Ever struggle to find a way to turn off cravings for junk food like cookies, candy, or soda … or even for healthy foods like whole carbs, sweet fruits, and dark chocolate? (‘Duh’ question, right?)
If so, you are definitely not alone, and you needn’t feel guilty. You’re not broken. You’re just eating the way you’ve been wired.
Tune in to find out what I mean!
Enter Robb Wolf, Appetite Expert
It’s a real honor to have Robb Wolf on the show today. He’s one of the world’s leading experts on Paleolithic nutrition and the New York Times bestselling author of The Paleo Solution Diet.
His new book (about to be released at the time of this podcast) is called Wired to Eat, and it’s all about how to literally rewire your brain in a positive way and turn off cravings when it comes to food.
Robb inspires thousands of people around the world every day with his philosophy on healthy eating, especially through his top-ranked podcast and wildly popular seminar series. As a former research biochemist and also California State Powerlifting Champion, he’s no lightweight! He brings an energy I really admire to everything he tackles.
Let’s find out what he has to say!
Wired to Eat … But How Do I Turn Off Cravings?
Robb realized after finishing his first book that there was much more to be written on the subject of the Paleo diet and health.
A Paleo approach is the starting point, sure, but there is a huge variation in the way people respond to different foods. Some people do well on low-carb diets … some don’t. Some do well with grains … some feel better off of them. Some do great on a ketogenic diet for a while, and then develop puzzling new health symptoms.
So what’s a health-conscious person to do?
Wired to Eat takes a broad (and deep) look at the neuroregulation of appetite and the disturbances modern life introduces to our body’s natural desire to eat to survive. The truth is, we are genetically wired to eat more and move less. Not long ago in a premodern society, this was needed for survival.
This is the total opposite of what the health movement (experts) tells us. Eat less! Move more! And you’ll be healthy!
Any wonder then that it’s hard to make good choices?
Robb believes understanding why it’s so hard to “eat right” and make “good choices” helps dispel emotion and guilt surrounding food. And this will help us identify other psychological issues that might make it hard to turn off cravings.
But how to do it?
The 7 Day Carb Test Plan: Robb’s Prescription for You
One really neat tool in Robb’s Wired to Eat book is his 7-Day Carb Test Plan. This part of the book moves away from general research and advice to talk about what type of foods your body might favor.
This test gives confidence that if you choose to eliminate a food, it’s worth the sacrifice. You will actually know whether or not you do well a certain food rather than blindly following a one-size-fits-all diet prescription.
Again, the Paleo diet is the starting point … not the perfect diet. If you tolerate beans well, you should keep eating beans!
It’s pretty ingenious that Robb recommends using a glucometer during this carb test. Not many diet prescriptions give an actual biological picture of a specific person’s insulin resistance and response to carbohydrates the way this test will.
In This Episode, You’ll Learn
- what Robb’s been up to since his 2010 book sensation
- why the Paleo diet is not the perfect diet (there’s much more to the story)
- shocking statistics on how many people are actually pre-diabetic/insulin resistant
- surprising reasons why low-carb is not always best
- how to break the emotional cycle of guilt we feel when we eat “less than perfect” foods … and the lies that feed that cycle
- the best balance of foods for your body (and how to find it without losing your mind!)
- ideal nutrient combinations for different body types
- how to tell if insulin resistance is at play in how in you feel
- why fasting and ketogenic diets are controversial but important tools for health
- Robb’s nutritional recommendations for pregnant and nursing women
- the best form of martial arts for kids (Robb and I agree!)
Your turn! What helps you turn off cravings and make healthy choices? Has Paleo or some other diet philosophy helped, or is it just trial and error? Tell me in the comments below!
Resources We Mention
Wired to Eat: Turn Off Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods That Work for You (2017)
The Paleo Solution Diet: The Original Human Diet (2010)
More From Wellness Mama
- 334: Why We Need Salt (& How Much) With Robb Wolf
- 309: How I Overcame Trauma (and Lost 50 Pounds)
- 160: What the Heck Should I Actually Eat? With Dr. Mark Hyman
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Welcome to the Healthy Moms Podcast. I’m Katie from wellnessmama.com. Today, I am here with one of the leaders of the Paleo movement and one of the original people who really helped popularize this way of eating and who has been a beacon for so many. Robb Wolf is a New York Times Bestselling author of “The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet.” He’s a former research biochemist and one of the world’s leading experts in Paleolithic nutrition. His work has transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world. He has a really popular podcast and blog, and he’s also function as the review editor for the “Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism” and the “Journal of Evolutionary Health.” So needless to say, he’s incredibly smart and he has a heart for helping people.
As a fun fact, he’s also a former California State Powerlifting Champion, and those, in case you don’t know, that’s not the bodybuilding guys who put on the fake muscles. Those are the guys who can squat and dead lift hundreds and hundreds of pounds. And he’s a 6 and out amateur kick boxer. His list of awards and accolades goes on and on. I could spend all day talking about it. But instead, I just want to jump into the interview. So Robb, welcome and thanks for being here.
Robb: Thank you. When people do a full bio like that, it’s so grandiose. I feel like I should be taller than 5 ft. 9. I feel a little, like I’m not bringing up my part of the bargain, but thank you.
Katie: You’re welcome. And actually, I wanna talk about the powerlifting thing for a minute. I know that’s not going be the topic of our podcast but I find that fascinating. I didn’t even know that about you.
Robb: Yeah, it was a long time ago. I was a teenage California State Powerlifting Champion. And I actually had a near-fatal youth football injury. I had a bruised spine and a whiplash. I was actually full body paralyzed for a couple of days and they weren’t really too sure how much, you know, inflammation and nerve damage I was gonna sustained from that. But fortunately, most everything came back. I still actually have little problems with my left hand and my left side relative to the right side. But for the most part I had a really dramatic recovery.
And part of my rehab, the neurosurgeon suggested that I start powerlifting. And there just happened to be two world champion powerlifters living in Redding, California at that time and they kind of took me under their wing and I had some pretty good success with that. But, you know, eating 5,000 calories a day was kind of rough on my social life. So I eventually got out of that and have been doing martial arts of various kinds for the last almost 20 years. I did Thai boxing and in the last few years I’ve been doing a lot of Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. So I’d like to joke that I do some old-guy grappling. So that’s what I’ve been doing more recently.
Katie: That’s exciting. We, my husband and I, and our kids also take Samurai Jiu-jitsu which is the Japanese version. And it’s super fun.
Robb: Nice, yeah.
Katie: There’s a lot of grappling but it’s also a lot of just throws and wristlocks. I’m sure you guys do the same, but it’s so much fun.
Robb: It is a ton of fun and just amazing for kids. Like, I think it’s the…some form of Jiu-jitsu whether it’s traditional Japanese or Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, it’s really the martial art that kids should probably do. I would make an argument for some Capoeira also because it teaches so much rhythm and you learn music and it’s just a ton of fun. And for boys, if boys can learn how to dance, it doesn’t even matter if they’re a little bit on the homely side, they’re always can have a date, so it will teach how to dance too.
Katie: That’s awesome. So you were definitely one of the leaders of what’s now the very well-known Paleo and Primal movement. And you wrote kind of the book about it. But what have you been up to since then because that was in 2010 and you have maintained a really great web presence. Since then and I know you’re involved in a lot of different things. So what are you up to these days?
Robb: Oh, man, you know, about five years ago we moved to Reno, Nevada. We had just been recently pregnant and we were trying to figure out where to put down some roots and my wife’s father lived in Reno. And it was really just gonna be a holdover spot until we had our first kid which ended up being a daughter, Zoe. But we were in town maybe three weeks. We blew into town, managed to find the super cool house, bought it, and we were here maybe three weeks.
And then I got a phone call out of the blue from this guy who called himself Greenie but he ended up being more formally referred to as Dr. Jim Greenwald. He was a now retired but a formerly nationally and internationally renowned orthopedic surgeon. And he said, “Hey, we have some really cool stuff going on at our clinic. You need to come down and check this out.” And so I went to this clinic down in downtown Marino and lo and behold, there were my books and Mark Sisson’s books and Gary Taubes books and they had just been in the process of wrapping up a two-year pilot study with the Reno Police, Reno Fired Department. And they found 35 people that were at high risk for type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
They got these people on a Paleo diet, modified their sleep and exercise as best as they could. And based off the changes in their blood work, in their health risk assessment, it’s estimated that this pilot study alone saved the City of Reno about $22 million with a 33 to 1 return on investment. And I was pretty, you know, impressed by that and I managed to wiggle my way into the board of directors for that clinic and started helping with the marketing and some outreach into the military and some other kind of areas that they had not gone into. And then I have been working in the past couple of years trying to figure out a way to take this risk assessment program and scale it up and take it out to the masses.
Katie: That’s amazing, the results that that study had. And obviously, I’m sure you’ve heard those stories as well from all these years of people using your system and your books over the years. Let’s talk about… So you have a new book coming out called “Wired to Eat.” And I got an advanced copy to read and I love it. But talk about how it differs than your past books.
Robb: Well, you now, the Paleo Solution was, when I look back at it now and I read it, I’m still kind of surprised that sections of it are as good as they are. I’m like, “Wow, I actually wrote that.” That’s reasonably impressive, you know. I don’t know that I could do that good of a job again. But the book helped a lot of people, like, just based of the feedback and kind of the following and the sales and everything. But there’s been a couple of niggling pieces around this whole Paleo topic. Like, lots and lots of energy goes into asking the question, is this food Paleo, versus is this food, or even activity, is it good for me? You know, that’s really kind of the more important piece, is Paleo diet template is really amazing but I’ve always looked at it as a starting point not a finishing point. Like, it’s the place that we start asking questions and start investigating. It’s not the final, you know, finishing place.
And so I really, since the six years that…since we released the Paleo Solution I’ve been noodling on that element of things and noticed that there’s really a huge variation for folks in the way that they respond to different foods. Some people do fantastically on low carb. For other people low carb isn’t a great fit. Some people can tolerate certain types of grains, other people can’t. And so there was a lot of customization in that story and even that customization would change over time. Somebody would start a program and they were insulin-resistant, overweight, maybe they had sleep disturbances. They get the sleep disturbances squared away. They fix their gut and maybe they used a low-carb approach to do that.
But then over the course of time, that low-carb approach may not work for them. They maybe start developing some adrenal fatigue symptoms and stuff. And, you know, they got so attached to one modality that they didn’t think, “Oh, wow, maybe I need to change things now that my body has changed.” So that’s one piece that is very, very different about “Wired to Eat” relative to the Paleo Solution.
I mean the Paleo Solution even though I tried to do a good job of saying, “Hey, we’re just starting from here and we need to branch out and explore after we get healthy like…” You know, it’s very much like caveman, you know, mallet over the head Paleo like that. That’s the message. So in this one, we’re really trying to talk about customization and personalization. And we do use this evolutionary biology ancestral health template as our starting place. It’s kind of like our safe spot for getting going. But then I really encourage people and I feel like I do a much better job of explaining how to venture out and explore these other avenues once you’ve kind of hit some goals using some methods for resetting one’s appetite.
You know, the underlying theme of the book is looking at the neuroregulation of appetite and just this notion that we are really genetically wired for a different time, a different life way. And if you find navigating the modern food environment challenging, you should not be surprised with that. There should not be any guilt or shame or feelings of failure if, you know, you’ve got a bag of chips into the pantry and some ice cream in the refrigerator, and you sit down at the end of a long stressful day and all that you can do is fixate on those foods. That is totally completely normal and there’s nothing wrong with you.
Now, if we have some health issues or we want to do some body composition change, we might need to do something different like just get that stuff out of the house and only have it when we eat out or, you know, something like that. We might need some other strategies. But over the last six years, I’ve just noticed that for so many people there was this profound sense of guilt and shame when they try to affect change, whether it was movement or dietary or even, you know, some, like, meditation or mindfulness. And they found that stuff challenging. Like, they found it really hard to pull out five minutes of their day and do some, you know, quiet breathing relative to doing the kind of cocaine-like dopamine stimulation of looking at Facebook or other social media platform. You know, we’re just in this environment that is really well designed to play against what was successful in the past and that now ensnares us today.
Katie: I love that. I think, you bring such a good voice of reason to this right now. And especially that’s an important point about the personalization aspect. And I’ve always said that. I had a few friends who got very dogmatic about following a Paleo diet which is awesome and it had great results for them. But when it came to the point where they couldn’t actually have a social life or like it impacted these other aspects of their life, and I always use to say, “To me, the primary thing is not like what did people use to eat back then only but based on what we know of that and with modern science and the ability to test and find out more personalized things, what do we, ourselves, need to do today because obviously we live in a much different world like you talk about than people did when they ate these diets before.” And I love how you really work in the personalized nutrition of this.
The thing also that I really pulled from it is you talked about having a healthy relationship with food. And this is like a buzz phrase that every magazine uses. But you’ve taken an entirely different angle that I think is gonna help a ton of people especially women. So can you talk about that?
Robb: I hope it does. I know it’s gonna piss a lot of people off. Like, it’s interesting. Maybe even backing up a little bit. You know, if we go to a doctor or most dietitians and we seek advice about how to lose weight or affect some body composition changes, we’re told, you need to eat less and move more. And that sounds great. And if we lock people in the metabolic ward essentially prison without the shower perks, and we deprive them of food and we exercise them, they will lose weight but as soon as these people escape into a free living environment, typically, unless the food composition is appropriate, they will figure out ways of eating enough food to not really change their body composition. And this is the big challenge.
So we have this message coming out of our expert pool that is completely wrong. Like, we are wired to eat more and move less. That’s our fundamental default mode. It’s this concept called optimum foraging strategy. Every organism on the planet kind of follows this. And it’s kind of basic economics. Like, if you are living out in the environment, you need to get more energy than what you expend trying to acquire that energy. It’s just like a bank account. If you spend more than what you get, then you’re gonna end up bankrupt. And so the message that we’re told kind of mechanistically from our experts is completely counter to the way that our genetics are wired to live in this world. And then there’s a kind of emotional meme or story that is promulgated by mainly the medical establishment, but also the media is really glammed on this. And it’s this notion that you need a healthy relationship with food.
And again, on the surface level, that sounds great. It’s like, “Wow, we need to be at peace with our food and, you know, we love it, and embrace it.” And the more that I looked at this, the more people that I worked with whether it was in a medical clinic setting like here in Reno or running a gym in Chico. The people who were using any type of verbiage around a healthy relationship to food or, you know, were really kind of fixated on that had huge problems. And as I dug and dug and dug what I discovered is it had nothing to do with food. There wasn’t a relationship with food. We don’t have cheating or morality around food. We have consequences of food. If we eat certain foods we’re gonna feel better, if we eat other foods we’re not gonna feel so good, and that’s it. And there’s really not a morality piece around it.
And what I discovered is very frequently, there were either power issues, control issues, abandonment issues that somehow got tied into food and that this then became the fixation point. And so focusing on a healthy relationship with food, was actually a massive distractor and it was guaranteeing that the person wasn’t going to do the work to actually address the underlying issues.
And I actually relate a story in the book about a very high-powered entrepreneur that I ended up working with. This person has produced products and innovations that have positively benefited all of our lives, and I mean like everybody. So really, really a world-moving individual. But this person has historically been significantly overweight throughout his life, had a lot of health problems, and had a very estranged relationship with everybody around him except his children. Like, he had a very estrange relationship with his wife. He used either money to control the people around him or food to, you know, kind of assuage his own issues.
And I was trying to figure this whole thing out with this guy because it was really a challenge to get him moving forward and try to help him. And one day I just asked him, “Who didn’t love you?” And he just looked at me and like, he’s a big guy and I thought he was gonna rip my head off my shoulders. And he’s like, “What did you say?” And I said, “Who didn’t love you?” And it got pretty tense but I kept digging and probing and finally it came out that his parents were hard chargers. And they had largely, even though they were in an affluent environment, he was pretty much abandoned as a kid. And he was raised by a nanny who saw that there was this precautious sensitive really, you know, needy child like all kids are that was not having any of his needs emotionally met. And so she started cooking him lots of tasty food and they would sing songs and do stories around this food and he basically associated love and connectivity with food. And this carried forward through his life. And I actually ended up telling him that I wasn’t going to work with him anymore because I felt like I would be cheating him to continue working with him.
That’s actually another theme in the book is that people ask about, you know, cheating on diets and whatnot. And if you really dig into like the entomology of the world cheating, it means to gain an unfair advantage. And I just don’t see how eating dodgy food is gaining an unfair advantage. There’s consequences but we… When we do cheat on something, whether it’s a test or taxes or relationship, we almost inevitably feel guilt around that because we’re kind of social creatures and there’s something woven into us such that we feel this guilt around cheating. But you can’t really cheat on food. You can’t have a good or bad relationship with food. It’s all related to something else. And what was interesting was that for me to continue working with this individual and to continue being…I was being paid very, very well. It was kind of like 24-hour travel around the world. I went to Sweden and all kinds of places with this person.
But for me to continue working with this person would have been cheating him because this issue wasn’t about food. It was about something else. And I said that he needed to go work with a therapist and he needed to get this family involved and, you know, he needed to quit using money as a leverage against other people. And he needed to come to some sort of a peaceful place with, you know, the intimacy that he had in his life. And it’s been almost 10 years now and he’s doing pretty good. He’s still, you know, ups and downs, but he’s doing far better than what he was. And he’s had a healthy stable weight and he has much more fulfilling relationships in his life.
And had we just remained focused on food which is really easy to do. It seems like a really concrete thing to get in and, “Hey, just change your diet and everything is gonna be great.” But so often when there’s this notion that there’s a relationship related to food, that’s a mis-direction. It is not the issue. There’s something else going on.
Katie: That’s really fascinating. If you think about it, I guess, it’s the first time in history, I mean in the last few decades especially, that we really can have an emotional relationship with food. Because for so long if there was food, you ate it. It was sustenance. It wasn’t this, like you said, it wasn’t a moral thing. And I think you’re right, at least based on the magazines that I see marketed to women, I don’t know if it’s intentional but they’re very much feeding this emotional relationship with food and that, like, cycle of guilt and reward. And I know a lot of women really struggle with that. Do you address in the book at all or do you have any suggestions for someone who may be heard what you just said and thinks they do have an emotional underlying issue that probably is causing a lot of their food related issues?
Robb: Well, I mean, they probably need to do some sort of therapy counseling or, you know, but the focus definitely needs to shift away from food in my opinion. And, you know, I’m not a therapist. This is very… It’s somewhat amateur stuff. But it’s interesting to me that on the one hand…again, on the mechanistic level, we’re told, if you just eat less and move more, then you’re gonna lose weight and your health will improve and everything is great. But that’s very, very difficult to do because of the way that the modern environment is setup.
And then, again on this emotional side, we’re told you need a healthy relationship with food then everything is gonna be a great. But I think that that’s just a complete misdirection. So the success that I have seen around this really involve someone finding like a marriage and family counselor or somebody like that that they really trust and the person ideally has a little bit of an understanding of nutrition too so that they can kind of see where these two things bridged together. And I’ve seen a lot of success if you can have, say like someone is going to a CrossFit gym and they’ve got a coach there that they really trust and that person is interfacing with the therapist and, you know, there’s all kinds of HIPAA stuff and everything that you need to deal with all that. But, you know, you have a team that is supporting you in this process and helping you to get to this place.
You know, usually it involves an improvement in connectivity and intimacy with the people around us. It involves improving the way that we love ourselves and love other people. And the food is a secondary, tertiary thing. It’s just a distraction. It’s not the issue at hand. But generally, folks need to get out and get some sort of outside help and really, at least, ask the question, “Could the focus on food not be the issue? Could this be a distraction?” Let’s couch it like that. Let’s not make an absolute, but could we get in and ask the question, “You know, maybe, even though maybe I’ve struggled with eating, maybe it’s really not about the eating. Maybe it’s not about the food. Maybe it’s about something else. And we’ve been distracting ourselves focusing on this.”
Katie: That makes perfect sense. So talk about the book a little bit. Let’s go into a little bit more detail now. Is it a weight loss book? I know we talked about weight loss a lot or who else can benefit from the book?
Robb: Oh, man. It’s a huge book and that made my publisher crazy because, I’ll be honest, they really wanted something that was like seven days to Hollywood abs. And I was just like that’s not really me. You picked the wrong person. I actually write my books. And so this thing really covers everything from gut health, autoimmunity, ketogenic diets, cancer, diabetes, nerve degeneration. It’s really rangy but I roll it out in such a way that it’s bite-size chunks. So even though that sounds huge and potentially overwhelming, it just weaves all of the story together about how our neuro-regulation of appetite, how we are told, typically, you know, on a biological level, when have we eaten enough, when have we not eaten enough. And it looks deeply at that as kind of a mechanistic cause for overeating and some of the problems that we face today.
But all of those mechanisms also play into things like autoimmune disease, gastrointestinal disorders, neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease, even performance elements. I talk a little bit about athletic performance in the book but there’s so much easy access to stuff like that and people who are already kind of athletic and eating well. Those are not the folks that are going to potentially have shorten lives or quality of life due to, you know, some sort of a medical issue. So I don’t put a ton of emphasis on that. But the first maybe third of the book really talks about that neuro-regulation of appetite and how that informs the notion that we really shouldn’t be surprised that navigating this modern food world is challenging. Like, if you are fat, sick, diabetic, and broken from a biological perspective, you’re actually doing everything right.
You know, we could argue that the evolutionary biology, they’re like, “You’re doing everything right.” Now, for our purposes now we need to just say, “Okay, I understand that this is the reason why the stuff is hard. Now we need to build some strategies around changing all that.” So on the front of the book I lay out this story about the neuro-regulation of appetite, how we’re wired to eat. And the goal is that that will diffuse the emotionality and the guilt around these changes so that at least on some level, people can say, “Okay, this might be a hard thing to do but I understand now why it’s hard.”
And those are difficult things to bridge because eating and appetite exist in the hedonic centers of the brain, the really deep centers of the brain that sex and survival and food, that’s where the stuff lives. And it’s very emotional and it’s tough to bridge the gap between taking an information on a logical level and then having that do some benefit on the emotional level. But, you know, I’d walk people through a process of kind of understanding these things so that they can get into a better emotional framework to be able to do and act some change. And then we use a 30-day reset to hopefully restore the neuro-regulation of appetite, reduce inflammation, get people moving in a good direction.
And then after the 30 days, we do a seven-day carb test plan which allows people to really map out what types of carbs and what types of foods that they do best with. And we do both some subjective and objective measures to figure out, you know, how, you know, like, “Can you handle white rice or are lentils are better option.” And so we do some pretty good mapping on that so that we can use this basic kind of Paleo template as a starting place and then expand out and really get as much variety as we can within our nutrition.
And then at the end of the book, I do go pretty deep into ketogenic diets and fasting. I see these as being underutilized but really powerful potential tools. But again, I wish that there was a one-size fits all program for everybody but there’s just not for the vast majority of people following some sort of a whole foods Paleo west type approach, and then finding what carbs you do best with that is maybe outside of Paleo land, that’s great place to be. And for some people, ketogenic diets and maybe even a little bit of intermittent fasting, maybe the additional kind of muscle that they need to bring to bear on a certain situation particularly folks with neurodegenerative disease, some autoimmune diseases, like, they may really benefit from that, that additional effort of doing something like a ketogenic diet or some intermittent fasting. But it’s really a powerful medicine and I make the case for, you know, how those modalities might be important but you also don’t want to willy-nilly implement them.
Katie: Yeah. That’s such an important point. And what I love most of the book is the overarching theme that you just talked about so much and so well of that shift of realizing that if you’re struggling with, you know, excess weight or these health problems that you reframe it for people. So it’s not that you’re fighting your body. Your body is actually doing great. Your body, like, you would survive. You will be one of the allies.
Robb: Exactly, yeah.
Katie: And then, like, your body is awesome. And just reframing that in your mind of like instead of fighting your body but just like, “Wow, your body is awesome and this is amazing but here’s how to work with it.” So you’re not fighting it. I think that, for so many people, is gonna be a paradigm shift.
Robb: I really hope it is. And this is kind of crazy but it’s maybe helpful. But you know, if a moment from now there was a giant solar flare and it created an EMP pulse and it destroyed the electrical grid around the planet. And basically like, our cars don’t work, electricity doesn’t work, trucks don’t deliver food. In like three days, things start getting really bad and in three weeks things are in absolute disaster. But who are the folks that are going to be alive, say like two months from now, if that event happens. It’s the people who are really significantly overweight. And this sounds kind of crazy. You’re kind of like, “Well, they weren’t that healthy and everything but there have been…” and I talk about this in the book.
There was a medically supervised fast. A guy was almost 500 pounds. They gave him water and some electrolytes and then he didn’t eat anything for 382 days. And he was basically in a very deep state of starvation ketosis. He lost an enormous amount of weight and then went on to maintain that new healthy stable weight when he started eating. But this guy had more than a year of stored calories in his body. All he needed was water. And so, you know, in the time gone by that really wasn’t that long ago when there are still places in the world where people live at the margin, having some extra body fat might have been the difference between life and death for you. It might have been the difference between life and death for your family.
And so if we can get…this is where a little bit of that ancestral health framework is so valuable. You know, it’s like, “Why does my body wanna gain fat?” Well, because it kept us alive in the past. But today, we never have periods where we go hungry even for, you know, a few hours or a few days. We don’t have to do any physical activity if we don’t want to. We can have food delivered to our door. Our circadian rhythm is completely disordered due to looking at, you know, social media in the evening and not turning off our cell phones and having the lights on and everything. And once our sleep is disturbed, that disrupts our neuro-regulation of appetite. It makes us insulin-resistant and all kinds of terrible things kind of come as a consequence of that.
So, yeah, I mean I really have a profound hope that if people can understand that the state of weight gain is normal and expected and it was good in the past but it’s just working against us today.
Katie: Yeah. And it’s so smart because you’ve talked about like changing those factors so that you’re actually changing the biology to make that what you’re not having to fight as hard anyway against your body and that you get into a good rhythm with that. So you’ve mentioned a couple of times the low carb thing. And I wanna bring that up especially because I think a lot of women have a lot of confusion about this, because even just the top 10 Google results for this, you will get eight different opinions. And it’s like is it high carb low fat, is it high fat low carb, should you never do low carb as woman, should you do low crab as a woman unless you have thyroid disease? There’s like all these qualifiers. So how do you address this in Wired to Eat?
Robb: Really great question. I walk people through a process of discovering if they are insulin-resistant or not. And we can use both some subjective measures, you know, like how do you feel between meals, do you get foggy headed, do you tend to store fat right at the waistline, is our waist to hip measurements a particular ratio? And those things subjectively, there’s some wiggle room in there for interpretation, but they can give us some sense of whether or not we are insulin-resistant. Also, I recommend some blood work that looks pretty specifically at determining if we are insulin- resistant or heading down that peridiabetic kind of path. And if an individual is insulin-resistant, which a lot of people are, estimates are more than 40% of the American population is peridiabetic now to say nothing of becoming insulin-resistant.
And if you really dig into this and look at it from, again, kind of an evolutionary biology framework, you could argue virtually everybody is insulin-resistant to some degree because of the way our modern world works. But if an individual is insulin-resistant, then a low carb diet is probably more appropriate. But low carb is a really, to your point, it’s a really subjective thing. And there was a fantastic paper which I talk about in this book that looked at the qualitative nature of carbohydrates.
So we had examples, again, from this kind of ancestral health perspective of populations that eat lots of carbs and are very, very healthy. And then we have examples of populations that eat virtually no carbs and are very healthy. But the one thing that seems to be common between both of them is that their foods are whole, unprocessed, and when they start eating westernized foods, then their health deteriorates. And that’s kind of the one thing. And the characteristic of westernized foods is that carbohydrate in particular but also different seed oils are refined and introduced into the diet. And if we eat carbohydrate from things like beans or whole rice, or fruits, or vegetables, the carbohydrates are inside of a cell and that cell wall in the plant is kind of hard to breakup and so it slows the release of carbohydrate to our bloodstream and also where it releases in out gastrointestinal tract.
And if we highly refine carbohydrates, all those carbs tend to get absorbed in the small intestine which tends to starve the bacteria and the rest of our digestive tract and it causes this process called SIBO, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, in the small intestine. And this process seems to be highly inflammatory. And that inflammation really seems to kick start the insulin resistance process. And there’d been some fascinating studies of where they’ll take a lean mouse who has a healthy gut biome, inoculate it with the unhealthy gut biome of a overweight mouse and then that formerly lean mouse starts gaining weight.
And so there’s some really cryptic implications about the qualitative nature of carbohydrate and what it does for us. And so I really make a strong case in the book that first, we do a pretty strong shift towards just high quality carbohydrates. And we’re talking about lots of fruits, vegetables, root, shoots, and tubers. And the level that I recommend in the book is somewhere between 75 and a 150 grams of carbs total per day which from fruits, vegetables, root shoots, and tubers is hard to do. Like, you need to get in and eat that stuff because they tend to be bulky and pretty filling even if we’re doing some stuff like apples and oranges and bananas and whatnot.
And we have people motor forward for a period of time and then they reassess how they’re doing. And if everything is good, then we keep going forward. If they are still getting subjective and objective measures of potentially too many carbohydrates, then we kind of ratchet those down. But as the person shifts towards Insulin sensitivity or if the person is insulin sensitive from the get-go, then we do the opposite and we do a moderate to high protein, moderate carb, and moderate fat, which, you know, kind of almost like a zone type ratio. Because there’s been some really great studies that suggest that people who are insulin-resistant do much better on lower carbohydrate intakes. And the low is variable, you know. Some people are all the way into the ketogenic range. Most people can do great more in that like 75 grams to a 150 grams of carbohydrate range.
But if someone is insulin-sensitive but overweight, a low carb diet is probably not gonna work well for them. They will probably do better on a low or moderate fat intake, higher protein, and then moderate carb intake. So there is a lot of distinction there. And, you know, this is the benefit, if you have a really good practitioner coach, they can get it and quiz you and figure the stuff out. And it’s more challenging to do this in the book but I hope I do a reasonably good job of helping people be able to kind of navigate that process.
Katie: Yeah, absolutely. And just realizing that because I think there’s been so much fear around carbs because of all of the misinformation that I know people who are literally afraid to eat berries because of the carbs in them and realizing like you didn’t get insulin-resistant by eating zucchini.
Katie: Or squash. You know, like, this is not a normal thing and that there’s a definite time and place for whole food carbs. And I think that you make that point really well actually.
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Now, back to the episode.
You also talk about ketosis and you’ve mentioned it a couple of times in the interview so far. For anyone who maybe isn’t super familiar with that, can you explain what it is and like why there is a time and a place for it?
Robb: Sure, sure. So if we were to go without food for a couple of days, our liver will run out of carbohydrate in the form of glycogen. And this is kind of the main supply depot. If we’re not eating consistently for providing glucose to the brain, and the brain under kind of modern western environments, it runs almost exclusively off of glucose, and the brain hates changes in blood sugar, either the blood sugar going too high or going too low. And so if we are in a state of fasting and we have inadequate carbohydrate to be released by the liver to keep the brain happy, we start mobilizing a lot of fat. And fat is a great energy source but fats can’t pass the blood-brain barrier.
So what happens to the liver when there’s inadequate substrate to use the fat for energy in kind of a catalytic fashion, then the fat is converted into these things called ketone bodies. And ketone bodies still kind of carry the energy of the fat but they’re water soluble. And these ketone bodies can then substitute for 70%, 80% of the glucose needs of the brain and it becomes a very stable state energy source. And in the past, you know, it’s interesting, and this is maybe a bit of a diversion but, you know, we get into this story where it’s, you know, should we only eat carbs, should we only be in ketosis when we have these people in these different camps?
The longer that time has gone on for me if someone is metabolically healthy and they’re metabolically flexible, we should probably be able to transition between these two states and do it almost seamlessly. And that’s kind of what we see even in some modern study, the hunter-gatherers. When they eat carbohydrate, they process them beautifully. Their insulin barely goes up. They store the carbohydrates.
But then, if they go a period of time without eating, they start producing ketone bodies for the brain almost immediately. And this is kind of like the Holy Grail, like, best place to be. We should be able to process carbohydrate. We should be able to process fat, and use ketone bodies for our fuel. But for some people, they can have mitochondrial damage, and we’re just now starting to learn, you know, maybe this is caused by overeating, maybe it’s cased by environmental toxicants, maybe it’s caused by changes in our circadian rhythm. But for whatever reason, people start losing the ability to use both carbohydrate and fat as a fuel. And they literally, like, portions of their body essentially starve. And this is some of the process of neurodegenerative diseases where we lose the energy source to keep these neurons alive, and they just die.
And this is this some of underpinning of things like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. And so in the starvation state, we can start ramping up the production of ketones because we’re just not consuming any food. But we can also do something called nutritional ketosis where we eat a moderate amount of protein, a very low carbohydrate diet, and with regards to effective carbohydrate, you could eat a ton of vegetable matter, you know, leafy vegetables, cruciferous vegetables, just low carbohydrate density vegetables. And then you eat a moderate to high amount of fat based off your activity level I mean the amount of body fat that you store.
And this is… The nutritional ketosis approach has been used for over 100 years for things like refractory epilepsy. It’s been very well studied in those populations and it’s well tolerated. But it is hard to do, like, limiting carbohydrate to those super low levels is definitely a challenge. And in the book, I make the point that we can use some things like MCT oil, either concentrated, medium changed triglyceride oils, or coconut oils as a means of boosting our ketone levels even while we’re eating a little bit of carbs. Like you could be in that like 50 to a 100 grams of carbs a day level which normally wouldn’t be a level that we would see very high ketone levels. But if you supplement your fat intake with some MCT oils, then that can kind of boost the ketones a bit.
And there’s, you know, just emerging lots and lots of data that would suggest that this ketogenic state may be very helpful from an anti-aging perspective, from a neuroprotective perspective. But I think that there’s a really strong argument for doing ketosis cyclically. And this is a really, really contentious topic and it’s kind of ironic. Like, there are sections of the internet that would like to see my head stuck on a pike for suggesting ketosis at all. And then there are other sections of the internet that the fact that I would say that you shouldn’t necessarily be in ketosis everyday all the time for the rest of your life, those people want my head on the pike. And so, you know, there’s some really entrenched camps that really are not amenable to this notion of customization and new wants. Let me know if I covered the ketosis to your satisfaction. I know I kind of get off into the weeds there a bit.
Katie: Yeah. That was perfect. And I think that’s a… I actually love that point of cycling things. And I think that’s kind of also the solution. If you’re doing it intentionally it can be helpful for a woman who have kind of done this whole like pendulum between, you know, eating too much or restricting for so long is like always having something new to switch it up too unlike with ketosis even I believe most low-carbers and people in ketosis, especially, do a carb reefed once in a while, right? I mean typically, that is used to keep your body from down regulating. Am I explaining that right?
Robb: Yeah. You know, some people do. But there are… Like, there’s a Facebook group called “Ketogains.” And I really like those people. They’re non-dogmatic about this stuff. And they’re very good on both the science and the coaching. And, you know, there’s a reality that there are some people that do great on high carb. And I mean it could be almost any carb. And we know there’s people, you know, like they just… They’re lean, their blood works great, they have awesome energy, but they, you know, they eat a degree of carbs that would make me diabetic in like a day.
And then there are other people, and I’m actually kind of one of these people. I feel amazing on long term ketosis and I have great energy, fantastic cognition, and I find the carb refeeds to be annoying and kind of make me feel terrible. I’ve never had any real thyroid issues or anything like that so long as I was getting enough energy that… One of the big challenges of low carb in ketogenic diets, because you do reduce the carbohydrate, you reduce insulin levels. And insulin is really important in keeping thyroid levels normal. When we release insulin, it tends to convert T4 into T3 and T3 is kind of active form of a thyroid hormone. So you can suppress thyroid activity to a degree and there is debate whether or not that is clinically significant or not, because there’s kind of two pieces to this. You need more thyroid to process more carbohydrate. So is that thyroid around just dealing with the carbohydrate or is it really a factor in the overall metabolic process?
But then there’s another piece to it. The thyroid can be impacted by low caloric intake. And the beauty of ketosis and low carb diet is that they’re incredibly satiating. Like, this is kind of the Holy Grail for people, is how do I live in a free-living environment and just eat the right amount where I feel satiated, I’m not hungry all the time, and I can stick with that over the long haul. And ketogenic and low carb diets are really pretty damn good at that. But in some ways they’re too good. Like, it is really easy to under eat on that process. I was feeling kind of rundown and sluggish and I forget who I had on my podcast but they were talking about, man, I just see a lot of people under eating on these lower carb diets. And I started weighing and measuring my food for a week and I do Brazilian Jiu-jitsu. I’m about a 175 pounds, reasonably lean, I carry a decent amount of muscle, I was eating 1,600 calories a day.
Robb: That was a… I wasn’t hungry at all. I mean, I just, I wasn’t hungry. And so what I had to do was actually increase my carb level a little bit so that I actually had more hunger because I mean I would try to add more food and I was literally kind of like gagging like, “Oh, God, I can’t eat anything else.” So I was in a state where I was so satiated which is good on the one hand. But the downside was that I was chronically under-eating. And it’s not like I was, you know, some weird, you know, food issues. Like, I just flat wasn’t hungry which, again, you know, it’s that’s really great stuff.
But this is where these things are tools and they can cut more than one direction, you know. Like, highly satiating meals are great for certain people. But let’s say we’ve got a high school student who’s wanting to play football and he needs to eat a lot food, a super low carb diet is probably not a good idea because the kid is not gonna be able to eat that much food. And then, you know, for the rest of us, it’s very easy for a low carb diet to get us into a hypocaloric level plus a low insulin level. And that is definitely a situation where we could see some thyroid and cortisol dysregulation which then has knock on effects on things like progesterone and estrogen.
So, again, it’s really new on steel, like, it can be absolutely the bees-knees, the perfect solution for certain people, and it can be absolutely disastrous for other people. And those same people can change over the course of time. The low carb diet may have been perfectly appropriate at one point and then they may need to shift gears at some point down the road.
Katie: Yeah, that’s really fascinating. And, what I’ve found it really interesting too reading this, because, obviously, it’s got applications for a lot of people and a wide variety of demographics. But I found it really, I think, applicable to women who are in that pregnancy and nursing and young children phase because you’re not advocating anything, extremely advocating explaining to them how to find the right balance for their body. But I notice some similarities between kind of the guidance you gave and what most midwives and especially homebirth midwives encourage women to consume and to have as a lifestyle. So my last two births have both been homebirths. And with midwives, you don’t have all the medical equipment the you would in a hospital, and in order to be able to birth at home, you need to be kind of put in that range of normal. You can’t have gestational diabetes, you can’t have a huge baby. And they recommend a similar type diet, at least where I live, to help give yourself the best chance of all of those doctors.
So I think your book is really applicable especially to women and especially pregnant, nursing, and young children because you give a really usable practical framework. I also wanted to touch on fasting again because you’ve mentioned it a couple of times. And there seems to be equally staunch camps on the different sides of the fasting debate. Do you think for women, especially, let’s just talk about women in fasting. Is there a time and a place for it?
Robb: Oh, man, yeah. And you’re right like people become religious zealots over this topic. Fasting is another one of the stressors. Exercise is a stress, fasting can be a stress. And it’s what we call a hormedic stress which a little bit of stress today can actually help me to survive more stress in a couple of days like if I’m exposed to a larger stressor. And this is kind of the adaptation that we get from physical training and fasting can play a part in that too. So I think that there’s kind of, again, baked into the cake of our genetics. There’s kind of an expectation that we would have ebbs and flows in our energy. You know, one day we would eat a ton of calories. And another day we might not get much if anything. And there’s kind of a flow, you know, instead of just a constant steady state.
So there’s kind of an anthropological argument, a metabolic argument about why fasting may be beneficial. We see some great studies that suggest that, you know, maybe some time restricted feeding, you know, you make your dinner happen at 5:00 p.m. and then you don’t eat breakfast until 9:00 a.m. or 10:00 a.m. and so you’re eating the bulk of your calories during the day which helps to entrain the circadian rhythm. And also it’s a time-restricted period. So there’s a long period of time when our body is not processing food which allows us to get into a lower inflammatory state. So there are some really compelling arguments for all that.
The challenges that I’ve seen is that the people who are willing to do intermittent fasting are also cross-fitting six days a week, and doing power yoga, and they’re super mom, and they’ve eaten two grams of carbohydrates in the last six months. These are the like over the top type A people which I tend to be in that category so I can get with, you know, making fun of them because I am those people. But the folks that I’ve seen who will do intermittent fasting are oftentimes the people who shouldn’t do intermittent fasting because they’re already just out of control. They’re over the top in like everything.
And the people who should be doing intermittent fasting are the mellow, like, possibly somewhat sedentary, you know, not wound type, you know, not super adrenalized and cortisol, or washed person. Those people would probably do little well with a little bit of intermittent fasting, you know, where they just maybe they skip breakfast two or three times a week and they do lunch and dinner instead. Or they do breakfast, lunch, and dinner but again, it’s in a, you know, it’s in a seven or eight-hour window instead of eating 16 hours and all kinds of snacks between meals and stuff like that.
So I think that fasting or intermittent fasting can be really powerful but there’s definitely appropriate dose. Like, there’s a dose response curve and there’s certain people for whom it’s appropriate and the amount is appropriate. There are those some really fascinating studies that have been coming out. There’s a guy, Valter Longo who does fasting research. And he’s developed this thing called “a fasting-mimicking diet.” And it’s basically about 6 to 7 days where you’re eating maybe about 600 calories a day, 500 calories a day, and it’s mainly ketogenic. But there was a great study where they compared a group of folks who had multiple sclerosis who are on a ketogenic diet for six months. And then they did a fasting-mimicking diet for seven days, and another group of multiple sclerosis folks. And then they just went on kind of a Mediterranean diet, you know, a reasonably well composed diet after that.
The ketogenic group of multiple sclerosis folks had a modest improvement in some of the signs and symptoms of multiple sclerosis. The fasting-mimicking group, I wanna say, had a 25% remission rate in the multiple sclerosis, and almost across the board a dramatic improvement in symptoms. And what’s interesting about fasting, if it extends out a little bit longer is that we…because we are calorically restricted in that state and we need protein as a substrate to rebuild our body and whatnot, we will actually breakdown tissues in our body that are old and not functioning properly. Different cells will become what’s called senescent. Technically, they’re still alive but they’re not really functioning the way that they should and they become pro-inflammatory signalers in our body. But a bunch of these cells that we really don’t need get basically broken down and chewed up and reused and this includes sections of our immune system.
And at the end of the fasting-mimicking diet, what’s really interesting is people need a refeed period where they eat a significant amount of food. They’re not overeating but we’re not trying to calorically restrict but that refeed period is when we regrow organ mass and immune system mass in that new immune system doesn’t carry the inflammatory response to autoimmune triggers. So we basically have rebooted our immune system. So there are some really powerful potential therapeutics around fasting but it’s a really strong tool and people need to be wily about how they use it. You know, any powerful medicine can be the inappropriate tool if not used properly.
Katie: Yeah, absolutely. And I wanna make sure I respect your time and I’m gonna make sure I linked to also you have some blog post about some of these topics and, of course, also to the book which is now available I know on Amazon and major bookstores. But for anyone who wants to find out more about everything you’ve talked about, where can people find you, Robb?
Robb: Oh, robbwolf.com, two Bs, R-O-B-B W-O-L-F-dot-com. And you can find the blog, the podcast, and most of my social media links, that that’s where most everything happens.
Katie: Awesome, and I’m so excited for “Wired to Eat.” And I hope people will check it out because you also talk about sleep and exercise and the importance of community and a lot of topics. We didn’t have time to talk. But while I could talk to you all day, I feel like I need to respect your time and the listeners’ time. But thank you so, so much for being here Robb. This is so fascinating. I think this has been so informative and it’s gone by so fast. I can’t believe we’ve been talking almost an hour already.
Robb: Oh, thank you. I have the gift of gab and whether I talk or write, usually people just kind of drift off into a subtle doze, like, I have the perfect cure for insomnia. So you probably had like a very restful period here dozing for a little bit.
Katie: Oh, God, no.
Robb: Thank you for having me on the show. It’s really a huge honor. I love everything that you are doing. So it’s really a huge honor being on your show.
Katie: Thank you so much for being here and thanks to all of you for your time in listening. And I’ll see you next time on the Healthy Moms Podcast.
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