Our genes are the blueprint with which we were born, generated by millions of years of evolution. In this way, genetics provides the spectrum of health in which we get to live out our lives. Genes provide the text of each of our own Choose Your Own Adventure stories; we, in turn, get to make the decisions at the bottom of each page. The more we understand our genes, and the more we act appropriately on that understanding, the better chance we have of getting to the kickass ending where everybody ends up deliriously happy and in love.
Even though genes are the rules we are born with, they are not inflexible. They switch on or off according to how they are acted upon, such that even if someone has a genetic predisposition to diabetes, he can still dodge the bullet if he plays his cards right. The official name for this switch-on/switch-off phenomena is “epigenetics.” Epigenetics is an emerging field of research. Scientists used to think that people are born with one plan, and that’s that. The end of the road. They have no options. That’s not true anymore. No real scientist believes that. We have lots of options. And the ways in which we choose to live our lives have very real effects on the ways in which our genes are activated.
The expression of different genes in epigenetics explains why people born today are less healthy than they were several decades ago. In part, many people’s in-womb nutrition is troubling. So right off the bat, they’re starting life with a handicap. Their mother’s poor nutrition has already pre-set their genes to malfunction. Even worse, it has been shown that each person’s grandmother’s health at the time of giving birth is crucial for his health. Most strikingly, the grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the Holocaust today are more susceptible to certain diseases of civilization. Yikes.
Yet while epigenetics is a bit worrying, it is also very liberating. Very few of us are stuck in malfunctioning bodies. We are not damned to poor health forever. Instead, we can treat our bodies as healthfully as possible, and we can give them the foods that they were originally built to handle, and in this way we slowly reprogram our genes. When we are good to our genes, they are almost always good to us right back. That’s pretty incredible, I think.
We have been programmed to handle certain foods. Throughout evolutionary history, humans co-evolved with their environments to function optimally on whatever resources were available. This phenomenon is so powerful that understanding the diets of our ancestors, insofar as we possibly can, gives us clues as to what we need to put in our bodies for optimal health today.
The trick is in actually figuring out what those diets were. It’s a lot of guesswork, and honestly even if we knew something concretely, we couldn’t really practically do it. Those environments don’t exist anymore.
Fortunately, there are two facts that mitigate the inaccessibility of this knowledge:
1) Humanity is diverse. Different groups have lived in a vast diversity of environments for quite some time. This means that within the range of natural foods, humans are fairly well equipped to eat a wide variety of diets. Some traditional diets are almost all animal products, and others are almost all starches. Some contain fruits, and others don’t. The fact of the matter is that across the board, so far as we can tell, extant traditional cultures are far and away healthier than Western humans. Moreover, almost all of these people have not just functioning but fairly badass bodies absent of the typical diseases of civilization (cancer, diabetes, overweight, autoimmune disease, heart disease…). It’s amazing. And the common element between all of them? Natural environments, less stress, natural foods.
2) So it’s hard to know, still, what we should eat and what we shouldn’t. What is a natural food? I usually tell people not to eat anything with a label, or anything that comes in a box. This covers most of the important stuff. Anything that is processed is definitely unnatural. And most people out there in the world would probably agree. However, an important question remains: what is processed? This is not something on which everyone agrees. It is an important point of contention.
For example, both bread and vegetables oils are processed. They are milled or compressed plants– two forms of ingestion that could not happen (at least not in as high quantities) in a natural environment. People forget this sometimes. Michael Pollan is an important and relevant example. But the fact of processing remains true, and I consider both grains and vegetable oils some of the most insidious things we can put in our bodies.
So being precise about the definition of “natural” and of “processed’ helps. But of course we also need to push back against all of these assertions with science. Vegetable oils are processed, yes. There is no way we would have ever consumed canola oil– that is, consuming hundreds of pressed canola seeds in one teaspoon of oil– in the wild. But we also wouldn’t have consumed all that much olive oil, and olive oil is still something we can safely put in our bodies. Most vegetable oils are bad. Olive oil is good. You can read about the particulars of the toxicity of certain foods at the Getting Started page, and also at the primary Paleo go-to sites. For now, it suffices to bear in mind: Processed foods are bad, and natural foods are good. That is the most important idea you can possibly internalize for your body. Second perhaps to mitigating stress. Both crucial.
Natural foods, then, are how we play nice with our genes. Living in this way throughout most of history has been just a simple fact of life. However, unfortunately for our bodies, we were born into an unnatural world. We have eaten poor diets. And we have, far too often, become diseased because of it. Eating natural foods is a big part of the battle, but if we are diseased, it is even more important to pay attention to our genes, and to what we can do to help them. For example, with diabetes, it is probably important to eat a low carbohydrate diet, even though someone without diabetes will be perfectly healthy if carbohydrate makes up a significant portion their diet. Or for someone with cancer, she might want to eat a ketosis diet. Or maybe any of a million other examples: the GAPS diet. An auto-immune protocol. Low oxalate. Or low protein. Low cruciferous vegetables. Low fruit. Or high in specific vitamins. High fat. High carbohydrate. It all varies based on what you are trying to do. Which is what much of my work focuses on. I know roughly what is natural and what is not. The trick of my job is to determine how a natural diet should be specifically tailored to meet individual needs.