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“…if you don’t want to be challenged by the desire to eat all of the ice cream, and all of the potato chips or whatever it is, you just generally… your home and your work environment–you set it up for success.”–Robb Wolf
Robb Wolf is an expert on fueling and nutrition and his previous book, “The Paleo Solution” was a New York Times bestseller. Commander Divine and Robb dive into his background and his approach to nutrition. After having a kind of revelation around his mother’s illness, and making himself very sick with vegan experiments in college, Robb became an advocate of nutrition based not on agriculture, but the paleolithic lifestyle of the hunter/gatherer. His new book, “Wired to Eat.” tackles how to turn off cravings and determining what foods are right for your body.
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Other episodes of our podcast that you might be interested in are Mark’s solo episode on fueling and Robb’s previous episode on the podcast.
Transcript & Shownotes
Hey folks, Mark Divine here with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks for joining me. As you know, I do not take it for granted. You have a lot of things out there vying for your attention. And I really appreciate it.
So we’re here this week we’re going to talk to my friend Robb Wolf about his view on nutrition and as he’s expressing through his new book which comes out March 21st called “Wired to Eat.” So I’m really excited to dig into that. And I got a preview of that at our annual Unbeatable Mind retreat in December.
But before I introduce Robb, let me remind you that we’re launching a foundation called the Courage Foundation. And the purpose or the mission of the Courage Foundation is to bring courage and resiliency to troubled populations. And the 3 initial populations that we’re working with are the prison population and their children–so not just the prisoners, but the children of prisoners–and PTSD vets who are really suffering. Potentially suicidal. As well as women who have been abused and have challenges kind of recuperating from that.
We have partners that we’re working with in these 3 areas to bring Unbeatable Mind training, principles, books–we’ve donated several thousand books to the prisons already. And so we’re just getting it up and running. We’re toward the end of an auction to raise some money. So check out couragefoundation.net and see if it’s of interest to you to maybe help us make an impact.
Cool. All right. Lots of other cool stuff going on but we’ll save that for another time.
Robb and I have known each other for several years. Robb, in my opinion one of the pre-eminent experts on fueling and nutrition with a really integrative approach. Which I think is cool and near and dear to our… kind of way we look at life here at Unbeatable Mind is it’s hard to… the old way of just slicing and dicing and putting knowledge into a fence or behind a fence and say it doesn’t impact other areas is just flat-out wrong, and doesn’t work and so people are finally waking up to that. And nutrition’s no different. Nutrition is an integrative… there’s an integrative approach to looking at nutrition and Robb, I think, is at the forefront of doing that.
So Robb is a former bestselling author of the “Paleo Solution.” He worked with the actual guy named Leon Cordain, who was kind of the founder or generator of the whole “Paleo” movement. Robb has consulted for the SEALs and continues to work for them in their resiliency program. He also eats his own dog food, so to speak, in that he is a functional fitness expert, a former power-lifting champ. And really had to learn the nutrition with his own body as his own experimentation laboratory. Am I right, Robb?
Robb Wolf: Absolutely.
Mark: You needed to figure shit out for yourself, right?
Robb: You know, the first life preserver that I threw to myself with this kind of ancestral eating approach was too myself. I was in pretty dire straits. So yeah, that’s absolutely accurate.
Mark: So what was that like? It just wasn’t working for you? The sad American diet? I mean, it’s obviously not working for many people, but what was it like for you? Tell us that story.
Robb: So both of my parents were pretty unhealthy growing up. Like, I remember as far back as memory serves, both my parents were pretty sick. Both of them smoked. My mom had her gall bladder removed in her early 30s, and there were all these problems.
Now, looking back, I know totally what was going on there. But early on I had this sense that, “Man, if I don’t smoke, and maybe if I exercise and I eat differently than my family, maybe I’ll do pretty good.” And so I played around with a variety of things. Like, the high-protein, high-carb, bodybuilder type diet for when I was power lifting. I’m 45 and so I was born at a time when we transitioned from the 4 food groups to the food pyramid, and so… The food pyramid was definitely much more carb-heavy, and you know I entered college. And, you know, in college you want to be the kind of avant-garde, do what isn’t the normal thing–so vegetarian and vegan eating was the avant-garde thing to do. So I started playing with that and for me, my physiology, my digestion–it just really didn’t work. And I went everywhere. I went to like the George Oshawa macrobiotic institute, and figured out how to soak and sprout these grains and legumes. And what I developed was a case of ulcerative colitis. And it was so bad…
So I walk around about 175 pounds, I’m reasonably lean, I’m reasonably muscular particularly for a 45 year old guy these days. But I was down to 130 pounds. Mark: (laughing) By the way, that sounded like your match.com description.
Robb: (laughing) Exactly. “Reasonably lean, reasonably fit. Particularly for an old guy.” And… but I was so sick… so I was still eating a lot of food, but because of the ulcerative colitis… and if folks aren’t familiar with it, it’s just this inflammation in your gut…
Mark: It sounds horrible.
Robb: It is absolutely terrible. And conventional methods for dealing with it are really lack-luster. Usually immuno-suppressant drugs, which have a whole host of knock on problems. And so I was not absorbing any nutrients. My hair was falling out, my nails were splitting. I had all kinds of problems going on. And what my doctors wanted to do for me at the age of about 26, 27 was cut about 2 to 3 feet out of my guts and somehow that was going to help me. You know, you just take…
Mark: (laughing) Let’s just remove the gut and then you won’t have the problem.
Robb: Yeah, you know. And I asked someone…
Mark: There’s some side-effects to that I imagine.
Robb: Well yeah. There’s huge side-effects. And I asked them “Well, what’s to stop this process from just going elsewhere once we cut that part out?” And they’re like, “Oh nothing. It probably will.” And I was like ‘kay great, you know? And I was feeling pretty despondent, cause….
Mark: I bet. How old were you in this? In your teens?
Robb: 26, 27. Not so old. And so it was right around this time that my mother became really sick. She went into the hospital. She had some sort of a inflammatory flare. And what was discovered in that whole process was that she had lupus–which is an autoimmune disease–rheumatoid arthritis. And she also had a condition called Celiac disease, which is an autoimmune response to wheat or specifically the protein gluten. And her rheumatologist basically said to her, “Hey, I think you’re really reactive to most grains, most legumes, and also dairy.”
And I remember her telling me this, and I was like, “So you can’t eat grains, legumes and dairy?” And she was basically “Yeah.”
Mark: I’m thinking what else is there?
Robb: what the hell do you eat, you know? Yeah, yeah. And so I was literally noodling on that and it was kind of like this gestalty, flow of consciousness deal and it was like “grains, legumes and dairy. What is that? That’s agriculture. Okay. When did agriculture occur? The Neolithic. What was before the Neolithic? The Paleolithic. Caveman. Hunter/gatherer.
And it was literally like a 30 second kind of like flow of consciousness deal. And even back in 1998, which is when all this stuff went down, I had heard about a Paleolithic diet, or kind of an ancestral diet. So I went into my house, and turned on the computer, and waited for the dial-up to do its thing. And there was a new-fangled search engine called Google, which seemed kind of cool. And into Google, I put the term “Paleolithic diet.” And that’s where I found Loren Cordain’s work, and this guy Arthur De Vany, and what they were describing was that these Neolithic foods oftentimes in folks produce some really profound gastro-intestinal problems. Inflammation and all these other issues. They also painted a picture that we wouldn’t really have modern civilization without these things. And one of Loren’s first papers was “Cereal grains: Mankind’s double-edged sword.” So there’s been so much good, but also some potentially challenges with this stuff. But once I got a little bit educated on this, I shifted my nutrition round towards this kind of Paleolithic way of eating. And I can’t describe it any other way other than it was life-saving. I mean, that picture of the life preserver being thrown to me, and I’m going under for the 4th time. I’m going under, “Goodbye cruel world” kinda thing, and this thing really was a life-preserver for me and I had the good fortune not too long after this, to find this wacky workout online called Crossfit. And I started kinda hanging out with those guys. And Dave Warner, who’s a former team guy. He and I started working out together in his garage, and before we knew it, we had about 20 people working out with us. And we shot the Glassmans an email saying “Hey, we want to open a gym. We need to call it Crossfit, cause you guys have really given us this operating system that we’re incredibly inspired by. What do you think?” And they were like, “Yes. Go, be, achieve. Do this.”So that became the first Crossfit affiliate, up in Seattle.
And then I had an opportunity to move back down to Chico, California. And the difference between Chico and Seattle is that in Chico there’s this fiery orb in the sky called the sun. And it provides warmth and light and joy. And in Seattle it doesn’t exist. So I beat a hasty retreat out of Seattle and went down to Chico and set up what was then the 4th Crossfit affiliate gym.
And in that environment, I had a chance to take this theory about the strength and conditioning, but also the nutrition and lifestyle features like sleep and photoperiod, and I got to learn a lot about the power of community. This community connection is as important as vitamins and minerals. We evolved as a small group, hunter/gatherers. And I think this is some of the experience that so many people in the military, police, fire… they get these really profoundly deep and trustful relationships that are very difficult to replicate elsewhere. And it’s really an incredible grounding point.
But I was able to kind of experiment and learn about all this stuff over the last, I guess, almost 15 years.
College and Illness
Mark: So you just covered a 15 year period in about a minute and a half. (laughing) So let me go back a little bit. So you started testing the Paleo on yourself and it worked. A) What did you do different? Like explain to me and others what you did different in terms of how you ate. And then, b) what was the effect and how long did it take, and was it sustainable? And then the other thing I want to know is at what point did you actually go and work with Leon Cordain? Cause I didn’t hear that part…
Robb: Yeah, so the things that I changed… I was eating this kind of macrobiotic, high-carb, low-fat, vegan diet. So it was whole unprocessed foods, but it was a lot of rice, it was a lot of beans. It was tofu. It was tempeh.
Mark: That’s a classic vegan or vegetarian… not vegan, but probably vegetarian diet.
Robb: It was vegan. I wasn’t doing any dairy products. No animal products. But I was on point with it. I wasn’t knucklehead. I was doing it to the best of my ability in that circumstance.
So what I changed, you know, I shifted to a whole, unprocessed approach to eating, but it was kind of fruit and vegetable-centric. Lots of seeds and I always had a hunk of animal based protein in the mix. Some meat, some fish… eggs, something like that. So it shifted from a very high-carb, very low-fat approach to a moderate to high protein, moderate fat, moderate to low-carb diet. And the results for me were immediate. Like the first meal that I had… this is kinda funny, but when I decided to do this, I went to Whole Foods and I got like a rack of ribs. And I slow roasted the ribs and made my own kinda sauce on it. And I made kind of a salad. And had some fruit with it. And I ate that. And at this time I had some really disturbed sleep and it’s not surprising cause I was inflamed, I had high cortisol. I wasn’t absorbing nutrients. I probably didn’t have most of the co-factors to even make melatonin in a really effective fashion to help me sleep.
But I had that meal. And that night I slept better than I had in about 2 years. And I got up the next day and I was like, “Wow, I feel pretty good. And I just kept motoring on this…
Mark: Pause there for a second. Cause you said something that I think is important that just came out. I just did a podcast with a fellow named Shawn Stevenson. He’s a sleep guy. Pretty intelligent guy. What he was telling me is that you actually produce more melatonin in your stomach than you do in your pineal gland. Which blew me away. And I’m assuming when you have this gut syndrome that you had–inflammation and whatnot–that your pro- and pre-biotics are all pretty much trashed. Cause they’re getting killed in the fire down there. So it would make sense, right? That your sleep is gonna be horrific, because you’re not producing melatonin. Period.
Robb: Right. Not in the gut. Not in the brain. Yeah, and that’s a really great point. They call the gut the 2nd brain. It doesn’t have quite as many neurons as our primary brain…
Mark: Well, some people it does…
Robb: (laughing) That’s true. That’s true. But I felt better immediately, my sleep improved. I put muscle mass back on for the first time in like 4 years. I got back up to 170, 175 pounds. I could lift some weights, I felt really good. And what was interesting, I was really debating between going to medical school or doing a research track around this stuff, and I kinda leaned more toward the research track. And I reached out to Loren Cordain who was out at Colorado State in Fort Collins. And I pinged him and I’m like, “Hey, I wanna be your grad student.” He was basically like, “Yeah, I don’t really want a grad student. There’s not really any funding for it.” I was like, “Well, you know what? I’m partway in the drive from Seattle to Fort Collins. I’ll be there in 2 days. So get ready.” And I literally like showed up at the guy’s doorstep, and when I walked into his office… Loren’s really a brilliant guy and every square inch of his floor was covered in research papers. He had laid them out in a sequential fashion.
Mark: (laughing) And you’re looking at him, and saying, “You don’t need a research assistant?”
Robb: Right! Exactly. Yeah, yeah. He had acres of file cabinets. Cause this was early PDF period. This is like 2000, 2001\. You had to print all this stuff out. And so he had dozens of file cabinets stuffed full of research. And this guy had this just like encyclopedic recall of these different studies. But he was working on his current paper. And he had… I don’t know… a hundred, 200 papers laid out on the floor. There was barely enough space to walk between these research papers. And we started talking about what he was looking at, and so Loren’s background was in exercise physiology and then he got into this Paleo- concept. He’s a super-smart guy. But my background was in biochemistry and immunology. So I started talking to him about this stuff. I’m like, “Hey, have you considered this? Have you considered that?”And so pretty quickly he was like, “Okay, this kids not a complete knucklehead.” And I ended up doing a one year research fellowship with him, and contributed to a paper that was looking at elevated insulin levels in these things called “skin tags.” These little nodules of skin that grow in our armpits and basically making the point that people who develop these skin tags frequently have what we would call an atherogenic blood profile. And so made the case that in a screening process for Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease, a physical screen should include just basically a visual inspection of do people have these skin tags? Cause if you had those, it’s a 98% likelihood that you had an atherogenic blood profile occurring. So that was the contribution that I made to that…
Mark: I’m looking at my armpit right now. Nope. Don’t see anything.
Robb: Yeah. And you know it’s funny. I had those in my youth, and then when I switched my eating, they just went away. They just like absorbed and went away. So that was a really fascinating thing and remember all of my family members… and we’re like Scot, Irish, Norwegian kinda lineage. Like, doughy, northern Europeans. Everybody had skin tags. And everybody developed Type 2 diabetes. To a person in my family. So from their teens virtually everybody in my family had these early phenotypic. These things that you could see just eyeballing them–examples of some really bad lipid stuff going on. Some bad hormonal stuff occurring. And we had this easy to see diagnostic tool with these skin tags.
Mark: That’s wild. Very interesting.
Research and Paleo
Mark: So you’ve obviously began to research, you began to eat more of Paleo-… or not more of but a Paleolithic diet. You got a lot healthier, and then you went into the business of longevity. Health and longevity through Crossfit and combining your nutrition counseling. And your main thing back then was really kind of working one on one with clients, right? To help them move toward a healthier lifestyle?
Robb: By and large, yes. Like, we pretty early in our evolution as a Crossfit oriented gym… you know, you have that group class model, but I recognized we needed kind of a way of introducing people to the program that was maybe both more gentle and more targeted. And so I did a lot of one-on-one work with folks. And we were open maybe 2 years and we were picked as one of Men’s Health top 30 gyms in America. Like we had some really, really good success.
And so word starting getting out and folks started to b3e interested in what we were doing. So we started doing a little bit of blogging, and then I started doing a little bit of seminar work. And I compiled just lots and lots and lots of questions. When I did seminars, it would be like an 8 hour deal where I was talking about all these different topics. My wife would travel with me and she would just keep notes on what the questions were that we received.
And then we started kinda cataloguing these things, and sticking them in different buckets. I would update the talk to address these questions. And it was kind of cool, because we would get to a point where I knew based off of the material I had just presented, what the next question was going to be about. And I would say, “Okay, and now you’re going to ask about this.” And it was really kind of cool, but the idea for that first book, “The Paleo Solution” was really the initial thought with it was just that I would produce a guide that people could read ahead of time so that they could get a visual exposure to all this material. Then they would go hear it from me, and then they would get multiple exposures to it.
And as I was talking to a friend of mine, Erich Krauss, who is the owner of Victory Belt publishing. They had a pretty successful gig going on where they were publishing MMA and Brazilian jujitsu instructional books. And they were really beautiful. They were like coffee table books with color pictures. And like really nice step-by-step sequences of how to do Thai boxing and Brazilian jujitsu and everything. But he said to me, “Hey, I think you could do a book with this.” And we put it together and had the good fortune, good luck to make a New York Times bestseller out of it. But I think to the degree that that book was successful, was a hundred percent an outgrowth of the fact that I had talked to thousands of people. And I had all these conversations.
So then, you know, I was able to address a lot of the common concerns, and confusions and whatnot. And so I’ve really got to credit the people who were willing to give me a shot. That we were willing to give me a shot and also a ton of questions to the degree that I was able to be successful in that genre was a complete outgrowth of the relationships I made in being able to talk to these people.
Mark: I agree. Yeah, what I loved about that book is not only did you have the depth to appreciate and articulate the science behind it, but you were also a coach and you’ve delivered the training and the consultation to thousands of clients. It’s not unlike… one of the reasons that I can pull-off writing about mental toughness is that I’m not approaching it from an academic point-of-view. I want to understand that point, but this is like real, practical what’s worked in the trenches with SEAL candidates and with CEOs and with elite athletes and whatnot. So you took a similar approach with nutrition and you learned through trial and error. And what… the other thing is, you also realized that, and this is kind of… we can kind of pivot a little bit here. Cause I’m really fascinated with this notion of personal nutrition, but through that process I imagine that you realized that one plan doesn’t fit all, right? And everyone’s got a different make-up and they need to understand what that is, and do their own trial and error, right?
Robb: Yeah. So you know, I just spent… what, 30 minutes tootin’ my horn and describing what a brilliant person I was. Here was the idiocy that also happened in the background of that. There’s this thing called the Dunning-Kruger effect which is basically when somebody is newly exposed to a topic, they assume that they have super-deep understanding of that topic. And they call it “Mount Stupid.” You are at the precipice of “Mount Stupid.” And as you become actually more competent in it, your confidence in your understanding decreases until like, 20 years out…
Mark: You don’t feel like you know anything. (laughing) I’m experiencing that right now.
Robb: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so this… the way that I had success was a quite low-carb version of this Paleo-diet approach. I would go in and out of ketosis, and man, for my physiology it was spot on. Just perfect. And then I made similar recommendations to a ton of the folks that we worked with and when people were overweight and dyslipidemic and whatnot, they did great on this. But then as we started working with some leaner folks, and some people that really wanted to push the envelope with their Crossfit performance, I started seeing thyroid issues, and adrenal issues and retrograde performance. And so being the brilliant person that I was, I said, “Well, you just need to do more of this thing that’s failing.” And it took me a while, and broke a few people including myself. And then I had some very smart folks that functioned as mentors even for myself. Stephan Guyenet, Chris Kresser, Mat Lalonde. these guys said, “This low-carb diet stuff is great,” but when you have these really, highly, glycolitically demanding activities like Crossfit, or like BUD/S or something like that, you’re probably not going to be able to fuel it with a ketogenic diet. You may be able to fuel it on a more moderate carbohydrate diet. We might be able to goose a little bit of the fat fueling and we have some good anti-inflammatory effects and whatnot. But a ketogenic diet specifically may not be the most appropriate thing…
Mark: Can we pause there for a second, because I wanna get into this notion of ketosis. Cause I think we should explain what that is. And I have a question. Does let’s say a “traditional” Paleo-diet like you propose in “The Paleo- Solution.” Does that create ketosis? First explain what ketosis is, and then let’s look at whether Paleo can bring on ketosis or whether that’s a specific fueling plan that brings that…
Robb: Great question. So the state of ketosis it normally, and even normally I kinda put in quotations here, cause it’s really kind of subjective deal. But let’s think about what could fuel our brain, which is kind of the most important thing to keep alive. And generally, if we’re well fed, and consistently fed, the brain runs pretty well off of glucose. And that’s kind of the primary fuel source. But if we imagined a scenario where you might not have access to food for hours or days, the liver which is the source of glucose for the body and also the brain in between meals. It only has a couple of hundred calories of glucose stored there. Which may be like 12 or 18 hours of calories. And if we run out of glucose in the liver in between meals. And if we think about kind of a hunter/gatherer past, or even like a war fighting scenario–it wouldn’t be that hard to be in a scenario where you’re like, “Oh, I can’t go grab a snack. I’ve got stuff to do here.” And so you’ve gotta have something to fuel the brain. Because if the brain runs out of fuel substrate, you either get super-wonky cognitively, which isn’t good for really any circumstance. Or you’re gonna die. And so the work-around with hits is when carbohydrate or calories in general are really low, we have tons… even in lean people we have lots and lots of stored body fat. But this body fat, although a great fuel source in general, it’s not easily brought into the brain. The brain doesn’t really use fat as a fuel source. But what you can do–you can move that fat to the liver, and then the liver converts that fat into these things called “ketone bodies.” And the ketone bodies are water soluble like glucose, they can go through the blood/brain barrier and interestingly the brain seems to run preferentially on glucose. It runs really, really well. The heart runs really well. Excuse me, on ketones. And the heart, interestingly, it more efficient with ketones. Each beat is actually pumping more blood per calorie burned than if it’s running on glucose.
Mark: So you think back to our Paleolithic ancestors. It’s likely that they were in ketosis large chunks of time. Certainly during the winter, the colder months when they didn’t have the fruit and the high-carb stuff.
Robb: Right. And at minimum we were probably sliding in and out of ketosis in some sort of step-wise fashion. And this is an interesting thing for today is that the folks that you could argue have a really healthy metabolism. If they eat a decent sized carbohydrate meal, it doesn’t wreck them. They don’t get cognitive impairment. They don’t get a hypoglycemic event. They don’t feel wrecked afterwards.
But then that same person, if you really force them through a hard physical activity. If you intermittent fast them for hours or maybe a day, they shift into ketosis rather easily. And so they’re flexible with their fuels. They can run pretty well on some carbs, or if they need to shift gears and be fat-fueled, they can do that. And I think that that is kind of the default human mode.
And there’s a spectrum on that. Some people, genetically, are wired… they can run better on more carbs. Some people, I think like myself, generally work a little bit better on lower-carb. But it’s a pretty good sign of a healthy metabolism that you could shift back and forth between these different fuels and do it in a reasonably seamless fashion. What we unfortunately see in most folks today is that transition into ketosis whether from fasting, or if they just eat a low carbohydrate, higher fat diet–folks feel pretty rough the first couple of days.
“Cocaine Tasty” and Carb Addiction
Mark: Well could that… I’m sorry, you’re probably just about to say this, but I was going to say, could that be the addictive quality of the carbs and coming off of eating the bad carbs?
Robb: Absolutely. And you know… yes and I think what’s happened is from maybe even in utero, we’ve been getting exposed to amounts and varieties of carbs that really might be inappropriate for us. We also have some other things going on. We don’t sleep the way that we’re supposed to. Our gut micro biome gets changed all throughout our lives. Antibiotics are amazing tools. Like so many millions of people used to die before that pre-Fleming era of penicillin. But we also intimately understand that alterations in the gut micro biome can make us insulin resistant. Can be pro-inflammatory. And so it’s kind of a Faustian bargain, you know? We save your life from this infectious disease, but then you may have chronic degenerative disease as a consequence of that. So it’s no 100% beneficial thing, having antibiotics. There’s kickback on it and whatnot.
Like refined carbohydrates seem to be neurologically addictive. It seems to stimulate the neural regulation of appetite in a way that we can eat more than what we would do if we were eating pork loin, broccoli and cantaloupe. At some point, you eat that meal, and you’re like, “Okay, that was good, but I’m done.” But you know if you could go hit a pretty solid buffet. Like I live in Reno, Nevada. You go hit a buffet here, and it’s like, “Oh, I’m going to have some of this, some of this.” And then you feel full, but then you walk by the dessert chain, and you’re like “Oh man, I can eat more.”
Mark: This kind of brings us to really one of the core principles in your book, “Wired to Eat,” which is coming out. And three terms that I did not… I had no idea what they were until I read this book. And I’m probably still not really 100% clear on some of them. But neuro-regulation, and hyper- palatability, and hyper-condria. So what you’re referring to is our food is hyper-palatability is it’s tasty, right?
Robb: Really tasty. Like cocaine tasty.
Mark: (laughing) Exactly. And so we get addicted to it, in a sense. And it’s plentiful. It’s all over the place. And that’s different in our modern agricultural world. It’s even different than it was 100, 200 years ago, but it’s like everything’s available, all the time and so what you’re suggesting is that it’s really kind of not our fault, because you’re gonna eat that shit. You can’t help yourself. Unless you’re highly disciplined.
Robb: You would be nuts not to eat it. From this kind of evolutionary biology perspective, where you really didn’t know where your next meal was, and you know, so like… if you look at a bear, or a lion or even a horse… whatever animal you want to think of that lives in nature. It’s not a pet of humans. Those critters don’t eat a meal, and then consult their MyFitnessPal and say, “Oh wow, okay, so I just ate 600 calories. I need to do 20 minutes of jumping jacks to burn it off.” Free living organisms eat as much as they can get a hold of and then they rest. And that’s really good engineering living out in the natural world. But for humans and our pets, because of technology and because of our culture, we can now sit in our underwear, work from home, have food delivered to our door. Pop it in the microwave. And we don’t have to do a thing. And again from this kind of evolutionary biology perspective, that’s like winning the lottery. You are not going to starve to death. The unfortunate thing is you probably are gonna die early from Type 2 diabetes or chronic degenerative diseases doing that. But you know, the…
Mark: We’re literally eating ourselves to death.
Robb: Literally eating ourselves to death. Whereas with scarcity that was the real danger in our not so distant past. And so… you know, and it’s interesting within this Unbeatable Mind community, which is, you know, about mental toughness and persevering. But at the same time, you are dealing with a story here. If you think that the impulse to eat all of the food is misplaced… if you think that that’s a weakness, I could make the argument that the desire… If your head is held underwater, and you are starting to pass out, and you’re going to go unconscious and then die…
Mark: That’s also a weakness.
Robb: Is that a weakness? Or is the desire to pop your head out of the water and grasp a breath of air to survive, to live. Is that well-placed or misplaced? I would say that’s very well-placed.
These two things are not different. People may think that they are, but both of them are basic biological survival drives.
Mark: So it’s not about will-power. This is hard-wired in us to eat when food’s available and eat the tastiest stuff.
Robb: And if you want to rely on willpower with very few examples, you’re going to fail. There are a few people, that for whatever reason–maybe it’s genetic, or maybe it’s upbringing or what have you–can just stick a bunch of potato chips around the person or whatever and they’re not going to eat them. I’m not that person. I’m not that motivated by sweets, but I tell you what, if there’s a bag of sea salt and vinegar potato chips, doesn’t matter if it’s a 5 ounce bag or a 5 pound bag, I’m gonna eat the whole bag, you know?
And it is completely reasonable to do that. And so then people may say, “So what do we make of this?” The first spot that I would like people to arrive at is just that if we understand how we’re wired to eat, then we’re not going to vilify ourselves, we’re not going to vilify others for this tendency…
Mark: yeah, there’s so much guilt and shame in nutrition and dieting and all that, isn’t there? It’s like, take that all out of it.
Robb: Yeah, and you know…Do we want to just accept this situation? I would argue no. That isn’t a very appealing process. But I would say that if we can at least be at a spot where we understand the story. Where we’re not beating ourselves up. If we don’t feel guilt. If we understand, “Okay, this is normal. My desire to eat all this stuff that I’ve got in the pantry is normal. What do I do?”
Well, we clean out the pantry. If you don’t want to be in a situation where you need to test your self-defense skills, you don’t go to bad parts of town with your wallet flipping around in your hand in the middle of the night.
And so, if you don’t want to be challenged by the desire to eat all of the ice cream, and all of the potato chips or whatever it is, you just generally like your home and your work environment–you set it up for success. You generally have good options. Things that you enjoy but again that aren’t cocaine-like in their nature. And then when you want to kick your heels up, let’s go out to eat and do that. Let’s just not have that stuff in the home. And if we do kick our heels up, understand that that’s part of the benefit of living in this modern world. We have all these options. We have all of this variety. Let’s have some fun and benefit from that. But also let’s recognize that those things…
In the Andes Mountains, people have chewed coca leaves for thousands of years. And it’s kind of mildly addictive. People enjoy it. It’s a stimulant.
But there aren’t people selling their bodies on the streets to get this stuff. Whereas if you refine the cocaine and make it super-powerful, then you’ve got a remarkably addictive substance that can have all kind of terrible knock-on effects.
And it sounds kinda crazy, but the foods that we can find in any snack aisle of any supermarket have been engineered to hit the same dopamine receptor as cocaine, and nicotine and caffeine. They’re highly addictive. They’re extremely habit forming. And some very, very smart people have been studying this process for a long time.
What’s the Lay’s potato chip tag-line? “Bet you can’t eat just one.”
Mark: (laughing) Because we made it so you can’t eat just one.
Robb: Yeah, yeah.
Mark: Yeah, interesting.
Community and eating
Mark: So we’re wired to eat this way. What you’re suggesting is that from a structural standpoint, we can help ourselves by eliminating… don’t buy the crap. Keep it out of the spaces. So that makes sense.
And then there’s obviously a community aspect. I know that’s a big thing. So if your community’s healthy, and your community’s eating a certain way. And after the Crossfit gym you go to Lotus instead of to McDonald’s, that’s a helpful. So community. That’s part peer pressure, but also modeling and mentorship and coaching. And then, I have to think also… maybe it’s not willpower, but discipline. Let me take myself for example. I don’t… because I’ve disciplined myself to eat Paleo, and I slide into ketosis frequently. An intermittent fast from 7 pm to 10 am. That I don’t have any cravings for food, so that keeps me pretty much on track. And so I tend to eat probably 30% less than a lot of my peers, because I don’t have the desire for it. So I think you can… at least my premise–and you can push back on this–is that you can kinda retrain your body. And probably over time epigenetically really retrain or rewire your code. But at least a cognitive and an emotional and a physical sense of needing the food, you can kind of retrain yourself. But it takes discipline.
Robb: Yeah, and you know with that discipline caveat I would put in the little nuance there that for me the discipline piece is just about being really smart about setting yourself up for success. You know…
Mark: yeah, I had SEAL team around me to help me. (laughing) Not everyone has a SEAL team, right? Wouldn’t that be nice?
Robb: You know, so this is… and it sounds kind of crazy, but you go home, you clean out the pantry. All the dodgy items, they just need to go. And/or… like for me, I like dark chocolate, but I’ll have a square and 2 weeks later I’m like, “Oh yeah, there’s some dark chocolate in the cabinet.” And I’ll have a square. My wife–I have to hide the dark chocolate from. She will eat all of it. Whereas if there’s a bag of potato chips in the house, I will push her down and rip the bag open and eat it. Whereas for her, she’s like… she’ll have one or two of them, and she doesn’t really care.
So, you know, not everybody’s extreme one way or the other with that. But there probably is some trigger item for most people, and you just need to ask yourself. “Am I going to be able to resist this? In my moment of stress? My moment of indecision?”
And if you waffle the least bit about it, then you don’t have it around. You know, at a minimum, if you’re like, “Man, I really want some chocolate.” You’re going to go get in the car. You’re going to drive to the store. You’re going to eat all of the chocolate at the store or in the car. You don’t bring it home. And for me, that is the discipline. And at some point, you’re totally right, you create a habit and we rewire our appetite such that a good tomato tastes really, really good. Whereas when you’re used to eating these highly refined, engineered foods. Literally people will eat something like a tomato or cucumber and they’re like, “Yeah, I can’t taste anything. This is like cardboard.”
And so you have to kind of… again, this is where the similarities between drug addiction and the kind of food addictive flavor palate experience is really interesting. And it’s kind of a controversial topic within the medical circle. Some people will really kind of pooh-pooh this stuff. But I think when you look empirically at this it’s kind of like, “yeah.” Some of these foods are just way more… people are not going to binge eat on broccoli and pork loin. But people can and will binge eat on cheesecake and potato chips and nachos and particularly if you’ve got an opportunity where you can go from one food to another food to another food.
Mark: Like your buffet, yeah.
Mark: You know, I think the whole… when we talk about mental development one of the tools we use is mindfulness. I remember Thich Nhat Hanh talking about slowing down and just… like taking 45 chews to chew your potato chip. And there’s a lot to be said there. Sounds kind of ludicrous, but if you really slow down and just like savor… if you really love chocolate, savor that one piece of chocolate. It takes you 20 minutes to eat that sucker, then you’ve kind of like satiated the urges with one piece of chocolate as opposed to 3 chocolate bars.
Mark: But that’s a habit. You have to really, really be aware. And so, what’s cool about that is you could kill 2 birds with 1 stone. You could develop mindfulness, and awareness, and change your eating habits. Boom.
Robb: Exactly. Yeah, yeah. That’s one of the interesting things about some of these more Eastern meditative practices, although there’s some interesting stuff to be learned out of the Western, Socratic Method. But part of what, like, Zen Buddhism, and just kind of Zen practice and meditation in general–you’re trying to be aware of the internal dialogue. What’s going on there?
And it’s really interesting because part of the reason why we need to do that is we have this really ancient area of the brain that is devoted to survival.
Mark: And it short-circuit’s the conscious dialogue.
Robb: And I don’t even know that I would say “short circuits” it. The two are not good bedfellows. They don’t cross in the hallway all that often, you know? And it definitely will supersede the logical brain. Absolutely.
And what this meditative deal or this mindfulness opportunity provides is a moment for your logical brain to interface with that emotional part where it’s like, “I wanna eat all the potato chips.” It’s like, “I understand I wanna eat all the potato chips. But the reason why is because of the irregulation of appetite. And here are these knock-on effects. And I recognize that I want those right now…” And this is a thing that I do. I just kick the can. I’m like, “I’ll have that in 5 minutes.” And then 5 minutes goes by, and I say, “I’ll have that in 10 minutes.” And then 10 minutes goes by and then I don’t want it.
We had a discussion about this. One of our first conversations. I was like, “So how do people in the SEALs do this stuff? Do you just say I’m never going to quit?” That’s not really been my approach. The “never” wasn’t a good deal. But I’m like, “Yeah, I’m totally going to quit, but it’s going to be in an hour.” And then the hour goes by, and I’m like, “Aah, that wasn’t that bad. I’ll wait 2 more hours.”
And that’s been my mental coping mechanism. But there really is a need for a moment to kind of let that emotional part of the brain interface with the logical part of the brain and it’s kind of like the handshake. The old dial-up deal where the things chirping and you’ve gotta provide some time for that to occur. And that is where the logical brain can start having some influence. And I guess kind of de-escalate that emotional brain. “Sssh. Go back to sleep. You’re okay.”
Mark: (laughing) Everything’s okay.
Robb: Yeah rub its belly. Roll over. You’re okay. It’s all good.
Mark: (laughing) That is awesome.
All right, you know we’ve been chit-chatting now for almost 50 minutes. We probably should give our listeners a break. We could go on forever, this is awesome.
“Wired to Eat“
So the book… your book is called “Wired to Eat.” It’s due out March 21st. I’ve seen an advance copy. I think it’s terrific. I know it’s going to be a huge win and that’s going to help a lot of people.
So thank you for writing it. I know it’s a lot of work to write a book like that. Cause I’m doing it right now myself again. And it is… there’s days when I’d rather stick needles in my eye.
Robb: It’s kind of like having kids. You have the first one, and you’re like, “Never again.” And then 6 months goes by, a year goes by. And then you get back into it again.
You’re like, “Oh, mother of God. What have I done?” So, yeah.
Mark: Totally. So good job. Good on ya. So it’ll obviously be available. Where would you prefer people to learn about the book. Are you going to do like advanced special deals, that kind of thing?
Robb: Yes, yes. So we have some cool pre-order stuff. If you go to robbwolf.com/wiredtoeat then you can order the book there from a variety of locations. If folks buy it from a brick and mortar setting, then they can also take advantage of the book bonuses. But you go to robbwolf.com/wiredtoeat then there is an email there where you can take your receipt, either from a brick and mortar location or an electronic order. Forward that to us and then you will get a bunch of bonuses. And the bonuses include an interview I do with Doctor William Cromwell who’s the head of cardiovascular disease at Labcorp Liposcience and we talk about like the standard blood work that most people get. What I recommend in the book, kind of compare and contrast that and make a case for including a modest amount of advanced testing so that we can really get a much better picture of what’s going on under the hood. I also have what used to be the first chapter of the book, which is called “Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics.” And it’s really a historical account of how our modern medical and food system came into being. And it starts at kind of late 1940s, early 1950s and starts walking forward, looking at academic, political and economic interactions that have brought us to this kind of crazy situation we have.
And then we have a couple of other really, really good bonuses. But yeah, if people go to robbwolf.com/wiredtoeat there’s an email there. They can ping us this stuff, and will get all this bonus swag.
Mark: Okay, also just so listeners know that for some reason “Robb” has an extra “b” on it. I have no idea where that came from. But it’s Robb, R-O-B-B wolf.com right? Do you own R-O-B wolf.com just in case?
Robb: Yeah. So if they flub that, it should work.
Mark: Good to go. Awesome Robb. I’m stoked to see you again in person, next time you’re down these ways. Or whenever that happens to be. And thanks again for doing what you do.
Robb: Awesome Mark. You guys have been huge supporters for so long. So thank you so much.
Mark: Well, ditto. All right everyone. That was Robb Wolf. Go check out robbwolf.com. And make sure you spread the word about “Wired to Eat.” Because this is important stuff. It’s part of the integrated solution. Nutrition, training, rest and recovery. That’s the foundation for optimal health and longevity. And then on top of that we can build our Unbeatable Mind. So it’s an important part of the equation.
Hooyah. Thanks for listening. And ’til next time, train hard, stay focused and eat to win.
Coach Divine out.
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