The modern notion of womanhood, in which women eat little, exercise a lot, have eating disorders and body image issues, and are expected to look like rails, fails women time and time again. The solution to that failure–to all of the pain, to all of the confusion, and to all of the self-loathing in modern America–is to adopt an evolutionary perspective.
Adopting an evolutionary perspective with respect to diet means looking at evolution and trying to align modern practice with what women’s bodies were designed for. It does wonders for health. A paleo diet (though not a specific diet, but rather the template in which to experiment and exist) is the only cure, really, to the disconnect that has emerged between a woman and the natural programming of her body.
Yet the paleo diet I advocate falls under a larger umbrella of perspective and meaning. This is why what I really advocate is the evolutionary perspective more than anything else. The evolutionary perspective includes eating the proper foods, but it really is so much bigger than that. It’s about naturalness, about outlook, and about real, proud, embodied womanhood. There are specific aspects of an evolutionary perspective beyond the physiological that arise out of and are necessary for living this way. What follows in this post is an articulation of what I think those roles and benefits are.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman does not work against but instead works with her body. She understands that her hormones are designed to maintain a healthy body. She understands that her body is programmed for optimal fitness and fertility. She understands that war is not the answer. How could a war ever be sustained? How could victory ever truly be won? Is there such a thing as winning, and if so, at which price does it come? That is a scary question, and its one that many of my readers face. The price of war is eating disorders, body image issues, amenorrhea, infertility, acne, hair loss, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and eventual weight gain. The answer is instead discerning the foods that the body truly needs, and feeding it those so that it can do its own job.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman listens to her body. An evolutionary woman undertakes eating and lifestyle choices that optimize how good she feels, her health, and her well-being. She does not feed her body toxins. She does not run it into the ground with excessive exercise. She does not spend all day hunched over in an office chair under the unrelenting glare of florescent lighting. These things she knows are not good for her. They do not feel good, either. What then really does make her feel alive, embodied, sexy, and powerful? In order to know, she must listen.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman does not see herself as separate from her body. There is no need to fight. In fact, there is a direct dictum against fighting. The body is the physiological basis of a woman’s mind, so any attack on the body is in reality an attack on the woman herself. She is not separate from her body. If she hates her body, she hates herself; if she loves her body, she loves her self. What great things in the world were ever accomplished with hate? What about love?
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman loves and respects her body. This is not just something she can do, but rather something she must. And something that comes naturally. After just a little bit of practice, it becomes easy to love something that nourishes her, that provides the basis for her life, that gives her pleasure, and that enables her to do all of the wonderful feats and have all of the breathtaking experiences of her life. Isn’t the body an amazing thing? Isn’t it a powerful organism worthy of love? Full of wisdom? Deserving of trust? Bodies are amazing, and when they are properly nourished their ability to provide a powerful basis for a lived and amazing human life grows exponentially.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman is free. She is free from the dictums of the modern world, free from silly norms, free from hate. She is free from chronic exercise, free from paying money to food factories and food design chemists, free from counting calories, free from the toxins and bullshit in which so much of the modern world swims. She is free of self-loathing. She is free of what society wants her to be. She is instead exactly what she wants to be. She is free to be who she is, and to be so fiercely.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman feels good. This is a fact! Sometimes women undertake a paleo diet, or at least some form of it, and find that their effort does not work. I get that. But the whole point of an evolutionary perspective is to feel one’s way around food and lifestyle until she finds what fits and works best. The paleo diet is a template, and it provides a toxin-free, hormone-nourishing springboard off of which women can spring. From here, women find individually what works best for them. Their blood sugar levels stabilize, their estrogen dominance diminishes, their energy goes through the roof, their libido skyrockets… whatever they need, they can find it with natural methods and an evolutionary perspective. For women with health problems, it can take a while. It can take some troubleshooting. That’s what people like me exist for. But it’s out there. Women who love their bodies and treat them well feel damn good.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman looks amazing and real. Overweight women naturally lose weight with an evolutionary perspective. Period. Easy. Done. Eliminating modern toxins from the diet enables a woman to balance her hormone levels and to let her natural mechanisms for weight modulation come into play. Women with hormonal acne see their cysts fade and turn into scars. Women who are weighed down by the pains and fatigue of modern diseases straighten their backs, and rise. But: Nothing in the world will turn everyone into a supermodel. That’s not the point. The goal is not to be supermodels. It is not to be 00s. The goal is, in fact, the opposite. Instead, the goal is to throw off the shackles of female expectations. It is to be fierce and to be confident and to be healthy exactly as nature intended. It is to be natural, to listen to one’s body above all other things, to be healthy, to be unapologetic, and to be fierce and hot and all of this, again, not because a woman is meeting social expectations of female physicality–whatever those might be for a particular woman–but rather because in natural womanhood there are serious health and serious pride. The fact that a paleo diet turns a woman into a natural, glowing, fertile, energized machine is a byproduct. It’s important, because it demonstrates that the woman is achieving greater health, but it’s only truly powerful in this way in that it shows a woman just how beautiful she is in her own unique, natural body.
With an evolutionary perspective, chins come up. Look. It’s amazing, being a natural woman. It’s the healthiest thing a woman can do. How can that not be empowering? How can that not inspire? How can the world not be in awe of someone who owns what she is, and who uses that to her advantage? An evolutionary perspective demands that a woman not apologize for who and what she is. It demands that she embrace and love her body, and she does so, proudly. It demands that she walk with pride in her power and in her womanhood. With an evolutionary perspective, a woman’s confidence, life, and joy multiply without end.
With an evolutionary perspective, a woman is fierce. Being empowered, and learning to not apologize for who and what she is, a woman is enabled to pursue her life and her happiness with vigor. There is a very serious power in being a natural woman. With a natural diet, a woman has the fuel to burn brightly. Working in concert with her body, a woman knows how much she is capable of, and what she can achieve. Being healthy and nourished and totally self-assured, a woman can walk into any room and be a boss. Norms won’t get her down. Self-loathing won’t get her down. Social pressures to apologize for who she is won’t get her down. Instead, she will own her desires, and can pursue them with all the ferocity and joy inherent in being healthfully alive.
With an evolutionary perspective, things aren’t perfect. A paleo diet is not a miracle cure. I advocate paleo diets, but they will never make someone a super human. Instead, it is about moving forward one day at a time, and about doing everything possible to be alive. This means eating well, and it also means living freely, and it means each individual chooses what is best for her. It means moving forward with love and with positivity, and facing an imperfect world and a self– a self perfect in its imperfections–with all the power and wisdom garnered from natural womanhood.
Our genes are the blueprint with which we were born, generated by millions of years of evolution. In this way, genetics provides the spectrum of health in which we get to live out our lives. Genes provide the text of each of our own Choose Your Own Adventure stories; we, in turn, get to make the decisions at the bottom of each page. The more we understand our genes, and the more we act appropriately on that understanding, the better chance we have of getting to the kickass ending where everybody ends up deliriously happy and in love.
Even though genes are the rules we are born with, they are not inflexible. They switch on or off according to how they are acted upon, such that even if someone has a genetic predisposition to diabetes, he can still dodge the bullet if he plays his cards right. The official name for this switch-on/switch-off phenomena is “epigenetics.” Epigenetics is an emerging field of research. Scientists used to think that people are born with one plan, and that’s that. The end of the road. They have no options. That’s not true anymore. No real scientist believes that. We have lots of options. And the ways in which we choose to live our lives have very real effects on the ways in which our genes are activated.
The expression of different genes in epigenetics explains why people born today are less healthy than they were several decades ago. In part, many people’s in-womb nutrition is troubling. So right off the bat, they’re starting life with a handicap. Their mother’s poor nutrition has already pre-set their genes to malfunction. Even worse, it has been shown that each person’s grandmother’s health at the time of giving birth is crucial for his health. Most strikingly, the grandchildren of women who were pregnant during the Holocaust today are more susceptible to certain diseases of civilization. Yikes.
Yet while epigenetics is a bit worrying, it is also very liberating. Very few of us are stuck in malfunctioning bodies. We are not damned to poor health forever. Instead, we can treat our bodies as healthfully as possible, and we can give them the foods that they were originally built to handle, and in this way we slowly reprogram our genes. When we are good to our genes, they are almost always good to us right back. That’s pretty incredible, I think.
We have been programmed to handle certain foods. Throughout evolutionary history, humans co-evolved with their environments to function optimally on whatever resources were available. This phenomenon is so powerful that understanding the diets of our ancestors, insofar as we possibly can, gives us clues as to what we need to put in our bodies for optimal health today.
The trick is in actually figuring out what those diets were. It’s a lot of guesswork, and honestly even if we knew something concretely, we couldn’t really practically do it. Those environments don’t exist anymore.
Fortunately, there are two facts that mitigate the inaccessibility of this knowledge:
1) Humanity is diverse. Different groups have lived in a vast diversity of environments for quite some time. This means that within the range of natural foods, humans are fairly well equipped to eat a wide variety of diets. Some traditional diets are almost all animal products, and others are almost all starches. Some contain fruits, and others don’t. The fact of the matter is that across the board, so far as we can tell, extant traditional cultures are far and away healthier than Western humans. Moreover, almost all of these people have not just functioning but fairly badass bodies absent of the typical diseases of civilization (cancer, diabetes, overweight, autoimmune disease, heart disease…). It’s amazing. And the common element between all of them? Natural environments, less stress, natural foods.
2) So it’s hard to know, still, what we should eat and what we shouldn’t. What is a natural food? I usually tell people not to eat anything with a label, or anything that comes in a box. This covers most of the important stuff. Anything that is processed is definitely unnatural. And most people out there in the world would probably agree. However, an important question remains: what is processed? This is not something on which everyone agrees. It is an important point of contention.
For example, both bread and vegetables oils are processed. They are milled or compressed plants– two forms of ingestion that could not happen (at least not in as high quantities) in a natural environment. People forget this sometimes. Michael Pollan is an important and relevant example. But the fact of processing remains true, and I consider both grains and vegetable oils some of the most insidious things we can put in our bodies.
So being precise about the definition of “natural” and of “processed’ helps. But of course we also need to push back against all of these assertions with science. Vegetable oils are processed, yes. There is no way we would have ever consumed canola oil– that is, consuming hundreds of pressed canola seeds in one teaspoon of oil– in the wild. But we also wouldn’t have consumed all that much olive oil, and olive oil is still something we can safely put in our bodies. Most vegetable oils are bad. Olive oil is good. You can read about the particulars of the toxicity of certain foods at the Getting Started page, and also at the primary Paleo go-to sites. For now, it suffices to bear in mind: Processed foods are bad, and natural foods are good. That is the most important idea you can possibly internalize for your body. Second perhaps to mitigating stress. Both crucial.
Natural foods, then, are how we play nice with our genes. Living in this way throughout most of history has been just a simple fact of life. However, unfortunately for our bodies, we were born into an unnatural world. We have eaten poor diets. And we have, far too often, become diseased because of it. Eating natural foods is a big part of the battle, but if we are diseased, it is even more important to pay attention to our genes, and to what we can do to help them. For example, with diabetes, it is probably important to eat a low carbohydrate diet, even though someone without diabetes will be perfectly healthy if carbohydrate makes up a significant portion their diet. Or for someone with cancer, she might want to eat a ketosis diet. Or maybe any of a million other examples: the GAPS diet. An auto-immune protocol. Low oxalate. Or low protein. Low cruciferous vegetables. Low fruit. Or high in specific vitamins. High fat. High carbohydrate. It all varies based on what you are trying to do. Which is what much of my work focuses on. I know roughly what is natural and what is not. The trick of my job is to determine how a natural diet should be specifically tailored to meet individual needs.Read More
Much like the wider society in which we live, the health world is biased. In the past, this was an overt bias, but today, it’s much more insidious. It’s hidden, and it’s sneaky. But it’s there. Researchers are mostly men. Doctors are mostly men. Pharmaceutical CEOs are mostly men. Legislators in charge of delineating acceptable health care and health practices are mostly men. And fight their biases as they might– while some try harder than others– they inevitably fail to account equally for feminine health. It’s understandable, and most of them I do not begrudge because of it.
This bias is also true in the paleo community for a number of reasons. For example, paleo has a reputation for being a cave man’s diet: it’s full of macho foods that are appropriate for men, but on the other hand are way too substantial, heavy, and masculine for a woman. Most people in the movement acknowledge that this is a silly notion, but the fact of the matter remains: when those of us who research and believe strongly about the paleo template are reaching out to the wider world, we want women to hear the message. Sexism in the paleo image makes it harder to convince women to take these ideas seriously.
Moreover, most of the paleo thinkers and writers are men. Of the “big shot” types, I’d say, and with a fair bit of accuracy I think, that perhaps 15 percent are women. Of the rest, the number goes up, but not by too much. Women are not at the forefront of this movement, for one reason or another I don’t quite understand.
Much as these men with voices might care about women, they still speak to a general audience. It’s very unlikely for them to intuitively and completely empathetically grasp women’s issues, or at least be all that fired up about them. They can care, certainly, and I’d point you to Chris Kresser’s work on pregnancy and the thyroid as a prime example. I know that they care. Yet he has shared publicly that the reason he is so well-read in those topics is his relationship to his wife. I say this not at all to decry his work, but to exalt it. And to demonstrate that inevitably our passions for certain things are conditioned by the context of our lives.
Meanwhile, the sad fact remains that while men and women both have specific physiological needs, it’s a fair bit easier for things to go wrong in a female body. Being equipped for pregnancy is no laughing matter, and the female body works very hard to protect the nutrients, organs, and hormones necessary to carry children. This is not something that men have to do. Which also explains partly why so much of the medical research on gender-neutral diseases such as cancer and heart disease has been performed on men. Studying women introduces too many new variables into the analysis because we have constantly fluctuating hormones. This makes the intricacies of the female body’s response less predictable. Men’s bodies are simpler than women’s, no questions asked.
So when people ask: Why women? Why is a woman’s body special? And why do you enjoy writing about it so much? I have three answers I really love: it’s complex, it’s sexy, and it’s strong.
The female body is complex. As I mentioned, the female body has tons of needs and specific intricacies that the male body lacks. Women vary first between each other, and they also vary secondly within their own selves, depending on the timing of their cycles, and also on the time of their lives. A woman’s body is vastly different between 20 and 30, and 30 and 40, and even greater up at 50, which is not something that can be easily said of men. Additionally, it varies greatly by whether or not the woman is menstruating, in the follicular phase, ovulating, in the luteal phase, or experiencing irregular menstrual cycles. The female body is very much constantly in flux.
Because the female body is in a constant state of flux, it is delicate. The pituitary gland produces a large number of hormones, and they must be present in the blood in proper balance in order for the body to function properly. Estrogen (in its several forms), testosterone (in its several forms), DHEA and DHEA-S, luteneizing hormone, follicle stimulating hormone, thyroid stimulating hormone, pregnenolone, progesterone, prolactin… these each work on each other. Their relative amounts are related, and dependent upon the activity of all of the others. Some of the means by which this happens are by trading off spots in Sex Hormone Binding Globulins, acting directly on the ovaries with different instructions, and acting as negative feedback signals with the hypothalamus.
Secondly, the female body is sexy. The endocrine system may have more parts than Europe has crises, but the end result of it all is hotness. When natural, it’s even more amazing. I’m not talking about some slim, sticky thing on the cover of Shape magazine. Instead, I am talking about a woman ripe with estrogen, so that her breasts are as big as her genetics will allow. I’m talking about a woman swimming in testosterone, so that she has a voracious sex drive. And I’m talking about a woman with the proper pituitary signalling, such that she ovulates and menstruates and is capable of carrying live organisms that will eventually be real human beings in her abdomen. This is a woman who is in tune with her body. She gives it what it needs. She isn’t a size zero– she’s a size hotness, with fat on her hips, and really I couldn’t be more proud of or more vociferous about natural health precisely for this reason. Women don’t need society. We don’t need norms. What we need is to love ourselves. What we need is empowerment. What we need is natural beauty and unashamed sexuality.
The female body is strong. The complex system of hormones can go off track. Relatively easily. For example, women experience higher rates of depression than men. We are threatened by higher rates of acne. And it is easier for us to become overweight. This is because hormones, in today’s environment, are easily disrupted. This makes women more susceptible to a whole host of problems. This is unfortunate. It’s why I feel so passionately about the issue, and it’s why there is such a vibrant need for women’s health advocacy.
However, once homeostasis is restored from being off-kilter, a woman’s body is liberated to direct its energy towards maintenance instead of repair. Maintenance really is pretty powerful. Think of the loads of women out there plugging away on diets of peanut butter and Ho-Hos without a care in the world. They may end up being derailed themselves some day (I do not wish this upon them), but the point remains that their bodies have been working properly so far, and are continuing to work properly, such that whatever damage they’re currently doing with the Ho-Ho’s is repaired quickly and easily enough to maintain relative health. If a woman’s endocrine function can be restored, she’ll end up in a pretty badass, stable state. Especially if she has restored her system with a natural, sustainable, healthful lifestyle. She might start out restoring her system with medications, which can help. But that isn’t a good a guarantee for the long run. What’s the most powerful assurance of long-term health is restoring a body’s balance with natural methods.
And then what’s going to stop her?Read More