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It’s a lifestyle, not just a diet

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Last month we devoted some time to discussing different variations of paleo or evolutionary diets. We also wrote a bit about the importance of light and sleep/wake cycles and we asked whether your daily movement included kurtosis, or random deviations from your normal routine. Today we’ll try to tie these ideas together under the umbrella of ancestral or evolutionary health.

In 1973, Theodosius Dobzhansky published an essay titled, “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” Indeed, evolution is the unifying theory of all of biology. Trying to understand the science of life in the absence of evolution is like trying to understand physics in the absence of Newton’s laws or Einstein’s relativity. Thus, it is imperative that to understand our own biology and health, we must consider how our species has lived over the course of thousands of years on this planet. This leads us to focus on evolutionary or ancestral health.

There is an organization called the Ancestral Health Society whose mission it is to, “foster interdisciplinary collaboration and translational efforts between scientists, healthcare professionals, and laypersons who study and communicate about the human ecological niche and modern health from an evolutionary perspective to develop solutions to our health challenges.” One of the key descriptors here is “from an evolutionary perspective.”

There are many potential angles by which one might approach ancestral health, but ultimately, they are all likely to be related to one another. A paleo or primal approach to diet involves eating as we might have done before the advent of agriculture. A paleo or primal approach to movement involves activities that might mimic daily labor such as walking long distances, climbing over barriers, and lifting heavy objects. A paleo or primal approach to sleep involves synchronizing your sleep/wake cycles with your environment, paying attention to how much rest you are getting, and recognizing the influence that light, temperature, and sounds can have on your sleep.

At the end of the day however, both in paleo times and now, each of these domains are interrelated. Food fueled movement and movement was required for procuring food. Lesson: we should eat according to our movement and move in response to our appetite. Likewise, a day of movement promotes sleep and a good night’s sleep permits more effective movement. Lesson: we should move for better sleep and sleep for better movement. Finally, a satisfying and nutritionally complete diet can promote sleep, whereas poor sleep is associated with poor dietary choices and weight gain. Lesson: we should eat (and drink) in ways that facilitate good sleep and we should sleep well in order to make better choices and promote hormonal regulation that will aid proper metabolism.

So, like many things in life, we find that there are important relationships that exist between areas that we might tend to think about separately. This is why we say it’s a lifestyle, not just a diet. Diet, or what you eat, is only one part of the equation. Applying the same evolutionary approach to movement and sleep completes the picture and yields success where diet alone has failed.