We Don’t Know Much of Anything (About What We Eat)

Let’s take a step back.

April of 2010 saw me feeling overweight, out of shape, and generally pretty unhappy — and that’s before I dared to a steal a glance of myself in the mirror. My (accidental) introduction to The Primal Blueprint got the ball rolling in an entirely healthier direction, and for a time my daily routine went a little like this:

  1. Wake up.
  2. Eat eggs and bacon.
  3. Later, go to sleep.
  4. Lose weight! Feel happier/sexier/probably less modest.

Simple enough, right? The book laid out 10 rules to follow, and follow them I did. I sprinted, lifted heavy things every so often, and generally ate everything I’d been raised not to eat, saturated fat very much included.

That’s not so different from what I do now, admittedly, but my impending one-year anniversary of going Primal has afforded an opportunity to look back on where I started — to think back on what I thought when I first started my journey towards strong, vibrant health. My body has changed, certainly, but I think the mental shifts might win out on impact alone.

Why? Well, here’s a hint: a lot of things I believed about health and nutrition back then were flat-out wrong.

The core tenants of the Primal Blueprint, I’d argue, still hold strong, and following those ten rules alone can change anyone’s life dramatically for the better. Where things get murky, however, is in the details.

Not sure what I mean? If you’d asked me about a Paleo lifestyle as little as six or seven months ago, here’s what I would have laid out for you:

  1. Carbs are evil. Weight gain is all about carbs and insulin.
  2. Fruit is generally high-carb (and therefore evil), so limit how much of it you consume.
  3. Rice? Potatoes? Skip ‘em. They’re bad for you. If you need a starch, grab a sweet potato.
  4. But who needs starch, really?
  5. You need at least 100g of protein daily to prevent muscle loss.
  6. It’s incredibly important to get at least three meals a day.

Whew, boy.

To be fair, I’ll still argue that grains are bad for you until I’m blue in the face (probably after choosing to eat a donut). But it’s pretty interesting, I think, to see where I stand now, especially when I look back on those early ideas and see how far I’ve come since then. Things have changed. I’ve changed.

I’ve changed enough, I guess, to be honest with myself.

I was wrong.

Wrong about all of them, in fact, and oh-so glad for it. Why? It proves a point, I think, that needs to be made: when it comes down to nutrition, at least, we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like to think.

A Very Human Problem

But we’d like to think we do. We run studies, publish extensive research, and try and base our opinions around cold, hard facts, which sounds — on paper, at least — like the most reasonable way to proceed. Despite this, our health as a global population continues to plummet, and America — the country I’m most familiar with, so forgive the favoritism — churns out increasingly unhappy, sickly, and overweight people every day.

That’s probably the most depressing paragraph I’ve ever written on this blog.

But don’t those two ideas seem to counter each other? Doesn’t it seem odd, when every newsstand is stuffed to the brim with magazines shouting “Get sexy in one month!” (my personal favorite!), that so few of us are getting healthier — let alone sexier? Doesn’t it seem weird that for every single study championing something like vegetarianism, another study exists to prove the exact opposite?

And that’s the problem. We think we know everything, but it’s been proven — time and time again — that we don’t know much at all.

At the beginning of my Primal adventure, I thought I knew quite a bit. I figured excess carbohydrates were the real problem plaguing America, and tapered my intake of fruit and starch (let alone grains!) accordingly. I thought getting over 100 grams of carbohydrates was the fast-track to weight gain, and I figured going zero to low-carb for the sake of ketosis was the greatest idea I’d heard in years.

Again: I was wrong. The truth of that didn’t quite sink in until this morning, when I made my first meal of the day (lunch, by the way, disproving the three-meals mentality): three or four eggs fried with two potatoes. I threw in apple slices fried in bacon fat, too, and then went quite happily about my business. I might get more protein with dinner this evening. I might not. Either way, I won’t stress, as I’ve come to realize that stressing my muscles is far more important for strength and growth than how much meat I consume on a daily basis.

The point, I think, is simple. Almost a year ago, I had what I thought was a pretty clear picture of how the human body worked. Eleven months since, that picture has changed in several dramatic ways, to the point where I’m realizing I know less about how the body works than ever before.

And you know what? This might surprise you, but I’m perfectly okay with that.

A Practical Perspective on Paleo

We may never fully understand how the body works.

But don’t get me wrong — this is anything but an excuse to stay uninformed. The incredible complexity of the subject is absolutely every reason to try and understand it, so long as we’re comfortable with the idea that what we learn today may very well be invalidated tomorrow.

That’s not an easy thing to do, I think, especially with a subject as emotional as what we eat. I think the perspective is vital, though, for one simple reason: it helps us read the truth between the lines.

You read that correctly. Admitting we don’t know much of anything is the best way to learn what we need: those simple, common truths that often get muddled or ignored when we miss the forest for the trees.

Paleo, as I know it, is changing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s not a religion. It’s not dogmatic, and it’s not — by any definition of the phrase — set in stone.

What it is, however, is a lifestyle I’ve been following for nearly a year, now, with all the good that brings. Paleo, for me, is a reminder to take a step back, see how much my own ideas have changed, and realize that what doesn’t change — what has stayed the same — is the closest thing to truth that I may ever discover.

A Few Simple Truths

And here they are, then: a handful of ideas gleaned from nearly 365 days of following a Paleo lifestyle. I’ve been proven wrong, time and time again, but that’s okay. Through it all, these concepts have remained, and for every limitation on my own knowledge of how the body works, I’m still comfortable calling these my core beliefs.

1. Eat whole. Eat natural. Eat simple. (90% of the time).

If it needs a lot of processing just to be edible (grains, legumes, etc.), you’re better off avoiding it. If it came out of a lab or factory (everything in the interior of the grocery store), you’re better off avoiding it. If the Earth provides it, and you’re consuming it close to its natural state (meat, fruit, vegetables, starch, etc.), enjoy. You can — and probably will, even if you try and be perfect — eat from the first two categories on occasion, but don’t let it stress you out. One bad meal in a hundred good ones won’t wreck your health forever.

2. Think whole. Think natural.

There’s a tendency I’ve seen to talk about a food’s individual components: macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. That works well, sure, when you’re dealing with those components in isolation, but doing so ignores a pretty simple realization: we don’t deal with those components in isolation.

An apple is not sugar. An apple is an apple. It contains sugar, yes, but not in isolation, and bantering back and forth about its relative merits compared to other fruit just seems pointless. Are some fruits ‘better’ than others? Sure. But don’t let that stop you from eating the damn banana sometimes, and don’t let it scare you away from fruit forever. Again, if it’s a whole and natural food, the odds of it doing you harm are pretty significantly low.

3. What works for me may not work for you.

I can handle starch. Some people, however, can’t. I can also handle the occasional grain-based or sugar-based food without issue, though some people can’t. While it’s tempting to take the ideas of a Paleo diet and follow them as rigidly as possible, that’s doing a disservice to yourself.

You need to experiment. You need to find what works for you. Your body — and your health — depend on it.

4. It takes time.

Don’t rush. Don’t obsess over the number on the scale. Realize that your journey towards great health is exactly that: a journey, one that you have the rest of your entire life to complete. We have a tendency to fixate on the here and now — this one meal before us, viewed again in isolation — but that seems counterintuitive when you remember that we make several choices about our food and health every single day of the week.

Give yourself time. You have it, I promise, and you can only go up from here.

Where to Go From Here

I’m going to keep learning. I’m going to keep reading as many health blogs as I can find, and I’m going to keep tweaking the details of my lifestyle as I encounter new information. I’m going to do this on a weekly basis, and then a few months later I’ll discover something new about how the body works that suggests the exact opposite of what I’d learned, leaving me even more uncertain before what to believe.

But that’s okay. The simple fact that I’m informed — and choose to be informed — is exactly what allows me to step back, take a deep breath, and remember the four ‘rules’ above. They’ve brought me this far, and they’ll continue to take me, I suspect, wherever I want to go. That’s the beauty of eating whole, natural foods, and taking a step back from obsessing over every tiny detail about what’s on my plate.

Why not keep it simple instead?

Thanks so much for reading!

If you like what’s going on around here, then why not have free updates sent directly to your inbox or to your RSS reader?

And hey! My upcoming ebook, Roots, is available for pre-order until April 1st. Act now and you can nab a copy for just $4.99!

If you want to spread the good word about this post, however, please consider one of the following:

  • Click the retweet or stumble button down below!
  • Like this post on Facebook and share it with your friends!
  • And hey! Did you know that Three New Leaves has an official Facebook page? Do me a favor and like that too!

It all helps, in any case, to share these ideas. I really appreciate it! And you can follow me on Twitter, too. That always makes me smile. :)

29 Comments

  1. Mia says:

    Thanks for the inspiration Matt! I was just reading a magazine produced by my gym and it is so depressing… high carb this, low-fat that, drink milk as the “perfect sports drink.” *sigh* And apparently I am the weird one for choosing to question this? I mentioned my meals for the day to a friend and got a lecture about how unhealthy it is to “avoid whole food groups.” This week she is considering vegetarianism to help “fix” her health problems. I am stupefied.

    As Socrates used to like to say, the only true wisdom is knowing you know nothing. I agree, that is usually a great place to start. :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, Mia. :) I think this post came out a little more negative than I meant it, haha, but your quote from Socrates sums up everything pretty brilliantly. So thanks for that too!

      The magazine industry always boggles my mind. With so many glossy pages promising the secret to instant weight loss, immediate sexification, and so forth, it seems incredible that so many people (in America, at least) are the epitome of unhealthiness. And the worst part? They keep buying magazines! I wish those glossy rags would come out with a different message — maybe one that says strong, vibrant health, can be as simple as skipping a meal on occasion and focusing on meat, fruit, and vegetables.

      Wishful thinking, I guess. :)

  2. Michal says:

    From personal experience I have noticed that my tolerance for carbs has increased the longer I stay longer carb. I generally follow the weekly cheat day approach. I noticed I don’t retain as much water after eating carbs as I used to. However eating carbs regularly(beans or legumes) will lead to weight gain. Also I tried protein powders and found that I gain muscle mass much more easily. An occasional If is great.

    I’m not saying that this is great for anyone. I’ve messed around and found what works best for me. Locarb can get you off the sugar rollercoaster, but some experimentation may be necessary.

    Whatever you do has to work on an emotional and physical level.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Exactly, Michael. It varies by person, but the core idea stays the same: whatever it is, it needs to work for you. It sounds like you’ve done your share of experimentation to find out what that is, so congrats on your success! :)

  3. Geri says:

    Hey Matt, I’m surprised to hear some of what you wrote…I have been Primal and more towards Paleo in the last few days and in almost 3 weeks haven’t lost a pound! So, I’m beginning to wonder if some of what I’m reading in the various books and blogs doesn’t work for me. I’m going to keep pressing on, only because I feel better, but I haven’t figured out the magic formula for me yet on weight loss. Oh well, hopefully it will all click soon.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Hi Geri!

      Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying the principles of Paleo/Primal are wrong. My perceptions of those principles, and some of my ideas on the finer points of the lifestyle, were decidedly mistaken. Like many people new to the lifestyle, I was convinced that all carbs were evil, that I needed lots of protein, etc. If my experience has taught me anything, however, it’s this: the body’s an incredible piece of work. Proclamations like “carbs are the devil,” consequently, aren’t much of use to anyone.

      Your experience suggests the same. :) One thing to remember is that your body might just be readjusting its storage of adipose tissue. You might not lose any weight, seemingly (or at least when you step on the scale), but you’ll notice other differences instead: clothing fitting better, your body fat distributing more evenly, etc. If that still doesn’t work, you might try giving up different things for a month at a time (dairy, fruit, starch, etc.) and seeing how you react.

      It’s experimentation, like you said, but a lot of patience too. Give it time. The Paleo/Primal principles won’t lead you wrong, but try not to let any of these ideas become too firmly entrenched. You might find yourself, nine months from now, in a similar spot as me: looking back on those early ideas and knowing that they weren’t 100% accurate, but being perfectly okay with that. They may not have been accurate, but they helped bring me this far, and for that alone I’m grateful. :)

      • Geri says:

        Thanks Matt and Susan…I have been reading a LOT lately on food, nutrition and after reading Gary Taubes book and seeing the meal plan at the back of the book I looked into the Lifestyle Medicine Clinic at Duke University who devised the plan. It’s run by a Dr. Eric Westman who has had great success with weight loss using a reduced carb plan – in fact he is the author of the revised New Atkins book. So I bought that book and am following the Atkins plan – only 20 g of carbs to start and then you add in more carbs in various stages. He does recommend NO fruit, so I’ve cut that out. I have noticed some shifting going on in my body and since I’m also weight training, I’m hoping some of the lack of weight loss is due to muscle gain (hopefully). It just gets a lot harder as you get older (I’m now 56!) I’m not giving up as everything I read seems to make so much sense and I feel so much better eating this way. Thanks again – I always look forward to your blog posts and hope to blog about my own journey eventually.

        • Matt Madeiro says:

          Glad to hear it, Geri! I haven’t looked into the New Atkins book, but I’m assuming (and hoping!) it’s Paleo-like? Maybe? Haha. In any case, cutting your carb intake into ketosis level (20g definitely fits this description) is a great way to see results quickly, but I’m glad to hear the carbs are bumped up later on. My own experiences with ketosis made shifting back to regular carb intake a desirable outcome after awhile. :)

    • Susan says:

      Hi Geri,

      I can’t speak to if primal will make you lose weight or how quickly, as I’m not strict about it nor do I weigh myself because I think it’s counter productive. In any case, I wanted to ask if you’re measuring yourself? Matt pretty much asked the same. But that is far greater an indicator for me than number on a scale has ever been. You could be gaining muscle. Also, lots of water. I can’t lose weight no matter what I’m doing unless I’m drinking plenty of water. I’d also suggest making sure you don’t have a food allergy to anything, even a mild one can make you bloat and do funky things.

  4. Good read!

    For me, I have totally cut out soda! Haven’t drank it for almost two years. Eliminating soda should be the #1 health initiative. Soda slows digestion, high fructose corn syrup is he main culprit. Soda is everywhere, and offices often have it to consume. If you want to lose weight kick soda this minute!!!

    I mainly stick to plant based foods, veggies, turkey, and red meat maybe once a month. I have also dropped coffee which has had a huge impact on my overall well being and mood.

    This combo for me has done wonders for my health.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, James!

      You did what you need to do: experiment with your nutrition to find what works best for you. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of having animal products in your diet (I eat red meat more than once a week, haha), but I can’t deny that some people seem to do just fine when they downsize it. To each their own, I suppose, so long as they’re happy and healthy. :)

  5. NomadicNeill says:

    Good post Matt.

    This is the way I approach everything in life. Never looking for the ‘one holy truth’, never submitting to dogma with questioning, always experimenting.

    Like you I started with the basic paleo frame-work and have since then made some adjustments. I eat potatoes again, but who knows maybe I’ll change my mind again in the future?

    I’ve realised that a lot of people have a very black and white way of thinking about the world. Either something is true or it isn’t, they have a hard time communicating or understanding a view point that is based on likelihood or degrees of confidence.

    None of my beliefs are 100% solid.

    That there is such a thing as gravity, 99% certainty.
    That the sun will come up tomorrow, 99% certainty.
    That the theory of evolution is an accurate one 99% certainty.
    That the paleo / primal nutrition paradigm is the optimal one for humans, 90%.
    That potatoes are good for me / not damaging my health, 85%, still experimenting.
    The existence of unicorns, less than 1%.

    etc.

    I think this is something we have to keep in mind when communicating with people.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      99% agreed, Neill. :)

      It makes sense that we see things as black and white, given the human tendency to want to organize concepts in our head, but trying to keep an open mind is far more important than anyone could possibly state. And not just in food, as you said, but in every part of life. There’s so much more to it than we could ever imagine, so I’d call it a pretty worthwhile goal to move away from black and white and start embracing the full spectrum of colors instead.

  6. Jenn says:

    Yeah, whenever someone says “X is evil,” where “X” is some food or everyday product, red flags go off in my head. I’m reasonably certain no food is truly evil, though it may not be evolutionarily appropriate or the most nutritious thing. “Evil” assigns too much power to something like a food. I really like your concept of “choosing” instead of “cheating.”

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, Jenn!

      Your comment made me do a double-take, haha, since I realized that I would still call grains “evil” if anyone asked my thoughts on them. I think your description is more appropriate, however: they’re evolutionarily inappropriate. Assigning them a black-and-white label like good or evil adds too much emotion, I think, and might open the door to future guilt — and nobody needs more of that!

  7. Hannah says:

    Great post! You are so right, we are all different and it is important to listen to our bodies and do what is best for it. I have only been on the paleo diet for 3 months now and I have never felt better, but like you I don’t believe that fruit are sugar and that they should be avoided. I do my best to eat what is whole and natural and if I want an apple or banana I eat it. Reading this makes me look forward to how much more I am going to learn about myself and my body, in three months my journey has taken me so far mentally and physically I look forward to were I will be a year from now.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      It’s a fantastic journey, Hannah, and one that I don’t think you (or I!) will ever grow tired of. I enjoy learning new things all the time, but I also enjoy taking a step back and just eating a piece of fruit sometimes, too, without any specific knowledge crowding around the brain.

      Stick with it. Paleo will take you far for the rest of your (long, strong) life. :)

  8. Matt, I liked what you had to say and it is true we use nutrients best when they are not in isolation. Generally simple is definitely best as you stated. Just a heads up for people that in America, the word “natural” isn’t legally defined. That means that anything can be called “natural”. Its possible for foods labeled as “natural” and not be so healthy. Technically white bread could be called natural. Look at the food labels. When you see 20% or more in the “DV” column, it means it’s “high” in that particular nutrient. when you see 5% or less, it’s “low” in that nutrient.

    Also FYI weight loss supplements are not needed. I review weight loss supplements and other supplements at my other site Supplement-Geek.com

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      True, true! I think when people see the word natural, though, their first instinct is more towards those basic foods I described: meat, fruits, veggies, etc., versus things like white bread which come saddled with a long ingredient list. Or that’s what I’m hoping, at least. :)

  9. Anna Barlowe says:

    Very sensible advice, Matt, especially the part about finding out what works for you. I’ve always said that it was odd that the “smartest” species on the planet is the only one that has no apparent idea what its natural or ideal diet is (the only other exception being goats, who will eat gasoline and plastic and call it a good day).

    Food really is a very individual thing, and it’s really important to listen to your body and react to what it’s telling you. It took me many long miserable years to figure that out, but I’ve got it straight now. Sometimes it really is a choice between eating for pleasure and feeling like crap, and that choice gets easier and easier to make as you learn the truth of that.

    Btw, I gave your new ebook a plug over on my blog (not that you necessarily want that association), so all five of my readers totally know about it now. Prepare for the onslaught. ;P

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Thanks, Anna!

      I’ve wondered the same thing myself. For every technological advancement we’ve seen in the last century, it still seems remarkable that so many of us don’t know the first thing about keeping our physical forms as healthy and strong as can be.

      Thanks for the plug! I know for a fact that at least one of those five readers came over to see what the fuss was about, so I’d call that a smashing success. :) You’re awesome. I appreciate the support!

      • Anna Barlowe says:

        Dangit, I thought I was missing a reader. Send them back over when you’re finished with them! I can’t spare any!

        And you’re surely welcome to the plug, but when I publish my first ebook, “The Complete Lunatic’s Guide to Invisible Jews,” you will feel strangely obligated to buy it. Count the days. :P

  10. Susan says:

    Yeah. I don’t know if I’m going to ever give up olive chips, even if they don’t have wheat or gluten in them. But like you said, it’s a choice. Donuts are a choice. Apples are a choice. Bacon and chocolate chip Paleo cookies are an (awesome) choice.

    It’s a lot of tweaking, I try to make that fun instead of overwhelming.

  11. David Damron says:

    I think step 3 is the one you are the most right about. In the past I have lived on a primarily fruit diet (still do – 50% fruit) and I gain muscle while intaking low amounts of meat and maintaining 7-15% body fat depending on workout regiment. Now, I know this won’t work for everyone, but just like you said, what works for me may not be for you.

    I think any diet (not diet but diet…there’s a huge difference) can relay results depending on how extreme you are about implementing change.

    Side note: Did you know that a fruit (brazil nut—yes, it’s a fruit) is actually a better protein to process by your body than meat. (tried to find source but read a long time ago).

    What it comes down to is that no one is right but everyones right…..

    David Damron
    LifeExcursion

  12. Gena says:

    Matt,
    What a great, honest and real post, I love it! We’re leaning more paleo for sure but are definitely experimenting along the way to see how we feel, for me I’ve learned I almost can’t handle starch, period. I need more protein than some I know and nonstarchy veggies. As in everything in life its an ongoing experiment! Thanks for the good info and updates! :)

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Exactly, Gena! I think Paleo is the best possible place to start, but not the best place to finish. You need to experiment with what your body wants and craves. :)

  13. Jeanna says:

    I do wonder quite often who it is we are supposed to be listening to when it comes to food. This is great for you…. three years later… no one will touch it, it’s the worst food in the world for you. I can tell you though, that the way your body feels when you eat Paleo, is like no other diet I have ever encountered. That in itself must mean, they’re on the right track for sure.

    • Matt Madeiro says:

      Completely agreed, Jeanna. I’m Paleo for life. :) This post was more in response to the ridiculous back-and-forth nature of the health industry, I guess, and an encouragement to keep eating as we should: simple, natural, and whole.

      Thanks for reading! :)

  14. Grace Kelly says:

    Dear Matt,
    I re-read this one after divulging The Paleo Diet and finding it really strict, so I am glad to get back to basics via your advice.
    Thing is food is to be enjoyed and much as I want to keep a slim body and have lots of energy, I still believe in pleasure and many food dishes equal pleasure!
    So I am trying your method on an 80/20 basis.
    As a previous dis-ordered eater I think that there is too much out there bombarding us, you are right that we must decide and know our own body and what it can handle.
    For a while we were doing The Belly Fat Cure with Jose, no sugar at all. Life was dread, mouth was always dry and a life without some pleasures and some sugars just aint worth living!
    Great stuff, so potatoes are back on the menu yepieee!!! “If it grows eat it” Louise Hay
    Gratitude, Grace
    http://www.citygirlconfidence.com
    “Live life gracefully”