Tommy Wood (aka Dr Ragnar) is a UK medical doctor, who’s blog http://drragnar.weebly.com aims to dispel the misinformation propagated by the media regarding health and fitness. He provides a simple research-based look at what will make us healthier and happier, writing about topics ranging from nutrition to fitness, and just life in general. https://www.facebook.com/drragnar
The term “paleo diet” is cropping up ever more frequently in the media. Importantly, studies of the diet corroborate the message that paleo proponents have been voicing for years:
This is probably the best way to eat for optimal health, fitness and performance at life.
However, many people come to the paleo “diet” with the mindset of it being another way to lose a few pounds. Disappointingly, the NHS website even tells us that this is just another fad. These people have it wrong. Food is only an aspect of “Paleo”.
Paleo is really about finding the best way to answer the following question:
What does it take to make me optimally healthy?
In order to gain maximum benefit (and long-term health) from any lifestyle, it needs to be approached in a holistic and sustainable manner. For example, just cutting out bread and milk is probably not going to be enough to significantly improve your wellbeing or reverse lifestyle-induced diseases. To get the full picture, we need to look at:
*Eating the right foods.
*Managing chronic stress.
Focus on grass-fed meat, vegetables, some fruit, and healthy fats from fish, nuts and seeds, eggs, avocado, olive oil and coconut. Avoid grains, dairy, processed food, white potatoes and refined sugar.
These are the paleo basics, and a fantastic start. But, bear in mind these potential pitfalls:
You may not be eating enough (fat). When you remove processed carbohydrates, it is easy to under-eat, and fats are an important source of calories. In a typical “western” diet, we are told that saturated fats in dairy, eggs and meat are harmful, and increase the risk of heart disease and obesity. This is not supported by the latest large-scale studies. In fact, we need these (and other) fats for hormone production, and a healthy metabolism. Stop avoiding bacon fat, and enjoy using butter again.
Cake is still cake. Your favourite treat probably doesn’t fit into a paleo diet, but a quick google search will almost certainly find a paleo version. But, just because your brownies are made from almond flour and maple syrup (instead of wheat flour and sugar) doesn’t mean they’re that much better for you. These foods are a great way to treat yourself (life is too short, after all). However, it is important to recognise that your nutrition must come from whole foods.
There is more to the animal than the muscle: The real nutrients lie in the bits we tend to ignore – liver, heart, feet, even brains. Dare to be adventurous.
We don’t sleep enough. It is an easy corner to cut. However, sleep is as important as diet in the pursuit of optimum health and fat loss. Most people need 7-8 hours per night, and missing an hour or more on a regular basis is associated with:
*Poor appetite regulation, and over-eating.
*Decreased metabolism, increased stress hormone levels and low sex hormones.
*Diabetes, heart disease, cancer and obesity.
If you have difficulty sleeping, here are a few tips:
*Set a routine. Aim to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
*Avoid computers and phones for at least an hour before bed, and keep them out of the bedroom. The stimulation they cause prevents proper sleep cycles.
*Make sure your bedroom is completely dark, and a comfortable temperature.
*Short-term supplementation with melatonin (the body’s natural “sleep” hormone) or L-tryptophan (an amino acid) can help re-start a proper sleep pattern.
In the United States particularly, the paleo movement has gone hand-in-hand with CrossFit, a type of group-exercise that includes gymnastics, lifting weights and high intensity cardiovascular exercise. If done correctly, CrossFit can be great. However, you don’t need to join a CrossFit gym for optimum health and weight loss. Instead, you should focus on:
Walking: Just half an hour of brisk walking per day will reduce your risk of almost every modern disease, from breast cancer to Alzheimer’s. If you have time to do nothing else, walk. Walk as if your life depends on it.
Lifting weights: Lifting weights has been shown to be safe in almost every patient group, from stroke victims to women with advanced osteoporosis. Despite what many people are often afraid of, it will not make you “bulky”, but the increase in muscle and strength will reduce your risk of obesity and diabetes. Importantly, it will also reduce your risk of falling when you get older, which is one of the most common causes of death in the elderly.
Conversely, endless running and other endurance training may not help towards your health goals. The stress of many hours of exercise at a time has two broad effects:
*Increased propensity to store fat (your body needs it to fuel all that running), particularly around the midsection.
*Reduced levels of thyroid hormone, which leads to a slower metabolism.
Some running is fine, but research indicates that we should stick to very short (10-60 second) sprints with long recoveries.
All of the above is pointless (and probably impossible) if you spend the rest of your day tired and stressed. Having consistently high stress hormone levels is also a major risk factor for dementia. Though often dismissed, meditation and mindfulness have profound changes on the brain, which can even be seen on MRI scans. The combined benefit of reduced stress and increased function in the areas of the brain associated with self-control and memory will help you achieve the other positive lifestyle changes you are making.
Put it all together
If you are just starting out, or have tried paleo and not had the results you expected, your answer could lie in one of these other areas. The whole package may take a bit of work, but don’t stress about it. Discovering paleo should be fun, and I’m certain it will be worth it!
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A bit more about the author, Tommy Wood
I am qualified medical doctor, graduating from Oxford University in 2011. I have a previous Bachelors degree in Natural Sciences and Biochemistry from Cambridge University. After working as a junior doctor in the UK for two years, I am now working towards a PhD in neonatal brain metabolism at the University of Oslo, Norway.
My middle name is Ragnar.
I also have a particular experience in studying the effects of diet on chronic inflammatory diseases, particularly multiple sclerosis. I have used ‘systems dynamics’ modelling to study disease systems as a whole and through this work, I have lectured at international conferences on the effects of diet and nutrition on chronic disease. As knowledge of disease processes on the cellular level increases, system dynamics is the perfect way to bring this information together and adopt holistic solutions to the chronic inflammatory diseases that plague the Western world.
I am a rower, runner and amateur strength/CrossFit athlete. Having spent the best part of a decade rowing at Cambridge and Oxford, I became increasingly interested in how nutrition affects athletic performance. Far from the complex synthetic powders and bars I used to consume, I believe true health and performance will come from a simpler approach. Diet and sensible exercise should form the basis of all “medical” treatment of systemic disease, if we can even be arrogant enough to call it medical. Medications and “modern medicine” certainly have their place, but it seems intuitive to try and improve health through evidence-based changes in diet and activity first.
I am also an experienced rowing coach, and founded a local “circuit training” club for the medical students at Oxford University, based on bodyweight and kettlebell movements. I have trained well over 100 people through various aspects of strength and fitness, with some excellent results.
With my background, I try to make informed lifestyle choices in the context of diet, nutrition, training and general health and wellbeing. However, we all find it increasingly difficult to do so when we are constantly given mixed messages by the media, health professionals and even scientific studies. This mass of information needs to be evaluated, assimilated and communicated in a balanced and accessible way. This is my objective.