary biology, food chemistry and psychology—to stop yourself from falling into the potato chip trap (or donuts, or ice cream, or soda).
On this show with research biochemist and bestselling author Robb Wolf, you’ll learn:
- Why we lose ourselves to craving donuts and chips
- How to reboot your health practically for FREE
- Why the establishment doesn’t like Ancestral Health and the Paleo diet
- And much more!
ROBB WOLF: WHY “YOU CAN’T EAT JUST ONE”
Abel: Our buddy Robb Wolf is a former research biochemist and New York Times bestselling author of The Paleo Solution and Wired to Eat. Robb is also a former California State powerlifting champion and holds the rank of blue belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He lives in Reno with his wife Nicki and daughters Zoe and Sagan. Please welcome the reigning king of health nerds, Mr. Robb Wolf.
Thank you. Thanks, man. With an intro like that, I should be taller than 5’9″. Thank you.
Abel: That’s one of the things that happens when people meet us in real life. Actually, I think I’ve been with you at the same time this has happened to both of us. People have heard our podcast, or seen something we’ve done, they come up to us and they’re just like, “Oh, I thought you were going to be a lot bigger in person. You guys are kind of small.”
Right, yeah. Wee Lilliputians, but you guys have big voices, so…
Abel: That’s true. We’ve got big voices, and it’s all TV magic. That’s how the world works anyway.
Right, yeah, it adds 15 pounds to us. Yeah, exactly.
THE DONUT STORY: FOOD ESPIONAGE AND FIGHTING DEMONS
Abel: Let’s start with a story that you mentioned in your new book, which I love, by the way. But in your book, you work with a high-powered exec you call Dan. And Dan loves his donuts; he loves donuts so much, in fact, that it made it completely impossible to work with him. So can you talk a little bit about what happened there?
The backstory with this: Dan is a multibillion-dollar net worth individual. We got hooked up a number of years ago through a mutual acquaintance, and I basically became his strength coach/nutritionist. So I was supposed to put him through his workouts, and try to keep him in shape. And Dan’s a big guy, a big frame guy, but he was over 400 pounds when I started working with him.
At our first meeting, Dan had a half gallon of ice cream in the sink, which he pulled out and started eating. And as he started wrapping up the first half gallon of ice cream, he took a second half gallon of ice cream out of the refrigerator, put it in the sink, and waited for that, and then started eating that. And he was just watching me; he was waiting for my response. So I was like, “Hey man, if you want to go dive in front of a car, I probably won’t prevent you, and if you want to eat yourself to diabetes, similarly, I’m probably not going to stop that.” So he was kind of like, “Huh, okay.”
So he hired me to basically travel the world with him and try to manage his food, manage his whole ball of wax, which was pretty interesting.
But the donut story. One evening, it was pretty late, I was walking through the house, and I was like, “What’s that smell? That smells like donuts.”
And so I followed the smell back to his office, and I knocked on the door and opened it up, and he’s in there with a bag of Krispy Kreme donuts, and I’m like, “Where’d you get those?” Because I had done my usual shtick: we cleaned out the pantry, restocked it with appropriate stuff. Talked to his chefs, talked to the staff, like, “These are go items, these are no-go items, this is what we’re going to do.”
He laughed, and he’s like, “Oh, you know.” And he laid out the story where he had paid some of the house staff to go to Krispy Kreme, get a bag of a dozen donuts, drive to this one point at the security fence, where this guy threw the bag over the fence, somebody else was there to intercept it, and they took it into him.
Abel: This is James Bond stuff.
Yeah, the closest I’ve come to. And so I went to his wife, and I was like, “Okay, so I need a cash fund for counter espionage with what this guy is up to.” That worked for a little while. But one of the other things… So this guy is a really amazing, super-talented guy, but as is oftentimes the case with super high-powered folks, he’s a little prickly at times. And he didn’t have a lot of intimacy with anyone, not his coworkers, not even really his family in a lot of ways. And he definitely used money and power and influence as a way to manipulate people.
So as I started working with the house staff, I’m like, “Okay, what’s he paying you? Okay, I’ll pay you this amount to not go get the donuts.” Then he just did this blanket statement, and he’s like, “I’ll fire anybody that doesn’t do what I tell ’em to do.” So then he changed his game. And I went to him and I was like, “So what are we up to here?” And he’s like, “Oh, it’s not my job to make your job easy. I’m kind of enjoying this stuff, this cat-and-mouse, spy-versus-spy deal.”
I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting.” And I started thinking about this, and just kind of watching the whole pattern lay out at this kind of distance. The only people he was really open with were his children, who were pretty young at this point, and it was just the usual kind of armor that he had was gone, and then he was incredibly accessible.
So, noodling on that, noodling on that… and then one day at breakfast, it was just him and me there. We’re chatting, and I was kind of relating how grateful I was that I had this opportunity to work with him. It was helping us get our gym going in Chico and all this stuff.
Then I just out of nowhere, I looked at him, and I’m like, “So who didn’t love you?”
He stopped, and he’s like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Somebody didn’t love you. Somewhere along the line you got hurt, and all this food stuff is not about the food stuff, it’s about something else. Who didn’t love you?” He’s a big dude, and he got really, really mad, and I thought I was going to die.
I just kept probing and poking, and it was kind of almost that Good Will Hunting deal: “It’s not your fault, it’s not your fault.” And eventually he kind of caved in, and he actually became physically or emotionally overwhelmed, and kind of cried and everything.
He just related this very quick story that both of his parents were high achievers; they were super busy, they basically left him with his nanny. The nanny saw this really precocious, emotionally abandoned kid who was sad and lonely. So she started cooking him all these amazing breakfasts and desserts, and they would sing and play. It was all around this food.
So all of this stuff—love effectively became food. And then because of the abandonment, it was this kind of desire for power so he could keep people in the place he wanted them, and, I would argue, probably drove a significant amount of his success. The world is a better place because of what he’s done. But it was really a cost to him.
So I said to him, “I can’t work with you anymore. You need to go find a therapist. My recommendation is you talk to the therapist about the fact that this isn’t a food issue. You don’t need a healthy relationship with food, you need to figure out how to reconnect to the people that you love in your life.”
“You have to figure out how to appropriately use money, power, and influence, and not as a lead pipe tool. And it would be ethically inappropriate for me to keep working with you and just papering over this problem and focusing on the food, and not focusing on the underlying issues.”
He was kind of stunned; he had never been fired before. He was the fire-er, not the fire-ee. And particularly, it was tough for me. We were just getting going, and I had never made money like this in my life, and getting to travel as part of it. But there was kind of a weird ethical strain in me, and I just wasn’t going to profit off this guy’s suffering.
It was a lot of work on his part, and a lot of suffering, and very nearly a divorce going through this process of kind of self-discovery. But now he hovers around the low 200s. He has better days and worse days, but it’s a dramatic difference versus being over 400 pounds.
He has a really solid relationship with his friends and his family. He’s a very different person. He can still be a prick—he can still be a prick, those tendencies are still there. But there’s a very different person going on there, and it was all an outgrowth of kind of… It had been years of focusing on food, and it had nothing to do with the food. The food was a symptom of just being hurt, lack of intimacy, wanting to control people in an inappropriate way. And props to him, he got in, and did the hard work and the heavy lifting to deal with that stuff.
Abel: But before that tough moment, when essentially you fired him, he had no idea. He was operating totally under the radar. Just reflex.
Just reflex, yeah, and reflex in a person that’s probably like a 200 IQ. So he’s not used to getting blindsided by anything. He’s like a supercomputer that’s mapping the probability potentials of his universe for 50 years in the future. And so this little pipsqueak strength coach who’s like “Ding,” and just got him, the Achilles heel kind of gig.
Abel: For people on the intelligent end of the spectrum, I think there’s a big tendency for exactly that to happen, because deep down, there’s this thing where you want to deny the fact that you are in an animal’s body. Or that you are deeply attached to this world, as insignificant as any other little worm on this earth. So there’s something in you that wants to build up your ego and say, “I can take control of this, it’s food, this is what I like. It’s as simple as that.” But no, it’s actually killing you.
It’s interesting, the guy’s a lifelong friend now. But it was a rough deal. Looking back, I feel good about it. I had some fear about letting go of that, because it was really… it was bank-rolling the beginning of our gym and getting all that stuff going. We had not yet established traction with what we were doing, but it gave me a little seed to kind of get us launched forward, and then we got in and hustled. We’ve been very fortunate, and very successful as a consequence. And I look back at that, and I’m like, “That was the ethically correct thing for me to do, even though it was financially almost disastrous.”
THE FORK IN THE ROAD: CHOOSING MORALITY VS. PROFIT
Abel: Right. I can think of at least a half dozen times when that’s happened to me too. The battle between financial insecurity, or moral ambiguity.
Especially as someone working in the health field, you’re confronted with that fork in the road more often than you realize, and you don’t always notice when you’re right in the middle of it. For years, Robb, you’ve been an example of someone who does your very best to make the right moral and ethical decisions, and not grow at the expense of anyone around you. Which is what happens when people try to push ahead too quickly.
In today’s world, you see that rewarded more often than not, unfortunately. The opposite of what should be rewarded.
Understanding that a lot of people who are listening right now are running their own gyms, are trainers, or are just people running their own small businesses… what do you do at that fork in the road? Was there something you learned from that experience that allowed you to navigate that the next time ethical issues came up?
That’s a really good question. I’m not entirely sure. I’m not throwing this out as a hero thing or anything like that. The only time I’ve really gotten beat up in my life, there was a gay black man who was at a county fair, and there were these four cowboys that were giving him what-for, and it was clearly going to turn physical. I didn’t know this guy, I got involved, I ended up with a broken nose, a ruptured eardrum. But two of the cowboys went to the hospital, and this guy is still a lifelong friend, like almost 20 years later.
There’s just that deal where the underdog, the person who’s being taken advantage of, if I see that, I’m also the knucklehead that if there’s an accident on the side of the road, I pull over and I get out the med kit and the gloves—I was an EMT in my past life. I’m just that person. I can’t not do that.
I throw that out there because I can’t not do it, it’s almost a reflex. So I don’t think there’s some sort of, necessarily, moral superiority to it, and I think in the evolutionary shake-out, there’s a certain number of people who are like, “Okay, you’re going to be incredibly empathic, you’re probably going to die in the process, but you’re going to help some people doing it.”
I think part of that has been involved with some of my business stuff, like there’s some really laudable elements of… CrossFit, for example. I used to work for those guys. There’s some kind of ugly stuff about it too, and I ended up getting bounced from those guys, because I was really vocal about some of the uglier elements of what I saw going on, but I just couldn’t not do that.
Again, I was getting a mid-six-figure income from those guys and to speak up—that was again this control, and I’m kind of a libertarian. I like freedom and people being able to choose their own way, and when I see scenarios where people are being yoked and controlled, particularly on that kind of financial level, it’s like the reptilian forebrain comes forward and it’s like, “Okay, we’re in a fight now.” I just can’t not do something about the kind of victimization that’s going on there. At least I’m not playing a part in it.
It’s just something that’s hardwired into me, and I don’t know that it’s particularly morally laudable. It’s not something I cultivated. I was hatched with it, and I would be surprised if there’s just a peppering in any given population. There are a certain number of people who are like me.
Probably there are a certain number of people who are my anti-particle, they’re like, “The world can burn down, I don’t care.” And there’s probably some good reason for that from an evolutionary biology perspective. Not to make it too reductionist. Also, I’m just not that bright, so if I keep things really, really simple, then I don’t need to remember what lies I told to people and what stories I’m trying to generate—it’s just straight ahead.
Abel: How about this, then? In the day and age when Google spits out anything at you, how do you know who to trust or where to go for information you can trust? There’s so much misinformation out there. This is nothing new, of course, in health and fitness, but it does seem like the rug has been pulled out from underneath everyone. Because, let’s go back to 2010. The Paleo Solution comes out, I’m just launching Fat-Burning Man on this blog, if you typed a question into Google or into search, something came back, it was probably your blog… or a doctor, an academic, something that had been there for 15 years on the Internet that was built for dial-up, that still had frames, starfish emoticon kind of things flying down in the back of the browser window.
But now it just seems like “Paleo” especially has been co-opted by a lot of marketers who have no idea what it even means. So where does that leave us? How do you maintain some element of truth to the overall message when it’s so easily co-opted these days?
I don’t know if this is going to be super valuable for folks, but to the degree that I’ve had success, whether it was as a researcher or doing this health stuff, early on… and again, I think this is because I’m not actually that bright, I just need good operating systems to figure things out. I probably give a little hat tip to my dad about this; he gave me a really good interest in science and economics and systems thinking. And I don’t even know that he knew he was doing that, and so… People will have discussions about global warming or something like that, or, “Should we use bio-ethanol to drive our cars?” Well, that is a simple thermodynamic and economic question. Do we get more energy out or does it require more energy in?
The answer is, it requires a net input of energy, so it’s a net loss. So we shouldn’t do it. And if you can tweak that equation… I’ve talked to a guy, Russ Conser, who’s a former systems engineer from Shell Oil, who’s like, “You know, if you can tweak a couple of variables, it could be a net energy win,” and I’m like, “Okay, cool.”
I look at the world through some really basic lenses. This thermodynamics idea is a fancy word for just energy flow, and for our world to work, and for us to work. If we live as hunter-gatherers, or our cats and dogs live out in the wild, they need to obtain more calories out of their environment than what they spend getting it, or they’re dead.
This is part of what I talk about in Wired to Eat, the whole neuroregulation of appetite. As a society, we need to figure out ways of extracting energy out of the environment that cost us less energy than they’re putting out. I think there’s some really simple economic elements of incentives and moral hazard and stuff like that. If we align all these things, people tend to do better stuff, and if we are sloppy with that, then we have really big problems that pop up. For most everything, and then on the health scene, I really use this evolutionary biology lens. That’s the starting place with it, though, it’s not the end.
One of the problems with the Paleo concept is that these concepts got written in stone, and then these stones tablets are carried down from the mountain, like, “I have 15, 10, 10 commandments.”
That really doesn’t do people any good. They spent years asking questions like, “Is this Paleo?” Instead of asking, “Is this a good option for me?” So I think that evolutionary biology perspective, in particular with health, is incredibly informative as a starting place, but then we need to have some degree of nuance and understanding to kind of go deeper.
I’ve just found a lot of success with using these big-picture things of energy, evolution, economics, in ecology and systems thinking. And then whatever information I’m being given, if somebody’s saying, “Oh, there’s a perpetual motion machine.” I’m like, “Huh, okay, let’s think that through.” That would be really fascinating, but it seems very, very hard to do.
EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGY’S ROLE IN BIG FOOD MARKETING
Abel: We’re working on it. But what if you have a cute butt on Instagram and 1.3 million followers? Is that someone worth trusting?
It’s someone worth following.
Abel: It’s so quick now that people rise up and have an ability to influence a conversation, or an entire movement, without much merit.
I think one of the strengths of what you’ve built, and what I’ve tried to build as well, is that it has some ancestral health, evolutionary biology, yes, and also common sense, right? There’s this neophilia that we all have these days, and new things are popping up all the time—I think that’s getting worse. We’re even more obsessed with the new big thing because it is accelerating so quickly, and now we can edit genomes, and change human biology, and it is getting kind of crazy. But you need to keep that common sense; you need to know how to make chicken broth yourself at home, right?
We need to make sure we don’t lose sight of the fact that working with nature is a good idea. Working against nature probably isn’t the best call when you’re looking at the future, whether you’re talking about sustainability or our own health.
So from a philosophical level, how do you know you’re making the right decision when you’re going after health trends? Eggs: good for you, bad for you. And I think a lot of people, like Dan, are just like, “Screw it, I’m eating a donut.” And that feeling, they have that more than ever.
I worked with Kurt Morgan on the ABC TV show—he was 100 pounds overweight to begin with, and that was the thing, more than anything else, that we were fighting. It’s like, “there’s a fast food chain right there, I went there for 20 years, that’s where all my work friends are eating lunch right now, I know it’s bad for me, how do I not just turn in”?
Right. Well, particularly because when we start thinking about… So I have these four pillars of health: sleep in photoperiod, food, exercise, and I liked to call it movement, and then community. So this guy had a lot of community locked up in that joint. There’s a bunch of history, there’s a bunch of emotional connectivity, so not only is the food delicious, and it’s hyperpalatable, it’s cocaine-like in the brain.
Let’s face facts, like as good as a piece of pork loin or something like that is with some Brussels sprouts, it’s not nachos, it’s not a sundae. Those things are just like, “Yeah, I’ll push that old lady down there and get in front of it and eat it.” And so the deck is stacked against us in that favor, from left, right, and center.
And these food producers… Here’s an interesting kind of aside. I’ve been working on a blog post around this, but when they developed Facebook and Twitter, part of the engineering process was looking at what makes things habitual and addictive. They were looking at the evolutionary biology of our brain, and neurotransmitters, and dopamine release, and they’re like, “Oh, we need novelty and all this stuff.” It’s been shockingly effective.
The guys who get us addicted to the social media that consumes inordinate amounts of our lives, they understand this evolutionary biology story really well.
The people who make hyperpalatable foods like Lay’s potato chips, have evolutionary biologists and flavor chemists working WITH them. @RobbWolf
So these people who are profiteering off our suffering really understand that it’s important to drive this boat forward. “Hey, if we understand this evolutionary biology, if we understand on a fundamental level how people are wired to eat, wired to consume social media, we’re going to win.” And they do. What’s the Lay’s potato chip line? “Bet you can’t eat just one.”
Abel: Remember that commercial?
Yeah, that’s their commercial. “Bet you can’t eat just one.”
Abel: Larry Bird, when he shaved his head bald because he lost the bet that he could stop at eating just one potato chip, I remember that like it was yesterday. I was a kid, and seeing Larry Bird bald was scary. I was so shocked when I saw that.
That commercial was probably one of the most remembered commercials ever. But it’s a great example of how pernicious the combination of marketing and food science is… and how blatantly evil that slogan is at the same time.
The irony, and I don’t want to get off track too much, but our gatekeepers, most of the folks in medicine, most of the dietetic scene, we’re still in a fight with the bulk of those people to even say, “Hey, this ancestral health thing might be important.” They’re like, “No, that’s really… “
Abel: “The worst diet ever!”
Yeah. And so the gatekeepers who are supposed to help us are not even aware of this operating system to look at the world through this perspective. The people who are profiteering off this stuff are super-savvy experts in this topic.
Abel: Yes. Well, those guys are experts in profiteering, and health / fitness is just the “vertical,” that’s just the little niche they’re targeting as marketers. They’re experts in a different thing.
They’re experts in, “Oh, the evolutionary biology, if we tweak it this way, it’ll make these potato chips addictive.” If we tweak a social media platform, you will burn eight hours a day cracking out on this, because it’s hitting the dopamine receptors in a way that you want one more, you want one more, but you’re never, ever satisfied.
If you were ever satisfied, then you would stand up and walk away.
And so those guys understand that really well, but people who are supposed to be helping us don’t understand it at all. And so it’s kind of like there’s a boxing match, and the medical providers are literally blindfolded, and maybe one arm behind their back, which is why they’re just getting the absolute pounding they’re taking. And it’s interesting to me on this kind of ancestral health level and beyond.
What I think is cool about this scenario, even back to your point, and I did tie this back into, like, the cute butt and the 1.5 million Instagram followers. The cool thing about dietary lifestyle shifts, even though they are quite challenging to do, if we can do it for 30 days, we can see how we look, feel, and perform. Maybe we do some bloodwork before and afterward, and then you can just stand back and assess this thing, and say, “Hey, was this a worthwhile deal, yes or no?”
“Yeah, okay, I look, feel, and perform better, and it was kind of a pain at times, but yeah, I’m going to keep generally doing this.”
If you want to change religions, you’re having an argument about religions, you’ve got to die to figure out who’s right, and then maybe you do, maybe you don’t—you don’t really know.
But with this dietary stuff, we can establish what you want to do. I want to do X. Okay, you’re starting here, you want to do that.
Let’s build this in this way; 30 days from now we can see how you look, feel, and perform, and we can go forward with that. So I think one cool thing about the ubiquity of this information is that there is this opportunity to have these competing ideas, and people can try it on like a sweater and see how they do, and see if the risk-reward scenario is worth it, or are there a lot of dead ends with it? And I guess one of the rubrics people can filter this stuff through is:If it's effective, it's probably free. @RobbWolf Click To Tweet
- Going to bed earlier, turning the lights off.
- You have to eat—you have to eat or you’re going to die, so make better food choices.
- Everybody knows that they’re going to live a better life if they’re generally active. You don’t have to lift weights all the time, you don’t have to do CrossFit, but figure out something that’s going to improve the movement quality of your life.
- Everybody on an instinctual level knows that when they have good social connectivity to good people, and when we are good people to the folks around us, good things happen.
Unfortunately, there are folks that are in dysfunctional relationships, but this is part of the thing. When you have that understanding, it’s like, “Oh, this dysfunctional relationship is negatively impacting the rest of my life,” and you do the internal work to be able to address that. All of that stuff, there’s work involved, but it’s not nine easy payments of $99.95. It’s generally free, the stuff that’s going to get us there. There might be a few little upsells. “Okay, I’m going to buy some BluBlockers.” Okay, 15 to 30 bucks if you want to get those Swannies and really kick your heels up, then you’re talking $75. But there’s a little bit there—there are some supplements, there’s buying better quality food, but again, it’s not crazy.
I think that when we start seeing things like these mega-supplement packs, and some sort of quick-fix deal that has a big price tag on it, you know there are some problems there. I was just at this UCSF evolutionary medicine conference, and one of the docs there had a picture of a plate, and it was an empty plate. And he’s like, okay, we need to build community. Nobody likes to cook, so let’s do an intermittent fasting potluck, which is basically, everybody shows up with empty plates.
Abel: That’s amazing.
I was like, “That’s amazing.” But there’s something—and anti-marketing is that.
“Oh, I’m recommending the intermittent fasting diet.”
“Well, what’s involved with that?”
“Don’t eat for a while.”
And you almost want to laugh. But those things, like fasting, we know are really, really powerful, and it’s effectively free. Maybe you buy a webinar or something where somebody really talks about the details of mTOR signaling and stuff, and you kind of understand the mechanism. But for you to enact it in your life, you’re just like, “Okay, I’m not eating until this afternoon, and I didn’t have anything since yesterday afternoon.”
Fasting is free, and possibly one of the most effective things you could ever do in your life.
Abel: Yeah, and I would argue that the most valuable things you could find aren’t the new things that you could do, or eat, or try—it’s things to stop doing, right now.
When I grew up, I was a runner who did track and field and cross country and that sort of thing, but whenever I kind of reached that peak and got pretty fast, I’d get shin splints, I’d hurt my knee, I’d get injured. I was running with the wrong form, mostly because of shoes, and when I finally reexamined my form, got rid of the shoes that were wrong for my foot in the way that I was supposed to move, all of a sudden I could run 30 miles and it wasn’t that big of a deal. I started not being injured anymore.
So I kind of applied that to a lot of the different thinking about food, lifestyle in general, and, man, what a win it is when you’re just like, “I’m not going to do this thing anymore.”
I got fed up recently and we’ve been listening to NPR a lot, just keeping up with everything on the news, because we’re like, “What’s going to happen? Oh, my God, it’s crazy—this is a wild time to be alive.”
But after a few weeks, I thought, “you know what, this is making me nuts. I’m just not going to listen to the news.” For the next few months I’m just going to make music instead, and read books and do things that are just that “fasting” type of rebellion that you talked about. It’s like, “I’m going to do my own thing right now and create something,” because that’s what we need.
Right. Yeah, that’s amazing.
THE FUTURE OF HEALTHCARE
Abel: For you, Robb, there are so many different things to talk about, but I want to make sure we don’t skip over this, the 33 to 1 return on investment that you mention in your book in Reno is so huge. A lot of people struggle when they’re looking at individual lives to be like, “Okay, this is how much my health costs.” It’s hard to factor in insurance, healthcare, all that stuff. It’s really expensive, it matters, but for most people it’s like, “Eating healthy isn’t worth it. That organic food thing, too expensive for me.” But from a systems perspective, like you mentioned before, top down, looking at how this works in aggregate, can you explain some of the return on investment you guys got when you started applying this lifestyle?
I’m part of a medical clinic here in Reno, Nevada. I’m on the board of directors and it’s interesting. These guys were founded as an orthopedic risk clinic. It’s a bunch of back doctors who used to do back surgeries and occasionally still do, but they really critically looked at the literature and they’re like, “Man, five years down the road, 10 years down the road, this cohort had surgery, this cohort didn’t have surgery, and the differences between them are minor. Other than the surgery, people seem to do worse.”
With all the dangers of going under the knife, under any circumstances, they became very savvy at looking at risk, and they would go into a work environment and somebody’s doing a lift and twist deal, and they would assign some sort of a risk value on that, and then the employer would purchase kind of an insurance policy against that person, because at some point that lift and twist is just going to become a problem. And they would try to minimize cost by teaching them better mechanics and whatnot.
So, that’s going on in the background. And then down at University of Nevada, Las Vegas—and this is back, I think, like 2002, 2003—in a one-month period, three UNLV police officers suffered vascular events, two heart attacks and a stroke, two strokes and a heart attack, I forget which. But in Nevada, as with many other states, it’s assumed that these cardiovascular events are likely an outgrowth of work-related stress, work-related challenges. So it becomes a worker’s comp L&I issue. Most of these people are medically retired. On the books, costs are about $1.5 million to medically retire these folks. The real cost can be five to 10 times more than that. And if you do any poking around about underfunded pensions and underfunded liabilities that municipalities have, this is where it’s coming from.
Our healthcare costs are on an exponential growth curve. Our incomes are not on exponential growth curve.
There are these huge problems popping up, to say nothing of the loss of life when a cop or a firefighter dies in the line of duty at the age of 35. It’s a huge deal. So these folks in Reno asked a question: “Can we find these people early and can we do something to change this whole story?”
So they started screening them for metabolic issues. They had some interface with Gerald Reaven out of Stanford, who’s the guy who coined the term “metabolic syndrome.” So they started finding these folks, and then as good doctors, they found the metabolically deranged people and they put them on a high-carb, low-fat, American Dietetic Association diet.
These cops and firefighters, who ate the cop and firefighter diets and were sick, got sicker on the American Dietetic Association diet.
And we have two years of data on this where it’s like, triglycerides were bad and they got worse. HDL was low and it got lower. And people were fat and they got fatter. So they said, “Okay, this high-carb, low-fat thing… wrong diet.”
This high-carb, low-fat thing doesn’t really seem to be working. We’ve heard about these low-carb guys and so they tracked down Gary Taubes books and then eventually my book, and they managed to put together this pilot study where they looked at 35 police and firefighters that were high-risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, put them on a Paleo diet, modified their sleep and exercise as best they could, and based off the changes in the bloodwork and the health risk parameters, they estimated that they’ve saved the City of Reno about $22 million dollars, prorated over a 10-year period with a 33 to 1 return on investment.
I’ve spent the last five years trying to take this thing and scale it up to the masses, and it’s fascinating. And interestingly, that study inspired me on the one hand to say, “Okay, there really is something to this ancestral health template and I want to do another attempt to get the story out there, and maybe not lead so caveman-centric to it, so it can maybe be more palatable to folks.”
On the one hand, it had shone a light on that. On the other hand, the difficulties of launching this programming and buying in, it really shone a light on how the incentives are aligned against health and wellness. Like the way we incentivize people to do or not do things. This starts just basically at the government-subsidized junk food industry. Where these massive amounts of grains and grain oils are produced, and then it’s like, well we need to do something with this, and so we turn it into Snackwell’s and potato chips and stuff like that. So all of that stuff is kind of lined up, a lot of the healthcare elements are lined up in a way that we’re not really cost-conscious or motivated to save money.
The exceptions there are companies that are what’s called self-insured captives, where they basically take some money and put it into an investment fund, is essentially what it is. And they want to manage it well. Those folks have had some pretty good success getting them motivated by this. We presented this stuff to the biggest insurers in the United States that exist. It was kind of incredible that we sat down and talked to them and they were just jaw dropped. They’re like, “This is amazing, I can’t believe something like this has been done.” But for our scenarios, saving costs like this really isn’t going to move the needle for us.
Yeah, and I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
Abel: “No, we don’t want to 33x our money!”
Right, right, but the interesting thing is within the context of that police and fire scenario. The chief of police, the chief of fire, they established a culture where if you were what they called “one of the dead men walking,” it’s like, yeah, you are going to comply with this or you’re going to be scrubbing toilets in Siberia type of deal.
SOCIAL MEDIA AND THE HUMAN CONNECTION
Abel: So it was the community that flipped the switch on that.
Yeah, and that’s been the challenge of trying to figure out, well, how do we scale this? We’ve thought about the idea of running this stuff out of gyms. I’ve had this saying, the gym as primary care medicine, like a well-run gym, you’ll learn about sleep and food and exercise and you have community baked in a cake, and there are some opportunities there and there are entities that are heading that direction. And I think community medicine is really going to be the future. Historically, because of antibiotics and just pharmaceuticals in general, patients have been a very passive consumer. You go to the doctor the doctor says, “You have XYZ.” And then they give you whatever pharmaceuticals. That has failed for chronic degenerative disease. It does not work.
To address those issues, the patient must be participatory. They have to exercise, they have to sleep better, they have to eat better, or it’s not going to work. There is not going to be a pharmaceutical intervention that fixes all that, not any time in the immediate future, not before our systems collapse under the burden of this management.
That community piece is really interesting. It’s a beacon for thinking about how to structure this, but it’s also a pretty good challenge. Like, where do you take this, do you take it to churches, do you take it to CrossFit gyms, like who are the communities that are tightly together woven enough that you present this to them and say, “Hey, we can save you a lot of money and save some lives. You’re going to live to an old age and then when you die, you can be healthy today, gone tomorrow.” And people are like, “Okay, yeah, let’s sign up for that.”
There are not a lot of communities like that anymore, and so it’s figuring out how to replicate that, because you need that accountability, you need that support. You’re asking people to make some pretty profound changes, and again, all the incentives are aligned against them. They walk into an average supermarket and there are 50 thousand food-like items in that supermarket. Eleven thousand new items a year, and most of them are hyperpalatable, super tasty, really interesting, and we’re asking them go to the periphery of the store and buy food and cook, allocate time and resources to that, and it’s a big ask for a lot of people.
Abel: Once the community gets the idea that nutrition is important, you’re on the hook. I could see that societal shift actually happening pretty quickly.
If we all got organized and decided to be better people, if all of a sudden you weren’t made fun of for eating well, but you were made fun of for not eating well… We could change all of this by tomorrow, like Pokémon Go did for a minute there.
Imagine thousands of people are out and about and eating vegetables for the first time in public! That is the promise of technology.
It’s interesting that you mention that too, because nutrition is not cool at all, until you set foot in some place like an elite gym. Until you are an elite athlete, or you’re someone who’s trying to get better, then all of a sudden it’s the coolest thing ever, and then you get too obsessed about it. But I really appreciate the fact that you help everyone keep a level head about this, and you have for years, Robb, you’ve been a powerful force for good in the Ancestral Health and slow food movement.
Now we’re going to get meta, because you’re the father of two daughters growing up in the craziest future ever, I think we can all agree. But what are some of the things, you know, raising the next generation, that you think we should all be thinking about? Things we’re going to have to face in the next five to 10 years from a health perspective that you’re wrestling with right now but other people might not be aware of?
I doubt if folks are unaware of this. I think that the technology interface, like social media connectivity, that’s going to be really interesting to deal with, because on the one hand, that smartphone is so handy.
My daughter and I were out in the pasture, we live on three acres and we’re out farting around out there, and she’s all, “Dada, what’s this plant, can we eat this plant?” I’m like, “I’m not sure,” and I poked around and there’s a plant ID app, where there’s a group of botanists who basically donate time because they love this stuff. So you take a photo, give it a description, ship it into the app, and then it just goes into a queue and then these botanists just go through and look at it and they’re like, “We’re pretty sure that’s that.” So I’m getting a human response, and it was like three minutes, and I got a ping back, and I’m like, “Zoe, I think that’s like this plantain deal, and it is edible.” So there’s some amazing stuff like that, and this was cocaine for her. She’s like, “Dada, let’s ID all these plants.”
Abel: Wow. How cool is that!
Four years old, and just jazzed on this. So that’s really cool. Very occasionally we will let the girls play something like Angry Birds or a Daniel Tiger game on the phone. Inevitably, this ends in a crying fit, almost a spanking, and then two or three days of them begging to play it again.
Abel: It’s like a drug.
Completely drug-like. Totally drug-like. Over the top drug-like. So man, how do you strike a balance with that? I don’t totally know.
We have some friends who have kids who are maybe 10 years older than Zoe and Sagan, so they’re going through high school and they’re doing all this stuff, and they’re great kids, but there’s a remarkable amount of social connectivity and social pressure that comes out. Like some of these kids have had some sexting incidents between boyfriends and girlfriends…
Abel: Oh, no.
Pretty dodgy, and some stuff that, having two daughters, I’m just like, “Oh, man.” But then there’s a piece of it—if you had a kid who wasn’t socially connected that way, are they going to be part of any peer group, if that is the interface, if that’s the neural shunt they are plugged into the matrix with? So in an effort to save them from that process, because it’s addictive and maybe they don’t exercise as much, and maybe there’s weird social pressure that pops up over it, is that more damaging? Or is excluding them from the basic technological interface that seems to be part of being human now, is that going to be more damaging?Social media is kind of like the junk food of community. @RobbWolf Click To Tweet
I don’t know. But I think that connectivity piece is going to be a really huge issue. And it’s interesting, social media is kind of the junk food of community. It feels like it’s real community. It occupies the time we could allocate to real community.
Every once in awhile, like Paleo f(x) and stuff like that, it leads to real community, so you can kind of get some associations there, but it’s not real community. It’s not someone you hug and shake their hand and look ’em in the eye and really enjoy the interaction with them. Or maybe not enjoy it, but have a real interface with somebody. Yeah, so that’s going to be interesting. That’s going to be super interesting, and I have no good answers to it. It’s a complete crystal ball that I keep shaking and trying to figure out what to do with it.
I’m happy that both my wife and I have a decent amount of awareness around this. It’s like, “Okay, there’s an issue.” We don’t really know the right way to navigate it, so we’ll take little incremental steps and probably be a little on the conservative side with how we respond to it, and conservative in that we might be a little more lenient in some ways of letting them interface with this stuff, because it is the dominant culture. So maybe we lean a little more toward that, because there’s nothing that will break a person quicker than being really socially isolated. So to the degree that there is social connectivity, maybe we have to lean that way, or maybe we stick within the Montessori school system and stuff like that, and she hangs out with kids who aren’t super deep and constantly assailed by the technology piece. I don’t know, man.
Abel: We’re working on it. We’ll figure it out.
It’s a work in progress. For sure.
Abel: The good news is that many things are improving incredibly quickly. What both of us do now would not have been possible without all of this technology, so I think it’s important that we recognize that some cave time is important for us humans, but technology, if we harness it for good, can be pretty fricking cool too.
WHERE TO FIND ROBB WOLF & MORE ABOUT WIRED TO EAT
Abel: Before we go, Robb, why don’t you tell folks where they can find you and also a little bit more about your new book.
Robbwolf.com is where most of my stuff exists. The podcasts and the blog and all that. Wired to Eat released March 21st. It’s available for orders everywhere. If you do want to order it, you go to robbwolf.com/wiredtoeat and we have a really cool swag bag on that. What was originally the first chapter of the book, called “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.” It was long, and pretty historically detailed and technical and the publishers kind of balked at including it, but it really lays the foundation from a historical perspective of the economic, political, and academic interface of where our modern food system came from and why we are where we are today. It’s actually my favorite chapter in the book, and I’m kind of stoked that it got repurposed as a bonus.
We have some great bonuses for people, so definitely check that out. The basic premise is really trying to look at this story of how we eat from this kind of evolutionary biology perspective. What is the fundamental process underlying human appetite, and what are the things that influence it beneficially, what are the things that may be creating challenges for us?
I launched into that because I see a lot of people hit spots with both dietary and lifestyle changes, where they’re making great progress, and then they just kind of throw up their hands and they’re like, “This is really hard and I’m looking around at my peer group, I’m looking at social media, and it looks easy for them, and the fact that it’s hard for me means there’s something wrong with me.” And I’ve heard this again and again and again, and the goal with this book is to let people know that if you live in this modern world and you find decoupling yourself from social media, from hyperpalatable foods, difficult, you’re right as rain—there’s nothing wrong with that.
The world’s been set up in a way to kind of exploit your evolutionary biology, and we’re not just going to lie back and accept that.
But we’re not going to vilify ourselves for the fact that we were just born the way that we were supposed to be born. So we can move beyond that kind of emotionality, and the guilt, and then we still have plenty of hard work to do, but at least we’re not burdened with that emotional sense of, “I’m a failure, there’s something broken in me.” If the person is in that state, it’s virtually impossible to get them moving forward. They are going to hamstring themselves again and again and again, and so that’s really kind of the main thrust of the book, and I cover everything from ketogenic diets to autoimmune disease and digestion—all of that type of stuff is in there, but it has a really different feel of trying to give people permission to just be who they are and recognize that yeah, this stuff is hard. We’re still going to do it, there’s still a way to figure it all out, but just recognize that there’s hard work here, and that’s okay, that’s normal.
Abel: Personalized health, personalized medicine, that’s not easy, but it is the future—we’re all going to have to figure out which foods work well for us, and which ones don’t. Easier said than done, but at the same time, you have a really great way to get started in the book. You have the seven-day carb test, yeah?
There’s a 30-day reset, which is kind of an anti-inflammatory, Paleo-type diet, and then we follow that up with the seven-day carb test, where we get really granular about the amount and types of carbohydrates that folks do best with.
Abel: Before we go—you mentioned the effects of eating a banana versus a cookie. Could you explain the difference in how foods affect each of us differently?
There was some fascinating research that came out of Israel, and they did some blood glucose monitoring on folks. They sequenced their gut microbiome, they sequenced their genome, then they started feeding these folks different meals and different foods. And what was shocking was that there was no rhyme or reason to anything. Like one person they would eat rice, and they would have near diabetic blood sugars; another person would eat rice and it was as if they drank water, like it barely bonked it up at all. But there were some interesting results where one person would eat a banana and they would, again, have almost diabetic blood sugar levels; same person eats a cookie and it’s like they didn’t hardly eat anything. And then an opposite person gets super high blood glucose from a cookie and almost no blood glucose increase from a banana.
What these guys have been able to do is they’ve been able to plug this into a machine learning algorithm where they can, to some degree—and I’m vetting this out right now, I’m actually going through this whole process, so I’m in the process of trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not real in this thing. But the idea here is if we get a sense of what your genome is, your gut microbiome, then we’ll be able to have some predictive elements for what foods you should and should not eat. And what that suggests is we can still definitely start with this recommendation of you should probably eat whole, unprocessed foods, but it really calls into question these blanket statements, one-size-fits-all deal of everybody should eat Paleo, everybody should eat low-carb, everybody should eat high-carb…
Abel: 30 bananas a day, for instance.
Yeah, 30 bananas a day, it really calls into question, or it suggests this need for personalized nutrition and getting granular about what’s going to work for us specifically.
Abel: Very cool. That will be a huge part of what keeps us healthy in the years to come. Look forward to forging the trail with you here, Robb.
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