“The hero is a pattern of action, designed to make sense of the unknown; they emerge wherever human beings are successful.”
J. Peterson (Maps of Meaning)
Let me frame what I’m about to say with this: on the surface, I’m not suggesting anything that most of you might not already suspect. More often than not, we ‘understand’ considerably more than we actually ‘know.’ But, rare are the times that we know ‘why’ we do what we do. Taking that idea and filtering it through a nutritional lens, we’re told a story (about how to eat, in this case), which we don’t fully understand and then act in accordance to it’s misinterpreted principles. So, I’m here to simply ask for your thoughtful consideration.
Throughout the last month or so – through giving lecture, hearing lecture, and general reading – I began to develop the faintest idea of a new story (new to me, at least). It’s here that I’ll present it – hopefully coherently. Let’s begin:
The Story We’re All Told: Think in Temperance
Aimed at longevity and health? Well then, moderation is the law of the land. Move more, eat less calories, but feed very frequently…and all variety of food is acceptable in moderation. Even preferred. Nutritionally, nothing carries too much weight. And, because every flavor of food is fair game, we need only employ master-level self-control while eating whatever we’d like and merely log extra miles on the treadmill. Easy enough.
The Reality We All Occupy: Think Again
We’re genetically programmed – wired to eat – in a completely inverted fashion. In truth, evolution trained us to move less, eat more and perpetually seek novel, or extremely tasty, food (we’ve previously written and lectured on this idea). The stark truth is that for the first time in modern history, death and disease from overconsumption out number death and disease from starvation. The moderation schtick has clearly failed the Western world and this bill of nutritional goods we’ve been sold is rotten. Fast, we need rigid and formal nutritional guidelines. Nutritionally, everything matters more than we thought!
We need a hero (a believable…a useful framework for eating). But from where and by whom? Do the principles of Paleo orchestrate a return to vibrancy? Do we distill the devil in the details of macro counting? Can the king of Keto lead us back from the void? Will fasting expedite our return to the promised land? We’re all after a new ‘truth’ and eager to wield it’s metabolic might. But, what is the truth?
It’s here that we finally approach the crux of that emergent story of mine. The one that I thought was original – my new story – but as it turns out, isn’t. I’m not the first to conjure this idea – far from it. There’s nothing new under the sun, they say.
Here’s the rub: I believe we properly prescribed the idea of ‘moderation’, but propose that we simply miffed the application. Now, what I’ve come to call ‘nutritional moderation’, has previously been coined by those much smarter than me as, ‘metabolic flexibility.’ Metabolic flexibility, outside of sounding entirely more scientific than moderation, is ‘the capacity for an organism to adapt fuel oxidation to fuel availability.’ In layman terms, it’s the ability to use both fat (ketones) and carbs (glucose) as sources of energy based on availability and need. A metabolically flexible individual empowers themselves with the ability to transition between fats and carbs. They, their mitochondria, unconsciously vacillate between utilizing ketone (fat) sources while not exercising and then back to glucose (carbs) for more energy efficiency during exercise. It’s a brand of efficiency that gives any system a run for it’s money. Essentially, metabolic flexibility occurs at the energy-producing, cellular level. Think of a hybrid vehicle that seamlessly transitions between battery and petroleum reserves. It’s the same idea. The ancient genius behind our energy-using design is no different.
Under normal circumstances, the mitochondria, and by extension our metabolism, should be very flexible in shifting between fat and carbohydrate as a fuel. Unfortunately, that story we’re told and proceed to follow, creates damage. We generally live in an overfed state (feeding frequently on suboptimal sources of carbs and fat). That state retards our ability to use multiple sources of food as fuel (fat and carbs). And so the line from the story we’re told neatly connects to the ‘sicker than ever’ reality we occupy. What’s more, imagine if ancient man were forced to eat every three hours and account for each calorie consumed. Would he have turned nose to a cache of fruit while in a state of ketosis? Absolutely not, he wouldn’t have survived. And none of us would have the capacity to read or write, much less, consider these ideas. This might seem harsh, but ‘the popularity of small, frequent meals is likely our culture’s way of self-medicating’ to compensate for our broken metabolism (malfunctioning mitochondria).
*The other obvious analog for fitness – actual flexibility (mobility). If we become stiff and unable to move properly, we increase the likelihood of injury and wearing out our joints. Maintaining our hips, knees, and shoulders and ensuring proper spinal alignment is important for the same reason that keeping our mitochondria mobile is important.
The New Story of Moderation: A Different Model of Temperance
With deeper consideration, we might better come to both ‘understand’ and ‘know’ what drives our eating habits. Then determine ‘why’ we should apply certain lessons from the new, more fully-developed nutritional story. So what IS true? The old story of moderation certainly has proven to be a false truth. That’s clear. And, it’s irresponsible to argue against the value of paleo principles, counting macros, intermittently fasting and states of ketosis. In the new story of moderation, they all have their utility. The new hero knows this.
Shakespeare was famed for saying, “All the worlds’s a stage…and one man in his time plays many parts.” I dare say, the hero of our new story of moderation strategically employs and plays each of those nutritional parts…in periods of calculated moderation. That hero understands that like exercise, nutrition might also follow a seasonal model. This hero (you) learns to responsibly weld each of those nutritional strategies as their tale continues to unfold. Like the flexible and mighty mitochondria, nutritional heroes understand the framework of therapeutic nutrition: quality foods paired with a precise understanding of what food actually is – delicious energy. Then, they sometimes eat lots of carbs and they sometimes eats lots of fat, but rarely ever together. And, when faced with choosing between nutritional evils, they’re wise to consider a fast. Heroes of this brand fend off sickness and disease, malfunction and metabolic malice on all fronts. By not tilting at quixotic windmills, these heroes instead shine like lighthouses, as beacons of hope to those that behold them.
Mighty may your mitochondria be,
Galgani, J. E., Moro, C., & Ravussin, E. (2008, November). Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2584808/
House, E. (2016, June 17). The Best Kind of Flexibility: Metabolic Flexibility. Retrieved from https://www.onnit.com/academy/the-best-kind-of-flexibility-metabolic-flexibility/
Peterson, J. B. (1999). Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief. London: Routledge.
Wolf, R. (2017). Wired to eat: Turn off cravings, rewire your appetite for weight loss, and determine the foods that work for you. New York: Harmony Books.