5 Helpful Analogies for Understanding Complex Health Issues

Bright IdeasFor millennia, the best teachers have used stories, analogies, and parables to break down complicated concepts into understandable bits that everyone can grasp. Aesop’s fables, the greatest religious texts throughout history, and Plato’s allegory of the cave are some of the most famous, showing us how to live morally, contemplate our existence, and make our way through the dilemmas that comprise everyday life. Today, I’m going to discuss five simple analogies that can help you understand five complex health topics a bit better, or perhaps be able to introduce them to the people (often skeptical or less-than-scientifically-inclined friends and relatives) around you who could use the lesson.

Let’s get right to it:

Insulin as Doorman at a Fat Cell Nightclub

From Kurt Harris’ “Insulin is a doorman at the fat cell nightclub, not a lock on the door“:

The hormones that are influenced by what you eat don’t work by locking the door or closing the nightclub and kicking everyone out. It’s not all or nothing. It’s not a switch. They work by changing the relative ease of entering or leaving the building. So think of fat storage in fat cells the same way. The same way patrons can leave and enter a nightclub simultaneously in opposite directions, fat is constantly being stored and released at the same time – the question is not “on or off” but what is the ratio of the two processes. Insulin is like a bouncer at the door – maybe he lets the prettier young women in, and maybe he tosses some obnoxious drunks. Maybe he is neutral when not many patrons are in the bar, maybe he turns you away if the joint is at capacity. But the door is not ever locked, and people come and go even as the number of drinkers grows and shrinks throughout the evening. And as you can see, other factors besides the doorman or bouncer affect the rate of patrons coming or going (time of day, the band is no good tonight, etc.) just as insulin’s action to promote fat storage is always in the context of other factors.

Although Kurt Harris no longer blogs much (if at all), he’s left a mark on the paleosphere. One post that always stuck with me was “Insulin is a doorman at the fat cell nightclub, not a lock on the door.” In it, he described the nuanced role of insulin in fat loss and deposition, using the analogy of insulin as discerning doorman to a fat cell nightclub. Like a doorman, insulin influences the flow of fat into and from a cell. Like a night club, the fat cell exists in a state of constant flux, with fat – or patrons – leaving and arriving all the time, at the same time. It’s not an on-off switch, where fat is either coming or going – it’s both at once with varying ratios. The doorman is a powerful influence on who goes in and out of the club, but he’s not responsible for all the reasons why patrons might be arriving or leaving. Maybe it’s morning and there’s not much of a demand for drinking. Point is, it’s not all up to the doorman. Insulin’s the same way. It’s a big determinant but not the only factor in fat deposition and loss.

The Crowded Restaurant

From Gary Taubes’ “The Inanity of Overeating”:

Say instead of talking about why fat tissue accumulates too much energy, we want to know why a particular restaurant gets so crowded. Now the energy we’re talking about is contained in entire people rather than just the fat in their fat tissue. Ten people contain so much energy; eleven people contain more, etc.. So what we want to know is why this restaurant is crowded and so over-stuffed with energy (i.e., people) and maybe why some other restaurant down the block has remained relatively empty — lean. If you asked me this question — why did this restaurant get crowded? — and I said, well, the restaurant got crowded (it got overstuffed with energy) because more people entered the restaurant than left it, you’d probably think I was being a wise guy or an idiot. (If I worked for the World Health Organization, I’d tell you that “the fundamental cause of the crowded restaurant is an energy imbalance between people entering on one hand, and people exiting on the other hand.”) Of course, more people entered than left, you’d say. That’s obvious. But why?

Much of the opposition to a Primal/paleo way of eating lies in the misguided assumption that we think calories are immaterial. That you can cram as much food into your mouth, as long as it’s Primal, without gaining weight. I said as much in a recent post, but I still see this misconception pop up, time and time again. At the same time, I see way too many people – even supposed health “experts” – claim that “it’s all about calories,” that “you need to burn more calories than you take in,” that people are fat because “they eat too many calories.” All those statements are technically true. Weight gain and loss does come down to caloric balance. If you want to lose weight, you have to expend more calories than you take in. And eating more calories than you expend can increase body weight. But so what? Who doesn’t agree with those statements? They aren’t telling us anything new. They’re just restating the problem.

To use Taubes’ analogy, a more helpful question is “Why are a lot of people entering that restaurant as opposed to this restaurant?”, or “Why are a lot of people staying in that crowded restaurant?” And you can’t just say “well, they just are, so there,” because that’s saying the same thing a different way. It’s about as helpful as saying a restaurant is crowded because there are lots of customers, or a kid got taller because he grew several inches, or you got a divorce because you signed the papers. Sure, if you want to be a smug jerk about it, you could say those things and “be right,” but what’s the point? It explains nothing.

I’ve found that using this analogy helps people understand why “eat less” is shoddy, incomplete advice. It’s not “wrong.” It’s just mostly useless. I encourage you to read the full article linked to above if you haven’t already.

LDL: Cars and Passengers

From “How to Interpret Cholesterol Results“:

Measuring the LDL/HDL-C and then making potentially life-changing health decisions based on the number is like counting the number of people riding in vehicles on a freeway to determine the severity of traffic. It’s data, and it might give you a rough approximation of the situation, but it’s not as useful as actually counting the number of vehicles. A reading of 100 could mean you’re dealing with a hundred compact cars, each carrying a single driver, or it could mean you’ve got four buses carrying 25 passengers each. Or it could be a couple buses and the rest cars. You simply don’t know how bad (or good) traffic is until you get a direct measurement of LDL and HDL particle number.

Cholesterol test results are confusing and often troubling. You’ve got a white coated doctor rattling off lifestyle and pharmaceutical prescriptions and scary triple digit numbers foretelling your impending vascular doom, all based on some numbers and acronyms that you don’t actually understand. LDL = bad, HDL = good, according to the lab, but what do they really mean? But isn’t there more to it? I mean, those aren’t just numbers and letters. They represent physiological processes occurring inside your body at this very moment. We vaguely think of cholesterol as a sort-of-fat that just kinda chills out in our blood and every so often gets stuck on or in the arterial walls, or something. You don’t really know. I doubt the doctor really does. What is LDL-C actually measuring? Who knows, most probably think.

The cars and passengers analogy lets those numbers and acronyms mean something. You don’t have to get the biochemistry of it. All you have to do is think of the basic traffic law that more vehicles (LDL particles) means more traffic jams and accidents (hardening of the arteries), all else being equal, and you get the gist of LDL-C versus LDL-P. A reading of 100 could mean you’re dealing with a hundred compact cars, each carrying a single driver, or it could mean you’ve got four buses carrying 25 passengers each. Or it could be a couple buses and the rest cars. You simply don’t know how bad (or good) traffic is until you get a direct measurement of LDL and HDL particle number.

Digging a Hole to Install a Ladder to Fix the Basement Windows

From the post of the same name:

Picture a house with absolutely filthy exterior basement windows, the kind that just barely peek out above ground level. The owner can’t see through the things, and they need a thorough washing. He could grab the bucket and a rag and squat or kneel down to commence cleaning. He could make it easy on himself, but for some bizarre reason, he doesn’t.

Instead, he spends the entire day slaving away with a shovel and a pick axe, hacking at the earth to loosen it and shoveling the loose dirt out. A deep hole appears, about eight feet in depth and wide enough to accommodate him and a ladder. In goes the ladder, and he follows with the wash bucket and rag. Dirty, grimy, sweaty, and disheveled, he ascends the ladder to finally reach the basement windows. He manages to clean them, but his alternate self in a parallel universe – that guy who decided to just kneel down to wash the windows – has clean windows, a killer tan from spending hours at the beach doing pushups and sprints, a couple racks of ribs on the barbecue, and a nice glass of Cab paired with a wedge of French brie. He enjoyed his day, while the ladder enthusiast had to work for hours just to arrive at the same point.

This encapsulates the ultimate goal of Primal living: to do things efficiently, to take shortcuts that don’t shortchange your results. This will give you more free time to do the stuff you truly enjoy, and make you healthier, happier, and more productive. It’s a nice way of saying don’t think you have to engage in hours of miserable cardio every week to get fitter (unless you enjoy it) when you can lift some weights, sprint a bit, and walk a lot and end up just as fit with more free time and less negative health effects. Or, don’t assume you have to agonize over counting calories, weighing yourself every day, and hiring a dietitian to get healthy when focusing on food quality, how you feel and look in a mirror, and trying the basic Primal laws will work better and save you time and effort.

Everyone’s trying to get to the same place, give or take a few details. We all want to be healthy and happy. Why not do it the more efficient way?

What Would You Feed a Lion?

From the PB Fundamentals:

What do you feed a lion?


Meat is the obviously correct answer. You would feed the lion raw meat. I think even the most ardent vegan would admit that lions are supposed to eat meat.

Lions hunt and eat animals, and they and their feline ancestors have been doing so for hundreds of thousands of years. Millions, even. That’s the key.

The hunting, killing, and raw meat-eating informed the evolution of the lion over many millions of years. The lion’s genetic makeup was shaped by meat-eating.

Humans are animals, too. We may be relative newcomers to this planet, but we’ve been around for a good 200,000 years, and our ancestors have been around for millions of years. And for a good 190,000 years of that, we were hunter-gatherers, living off the land, big game hunters who feasted on plant and animal alike. If you accept that the biology of animals, like lions, functions best on ancestral, evolutionary diets, wouldn’t the same likely be true for humans?

This is a quick, easy way to get people to understand what this Primal thing is all about, on a gut level. People tend to think of animals as, well, animals. Natural beings subject to the objective laws of nature, passive creatures whisked along a path determined by outside forces. Meanwhile, humans are different. We’re animals, sure, but people don’t think of themselves as animals. We’re people. We’re above nature. We impose ourselves on nature. We create and shape our reality.

The lion analogy bridges that gap. People intellectually know that humans are animals, they just never think in those terms. If you get them to start thinking in those terms, you almost see thought bubbles form, lightbulbs go off. “Huh, that’s true. We technically are animals. If lions do best eating the types of foods they evolved eating, why not humans? Hey, what did humans evolve eating, anyway? And what about other stuff – I mean, I bet lions don’t like being cooped up in a tiny cage at the zoo. They’re probably happier out on the African plains…” You can pretty much set them up and let them go and watch the evolution of their notion of a healthy human environment unfold right before you. It’s pretty cool to watch.

That’s it for today. Do you find these analogies helpful? Do you have any to add to the list? If so, hit me up in the comment board!

TAGS:  hormones

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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