Tag Archives: Wired to Eat

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.

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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.

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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. [1]

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.

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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

“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,”[2] 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.[3]  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[4]

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…49 chemically generated flavours of jelly beans…

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…effortless ketones in a packet…

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…or having fifty browser tabs open of surgically enhanced people performing superhuman feats of “intimacy”)…

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…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.

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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.

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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.

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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.[5]

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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).

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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.

Maybe Wired to Eat will bring some low carb to Paleo and nutrient dense Paleo foods to low carb?  A match made in heaven?

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
(mg/dL) (mmol/L)
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.

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references

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPXAyYZEpEk

[2] http://www.cell.com/abstract/S0092-8674(15)01481-6

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3402009/

[4] http://www.simonandschuster.com.au/books/The-Dorito-Effect/Mark-Schatzker/9781476724232

[5] http://online.liebertpub.com/doi/pdf/10.1089/met.2014.0027

 

post updated October 2017

energy density, food hyper-palatability and reverse engineering optimal foraging theory

In Robb Wolf’s new book Wired to Eat he talks about the dilemma of optimal foraging theory (OFT) and how it’s a miracle in our modern environment that even more of us aren’t fat, sick and nearly dead.[1]

But what is optimal foraging theory[2]?   In essence, it is the concept that we’re programmed to hunt and gather and ingest as much energy as we can with the least amount of energy expenditure or order to maximise survival of the species.

In engineering or economics, this is akin to a cost : benefit analysis.  Essentially we want maximum benefit for minimum investment.

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In a hunter-gatherer / paleo / evolutionary context this would mean that we would make an investment (i.e. effort / time / hassle that we could have otherwise spent having fun, procreating or looking after our family) to travel to new places where food was plentiful and easier to obtain.

In these new areas, we could spend as little time as possible hunting and gathering and more time relaxing.  Once the food became scarce again we would move on to find another ‘land of plenty’.

The people who were good at obtaining the maximum amount of food with the minimum amount of effort survived and thrived and populated the world, and thus became our ancestors.  Those that didn’t, didn’t.

You can see how the OFT paradigm would be well imprinted on our psyche.

OFT in the wild

In the wild, OFT means that native hunter-gatherers would have gone bananas for bananas when they were available…

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… gone to extraordinary lengths to obtain energy dense honey …

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… and eat the fattiest cuts of meat and offal, giving the muscle meat to the dogs.

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OFT in captivity

But what happens when we translate OFT into a modern context?

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Until recently we have never had the situation where nutrition and energy could be separated.

In nature, if something tastes good it is generally good for you.

Our ancestors, at least the ones that survived, grew to understand that as a general rule:

 sweet = good = energy to survive winter

But now we have entered a brave new world.

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We are now surrounded by energy dense hyper-palatable foods that are designed to taste good without providing substantial levels of nutrients.

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Our primal programming is defenceless to these foods.  Our willpower or our calorie counting apps are no match for engineered foods optimised for bliss point.

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These days diabetes is becoming a bigger problem than starvation in the developing world due to a lack of nutritional value in the foods they are eating.[3]

The recent industrialisation of the world food system has resulted in a nutritional transition in which developing nations are simultaneously experiencing undernutrition and obesity.

In addition, an abundance of inexpensive, high-density foods laden with sugar and fats is available to a population that expends little energy to obtain such large numbers of calories.

Furthermore, the abundant variety of ultra processed foods overrides the sensory-specific satiety mechanism, thus leading to overconsumption.”[4]

what happens when we go low fat?

So if the problem is simply that we eat too many calories, one solution is to reduce the energy density of our food by avoiding fat, which is the most energy dense of the macronutrients.

Sounds logical, right?

The satiety index demonstrates that there is some basis to the concept that we feel more full with lower energy density, high fibre, high protein foods.[5] [6]   The chart below shows how hungry people report being in the two hours after being fed 1000 kJ of different foods (see the low energy density high nutrient density foods for weight loss article for more on this complex and intriguing topic).

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However the problem comes when we focus on reducing fat (along with perhaps reduced cost, increased shelf life and palatability combined with an attempt to reach that optimal bliss point[7]), we end up with cheap manufactured food-like products that have little nutritional value.

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Grain subsidies were brought in to establish and promote cheap ways to feed people to prevent starvation with cheap calories.[8]  It seems now they’ve achieved that goal.[9]

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Maybe a little too well.

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The foods lowest in fat, however, are not necessarily the most nutrient dense.     Nutritional excellence and macronutrients are not necessarily related.

In his blog post Overeating and Brain Evolution: The Omnivore’s REAL Dilemma Robb Wolf says:

I am pretty burned out on the protein, carbs, fat shindig. I’m starting to think that framework creates more confusion than answers.

Thinking about optimum foraging theory, palate novelty and a few related topics will (hopefully) provide a much better framework for folks to affect positive change. 

The chart below shows a comparison of the micronutrients provided by the least nutrient-dense 10% of foods versus the most nutrient dense foods compared to the average of all foods available in the USDA foods database.

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The quantity of essential nutrients you can get with the same amount of energy is massive!  If eating is about obtaining adequate nutrients then the quality of our food, not just macronutrients or calories matters greatly!

Another problem with simply avoiding fat is that the foods lowest in fat are also the most insulinogenic, so we’re left with foods that don’t satiate us with nutrients and also raise our insulin levels.  The chart below shows that the least nutrient dense food are also the most insulinogenic.


what happens when we go low carb?

So the obvious thing to do is eliminate all carbohydrates because low fat was such a failure.  Right?

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So we swing to the other extreme and avoid all carbohydrates and enjoy fat ad libitum to make up for lost time.

The problem again is that at the other extreme of the macronutrient pendulum we may find that we have limited nutrients.

The chart below shows a comparison of the nutrient density of different dietary approaches showing that a super high fat therapeutic ketogenic approach may not be ideal for everyone, at least in terms of nutrient density.  High-fat foods are not always the most nutrient dense and can also, just like low-fat foods, be engineered to be hyperpalatable to help us to eat more of them.

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The chart below shows the relationship (or lack thereof) between the percentage of fat in our food and the nutrient density.   Simply avoiding or binging on fat does not ensure we are optimising our nutrition.

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While many people find that their appetite is normalised whey they reduce the insulin load of their diet high-fat foods are more energy dense so it can be easy to overdo the high-fat dairy and nuts if you’re one of the unlucky people whose appetite doesn’t disappear.

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what happens when we go paleo?

So if the ‘paleo diet’ worked so well for paleo peeps then maybe we should retreat back there?  Back to the plantains, the honey and the fattiest cuts of meat?

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Well, maybe.  Maybe not.

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For some people ‘going paleo’ works really well.  Particularly if you’re really active.

Nutrient dense, energy dense whole foods work really well if you’re also going to the CrossFit Box to hang out with your best buds five times a week.

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But for the rest of us that aren’t insanely active, then maybe simply ‘going paleo’ is not the best option…

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… particularly if we start tucking into the energy dense ‘paleo comfort foods’.

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If we’re not so active, then intentionally limiting our exposure to highly energy dense hyper palatable foods can be a useful way to manage our OFT programming.

enter nutrient density

A lot of people find that nutrient dense non-starchy veggies, or even simply going “plant-based”, works really well, particularly if you have some excess body fat (and maybe even stored protein) that you want to contribute to your daily energy expenditure.

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Limiting ourselves to the most nutrient-dense foods (in terms of nutrients per calorie) enables us to sidestep the trap of modern foods which have separated nutrients and energy.  Nutrient-dense foods also boost our mitochondrial function, and fuel the fat burning Krebs cycle so we can be less dependent on a regular sugar hit to make us feel good (Cori cycle).

Limiting yourself to nutrient dense foods (i.e. nutrients per calorie) is a great way to reverse engineer optimal foraging theory.

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If your problem is that energy dense low nutrient density hyperpalatable foods are just too easy to overeat, then actively constraining your foods to those that have the highest nutrients per calorie could help manage the negative effects of OFT that are engrained in our system by imposing an external constraint.

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But if you’re a lean Ironman triathlete these foods are probably not going to get you through.  You will need more energy than you can easily obtain from nutrient-dense spinach and broccoli.

optimal rehabilitation plan?

So while there is no one size fits all solution, it seems that we have some useful principles that we can use to shortlist our food selection.

  1. We are hardwired to get the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of effort (i.e. optimal foraging theory).
  2. Commercialised manufactured foods have separated nutrients from food and made it very easy to obtain a lot of energy with a small investment.
  3. Eliminating fat can leave us with cheap hyperpalatable grain-based fat-free highly insulinogenic foods that will leave us with spiralling insulin and blood glucose levels.
  4. Eating nutrient dense whole foods is a great discipline, but we still need to tailor our energy density to our situation (i.e. weight loss vs athlete).

the solution

So I think we have three useful quantitative parameters with which to optimise our food choices to suit our current situation:

  1. insulin load (which helps as to normalise our blood glucose levels),
  2. nutrient density (which helps us make sure we are getting the most nutrients per calorie possible), and
  3. energy density (helps us to manage the impulses of OFT in the modern world).

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I have used a multi-criteria analysis to rank the foods for each goal.  The chart below shows the weightings used for each approach.

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The lists of optimal foods below have been developed to help you manage your primal impulses.  The table below contains links to separate blog posts and printable .pdfs for a range of dietary approaches that may be of interest depending on your goals and situation.

dietary approach printable .pdf
weight loss (insulin sensitive) download
autoimmune (nutrient dense) download
alkaline foods download
nutrient dense bulking download
nutrient dense (maintenance) download
weight loss (insulin resistant) download
autoimmune (diabetes friendly) download
zero carb download
diabetes and nutritional ketosis download
vegan (nutrient dense) download
vegan (diabetic friendly) download
therapeutic ketosis download
avoid download

If you’re not sure which approach is right for you and whether you are insulin resistant this survey may help you identify your optimal dietary approach.

survey

I hope this helps.  Good luck out there!

post last updated OCtober 2017

 

references

[1] http://ketosummit.com/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Optimal_foraging_theory

[3] http://www.hoajonline.com/obesity/2052-5966/2/2

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24564590

[5] http://nutritiondata.self.com/topics/fullness-factor

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7498104

[7] https://www.nextnature.net/2013/02/how-food-scientists-engineer-the-bliss-point-in-junk-food/

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agricultural_subsidy

[9] http://blog.diabeticcare.com/diabetes-obesity-growth-trend-u-s/