Outlines of a Unified Evolutionary Theory of Human and Environmental Health


Healthy food and its production should be possible and mutually compatible. The components of what follows have been developing in the world for a long time, but in obscure corners. Now, aided by the incomparable power of the internet to spread heretical information, these insights are spreading. Evidence is being collected and disseminated in unprecedented ways. Here, they will be presented as parts of a synthesis, in which each part reinforces the others. A page of recommended resources to follow up on each topic is linked at the end.

1. Evolutionary health perspectives

Technological progress has many benefits. Yet some aspects of older styles of life, including patterns of sleeping, eating, and moving, and also aspects of food production, may have been healthier for people and environment alike than typical modern versions. Rediscovering and re-engaging some of these could raise health and well-being today.

The principle of evolution by natural selection revolutionized biology. Evolutionary theory can also help sort out the deeply confused and corrupted modern field of nutrition, though not on its own. There are several lines of evidence to go with it: biochemical pathways and interactions, controlled nutrition experiments (not epidemiological studies, which are both commonly performed and mostly useless), and archaeological and anthropological investigations of hunter-gatherer groups.

The illusion in hunter/gatherer mortality statistics

Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, by Edward S. Curtis.

Inupiat Family from Noatak, Alaska, 1929, by Edward S. Curtis.

One line of evidence is research on hunter/gatherer populations conducted prior to their taking up modern practices such as eating sugar and grain and sitting around a lot and snacking. Some of this research was conducted by Weston Price. These groups were found to be either free of or far less subject to the “diseases of civilization,” including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, cognitive degeneration, and chronic joint and tooth decay.

A popular image of hunter/gatherer groups is that their lives were "nasty, brutish, and short." Quoting statistics on low average life expectancy among such groups is a favorite maneuver of casual critics. But such numbers conceal more than they reveal. Non-dietary factors in pre-modern life collapse the averages. These other factors include rampant infant and childhood mortality, death of mothers in childbirth, predators, prey fighting back, fights and battles among rivals, accidents and resulting infections, and infectious diseases. The overwhelming factor behind improved average life expectancy in modern times is the alleviation of such tragedies as these, above all, large numbers of babies dying before age one. Changes in such data tell us of the effects of modern hygiene and medicine. However, they tell us nothing about what we are investigating: What are the effects of nutrition and lifestyle on health and long-term degenerative conditions?

Evidence suggests rather that hunter-gatherers who survived the diseases and battles of youth tended to live long, with high awareness, robustness, and capability and little to no sign of the many and varied degenerative diseases afflicting moderns. The simplistic idea that they did not develop these diseases only because they died too young to suffer from them does not hold—the ones who lived long did not develop them either!

To The Primal Blueprint and beyond

Although I had been interested in healthy eating since my teen years, and spent a number of years as a vegetarian, the book that marked a sharp shift on my path of research and personal experimentation was The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, which I read in October 2010. This book presents a blend of open attitude, systematic information, and a balanced, principled approach that goes beyond nutrition to exercise and other lifestyle habits viewed with an evolutionary lens.

Other works soon informed my perspectives through phases. I transformed my approach to nutrition and exercise step by step based on new information and experiences. I, like quite a few others, have passed through trying primal and paleo approaches, LCHF, and fasting. I have now moved on to a largely zerocarb approach.

Beyond these many food and training changes over the years, I also took steps such as using software to alter computer and phone screen color temperature according to the time of day, switching to a standing desk for some types of work, using a sunrise-simulation alarm clock, and limiting smartphone reading in the sleeping area (audiobooks allowed). I think such measures helped improve sleep quality and reduce eye strain. Finally, I have discovered important insights into agriculture and environmental issues that connect these personal themes to larger-scale issues.

2. The Metabolic Power of Not Eating

Some key insights about nutrition come from surprising source: the practice of not eating sometimes, or fasting. A recent puzzle piece fit for me and many others has been to reduce “eating windows” and more consistently practice intermittent fasting (IF). It turns out that a positive health-promoting intervention is to just not eat for various periods, for example, 16 hours, 23 hours, or 35 hours, with occasional longer stretches (each person should consult with professionals before doing this, especially if already on a medication that might have to be adjusted).

IF can be done intentionally. However, many practitioners of very low carb and zerocarb diets report spontaneously not being hungry for long periods. In this case, IF becomes partly an outcome of the eating strategy, not just an intentional practice. That said, being consciously open to IF allows one to more easily capture natural fasting opportunities that arise when hunger is absent.

Fasting traditions have been around and recognized as health promoting for at least thousands of years worldwide. However, a contemporary challenge for the practice is that no one is positioned to profit from promoting and supporting it—except the person doing it. There is no special food to order and no special drug to consume. There is no product to be hyped and promoted as the wonder cure. The cure is what is not consumed. Via negativa.

Already being fat-adapted and in ketosis makes fasting easier. There is a certain freedom from always being locked into having to have that next meal or snack. While adaptation is required—anywhere from days to weeks and beyond—once adapted, myself and many others have reported consistent benefits from nutritional ketosis, fasting ketosis, and their interplay.

Fasting may be viewed as a way to intentionally replicate a "bad-hunting day" from the paleolithic past. Of course, no self-respecting paleo hunting group would have decided to have a bad-hunting day, but they would have had some anyway. Our metabolic systems would have adapted to these periodic fasts, would have come expect them. Yet today such pauses are largely missing. Moderns in search of optimal health may have to take steps to reintroduce them, this time on purpose.

When a bad-hunting phase lead to hunger, one should expect our bodies to send the following message: get out there and hunt, and hunt more effectively than lately. That means: more energy and enhanced concentration and attention. It does not mean getting cold and depressed in the cave, a path to non-survival.

The modern approach to dieting—reducing calories while still eating the same regular meals, just smaller ones—has a set of effects opposite to the positive affects of fasting, Dr. Jason Fung argues in The Obesity Code (2016). With chronic low-calorie dieting, metabolism sinks, energy and concentration fall, hunger is constant, and one feels colder. This is the opposite experience from fasting (especially after adaptation). However, it is this “eating less,” as opposed to true fasting, that is the one doomed constant in almost every failing modern “diet.” A central reason for this difference is now understood from controlled trial and biochemical research, Fung argues: the two conditions have completely different impacts on the key phenomenon of insulin resistance. Fasting improves it.

This section has suggested the importance of not eating sometimes. Next, when we do eat, what should be on the menu? What should humans eat to thrive?

3. The Zookeeper's Dilemma

An inverted Zoo. Which are in better health? (Photo CCBY Greg HewGill)

An inverted Zoo. Which are in better health? (Photo CCBY Greg HewGill)

Imagine you are a zookeeper. A clear and pressing question about each animal is: What do they eat? To maintain healthy animals, the first priority is to try to replicate what they eat in the wild. Feeding carnivorous lions rice cakes and herbivorous zebras fish cakes will lead to sick and eventually dead animals on both sides of the fence.

One sign that something is very wrong with modern human diets was expressed by Dr. Barry Groves. He pointed out that although we observe a great deal of chronic and degenerative illness among modern humans, this is largely unheard of among wild animals. However, it is seen among captive and domesticated animals, specifically, animals that are being fed the wrong food.

So what do humans eat? Are we likewise being fed the wrong food?

Well, we eat a great many things, but that does not really help our inquiry. So what is the next question?

In caring for animals, one would ask: What do they eat in the wild?

But again here, with few exceptions, humans today no longer live "in the wild" in any helpful sense, so this kind of information is also not easy to come by. Nevertheless, it is possible to investigate what ancestors of modern humans ate when they much more nearly lived "in the wild" during long, evolutionarily formative periods, say, 50,000–100,000 or more years ago.

Answers to another question would also help: What kinds of foods do we thrive on? Humans are able to eat a wide range of food and survive doing it, but what would be ideal? This shifts the emphasis to what foods humans do best on indefinitely versus merely what they can manage to stay alive on for some years.

This is a subject of extensive medical research. Sadly, much of it is flawed due to over-reliance on study designs that are incapable of demonstrating causation. Such often confounded and poorly designed "studies," however, are far cheaper to fund and then use as the basis for getting another paper published. They also form endless fodder for journalistic articles summarizing such papers, gathering clicks while further distorting what the research itself can legitimately be said to support (usually not much).

Thus, another "evolutionary" influence on the field of human nutrition is "publish or perish," both for researchers and journalists. "Arrive at the truest answers and explain them accurately" is far down the list of priorities in this system. Another angle is "follow the money." Much of it traces back to funding from pharmaceutical and "food" companies with, respectively, overpriced pill bottles and boxes of cheap food-like substances to peddle.

Highly meat-leaning

Balancing a number of different lines of evidence, I have arrived at the view that humans are basically carnivores that can also survive on plant foods as a fall-back. That is, they can survive on plant foods even for long periods, but cannot do so without suffering degenerative harm. Feeding humans primarily—and especially only—plant foods causes them to become gradually malnourished, to sicken in a variety of ways, to "fail to thrive."

This tends to be obscured for two reasons. First, such degeneration can take years and decades to progress. Second, moderns who move toward vegan diets often report feeling better, so those diets must be good, right? Third, a few people seem to do well on vegan diets even over quite long periods and these are cited as counter examples (while most of the others just suffer through or quietly quit).

On examination, however, new vegans are quite often reporting feeling much better after moving away from something rather specific—modern diets of processed foods. They are not moving away from an ancestral diet rich in fresh fatty meat, which is also already free of processed foods. After a few years of veganism, however, with some exceptions, many find their health and mood deteriorating and are forced to quit.

Just because something is better than something else by some measures, such as feeling better or losing weight, this does not necessarily mean it is also ideal or even good. It might just be less bad than something else that came before it. A conventional processed-food diet is quite bad indeed from a health standpoint. Almost anything could be an improvement over it. As for veganism itself, with some exceptions, a typical long-term vegan is both thin and sickly and will soon list up their many and varied health challenges, which they hope in vain that the next concentrated plant supplement might fix. Actions, and diets, must be judged by their results, not only their intentions.

It may come as a surprise to many that tens of thousands of modern humans have eaten meat exclusively, some for many years, many swearing by the dramatic health benefits of the change. Many only arrive at this protocol after having tried all manner of other methods that did not work as well for them, or that even worsened their conditions. We may not yet understand exactly how or why this works so well for so many, but the accumulating number of case studies leaves little doubt that this must be investigated far more carefully than it has been to date.

4. Best for people and environment

If it is true that meat eating is the best human diet for health, another question follows. How could large-scale meat eating possibly work for a modern society? Tiny populations of paleo hunters could do it, but they were working with massive roaming herds, and many of those species went extinct! Besides, isn't meat production already bad for animals and the environment, even without being expanded further?

That they are is a clear impression given in the popular press as "settled science," so "settled" in fact, that no one even bothers to call it settled. Questioning it would be a pure heresy of the worst kind. So let us proceed to do so.

Although the belief that meat production is bad for the environment has become quite popular, the balance of evidence I have seen indicates that this view is severely misguided. To explain this, we must turn to some still different perspectives and sources not directly related to nutrition.

The view that fatty meat is the healthiest primary food for Homo sapiens—that we are basically carnivores that also have a nifty ability to fall back on plant foods in a pinch—raises a wider issue. If this were true, how could modern food production possibly shift from serving carbohydrate-centric to animal-fat- and protein-centric eating patterns on any large modern scale?

Virtually unquestioned conventional wisdom insists that not only health, but also "the" environment dictate lower, not higher, reliance on animal products. The truth, as is surprisingly often the case, may be the exact opposite. Indeed, even separate from human nutrition issues, properly managed large herd animals might be the only way to halt and reverse the large-scale environmental destruction caused by modern plant agriculture and poor land management. Moreover, whatever environmental destruction caused by grain agriculture for feeding ruminants cannot be blamed on the cattle. They naturally thrive on grass rather than grain. And they can eat grass all by themselves; that's just how they roll.

The key insight is that large heard animals and vast stretches of grassland coevolved over geologic time. They came into existence and thrived as part of a single ecological system. One of the last modern examples of this was the unending sea of bison encountered by the early European explorers of North America (before some of the pioneers systematically exterminated the animals, also further undermining cultures that had long subsisted on them).

Decades ago, Allan Savory set out to answer some pressing ecological questions. He arrived at the view that the most important and underestimated global issue is the mass desertification of grasslands. And he argues that there is only one way to effectively alter the process.

Savory's breakthrough was to discover that desertification has not been caused by “overgrazing,” as is usually thought, but by mis-grazing. Earlier effects of mis-grazing were then reinforced by misguided herd reduction or removal, which made the problem still worse, not better. More animals, properly managed, not fewer, would have been the solution. Today, he and his institute teach methods of using proper management of herd animals to recover desertified land and transform it into far more biologically productive pastures using know-how assembled under the heading “holistic planned grazing.”

Holistic planned grazing, in my view, constitutes an evolutionary approach to land management. It recognizes and builds on the ancient co-evolutionary interplay between grassland flora and large fauna. Large herds kept themselves moving across grasslands—fertilizing and tilling along the way—while staying grouped tightly to defend against predators. When they moved on, the land and flora had plenty of time to recover and regrow. The right know-how on the part of herd managers can replicate these dynamics without relying on predators to shape herd movements.

As Savory's methods have shown, such properly managed pastures naturally retain rainwater through the grass, soil, and other life that grows there, all in an evolutionary dance with the same types of animals those grasses themselves co-evolved with. Vast surfaces of the earth were once covered with thriving grasslands occupied by roving herds of untold millions of beasts. Holistic management provides a way to recreate habitats that mimic essential elements of this past in an efficient modern way. A fundamentally biological problem requires a biological solution, Savory argues, not a chemical or an industrial one. On this basis, by the way, we can already suggest that "lab-grown meat" would just further contribute to environmental problems that a vast resurgence of real animals, properly managed, could help solve.

This would happen to produce a large potential population of animals thriving in environments quite natural to them. They might then also contribute a major, nutrient-dense, modern food supply. Dr. Michael Eades arrived at a similar view after a thoughtful review of Savory's ideas and critiques of them (2 Jul 2017). He provides an exceptionally clear description of these practices. Moreover, it is politically notable that herding can be more decentralized and distributed than mass grain agriculture, enhancing local self-reliance and independence.

White Oak Pastures in Georgia, USA provides one inspiring example of transformation of a formerly conventional ranch. Using multi-species holistic management, it has not only recovered burned-out agricultural land, but has also breathed new life into a town that had been nearly deserted.

Healthy grasslands, herds, and nutrition

The foods most destructive to human health have one thing in common. They are mass agricultural crops. Sugar, wheat, and corn top the list. All of them are subsidized by governments. All of them are promoted by official dietary guidelines. All of them are highly profitable for “food” companies.

And all of them kill and maim. They just do so insidiously through their contributions to chronic systemic inflammation, excess weight, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, depression, suicide, and the modern conditions of cognitive degeneration. They are central to feeding an endless supply of sickened people into modern "healthcare" (sickness management) systems. Chronic, degenerative conditions provide much of the business for the highly profitable pharmaceutical and healthcare industries year after year. Sick people, flowing money. Who wins and who loses? You lose.

Both anecdotal and increasingly also formal evidence continues to build for beneficial roles of fasting and very low-carb and zerocarb eating in treating, and especially preventing, the entire spectrum of modern chronic ailments. However, the interests that can gain from such practices—at the strictest baseline, sellers of meat and water—are far more dispersed. Their influence pales in comparison to the concentrated financial, media, and political resources of big food plus big pharma. Billions go to conglomerates selling cheap carbohydrates mixed with toxic plant-derived oils. Billions more then go to companies selling all manner of drugs and aids, which seek to manage the chronic damage accumulating from the consumption of such alleged food.

Nevertheless, from outside of this sorry system, an unexpected larger picture is emerging, one precisely opposite the popular hypothesis that mass agriculturally based vegetarianism is best for both human health and the environment. This is the hypothesis that distributed, holistically managed grazing and carnivory are best for both human health and the environment.

The low-carb/high-fat and paleo-oriented nutritionists on the one hand, and the ecological herders on the other, have independently arrived at different pieces of a single puzzle. The synthesis of these streams of thought and practice has profound implications. The results suggest a food system based around a modern planned pastoralism enhanced with holistic management practices that mimic the co-evolutionary conditions of grasslands and herd animals.

Summary claims of a paleo-carnivore/holistic management synthesis

  1. Humans tend to live best mainly on a blend of fatty acids (fat) and amino acids (protein) derived from animal products. Animal products are the best sources of energy, structural materials, and highly bio-available micronutrients for humans. In contrast, eating large amounts of carbohydrates, especially processed ones, and artificial industrial foods such as seed oils, produce gradual metabolic derangement, foremost chronic insulin resistance and its many associated degenerative conditions. Even vegetables, generally considered the unquestionable banner of good health, lack much usable nutrition at all per unit of weight and carry a range of irritants and anti-nutrients (chemicals that block the absorption of nutrients), evolved in a chemical warfare strategy to protect them against being eaten by punishing those who eat them.

  2. The best single source for the nutrients humans thrive on is large herd animals. Seafood is also a good resource, though generally lower in fat (a con, not a pro). Early Homo sapiens and some of their cousins may have contributed to the extinctions of many of their preferred larger, higher-fat species long ago, such as paleo elephants and mammoths, but we still have cattle and buffaloes, which work reasonably well. We also now have property rights (to some degree), which defeat tragedy-of-the-commons overuse issues. Notice the word commons in the phrase "tragedy of the commons." It is there for reason: the tragedy happens when legitimate property rights are too poorly defined and defended.

  3. The best way to halt and reverse mass desertification and alleviate related water crises is to manage large herds in ways that sufficiently mimic the natural movement patterns of their original evolutionary contexts. This is also so independently of food production and human health issues.

  4. Humane and holistic ranching practices provide ideal living environments for herd and other animals. Compared to their evolutionary contexts, animals on holistically managed multi-species farms are protected from random and violent death from predators. Their supplies of food and water are reliable and secured.

  5. Mass grain agriculture practices lead to mass destruction of wildlife and long-term soil deterioration. Some of this grain is fed to animals. Grain feed-lot methods are associated with poorer health and living conditions for animals. The grain system replaces multi-species environments with monocultures, which are vulnerable to disease and soil degeneration and require constant attention, often including irrigation and farm machinery, to prop up. In contrast, cows eat grass all by themselves and grass grows all by itself (a little help from holistic management better replicates natural herd movement patterns that co-evolved with predators to support natural grassland water retention, even in dry climates).

5. Implications

A concluding summary must be far, far shorter than the journey itself. For understanding of food production: biological/ecological problems require biological/ecological solutions. Understand where plants and animals have come from and how they co-evolved, then apply that understanding to modern practices. This includes herd animals, grasslands, and people too! For personal use, the principles are: eat meat, drink water, lift heavy, sleep, play, and sprint once in awhile. These are quite reminiscent of Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint laws, but the ones on food are further specified.

These practices appear to have dimensions beyond physical pragmatism. Many who have tried a plant-free diet for a sufficient period to transition (30 days is often recommended for a trial) have reported profound health and well-being improvements, not only in a range of physical conditions, but also in psychiatric and emotional difficulties. One practitioner in 2009 described the improvement in emotional state after starting an all-meat diet thus: "The noise has stopped and the music has begun."

Many also report a profound sense of freedom from former obsessions with food. All of the decision fatigue associated with whether to eat this or that, when, and how much, vanishes. Former cravings decline and eventually fade. Faced with foods that one had previously considered objects of craving, it is hardly possible to believe that one actually ate those things regularly in the past.

Hours formerly spent on food can now be spent on engaging productively with the world and pursuing one's missions. As Dr. Shawn Baker put it, “If you look at any other animal on the planet, they aren’t looking at a menu and scratching their head.” As human animals with oversized brains and imaginations, we all have better things to do than spending inordinate amounts of time managing and balancing a long list of plant addictions. Freedom from them is possible. The power of being human can be unleashed from the travails of plant-consumption/plant-addiction management.

Hunters act and act smartly. Human hunters have thrived to an apex level through our wits and ability to work together. The "apex diet" is both the origin of this capability and continues to support it today.

I kept references in the text to a minimum for readability. The following page provides links to some of the best resources I have found on these subjects, including papers, blogs, articles, and lectures. To follow up on the many topics and perspectives in the foregoing synthesis, continue with Evolutionary Health Resources.

[This article was revised from its original version, mostly shortened and revised for clarity, on 2 July 2018].

Ancient travel food meets modern travel: My ultimate paleo travel meal option

A larger batch than I made.

A larger batch than I made.

Modern travel can be especially unfriendly to ancestral eating strategies that emphasize fresh whole foods. Although airlines try hard, the logistics are tough, and airplane food in general has a poor reputation. Some low- and zero-carbers tell me they just take the opportunity to fast. Even when traveling by train or car, it can be tough to impossible to scavenge much if any "real" food from rest stops and kiosks.

Fortunately, it is possible to pack something to bring, but what? Weight and spoilage are concerns for many fresh foods, especially animal foods. So this trip, I am going to borrow from a very old approach to preservation and portability of high-powered food. Yes, this time, I'm going to fly with pemmican.

Pemmican is credited as an innovation of native North Americans. After reading and watching as much as I could about food preservation and pemmican's particulars online, I came to think of pemmican less as a specific recipe and more abstractly as a versatile food preservation approach. The strategy hinges on the fact that lean meat and animal fat have very different requirements for long-term preservation. Reflecting this, the lean and the fat are first divided up, after which quite different preservation methods are applied to each. Finally, the results are combined back into a single product.

Fully drying lean meat helps prevent bacterial activity, which depends on moisture. Rendering fat on low heat separates the pure fat out of the source tissues, which degrade quickly. The pure fat by itself, once rendered, can last a long time. It mainly needs to be protected from air and light, which promote rancidity. Traditional packaging methods do just this.

My second trial production run

I chose salmon this time for the lean and beef tallow for the fat, a combination I have not seen, but that sounded good. I also added a few blueberries for flavoring, though this is optional. I started with 625g (22 oz.) of wild-caught salmon, fresh frozen. I thawed it, removed some of the extra water with paper towels, cut it up, and placed it in a food dryer for about 15 hours, turning once early on. The key point here is that the lean must be completely dry and brittle, far dryer than jerky, which should still have some bend to it.

Next, I placed the result in a blender. This time, I blended for longer than I did in my first trial batch awhile back. Sure enough, I got the sought-after "powder" result this time. It took a solid minute or more of blending at different speeds to get there though. A mortar and pestle is traditional for this step.

For this page, I followed the same process as with the salmon with about 200g of wild blueberries, which were also fresh frozen. I dried them on another rack right along with the fish and then blended the dried result down to a powder.

I didn't have to render the fat myself since I was finally able to find a source of beef tallow from a butcher (tallow, once commonplace, has proven hard to find after a half century of relentless, but scientifically baseless, slandering of animal fats). I weighed the powders and then chipped out about an equal weight from my refrigerated tallow supply. I warmed this up on very low heat. The only goal here is to melt it so it can be mixed with the powders.

After stirring the dry and liquid ingredients together in a bowl, I spooned the result into two small plastic containers with sealing lids. The point here is to help prevent any oil from escaping and getting tough stains on clothing and luggage (I will also place the containers inside ziplock bags for this reason, just in case). I lined the containers with butcher's paper, filled them up, closed the paper inside, and sealed the lids.

I will wait until the airplane meals come, and just pull out one of these as a supplement. Very low key. Little can anyone imagine how much paleo nutritional power is going to be packed into those innocent looking containers. If they did know, though, it would look about like this:

Macronutrient analysis

The inputs were 625g of salmon, 150g of tallow, and about 200g of blueberries (respectively, 22 oz, 5.3 oz, 7 oz), which totaled about 975g of ingredients. These were reduced with drying to 290g, so about 30% of the original total weight. Great for travel!

I ended up with about 130g (4.6 oz) of content in each container, plus another 30g that I sampled right away. So what macronutrients are in those two containers?

The estimated macros on all the inputs together (based on the breakdowns on the frozen product boxes) were: 1,940 calories, 126g of protein, 159g of fat, and 12g of carbs (from the berries). So each 130g container includes 873 kcals, 57g of protein, 72g of fat, and about 5g of carbs (rounded). Calories are 228 from protein, 648 from fat, and 20 from carbs. That's 72% of calories from fat.

And so: the perfect travel power food, inspired by the old, old, school, along for my next flight.


UPDATE: Pro tip. Watch out of the 100ml limit on "liquids and gels" at the security line. I would have never thought of this as a "liquid or gel," but the x-ray machine guy was curious. I said it was my lunch and they let me through. Safest way would be to create sub-100ml (g) packages and put them in the clear plastic bag for the security line. Also, recall that if you are flying internationally, this could not be brought into a country with a quarantine on meats. Eat it before landing (no trouble there!).

SpaceX can get there, but biology a probable Mars residence limiter

SpaceX chief Elon Musk laid out a long-term vision for regular interplanetary transport and colonization in a 27 September presentation at the International Astronautical Congress. Details and vision alike were further steps along the path SpaceX has been pursuing for years, as it repeatedly counters naysayers by taking up the so-called impossible—and getting it done.

Yet while Musk concentrated on engineering, propulsion, efficiency, and finance, the toughest limiters on long-term Mars habitation may well turn out to be biological. Could life evolved on Earth, especially more complex organisms such as ourselves, thrive there indefinitely and across generations?

Musk’s aim is to make humanity a multiplanetary species. He envisions a city of a million people on Mars that could become “self-sustaining.” In other words, if Earth becomes uninhabitable, humanity would have a second home, and avoid extinction.

Most of the technical issues with Mars habitation can be addressed with technical means. Radiation can be shielded against. Water, air, and regulated temperatures can be produced, and chemical plants such as for ship propellant can be built. Psychological and other factors in long-term, small-scale hab confinement have already been under study both in space and in remote desert sims.

The gravity of the situation

However, the harshest sticking point for a colonization plan could be something that Musk mentioned, but characterized only as a source of fun—38% Earth gravity on Mars. He presented images of jumping high and lifting heavy things with ease.

The possible problems would only appear, as they so often do, over the longer term. Research on the health effects of low gravity has already begun to suggest a quite unfavorable pattern. Much of this research as been done in zero g, but long-term exposure to 38% Earth gravity—Mars g—could well produce many similar effects along the same spectrum, just more slowly.

Zero g has been found to produce not only the expected muscle atrophy in astronauts, but a host of other health issues, which isometrics and exercise bikes can only partially limit. Research on both astronauts and lab animals point to falling bone mineral density and circulatory issues, including impaired heart health.

Limited research to date thus already suggests negative effects on three major physical systems. Yet muscular, skeletal, and circulatory systems are hardly footnotes to transporting brains; they are most of what a complex organism consists. Moreover, there is no reason to expect nervous and reproductive systems to get free passes either, especially over years and decades.

Studies of zero-g animal embryonic development raise even greater concerns for long-term Mars colonization. Reproduction among spacefaring rodents has gone quite badly. Experiments with mice on a Space Shuttle mission resulted in normal embryos for the earthside controls and no growing embryos in zero g. Rat groups sent into orbit produced some weightless pregnancies, but with no resulting births. The pregnancies spontaneously terminated—all of them.

Evolutionary and developmental processes could always assume 1g

Simple organisms such as bacteria are the least likely to be bothered by gravity changes. The more complex the developmental process, however, the more likely that aspects of this process will be fine-tuned to happen in 1g. That said, Mars g could well be better for development than zero g because it would at least supply developmental processes with some vertical orientation, an up and a down, albeit with a much weaker signal.

The plans encoded in DNA for growing an organism are completely unlike engineering plans. They are decentralized developmental instructions. Each cell responds to its immediate environment. It takes cues from the type of cell it has become, from the types of cells around it, and from the specific chemistry and hormones in its blood supply. The so-far unquestioned constant has been that all earthly life has evolved in 1g (with very tiny variations) and every embryonic developmental process has evolved to take place in this 1g.

What about adaptation? As powerful a force as evolution by natural selection is, it tends to require extremely long time scales, on the order of thousands and more generations, especially for larger-scale adaptations. Too great a change—or an entirely unprecedented type of change—and a species will simply not make it.

Adaptations to something so pervasive and otherwise constant as gravity would have to proceed in steps. If a hypothetical planet’s gravity were to (somehow) shift to 38% of its former level, but do so over several million years or more, then life there would have a decent chance of adapting because any given generation would only be subject to minute changes. However, by the time gravity reached 95% of its former level, organisms then would already tend to be optimally adapted to that new 95% level. Checking in again a thousand generations later, organisms would tend to be well adapted to the newly current 90% gravity, and so on as gravity crept down. In contrast, evolution copes far less well with sudden large jumps, which tend to be associated with mass extinctions.

Temperature variation is a variable to which earthly life is widely adapted, both across species and to a lesser degree within each organism. Temperature has changed remarkably and continuously throughout Earth’s 4.5 billion year history and it also varies starkly with season and geography. Temperature adaptation therefore has a vast range of evolutionary precedent. Atmospheric composition, pressure, and radiation levels have also changed back and forth over geologic history.

What earthly life has never had to do, not even once, is what a Mars relocation would ask of it. Low g is something that evolution has had no opportunity to tackle. One of the few rough constants throughout the 3 billion or more years of earthly life has been 1g.

This still does not make some degree of individual gravity adaptation impossible now, but it does suggest that this could be a very serious issue for colonization and a potential deal-breaker for both indefinite stays on Mars and natural reproduction of future generations there.

The probably need for artificial gravity and how to produce it

For long-term extra-terrestrial colonization, artificial structures capable of producing artificial gravity that approximate 1g seem more promising. One concept involves large cylindrical spacecraft on axial rotations. The interior surface of the cylinder can be built to a size and given a rotation to approximate 1g over a large habitable interior surface area. That would be another huge engineering challenge. Yet SpaceX’s work in interplanetary transport, along with advancements in asteroid mining, would help lead to a future in which this too could become more feasible.

Given the grave potential health and reproductive risks of long-term exposure to zero g and/or Mars g for Earth-evolved organisms, those interested in space colonization ought to assign a high priority, alongside ongoing engineering work, to low- and zero-g health research. Critical for colonization are three research areas: effects of Mars g on the health of Earth-leavers, likely health of long-term Mars residents upon potential return to Earth, and effects of low and no g on embryonic and childhood development.

Getting people to Mars is an engineering challenge. Musk, SpaceX, and collaborators are up to the task and well on their way. But the length of time that hopeful new Martian arrivals can expect to live there, in what state of health, and with what likelihood of producing healthy offspring, are critical questions in need of serious research and consideration in relation to any developing colonization plans. Early animal and astronaut studies combined with an evolutionary perspective suggest that shorter-term Mars visits are likely to be far more feasible from a health perspective, that natural reproduction among colonists might well be out of the question, and that the development of spacecraft and stations with artificial gravity is likely to be a biological priority for any future long-term extra-terrestrial residents.

This provides a more realistic base scenario from which to refine the engineering details of an early Mars transport and habitation system. It may well be that 1g environments would have to be available at least part of the time to support health longer term. The most realistic approach to creating artificial gravity is a rotating habitat, but this could well prove easier to achieve in space than on a planet with gravitational and atmospheric resistance, albeit both much lower than Earth’s.

At minimum, it should be clear that lab mice and rats ought to be the first serious colonists on Mars—and this for quite some time. Their mission: to live where no earthly creature has lived before. Godspeed to those pioneering rodents; I suspect they’ll need it.

The curious case of the faster-healing knee and the larger steaks

Some loose ends needed addressing, but why was the recovery so fast?

Some loose ends needed addressing, but why was the recovery so fast?

My doctor took one look at my knee and his jaw dropped. He had hardly ever—or perhaps never—seen a knee that looked that good just four days after arthroscopic surgery.

This clinic specializes in these surgeries, so he sees patients, many of them young athletes, in post-surgical recovery checkups daily. He kept looking at my knee and then looking at me—a middle aged guy. He checked the chart to make sure the surgery was actually just four days ago. Still in disbelief, he asked me what I had done.

What came next was instructive. I told him I thought the surprisingly fast recovery might be due to my very low carb diet.

His response was surreal, because non-existent. He did not acknowledge what I had said. He just kept going on about how good the knee looked and how he had hardly ever seen such a fast recovery.

The rest of the conversation was clear and normal. We talked about how the stitches were coming out next time. We talked about how, given the fast recovery, I probably didn’t need that physical therapy after all.

I was still curious, so I mentioned just once more that maybe the notable recovery could be due to my low-carb diet, because that seems to reduce inflammation.

Once again, no reaction. It was as if I had spoken just that one line in Chinese. No, not even that. Switching to Mandarin would have elicited some noticeable reaction. Would the fact of my statement cease to exist if not acknowledged?

A tale of two otherwise identical surgeries

I have spent several decades in somewhat rough activities including martial arts earlier and amateur adult soccer later. With such activities, it can seem at times like rolling dice when an individual’s luck might run a bit low and an arthroscopic meniscus repair will be called for. Once this kind of tissue tears a little, it just does not heal by itself. Worse, the torn piece can obstruct the joint and lead to additional tearing and other problems. It’s a little like having a hand-knit sweater with a hanging thread that is just waiting to get caught and unravel some more (but with pain involved). The hanging thread just needs to be trimmed off. The invention of arthroscopic technology revolutionized the ease with which this could be done.

My first such surgery was in 2010. Of course, I thought I had learned my lesson and would not be back. But alas, in a single lapse of focus, the other knee over-extended on a bad landing on the futsal court in late 2015, the fault only of myself. So my second such surgery, on the other knee this time, was done recently in 2016.

My recovery six years ago was good, but relatively more ordinary. It at least did not elicit any jaw dropping from the specialist. I recovered nicely, above average, but I do not think I recovered this well.

It was also striking to me after this 2016 surgery that I awakened from anesthesia crisply, with perfect clarity, as if from an unusually excellent night’s sleep. I do not remember a feeling at all like that from my corresponding 2010 recovery room awakening. I recall it as groggy and gradual, more as I would have expected. This may or may not be important or coincidental, but I note that a major effect of a low-carb ketogenic diet is a gradual transformation of preferred cellular fuel sources, including for the brain, so an effect like this is plausible. I have noticed clear improvements in sleep patterns following dietary changes and full anesthesia and sleep are related states.

There is certainly individual variation in recovery rates, but the interesting thing here is the rare opportunity to compare the same person recovering from two identical surgeries at two different times. Six years apart, these were the same surgeries, performed by the same surgeon, and conducted at the same clinic with the same anesthesiologist in the same room. They were for remarkably similar injuries. The surgeries were conducted a similar length of time after the initial incident (in both cases, after about eight months of “conservative” recovery and training efforts). I am the same person. Almost every factor was the same.

So what changed between the two events?

First, I am six years older. But this would predict a slower recovery, not a notably faster one.

Second, I have completely changed my diet, including adding fasting periods. Both low-carb and fasting are known to reduce systemic inflammation compared with more conventional modern diets, with their high frequency, high refined carbs, and brutally high omega six. With lower systemic inflammation (call it immune-system noise), specific inflammation as a healing response at the surgery site (immune-system signal) might proceed with more appropriate focus on the local site and without undue exaggeration.

It was only several months after the 2010 surgery that I discovered The Primal Blueprint and first ditched grains, started even more thoroughly avoiding refined sugars, and replaced industrial processed seed (“vegetable”) oils with natural fats. Then, starting around 2013, I moved toward a still lower-carb, higher-fat whole food ketogenic approach. More recently, just within 2016, and mainly in the past few months, I have been trying out a largely carnivorous approach and have introduced more fasting and intermittent fasting as well.

Analysis and implications

Unfortunately, I have no comparable record of the state of the other knee after exactly four days in 2010, only necessarily unreliable memories and impressions. I could be making this up from memory and confirmation bias. Or the difference between the surgeries could be random or due to some other unnoticed factor.

Still, even as anecdote, these recollections strike me as notable. And on reflection, it occurs to me that one of the sad symptoms of diabetes is poorer wound healing. If a low-carb (and natural fats) diet tends to lead toward the very opposite of a diabetes crisis metabolism, might it not likewise lead to the opposite of compromised wound healing? That is, improved and above-average wound healing. This seems plausible.

The hypothesis here is that conventional high-frequency, high-carb diets might keep most people’s post-operative and other wounds from healing as quickly as they might otherwise. The effects of the resulting unnecessary systemic inflammation would come to appear “normal” only because it would be what clinics would see from day to day within the particular afflicted populations. Anyone doing something quite atypical of that population, such as a very low carb diet, might produce seeming anomalies—relative to this afflicted population. If lower carb and fasting are superior to higher carb and frequent eating, as I have come to think they are—through research, countless biographical and ethnographic reports, and accumulating personal experience—those anomalies would show up as positive surprises.

Greater clarity here could support dietary practices that improve health outcomes while reducing, or at least not adding to, reliance on the medication industry. As I put it in the title of my book review essay on Jason Fung's The Obesity Code,Only the faster profits.”

Relatively little research money floods in to verify or falsify these types of potential effects, perhaps, because no potentially profitable pills would be entailed in producing them. If such benefits might be real, people changing their own habits would be the primary beneficiaries and direct action to make personal changes would be the primary method.

Only the faster profits: A powerful health measure and why it is unadvertised

My journey in nutrition science studies and personal nutrition practice over about the past six years has been characterized by “punctuated equilibrium,” long periods of stability, with minor updates from my readings and small alterations to practice. But every couple of years, it seems, such equilibrium is slammed into a rather different shape over just a few days.

What follows is about a book that just did this. It has not overturned anything I was doing before, but has lifted my understanding and led me to try some important practice modifications.

Dr. Jason Fung has produced a new book that is vitally important, well written, argued from the highest quality available evidence, and not lacking in careful doses of wit and humor. This is not just another weight to further depress already strained diet-section bookshelves, it is a brilliant yet concise scientific integration delivered so that a general audience can also benefit directly.

The Obesity Code (March 2016; foreword by the legendary Professor Tim Noakes) states, and largely follows through on, a preference for rigorous controlled human trials over the kinds of associational, epidemiological, and often scientifically weak “studies” (sometimes of a few rats) that typically grab headlines with hyped and unwarranted inferences. The book's central theory does what a good scientific theory should. It explains all the relevant high-quality evidence in a systematic, logical, and accessible way. It also addresses the oversupply of low-quality evidence and non-evidence that leads astray. For hardcore readers, the endnotes run 32 pages, no small proportion of which are research journal citations.

Context: Before I read this book

In October 2010, my long-term general interest in healthful nutrition jumped to the next level when I read The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson. This kicked off some major personal changes and a side quest to read in nutrition and exercise science to examine controversies with practical implications for what I decide to do in my daily life.

The intellectual side of this journey included Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007) and Why We Get Fat (2011) by Gary Taubes; numerous books and articles by Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, and others; biochemical metabolism research; and evolutionary health reasoning and related paleo-archeological controversies.

The next major step came in 2013, when I shifted to a ketogenic approach based on the work of Jeff Volek and Stephen Phinney, two career researchers and pioneering experts on nutritional ketosis and exercise performance. Compared to the Primal Blueprint framework recommendations, this entails reducing daily carbs further to under 20g and increasing natural fats to replace that sugar energy while maintaining moderate protein. This is often labeled “low-carb, high-fat, and moderate protein,” or LCHF. This is not your cringeworthy ketogenic lab-chow from classical research and medical use. It is all quite real food.

To assemble my own thoughts from such widely varied sources of research, inspiration, and practice, I created a webpage called Evolutionary Health. There I summarize the current state of my views and link to standout resources. I update this from time to time with information new to me, and refinements of my working synthesis. That page includes material on food production and environment, particularly desertification. It now includes multiple references to Fung’s work.

Until now, if asked what to read for ways to improve health through nutrition, my top starter book recommendations have been The Primal Blueprint, mentioned above, and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Living (2011) and The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance (2012) by Volek and Phinney. I then recommend The Big Fat Surprise (2014) by Nina Teicholz, another great contributor in the tradition of Taubes—exposing the modern nutrition emperors to be shockingly underdressed. This adds a larger scientific and historical context, including how modern conventional wisdom on nutrition has been formed: far more by politics, loose intuition, and charisma than by legitimate scientific evidence.

Now, however, I might start people right off with The Obesity Code.

Pinpointing the root of metabolic syndrome

What causes obesity? What are the best weight control practices? Everybody thinks they know the answer. Fung demonstrates that this “everybody,” such as it is, remains quite confused.

The book presents a single central theory of overweight. While this extends to diabetes and metabolic syndrome more generally, the book focuses on overweight as the epicenter of the modern long-term degenerative symptom cluster. It argues that the central underlying phenomenon in obesity is insulin resistance. Successful treatments, especially if they are to have lasting healthy effects, must lower insulin resistance.

Insulin resistance is analogous to drug tolerance. The more of a drug one has taken over a longer period, the higher the dose needed for a similar effect. Likewise, the more time the body must swim in evolutionarily novel quantities of insulin, the more likely it is to up resistance. Such resistance is also stubborn; it rises much more easily than it falls. A self-reinforcing pattern of elevated insulin and elevated resistance begins. When insulin-producing beta cells can no longer keep up in this death race and begin to fail, we call that “type 2 diabetes.” The conventional treatment? Just inject more insulin; the race must go on. But the patient keeps deteriorating.

Genetic differences and age both impact individual insulin resistance response. This helps explain wide variations among people eating similarly and for the same person at different ages. This insight rescues a too-simple carbohydrate-obesity theory from the obvious rebuttal: just point to some carb-eating thin people. The book also emphasizes the better-known distinction between the effects of carbs in natural forms versus those in modern processed and refined forms.

But first, how did we get here and why are we still here?

It would be relatively simple to explain some measures to lower insulin resistance, such as some of those practiced at Fung’s Intensive Dietary Management program. However, the complication he faces, and faces up to squarely in this book, is that entire industries, bodies of officialdom and authority, and entrenched conventional wisdom all combine to promote and sell methods that either do not reduce insulin resistance, or raise it still further. Treating advanced type 2 diabetes with insulin injections is partly comparable to treating an advanced alcoholic with a steady rotgut supply. It patches some symptoms, even as it gradually worsens the condition and leads to further deterioration.

Official bodies and industry interest groups have pushed failing methods and theories relentlessly for decades (whether intentionally or unknowingly does not change the outcomes). Massive failures to promote health never dissuade; more of the same is always their answer. Some “success,” however, is still visible. It shows up in untold billions on the income statements of 1) ag and food companies selling profitable processed products that gradually sicken people and 2) pharma and healthcare organizations producing products and services to treat the resulting chronic degenerative symptoms, mostly without addressing causes. With causes untreated and the sick getting sicker, the massive sums involved not only keep flowing, but keep expanding.

The book must therefore also take the time to expose and refute common, widely accepted, well-funded, officially promoted, and dead wrong claims and practices. In each case, it demonstrates how the highest quality available evidence, common experience, and logic show that conventional weight management methods fail—and that they fail is probably the best that can be said of them.

Don’t just do something, stop

The book’s most important practice implication is less about food and more about the need for its periodic absence. In health, politics, and some other fields, people tend to respond to serious problems with a somewhat desperate “just do something” attitude. But the most helpful measure might instead be to stop doing something. Rather than “solving” a problem, what may be required is to stop creating its causes. In this case, if there is too much eating too often, stop doing it. And there’s a word for that—fasting.

A fasting period is nothing more than the time between eating sessions. Longer pauses can begin to take on names such as intermittent fasting (IF) and still longer pauses just fasting. So in this sense everyone fasts already, Fung reassures. The variation is in how long and how often. Fasting’s true opposite, it comes to appear, is frequent snacking.

Fung notes that fasting has been promoted and practiced through cultural traditions the world over for thousands of years (That, I would add, might mostly just reflect the duration of available records). Fasting has been promoted for health, clarity of mind, and spiritual refinement, often carried through religious practice traditions.

He also does not shy away from explaining that fasting and IF are unique in important ways from a politico-economic standpoint. The person who fasts benefits substantially, but his corresponding cost for this is better than zero. He saves both money and time. He gains freedom through reduced frequency of buying food, preparing it, eating it, and cleaning up, which can add up to large blocks of time and attention.

For example, I have moved mainly to a 23-hour daily fast framework for now (with occasionally longer stretches as well). This simply means eating one meal a day during an approximately one-hour period. Simple as can be. I may next try alternate-day fasting (eating normally one day and not at all the next day) to compare the effects. The latter pattern has been commonly employed in research trials.

The implication is that no one else besides the person fasting stands to profit from it. Only the faster profits. No pharma company sells more of its drug (some may sell less). No food company sells more of any boxed creation (some may sell less). No elaborate diets must be studied and followed, no calorie counting apps employed, no juicing machine bought and fed with plant carcasses, no special shopping list assembled, no exotic ingredients ordered online.

Of course, Fung, a practicing physician and kidney specialist, is careful to warn that at minimum those already on metabolic medications, foremost insulin, must work closely with a physician. This may entail careful adjustments, which should be done only under proper supervision. Significantly low blood sugar is a particularly dangerous condition that can follow from mis-coordination of drug dosages with current health state and eating patterns.

Fasting versus calorie reduction

This book clarifies that just “eating less,” as a method, does not deliver the positive effects of fasting; it has opposite effects on the relevant all-important regulatory hormones. Under calorie reduction, metabolism drops to compensate for the stable lower-energy environment. Metabolic rate then stays lower long afterwards, which explains both stalling progress and later regain.

With true fasting, however, metabolism either stays level or increases. This seems congruent from an evolutionary standpoint. A few days of bad hunting (no food at all) means it is time to get out there and hunt, and do it more effectively than before. Sitting in the cave and getting cold, moody, and depressed is not going to help.

Likewise, the book recommends eating normally (though ideally also low carb) when one does eat. That means not being hungry after the meal, as can happen under conscious calorie-cutting methods. Readjusting the modern unnaturally feasting-heavy “feast and famine” balance away from too much feasting should not, in this view, entail skipping the feasting parts altogether, just extending the fasting phases.

The author emphasizes the distinction between lowering insulin and reducing insulin resistance. Just lowering insulin by changing food content might help, but might not always be enough to fully reverse an existing condition. Chronically high insulin is among the causes of elevated insulin resistance, but influencing insulin resistance itself must remain the real prize. A focus on insulin, per se, then is one way to get off track, a false summit.

The book discusses effects on lean mass. The trial research again shows that fasting has important effects that are opposite to those of calorie reduction within conventional meal timing patterns. It is calorie reduction that leads to lean wasting (“starvation mode”), while fasting does not. Fasting stimulates junk protein breakdown for recycling as well as human growth hormone release, a build-oriented combination. A steady calorie reduction program never gets around to these things. All the way down to actual severe starvation, it never generates the hormonal, metabolic, and cognitive benefits of fasting.

Some other nods to tradition

The book also mentions how certain traditional practices hold up well when judged against the insulin-resistance theory. Eating together at mealtimes, and not in between, automatically sets up longer fasting periods. This is just the opposite of the frequent eating and snacking practices that snack sellers push.

Likewise, widespread traditional uses of vinegar and fermented foods are given a nod based on experimental evidence that vinegar moderates insulin response. For example, the penchant for Japanese cuisine to combine rice with pickles and to make sushi (vinegar-soaked rice) likely affords some protection from rice’s insulin spiking characteristics.

Such factors may help further clarify the “Asian rice paradox.” A simple carbohydrate-obesity theory struggles to explain why East Asians eating large amounts of rice did not become obese in the 20th century. Traditional eating patterns, activity patterns, and food combinations may well all have contributed. Genetic influences on insulin resistance are also possible contributors.

More recently, however, these same populations have started gaining weight, and diabetes is on the rise. This coincides with increased consumption of sugar, flour, and other processed foods, greater fast food intake, more sedentary occupations, and a snacking culture that can spread with processed snack food marketing and distribution. Not only do snack foods (and with them snacking) tend to shorten traditional fasting periods, but most of these items are made almost exclusively from insulogenic processed derivatives of cheap (and often government subsidized) agricultural grain crops, foremost sugar, wheat, and corn.

Optimization, and the final defeat of the “thermodynamics” refrain

For established low-carbers still not entirely happy with their body compositions and looking for more optimization (like me), Fung argues that while LCHF is a powerful approach, it is not the most powerful one. Each food, except perhaps pure refined fat, generates some insulin response, though this varies depending on the food. Regardless, there is no way to beat fasting at getting insulin down to rock bottom and keeping it there for long stretches, providing an environment in which insulin resistance can also gradually sink.

It is insulin resistance, Fung argues, that directs the body’s fat storage “set point,” the fat composition level the body fights to keep and return toward. In any long-running war against a conscious, conventional “eat less; exercise more” strategy, the body’s homeostatic set point always wins. Cutting calories can appear to win a few battles, but this cannot last. Calorie cutting, depending on what is actually eaten in a given program, can also sooner or later lead to weakness and gradually advancing malnutrition. Worse, the stress of being regularly hungry, cold, and malnourished can backfire further by raising stress hormones—which also stimulate insulin.

The way forward is to address the set point itself, and that means modifying insulin resistance. With this, Fung establishes why and how attempts to reduce weight by merely lowering calories within existing meal patterns fail in the long run, ending in regain, often to a level above the starting weight.

And as for the ever-reliable “but, it’s all just thermodynamics” refrain, which insists that weight control is nothing more than regulating calories in and calories out as in a lab beaker, it is true that caloric balance does change with weight loss following from fasting. However, that change is an effect, not a method. Fung demonstrates how and why methods with long-term success must treat the chronic hormonal condition of insulin resistance. Doing so allows the body’s fat storage set point to fall back to a more natural level to which the body then happily self-regulates.

This means that sustainable changes to caloric balance follow from a set point change but do not necessarily cause it, contra standard advice. The body has far more tricks to fight back with than consciously calorie-cutting dieters can possibly overcome for long. The more they fight using the usual failing methods, the stronger the body’s countermeasures become. Thus, seemingly unassailable advice to “just eat less,” offered as a method for change, is worse than useless. And as Taubes had also argued in Why We Get Fat, naive misapplication of a simple physics concept to a complex homeostatic system serves only to support blaming obesity victims on the basis of scientifically unteathered and even primitively moralizing causal theories.

Could be better combined with LCHF literature

Something emphasized in the LCHF literature, but less so in this book, is that being in nutritional ketosis is already a quasi-fasting state compared to the common contemporary glycolytic (“carb burning”) state. It is far easier for those already in nutritional ketosis to simply not bother eating at times. They can start and continue fasting while hardly noticing, especially when compared to typical carb burners in pursuit of their next glucose fix.

People in a dominant glycolytic state transitioning to either nutritional ketosis or to fasting (fasting ketosis) can each report some similar transitional symptoms and discomforts such as headaches and low energy. People already in a dominant lipolytic (“fat burning”) state, however, have only to go from nutritional ketosis to fasting ketosis, a far milder transition. Mainly advising fasting for people coming right from a conventional diet could run them into challenges. Starting with nutritional ketosis makes fasting easier.

But beginning either practice still tends to require an initial transition. In favor of a fasting-first approach, fasting is much simpler to execute and monitor. It just involves not doing something. Changing the content of one’s habitual diet entails more ongoing decisions, leaving more room for errors and subtle program regressions.

On balance, both LCHF and fasting are important and mutually reinforcing. Either could come first or they could be adopted together. There are various pros and cons in emphasizing one or the other to newcomers, a question mainly of strategy and practical experience.

An integrative milestone

This book has enabled me to take what information and practices I had already filed away as solid and useful, and revise that totality into a better-integrated picture. This helps me better harmonize contributions from several schools of thought within the broadly defined evolutionary nutrition movement. Fung suggests that some sub-groups that tend to engage in in-fighting are probably just each right about their own particular puzzle piece. Now we get a clearer look at the frame photo for that whole puzzle at a single glance.

Perhaps the most encouraging message from this book is that, unlike basically every “diet” strategy, there is good reason in existing high-grade research not to expect regain from a fasting approach. Fasting and LCHF to target insulin resistance are quite distinct from the many conscious caloric balance variants that have failed long-term so consistently and so epically for decades. In addition, evidence is also accumulating to indicate likely protective, and especially preventative, effects of fasting on other “diseases of civilization,” including neurodegenerative cognitive conditions, heart disease, and cancer.

We can try to fight the body’s fat composition set point without changing it—and many, many have—but only at great cost and effort and with a near guarantee of long-term failure. A few battles may be won, but the war’s outcome is already clear. The set point wins. Conventional calorie restriction does change the set point—it raises it! This makes apparent temporary successes from calorie-reduction programs Pyrrhic victories.

Armed with methods that can lower the set point instead, we can finally get our bodies and ourselves back on the same side. This is the central message of this brilliant, heroic, and accessible book in a field of crucial importance to human well-being.

Jeff Volek presents research indicating low-carb also best way to improve lipid profiles

Ultra-low-carb eating has appeared for about a century already to be the most effective treatment for both overweight and diabetes (both linked to the more general metabolic syndrome), beating all drugs and other interventions by wide margins (on this, see Taubes’ groundbreaking Good Calories, Bad Calories). However, the establishment has resisted or ignored (if not memory-holed) this information for general application primarily based on separate claims about lipid profile risk and heart disease. The conventional view has been that these risks outweigh the benefits, so other treatments are likely to be better on balance.

Turning this view completely on its head, in this 1 July 2014 conference presentation, cholesterol researcher Jeff Volek explains how his and related carefully controlled research over the past two decades indicates that ultra-low-carb eating appears to also be the best known intervention for improving lipid profile markers, properly interpreted. He focuses particularly on issues with the measurement, context, and interpretation of LDL-C, and by the end appears to have left the strong conventional view concerning low-carb and lipid profiles in the dustbin of failed scientific claims.

[Gets going at about 1.05.]

See my Evolutionary Health page for more perspective and selected references.