As coaches, we are proponents of learning from the past in order to enhance the present and to optimize the future. In our work, we often ask the question, “What was your best experience with that?” Sometimes, that question takes people way back to find the energy and wisdom they need to change. We take the same approach when it comes to optimal wellness. “What was our best experience with wellness, as a species?” The answer, surprisingly, takes us back before the beginnings of recorded history. Read on to learn the secret.
Before we get into our specific recommendations and strategies for optimal fitness, which will start next week with a Provision on sleep, I want to review the framework that we are coming from with our entire series on Optimal Wellness. We are not just asserting our opinion about good things to do; we are not just basing our recommendations on personal experience or anecdotal evidence. We are, rather, connecting the dots between evolution and lifestyle in order to make the case for change.
Anyone who has been following this series, which started with optimal nutrition, or who reviews the Optimal Wellness Prototype, already has a good idea of how this works. Since human beings evolved into the creatures we are today primarily during the Paleolithic period, from approximately 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago, this is the period that had the largest impact on the human genome. Relatively few genetic changes have taken place in the past 10,000 years. We may live in the space age, but we are not that different from our stone age ancestors. This evolutionary truth makes the following question both interesting and important for those concerned about optimal wellness: what manner of living enabled our Paleolithic ancestors to evolve into beings who could invent the beginnings of civilization? The answer to that question holds the key to optimal wellness. Whatever it was they were eating and however it was they were living represent our genetic set point and predisposition when it comes to healthy well-being.
I’m not promoting the myth of the noble savage. I have no illusion that people were saints, that life wasn’t hard, or that I want to go back to the Paleolithic era. I enjoy my air conditioning and Internet just as much as the next person! I also have no illusion, however, that the civilization our ancestors created with their big brains, strong bodies, and determined spirits made them more physically and psychologically healthy. It did not. The archaeological record is clear: the advent of civilization in hunter-gatherer populations always leads to an increased incidence of chronic disease and early death. Apparently, human design is no match for natural selection. What took place over those millions of years is still deeply imbedded and ingrained in our genetic material. It is an inheritance that we ignore at our peril. The diet and lifestyle that brought our Paleolithic ancestors out of the Paleolithic era still has much to teach us today if we hope to enjoy healthy bodies, minds, and spirits. It truly is a case of going back to the future. Our generation has more evidence to prove this claim than ever before. Archaeology, paleontology, and anthropology have combined with genetics, neurology, biology, and other disciplines to reveal the path of human development. We know much about the paths that worked and the paths that didn’t work.
We know when health was improving and when it was declining. We know what people were eating, doing, and how they were relating in order to not only survive but also to thrive. Becoming aware of that evidence has impacted me greatly over the past several years. Although it has long been a fundamental axiom of biology that “living organisms thrive best in the milieu and on the diet to which they are evolutionarily adapted” (O’Keefe & Cordain, 2004), it never occurred to me that this axiom might apply to human beings until I heard a lecture by Dr. S. Boyd Eaton in the summer of 2004. It also never occurred to me to ask about the milieu and diet to which human beings are evolutionarily adapted.
I’m not sure what I thought was the basis for human nutrition and wellness (probably medical science), but I certainly did not link it to evolution and the Paleolithic era. Dr. Eaton’s lecture hit me like a ton of bricks. It was presented in ways that were both intuitively and scientifically obvious. It made perfect sense to me, and I have slowly been adjusting my lifestyle ever since. I wrote about my conversion from vegetarianism to the optimal wellness prototype in Provision #391, “Unpublished Grace“. That wasn’t easy, but it was a change worth making. Especially since I really didn’t have to leave fruits and vegetables behind. It was the grains and beans, along with the dairy and other processed foods, that were interfering with optimal nutrition. Once I found local sources of organic, free-range poultry and lean, pasture-fed meat I became even more comfortable with my decision.
Happy meat is healthy meat when it comes to human nutrition. This was the way we ate for millions of years. No one was sowing seeds, threshing grain, and baking bread. No one was making tofu. No one was herding animals into overcrowded feedlots, force feeding them with corn, injecting them with growth hormones, and treating them with antibiotics. No one was drinking milk after weaning. People were eating what they could scavenge, hunt, and gather from the animals and plants that lived and grew naturally in the various habitats of Africa. In so far as we can approximate those foods today, we make it easier rather than harder for our bodies to be healthy and well.
Unfortunately, healthy nutrition was the first thing to go with the advent of civilization, about 10,000 years ago. That was the start of the agricultural revolution, when people were beginning to figure out how to grow and raise the calories they needed to survive while staying in one place. Instead of going to the food, we made the food come to us. Over time, this invention led to the consumption of all kinds of foods that we had never eaten before in any significant quantities. First came grains, such as wheat (about 9,000 years ago), then came dairy (about 6,000 years ago), and then came legumes (about 3,000 years ago). The cultivation and consumption of agricultural foods were essential to support the energy needs of an ever-growing population. With more than 6.5 billion people on the planet, they are more essential today than every before.
But what’s good for the population, on a macro level (lots of calories), is bad for the individual, on a micro level. Individuals need fewer calories and lots of nutrients, as provided by the Optimal Wellness Prototype. We also need social support and physical fitness. These, too, are imbedded in our genes through millions of years of evolution. And, like healthy food, these, too, were slowly circumscribed and maladapted by the inexorable march of civilization. Money and war both became ever more important and common. Instead of being at the mercy of their environments, people were now manipulating the environment as well as other people to their own advantage. Or so they thought.
Such manipulation was not the norm for millions of years, and it is arguable that it has ended up placing the planet at greater peril than ever before (think nuclear weapons and global warming). You may have seen the Newsweek article titled, “The Evolution Revolution: The New Science of the Brain and DNA is Rewriting the Story of Human Origins,” by Sharon Begley. In reviewing the ancient record, Begley notes that for most of our evolutionary lifecycle human beings were the hunted rather than the hunters • and this too has its implications for health and wellness. Begley writes:
“The realization that early humans were more often prey than predators has upended traditional ideas about what it takes for a species to thrive. For decades the reigning view had been that hunting prowess and the ability to vanquish competitors was the key to our ancestors’ evolutionary success (an idea fostered, critics now say, by the male domination of anthropology during most of the 20th century). But prey species do not owe their survival to anything of the sort, argues Robert Sussman of Washington University, coauthor of the 2005 book ‘Man the Hunted.’ Instead, they rely on their wits and, especially, social skills to survive. Being hunted brought evolutionary pressure on our ancestors to cooperate and live in cohesive groups. That, more than aggression and warfare, is our evolutionary legacy.” “Both genetics and paleoneurology back that up. A hormone called oxytocin, best-known for inducing labor and lactation in women, also operates in the brain (of both sexes). There, it promotes trust during interactions with other people, and thus the cooperative behavior that lets groups of people live together for the common good. By comparing the chimp genome with the human, scientists infer that oxytocin existed in the ancestor of both. But it has undergone changes since then, perhaps in how strongly the brain responds to it and in how much is produced. The research is still underway, but one possibility is that the changes occurred around the time our ancestors settled into a system based on enduring bonds between men and women, about 1.7 million years ago.”
As in nutrition so, too, in social support. Our evolutionary history suggests that it’s less the “fight and flight” response and more the “tend and befriend” response that helps us to survive and thrive. We will come back to this dimension several months from now, when we consider the sea of benevolence which serves as the backdrop of the Optimal Wellness Prototype. Apart from benevolence, a context to which we are all genetically inclined, the rest of the Prototype neither matters nor succeeds.
If the agricultural revolution gradually wiped out the evolutionary foundations of nutrition and social support, it wasn’t until the industrial revolution • about 250 years ago • that we began to take out the third leg of the wellness stool: physical fitness. Before the industrial revolution, at least people remained physically active in order to eat and be in relationship to each other. Since the industrial revolution, and especially since the advent of the information age, increasing numbers of people can go through their days without any physical activity at all. What a contrast to our millions of years as the hunted scavengers for food, shelter, and social support! What a contrast to our hundreds of thousands of years as hunters and gatherers!
Today, we go from the bed, to the car, to the office, to the car, to the bed without ever so much as breaking a sweat. And yet food comes at us, unabated, in record quantities. No wonder there is such an obesity and overweight crisis in the world today. We are evolutionarily adapted to be vigorously active primates, on the go from morning till night when we’re not resting from our exertions. Instead, we occupy our time with activities that seldom elevate our metabolism beyond the base line. Such inactivity promotes disease and illness for the same reason that eating the invented foods of agriculture or taking the stressful path of domination promotes disease and illness: we are not evolutionarily well adapted for any of these patterns.
If we want optimal wellness, then we need to go back • way back — to basics. We need to get our coaching tips from Paleolithic times, when human health was at its peak (apart from accident and infection), rather than from recent times (in the past 10,000 years), when human health has been on the decline. What confuses many people about the quality of modern health is our increase in life expectancy. Just because we are living longer, however, does not mean we are living better. Advances in public health and medicine are doing a remarkable job at counteracting our relatively poor nutrition, stress, and fitness practices. For many people, longevity is good enough. But if you want more, including more energy and a higher quality of life, then the Optimal Wellness Prototype is the way to go. In weeks to come, we will explore our genetic inheritance when it comes to fitness on a granular level.
It’s not enough to know that we are evolutionarily suited for a much higher level of physical activity than most people practice or experience today. It’s not enough to know how many calories or kilojoules our Paleolithic ancestors were burning each day. We also need to know about the range, variety, and intensity their activities if we hope to simulate and approximate them in the modern world. That’s why we describe the Optimal Wellness Prototype as a better pattern. It approaches all three dimensions of health and wellness — nutrition, fitness, and stress • from an evolutionary framework. It doesn’t just speculate about the patterns that work best for human beings, it researches and reveals those patterns from the course of life itself.
Coaching Inquiries: How much attention are you giving to nutrition, fitness, and stress? How do your patterns compare to those of our healthy, Paleolithic ancestors? How could you eat foods, do things, and get support that would make life more wonderful? Who could be your evolutionary fitness buddy or coach, in the quest for optimal wellness?
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LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week) Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.
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