Wired to Eat by Robb Wolf (review)
Robb Wolf’s has been a significant influence on my thinking and learning in the area of nutrition.
Around 2009, my dad mentioned that he’d been reading the transcripts for the Paleo Solution Podcast. I think Robb’s podcast with Andy Deas and then Greg Everett was the first podcast I listened to. I would like to think I was their sixth listener, but I could be wrong.
Robb is a research biochemist with some personal health challenges. His mum had some major autoimmune issues, and he’s been plagued with ulcerative colitis and the threat of a bowel resection in his mid-20s. He started the first and fourth CrossFit affiliate gyms. All this gives him a unique angle on health and nutrition. His 2010 book, The Paleo Solution, has become a definitive manuscript of both the Paleo and CrossFit communities and central to the massive growth of both.
Although there is sometimes disagreement between the Paleo and Low Carb communities, Robb has, from the outset, had a soft spot for low carb, keto, and fasting. It was through Robb that I learned about Dr Richard Bernstein and low carb to try to manage my wife Monica’s Type 1 Diabetes. He’s also been interested in the use of ketogenic diets for traumatic brain injury in his work with police, firefighters and military. 
When I came across the insulin index data which highlights foods that provoke a low insulin response but do not contain a lot of vitamins and minerals, it was Robb Wolf and Mat Lalonde’s thinking on nutrient density that made me believe there might be a way to combine the two parameters, insulin load and nutrient density, to find the right balance for each individual.
What’s new different in Wired to Eat?
So how have Robb’s views changed in the last seven years since he wrote The Paleo Solution?
On a personal level, it seems he’s occasionally eating gelato with his two girls. With a few more years under his belt, Robb seems more conscious of his genetic diabetes risk. He is on a journey to find the optimal balance between low carb and strategic carb cycling to maximise mental and physical performance. A lot of that self-reflection and thinking is echoed in his new book, Wired to Eat, which was released in March 2017. The 7-day carb test is a great addition to his paleo formula to help people decide if they do well with fewer carbs.
Robb has spent less time dealing with performance athletes and more time dealing with police and firefighters who are often metabolically broken. This makes his new message even more relevant to the masses, who are more likely to be facing the challenges of diabesity rather than winning the CrossFit Games.
In his latest book, Wired to Eat, Robb has differentiated the ‘Paleo template’ depending on an individual’s carb tolerance. The 7 Day Carb Test protocol will help you assess whether you can tolerate Paleo-style carbs such as beets, squash, yams, and sweet potatoes.
“Personalised Nutrition” is a central theme of Robb’s new book. In Chapter 6, Robb delves into the Israeli study “Personalised Nutrition by Prediction of Glycemic Responses,” in which they correlated to blood glucose with gut microbiome parameters and identified optimal foods to rehabilitate the gut.
While still in its early days, eating to rebalance the gut microbiome is certainly a fascinating area of research. With his personal and professional background, Robb brings a new angle to the discussion.
The great thing about the Paleo template is that is that it eliminates most of the nutrient-poor foods that will spike your blood glucose and insulin levels as well as nutrient poor processed grains and sugars.
Nutrient-dense whole foods and the healthy dose of cellular carbohydrates also tend to feed a broad range of ‘good bacteria’ rather than the narrow band of pathogenic bacteria that can be fed by processed carbs and simple sugars. In the book, Robb tries to strike a balance between accessible mass market books and driving the science forward with novel and complex discussions. While he could ‘nerd out’ and ‘go down the rabbit hole’ he could make sure that his analysis and recommendations are simple enough to not lose people who are not steeped in evolutionary biology or nutrition science.
But is it Paleo?
An overly simplistic view of the Paleo diet led to a mindless process of asking “Is this food Paleo?” versus the more appropriate question “Is this food a good option for me?”
On the other hand, if the details on how the diet works starts to look like Advanced Chemistry, a typical reader would rather roll around naked in broken glass. I will aim to strike a balance between the two extremes, giving you sufficient information in a simple way so you understand how these choices will help you live a healthier life.
The overarching theme of the book is that we are Wired to Eat to ensure the survival of the species. Wanting a doughnut is not a moral failing that you should feel guilty for. From an ancestral perspective, it’s just how we’re programmed to perpetuate the survival of the species. Robb continues:
If you live in a modern, Westernized society of relative leisure and abundance but are not fat, sick and diabetic, you are, from a biological perspective, “screwing up.”
Our species is here today because our genes are wired to eat damn near everything that is not nailed down. Related to this is an expectation, again woven into our genes, that the process of finding food requires that we are active.
In unambiguous terms, we are genetically wired to eat simple, unprocessed foods, and to expend a fair amount of energy in the process (walk, run, lift, carry, dance).
But modern life affords us the luxury of sedentary and the most varied assortment of delectable food imaginable. It is now possible to order food to your door, work from home, and sit when we travel, while our not so distant ancestors routinely walked 5 to 10 miles per day. This is our conundrum.
The reason we get fat, sick, and broken, and the reason why it’s so hard to change our diet and lifestyle, is simple: our environment has changed while our bodies have not – at least not enough to forestall the development of a host of degenerative disease. Our genetics are wired for a time when our meals were relatively simple in terms of flavour and texture. We only had access to foods that changed with the seasons and we always had to expend some amount of energy to get the goods.
Robb draws the parallel between processed and manufactured “food porn” and, well, real porn.
Once we become overexposed to things that are impossible to achieve naturally (whether that be Doritos…
…49 chemically generated flavours of jelly beans…
…effortless ketones in a packet…
…or having fifty browser tabs open of surgically enhanced people performing superhuman feats of “intimacy”)…
…we lose our taste for and become desensitised to the real things that can be found in nature.
The modern environment stimulates the senses while delivering nothing
The problem with the surreal world we live in comes when the Doritos or the Jelly Beans don’t provide the nutrition that their chemically induced flavours promise, or when the surgically enhanced people and ‘social media’ don’t deliver the relationship, intimacy, and meaning that we’re really craving and adapted to thrive on.
Aside from food quality, Robb also addresses the mismatch between what our species are adapted to when it comes to movement, relationships, light, and sleep.
Studies have indicated that inadequate social connectivity increases early death potential as much as a pack-a-day smoking habit.
Although Rob is pro low carb for the right application, he’s also pragmatic about it. After being a low carb zealot and breaking a number of CrossFit clients, he understands that low carb isn’t optimal for everyone.
For some, a higher fat intake, particularly with adequate protein, causes a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake due to a profound sense of satiety. Folks who eat this way tend to experience fairly easy fat loss and dramatic improvements in health parameters such as blood sugar and inflammation.
Keep in mind, however that this might have nothing to do with the satiety of fat specifically and everything to do with removing junk carbs from the diet, which can hijack the neuro-regulation of appetite and make us feel hungry.
Some folks who really buy into the insulin hypothesis of obesity say that with elevated insulin levels we cannot get fats out of cells. Elevated insulin levels certainly play into the ease of liberating fat from adipocytes; this is why insulin sensitive people can lose body fat on relatively high-carb, low-fat diet.
Conversely, however, folks with insulin resistance will find the high-carb, low – fat approach almost impossible to lose weight on, but may thrive on a lower – carb, higher protein / fat mix. Once the underlying resistance has been addressed, these people may find they tolerate more carbs and can shift their diet accordingly but this is a highly individual thing.
Coming from a physical performance and diabetes headspace, Robb has a good grasp on the importance of muscle mass, blood glucose control, activity, and endocrinology.
The brain becomes leptin resistant and the muscles become insulin resistant. This fools the brain and the liver into believing we are starving. So, despite being awash in excess calories, the body releases glucagon, cortisol, and adrenaline, behaving as if would it we were in an underfed or starvation state.
The release of these catabolic hormones leads to a host of problems, not the least of which is muscle and bone wasting. This occurs in anyone with insulin resistance (estimates range as high as 50 percent of the US population) and particularly for diabetics. What’s worse, when you lose muscle mass, you have even fewer places to store glucose, which further exacerbates the problem of excess glucose storage.
High insulin levels downregulate insulin receptors, which increases insulin resistance and puts more and more stress on the pancreas. This is the race toward uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, accelerated aging, increased rates of cancer, neurodegenerative disease, cardiovascular disease and kidney failure.
Having higher levels of functional muscle mass means we don’t have to rely as heavily on our pancreas producing insulin.
The spread in macronutrients appears to have little if any impact on health as long as the foods are mostly unprocessed and the carbohydrate comes mainly from fruits, vegetables and tubers.
Food quality should be the greatest priority for most people before they start worrying about micromanaging macronutrients. Restriction of carbs should be one of the last lines of defence against high blood glucose levels after you’ve got the food quality, sleep, sunlight, stress, and relationship issues sorted.
If we restrict ourselves to nutrient dense, unprocessed foods that our ancestors would have recognised as food most of us won’t need to worry so much about macronutrients. If we limit our exposure to modern engineered foods, we can pretty much eat whatever we desire, letting our appetite and cravings lead us to the nutrients we need.
From a scientific perspective, this nutrient density topic is actually the most credible argument for the Paleo diet; it arrives at this position not from anthropological observations, but rather from the best that reductionist science has to offer.
But if you couldn’t be bothered with abstract concepts like nutrient density that require some faith in number crunching by geeks like me, just ask yourself, “Would my ancestors recognise this as food?“ or “Is it Paleo?”
Armed with the insights of Dr Kirk Parsley, Robb spends a chapter talking about the importance of sleep and light exposure on our hormones. Just drugging yourself with sedatives or alcohol doesn’t bring sleep but rather just a lack of consciousness. You need to manage your light exposure (more during the day, less at night) to make sure you get real quality sleep.
One of Robb’s major goals of the book is to blitz the morality and guilt that surround food. So often we think that our lack of physical awesomeness is due to our lack of willpower or moral failures. The reality is that it’s not entirely our fault. We are programmed to binge on that bag of Doritos, Snickers, cheesecake, or the Jellybeans if we’re left alone with them.
This biological love of simple sugars allowed our ancestors to make it through the impending winter and become our ancestors. The problem is, these days, winter never comes.
Now we’re surrounded by summer foods (fruit, jelly beans, and fairy floss) and summer (blue) light. We never have to go through the discomfort of winter (fasting), relying on less sugar (low carb), and perhaps our body’s fat stores (ketosis).
So, what’s the new Paleo Solution in Wired to Eat? The first step is to figure out where you’re at so you can manipulate your environment to push you back the other way towards optimal. This is the essence of Personalised Nutrition that is central to the book.
The key factor is to understand when it comes to low carb and blood sugars is that if exceeded your liver’s ability to process and store sugar we need to give it a break for a while. Meanwhile, if you’re insulin sensitive, you may benefit more from tweaking your diet towards more whole, unprocessed carbs and less fat.
Reverse engineering Optimal Foraging Theory
A while back, after hearing Robb discuss Optimal Foraging Theory, I wrote the blog post, Energy Density, Food Hyper Palatability and Reverse Engineering Optimal Foraging Theory, to combine my nutritional analysis with Rob’s insights.
The table below and the accompanying food lists are my attempt to identify the optimal (most nutrient dense) whole foods that will suit different people with different starting points and different goals. Rob takes a similar if maybe simpler approach in his book. He is conscious of not over complicating things.
|approach||average glucose||waist : height|
|therapeutic ketosis||> 140||> 7.8|
|diabetes and nutritional ketosis||108 to 140||6.0 to 7.8|
|weight loss (insulin resistant)||100 to 108||5.4 to 6.0||> 0.5|
|weight loss (insulin sensitive)||< 97||< 5.4||> 0.5|
|bulking||< 97||< 5.4||< 0.5|
|nutrient dense maintenance||< 97||< 5.4||< 0.5|
It’s not primarily about self-discipline, guilt, calorie counting, or a one-size-fits-all dietary approach. Personalised nutrition is about understanding where you are now and where you want to be. You then need to actively “deprive yourself” of the foods that you are no match for and surround yourself with the environment that will help you reach your goals.
Resistance is useless when you’re surrounded by “food porn”, but you’re Wired to Eat.
post updated October 2017