To start, I’m going to rip off and build on an analogy from Nicholas Nassim Taleb’s book Antifragile.
You’ve got three packages being shipped out to you. Package #1 has a porcelain doll inside, and on the box it says “Handle with care”. It should be handled with care, or the poor thing will shatter into pieces. Package #2 has an inanimate carbon rod inside. The box only says “In rod we trust”, it’s made out of something tough, so it’ll be fine. The third package contains a new type of cellphone – just all the parts, nothing is put together, the thing doesn’t even work. This package says “Please Mishandle”.
When Package #1 gets to you, it’s worse than when it was sent. Crappy shippers ignored the label and mishandled it – the Porcelain doll is shattered. Package #1 was fragile. Package #2 arrives, and like package #1 it’s a little bit worse off than when it was sent to you. The carbon rod inside is still mostly intact, but it’s suffered a few irreparable chips. But life goes on, because it can still do whatever it is an inanimate carbon rod does. Package #2 is robust. After rough travel and a good beating, the third box makes it to your door. “Please Mishandle”. You open it up, and inside is the most glorious cellphone you’ve ever encountered. It’s light, it’s signal is great, it’s strong as can be. The perfect phone. Package #3 is antifragile. It gains from stress, damage, and disorder – it’s incomplete and broken without it.
We are the third package.
Resistance training – which generates a massive amount of free radicals and increases stress on virtually every system in the body- results in a whack of positive effects. We see increases in muscle mass, bone mass, and anti-oxidant enzymes, with bone and neural remodelling to boot. Mood scores improve, perceived self efficacy improves, and a general sense of badassery is developed. All of this comes from the damage and stress we expose ourselves to while lifting (really, this applies to any physical activity). Hormonal, neural, muscular, skeletal, and immunological systems are modulated positively by this stress. So long as we supplement this stress exposure with adequate amounts of rest, we’re golden. When we embrace variability in movement – stress and rest – we see positive results, we become less fragile, and thanks to the antifragility of our tissues, we become strong and robust. The crazy thing is that as we get stronger, we need more stress because our body just gets that good at “defending” against it.
This system of stress is so important that our own body has genes that, when turned on, create free radicals. We have a built in damage mechanism to supplement the damage incurred from environmental exposure. On the other side of the coin, we have genes that generate anti-oxidant enzymes to control this stress. Then we have more genes, enzymes, and processes that repair the damage we suffered. Our body is built to create, suppress, and repair oxidative damage. If we tried to suppress any aspect of this cycle, we’d destroy ourselves in the process.
So then, is it really so far fetched to think that the stress of eating sugar, or easily oxidized polyunsaturated fats, or processed garbage (“toxins”), or over-eating, might be good for you sometimes? So long as you supplement it with the dietary version of rest – healthful, nutrient-rich foods with the occasional abstinence from food? Why would these forms of stress and rest be any different?
I’ve always been impressed by my Grandma. She’s a tank. She’s 5 foot nothing, knocking on 80 years old, and she’s the toughest S.O.B I’ve ever met. She’s a healthy looking gal at her age, she sits at a normal weight, she rarely ever has any health problems, she’s tough as nails, sharp, scathing, and witty. Most impressively, she never wears socks – and I mean never. Not even when it’s -40 outside. She represents the last generation of gritty hardasses, who happened to spend their formative years in the stressful, unhealthy, and broken circumstances of the Dirty Thirties. No major comforts, definitely no luxury.
She can handle her food. She bakes everyday for businesses and special events (and gets paid under the table, like a gangsta), and she definitely indulges in her own delicious baking. Her cinnamon buns are a thing of glory, even the most militant celiacs cannot refuse them. Her body can take the “punishment” of gluten, sugar, vegetable oils, and whatever else is the newest food that’s killing you. My 80 year old grandma is more robust than that guy who always says he gains a bijillion pounds every time he looks at carbs. And she doesn’t even lift. Unfortunately, as awesome as my grandma is, this speaks more for how weak and fragile these hypochondriacs are.
Back in the days before I got healthy(ish), from 18-22, I had the fragility of a newborn. I was constantly sick, tired, and depressed. Because I did a lot of drugs at the time, I was exposed to the underclass of wannabe rockstars. People who did all the drugs and drank all the booze in the world, ate like shit, barely slept, and still looked better and healthier, and had more energy than 90% of the population around them. I was always jealous of just how much punishment their bodies could take. I wanted to be like the tough grandmas and the wannabe rockstars of the world. That’s the endgame isn’t it? Smoke, drink, eat good food, and laugh all the way to the bank until 122?
After mucking around for a couple of years with crazy amounts of diet and exercise, I still wasn’t quite there. Yes, I once thought insulin was the devil. Yes, I thought you needed the perfect split of fat, protein and carbs… then I thought the perfect split was just protein and fat. Yes, I thought sugar and carbs were evil. Yes, I went paleo for a while. Yes I went… there. They were my little believees, and they made me feel good inside (props if you know where this is from). My health had drastically improved, but I paid the price — I had to cut out a bunch of awesome things to achieve it. I was still just as fragile as ever, but I was just masking it by not exposing myself to anything too “risky” (it still makes me lol that people think eating ice cream or cake is a “risk” — just no; bungee jumping is a risk, gambling with your life savings is a risk, heroin is a risk… but I digress). This is health, but it’s not the kind of health I was looking for. I could probably live a long time this way, but it’s not the kind of time I was looking for.
I don’t know how I found my answer, but I did. Like every good anal-retentive dieter looking for an easy answer, I turned to Intermittent Fasting (IF). I used to be of the opinion that I needed six meals a day, and I was sold on the ease of the idea of only eating once or twice a day, and not having to wake up 30 minutes early to make breakfast. IF is categorized by massive swings in caloric intake over time. It was my first foray into the world of variability. I became good buds with the entire spectrum of hunger and fullness. I felt pretty great and kept this up for a while, still holding tightly onto my Paleo ideals. My good health kept up, but all of a sudden I was a little less fragile. I didn’t need the delicate handling of a porcelain doll for meal timing.
Slowly, the idea of variability was sneaking into my consciousness. I kept up the rigorous 16-20/8-4 fast/feed lifestyle for a while, but out of convenience and laziness I ditched Paleo. But I was still low-carb-ish. Eventually I ditched that too, and started enjoying delicious carb and sugar-rich foods like oats, milk, ice cream, jello, slurpees, and five cent candies. Then the final straw – I gave up my rigorous IF lifestyle, and only decided to eat when it was convenient and when I was hungry. Some days this meant only drinking coffee until 4PM, other days it meant enjoying some syrup-soaked-fruit-covered waffles in the morning. Some days it meant eating only 1000kcal a day, sometimes it meant eating 5000. I started enjoying casual drinking again, it’s not uncommon for me to polish off a bottle of wine or lose at beer pong and walk away unscathed.
And guess what happened?
No… no, that didn’t happen. I was, and am, just as healthy as I was with Zone/IF/Paleo/Low-carb diets. But the critical difference now is that I am not only robust – but I benefit from “harm”. I find benefits in not eating for a day, and I find benefits from eating constantly throughout the day. I find benefits from not eating carbs sometimes, and I find benefits from only eating carbs sometimes. I find benefits in eating highly processed crap occasionally, and I find benefits from eating rich, locally produced meat, vegetables, and homemade soups. My diet is variable, and I am able to adapt and thrive on that variability. I can handle abundance and consistency just as well as I can handle absence and irregularity. I’ve allowed myself to tinker – to develop fitness, meal timing, nutritive, and behavioral heuristics that work for me without having to handle myself with the care of a Porcelain Doll. Without options and exposure to risk, how can you tinker and truly learn about yourself?
I don’t want to leave you with the idea of “omg, he just says he treats himself like crap and still feels great”. That’s not what I’m saying at all. If you interpret it that way, you’re just looking for a fight. I still eat really, really good food. My diet is still high in micronutrients (although I’m more likely to get them from concentrated sources like liver, instead of distributing it widely over a range of foods). I don’t eat like a fat pig all the time. But I certainly don’t handle myself with the utmost care like I used to. I have eating habits that people get kind of disgusted by sometimes. I exercise less, and I eat foods that people blame for the obesity epidemic much more regularly. First I repaired myself from my unhealthy state with meticulous dietary control and exercise, and then rebuilt my tolerance to nutritive stress by slowly re-introducing myself to these “toxic” foodstuffs one day at a time. This isn’t me promoting the argument that you need “moderation” for sanity and peace of mind. This is me arguing that you need variability in order to restore the adaptive capabilities of the human body.
Is it crazy to think that in order to rebuild your resistance to nutritive stress that you need to progressively expose yourself to increasing levels of this stress, just like you would do if you wanted to become a stronger weightlifter? Are we really so naive that we think the term “Progressive Overload” only applies to lifting weights, when every other system in the body seems to behave in a similar manner? Our minds thrive under the right level of stress and atrophy during periods of inactivity. Our endocrine system falls apart when hormonal fluctuations fail to occur. Our bones become brittle with bed rest. Our muscles weaken with the absence of loading. Every one of these systems requires variable input – why would nutrition be any different?
Right now, nutrition science is lacking – and you won’t find this perspective represented in the literature. Unfortunately, I can’t assault you with PubMed links to back up my point, because there are no definitive studies. I could show you a leptin curve during Ramadan where we see large fluctuations in leptin with no change in area under the curve and positive health outcomes – but who cares? I could show you a study where they showed there was a significant amount of oxidative damage after an “unhealthy” meal compared to a healthy meal, but unfortunately they didn’t look at the long term outcome (did the body adapt, grow, and strengthen after the 24 hour period or not?). I’m sure if I go swimming in my reference pool I could pull something out. But that’s not going to ultimately convince anyone – not even myself. Until we see a diet that is conceptually built around the idea of variability, and actually adopted successfully by willing human participants, it doesn’t mean a damn thing.
I can see the study now, The Effects of Nutritive Variability, and hopefully someday I’ll have the resources to do it – but for now we’ll have to be happy with speculation. That shouldn’t stop us from playing around and tinkering with this idea. At the very least, I’m enjoying the new found sense of freedom.
What’s my point with all this?
Don’t treat yourself like a delicate porcelain doll. You’ll grow stronger from stress. Damage is both your friend and enemy, as are rest and recuperation. Move away from the dichotomy of good and evil, and think about this problem called nutrition in a broader sense. Take off the dietary shackles.