WHY OUR MODERN WAY OF LIFE DOES NOT SUPPORT HUMAN HEALTH
What is Primal Health?
In brief, “primal health” is my pet name for my point of view regarding all aspects of health, fitness, nutrition, and aging. Primal health describes my personal scientific bent and informs my diet and fitness regimens – indeed, my whole lifestyle – and has for over two decades.
I believe it is clear that every aspect of human health must, of necessity, examine first how our lifestyle impacts (and interacts with) our “primal” DNA blueprints that reached final draft some 10,000 years ago. If you’ve heard of the Paleo Diet or the celebrity Caveman Diet, you’re in good company.
Of course, we now know that “Caveman” is a scientific misnomer, but it’s a memorable and handy term, if slightly inaccurate. My friend, scientist and respected blogger, Art DeVany, refers to this health lifestyle as “evolutionary fitness”. My unique spin is more…primal.
As many of you know, I was a top marathoner and triathlete for many years, making a name for myself in the early 1980s at Ironman and the U.S. National Marathon Championships, among other events. As an elite athlete in the prime of his youth, I was anything but healthy, however. The intense level of peak output required of a “top” athlete is enormously destructive to the body. (As an aside, it’s my personal – admittedly untested – theory that the incredible amount of oxidative damage, hormone depletion and repetitive strain male athletes endure has at least something to do with the inordinately commonplace receding hairlines among these otherwise “healthy” men.)
The infections, illnesses and injuries I faced only grew more frequent and aggressive as time wore on and my list of accomplishments grew. Though I was in better racing shape than 99.9% of humans on the planet, my body was telling me something: this extreme level of fitness was not a part of nature’s design.
I had graduated from Williams College with a degree in biology. Science has always been a passion of mine and something of a career as well (though I have always published for lay press rather than journals). I retired from sport convinced that the athlete’s way of life, which includes stressful and even reckless consumption of insane amounts of calories – largely refined carbs and even pure glucose – is no more sane or healthy than the diet of your average Westerner. In particular, Americans are living a lifestyle that is in direct opposition to the beautiful and brilliant system evolution yielded. I believe that, but you don’t have to take my word for it. A basic understanding of human development and even the most cursory review of historically healthy cultures and current scientific studies lends credence to my increasingly passionate perspective, Primal Health.
The impetus for this column comes from my personal experience, my accumulated knowledge, and simply, passion. When I started this blog I had a few goals in mind: I definitely wanted this to be a blog for the “average Joe”, and I wanted it to be fun. I genuinely believe laughter and humor should never be in short supply in any field of human endeavor. Joy is a fundamental human need, and while I’m not making any claims to comedic brilliance, I at least felt that my enthusiastic “Bees”, and to some extent even middle-aged me, could have quite a riot and still learn and discuss a lot along the way. Ultimately, however, sharing and dissecting what we mean by terms like “primal health” is my primary goal for this forum.
I believe we are on the cusp of radical change in the way we eat, move, and live. If evolution has taught us anything, it teaches us about survival and change. I think we are at the brink of a shift, out of true necessity. Never have we had access to so much information. Never have humans, even the most uneducated among us, had so much knowledge and access. In the grand scale of evolution, we have great blessings: we have all the tools, information and intelligence required to enjoy not only historically unmatched longevity but incredible quality of life as well. Obviously, the current lifestyle leaves much to be desired. In light of what our ancestors had to make do with, and in light of how smart and innovative humans can be, I think the current state of affairs is morally vulgar. That’s not a judgment against humanity; it’s a sad observation of reality. And we’re all complicit in it to the extent that we don’t participate in learning and change.
No issue is more important than health. I believe our unhealthy lifestyle creates nearly every problem we face. We live in a fast-paced, mass-produced, really unsustainable society. Everyone knows this, yet I wonder if people truly stop to grasp the stupefying meaning of this. Only 100 years ago, life was not just different, but radically so. We fret about the high rates of car accidents, suicides, murders, preventable deaths, and so on. While I think we could be doing loads better – why else would I be writing – I actually think it’s amazing that, for example, we aren’t seeing more car accidents every day. 100 years ago virtually no one owned a car. My daughter read the Ramona Quimby books when she was a little girl, and found it pretty funny that the character Ramona raved about “tearing along at 25 miles an hour” with her crazy uncle in his new-fangled contraption. Yet now, we all regularly clock 60 or 70 miles in an hour, whizzing within inches of other vehicles, and don’t give it a second thought. I am nothing short of dazzled by the rapid pace of adaptation and amazing resilience of human beings. In light of the huge levels of stress we subject ourselves to, our collective improvement is impressive. (Think how much better it could be.) We’re quite a piece of work!
But all this change does have a profound impact. It’s catching up with us, and there’s no escaping the messiness of evolutionary change. In the long term, it’s beautiful, but in the short term, trapped in the tiny fragment of human time, it’s enormously stressful. We’re not outside the bounds of evolution – we’re a product of it. We cannot, must not, fail to pay heed to its lessons. Our lifestyle is simply not supported by our bodies (though we flag along). Our workday, which demands 8 productive hours at a minimum, is not really healthy. Depression, anxiety and other uniquely modern plights shouldn’t surprise us.
Simply put, I am deeply concerned by the wide-ranging negative effects produced by our modern lifestyle, particularly the Western one. Our federal government’s health recommendations are not only ignorant in light of evolutionary biology, the whole system is apparently corrupt.
Last night I caught a blurb with an illustrated sidebar in Time magazine that highlights the issues surrounding the new Farm Bill (Congress revises every five years). I’ve railed sarcastically against the various programs, mascots and pyramids our FDA and federal government promote. But the situation is real and the importance cannot be overstated. No matter what your dietary health persuasion – Atkins, Pritikin, Paleo, Caveman, or “Primal health” – no one disagrees that plant foods (vegetables and fruits) are not being consumed in great enough numbers. Not even close.
The facts are telling:
– The government heavily subsidizes factory farmed meat, corn, soybean and wheat, yet has not and will not support fruit and vegetable farmers. Fruits and vegetables are considered “speciality crops”.
– From Time: “Each day, 25% of U.S. adults eat fast food.”
– Our number one “vegetable”? The potato chip, only seconded by the French fry. Of course, if you have studied our Paleolithic origins, you’ll know that early humans avoided things like potatoes – and grains – entirely. Why? These foods are toxic and inedible unless heavily processed and cooked. Our bodies, through thousands upon thousands of years of natural adaptation, figured out which foods were edible and which weren’t. The advent of grain agriculture some 10,000 years ago was not a healthy development for the human body.
– Also from Time: “The USDA offered…how agricultural policies might support rather than subvert dietary guidelines spelled out in its new food pyramid.”
Our government is providing a corporate welfare state at the expense of public health, and directly contradicting its dietary recommendations offered in the ever-ignorant food pyramid. I continue to be baffled. I’m a capitalist; I produce a line of what I believe are very carefully-researched nutritional supplements, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t care if people tried them out. But me calling out the subsidizing of entire industries that are in direct contradiction to what is needed for optimal human health hardly makes me unpatriotic, a conspiracy theorist or any other insulting and invalid adjective we “crazy” promoters of alternative health theories get smacked with.
The cultish promotion of grains and dairy as ideal human foods is nothing more than religion and propaganda. It doesn’t benefit anybody but the industries. It’s welfare, it’s jingoistic, it’s ignorant, it’s ascientific. Unfortunately, thanks to corporate interests and effective lobbying, our government supports this lunacy and the industry-funded studies have converted many a soul. But human evolutionary history does not support the federal recommendations, it doesn’t support our modern lifestyle, and it doesn’t support even the newest pyramid, which is an admitted improvement over the prior one but still in complete contradiction of scientific evidence. Sooner or later, this will catch up with us, and I believe the “sooner” has hit the fan.
Anytime the truth meets with belief, you can be sure that insults, derision and even legal persecution will ensue. Governments and institutions attacking or writing off science is nothing new – that’s a practice as old as humanity itself. Indeed, that’s coded in our DNA.
We’re built to form groups and social structures, we’re hard-wired to “tribe up”, we’re well-suited to lying and corruption. That’s survival. That’s evolution. Ironic, isn’t it? Only now, Americans’ health is on the line, and our very planet is feeling the effects of our over-consumption and irresponsible food production techniques. We aren’t a healthy population – far from it. True, we’re living longer and, thanks to drugs and surgery, arguably “better” than we ever have, but the potential – for much better health, for responsible stewardship of this planet – is so great, we’re foolish to think greater change isn’t in order. Our top 5 causes of death are preventable. The majority of us are overweight. I’d argue that the majority of people are also stressed-out to a spectacular degree. We are, I believe, a society in tremendous physical, social and psychological pain. Our lifestyle is not one that is sustainable. There’s a surgery for every physical problem, a drug for every social one, a pill for every mental issue. All are masking the pain of a population grossly out of touch with our “primal” needs.
With rapid changes come consequences. Fortunately, we are in a better position than any humans have been at any time in history to radically and intelligently address the consequences. Will reason have its day at last?
Next week, I’ll cover just what this “primal health” lifestyle is all about. It’s not “extreme”, it’s not Atkins; it’s easy to do. I welcome your thoughts and I encourage you to tell me what you think in the forum. Any comment is appreciated and I welcome constructive criticisms.
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