“I Wish My 18-Year-Old Self Had Realized That Incrementalism Is ‘OK.’”

Interview: Robb Wolf.

I often write about how I eat a low-carb, high-fat diet. As I describe in Better Than Before, I experienced the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt” after reading Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat, which convinced me of the health benefits of avoiding carbohydrates — I changed practically everything about the way I ate, overnight, after reading that book. (If you’d like to listen to the podcast interview with Gary Taubes, about his new book The Case Against Sugar, it’s here.)

Because of my interest in eating low carb, I got to know Robb Wolf. Robb comes at the issues of diet, eating, and nutrition from the Paleo perspective. It’s a different philosophy of eating, but in the end, we eat mostly the same way, so it’s interesting for me to hear about it.

Robb has a popular podcast, The Paleo Solution, and he has new book that just hit the shelves called Wired to Eat: Turn Off the Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods that Work for You.

Wired to Eat emphasizes that it’s important to figure out how to eat in the way that works for you. It also discusses the importance of things like sleep and movement in trying to eat more healthfully.

As I’ve written and spoken to people about their happiness and habits, the issue of “wanting to eat healthier” comes up again and again as a habit that people struggle with; they’d know they’d be happier and healthier if they ate healthier, but they find it tough. (Sound familiar?)

So I was curious to hear what Robb had to say.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Robb: This may seem a bit far afield to your readers but one of the best insights into habits and human behavior came to me when I started looking at this topic from the perspective of evolutionary biology. If we think about the environment that forged our genetics, we can get a sense of some important “hard wiring” that may seem to defy logic in the modern world. Let’s consider healthy eating as an example. It’s easy to vilify overeating, to make this tendency some kind of character flaw, but in our not so distant past it made good sense to eat anything one could find and then to REST. All organisms that move to eat follow a process called “Optimum Foraging Strategy” which is just a fancy way of looking at the energy accounting an organism must maintain to go on living. If a given critter (in this case let’s say us) consistently burns more energy than it finds in the environment…it dies. So, humans are literally wired to “eat more, move less.” This is a completely normal and even healthy state of affairs when living in an ancestral environment, but with modern culture and technology we can order a nearly infinite variety of foods to our door, and barely expend any energy at all. It is now incredibly easy to overeat and we experience a host of health problems as a consequence. This evolutionary biology perspective can help with habits in that if we are not starting a process from a perspective of guilt or shame (which is common when folks are contemplating diet and lifestyle changes) we stand a much better chance of making that process of change stick.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

When I start feeling cranky and like life is working against me I have found that a few minutes of gratitude goes a long way towards making me feel better. I do this every night before bed and it is incredibly calming and also keeps me grounded in all the good things I have in my life.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Something I wish my 18-year-old self had been aware of is that incrementalism is “ok.” For much of my life I tackled things with a perfectionist attitude and what this did is set me up for failure in anything that I was not inherently good at. If I struggled a bit at something I’d get self-conscious and default back to those things I’m good at. Not a great way to add new habits and skills to one’s life!

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m pretty strongly a Questioner. I love seeking out information from folks that are better versed in a topic than I am but I tend to run their advice or teaching through the following filter: Does it make sense? When I implement the recommendations, does the process work? I rarely, if ever, dismiss something out of hand, but I will stress-test the concept and see if it holds up to scrutiny. I’m also always looking for ways to improve upon the original teaching or advice.

  • excursivey

    I hope this isn’t considered off topic to today’s post: I’m familiar with Robb from my own dalliances into Paleo/Primal eating and also was super sold when I read Why We Get Fat. And I stuck to that type of eating for a long time. But being a Questioner I just kept reading EVERYTHING about diet (as way of eating, not weight loss so much) and nutrition that I came across. I finally read The Gluten Lie: And Other Myths About What You Eat by Alan Levinovitz among other things. And now I feel like I’m stuck in analysis paralysis, even though I’m basically a Satisficer with mostly everything else in life. (Ack, my labels are killing me!) How do you stick with one theory when there are so many out there?

    • Robb Wolf

      excursivey- This is a great question/observation, here are some thoughts:

      With what we know about personalized nutrition the notion of a “one size fits all” recommendation meeting all folks needs is far fetched. BUT, people do need some lane lines in which to at least begin experimenting and exploring. This “everything in moderation” story is just failing everyone. So what to do? Experiment and critically evaluate. My greasy used-car-salesman-pitch is try something like a low carb/paleo type of diet for 30 days. See how you look, feel and perform. Then, reintroduce some of the foods you excluded in that process. Repeat the evaluation. Which experience better served you? which one had the best ROI? This is as honest and transparent a process as I can imagine, but it does take some work on the front end to get that data and experience, then it requires us trusting ourselves with what those results really mean. So, with just a bit of tinkering you can know the truth of this story better than I or anyone can every know it for you.

      As a side note, I WILL add this: Despite the fact people are highly individual in their response to food (and sleep, and exercise…) I and many others in the helath and wellness space have found that a lot of people seem to do better with fewer carbs and a general avoidance of gluten containing foods. To the degree my work has been successful it is due to the methodology working for and helping people. If I could find a way to have folks eat bread all day long and remain slim and healthy, I’d sell so many books that Harry Potter would look like a dime-store oddity. But if I want my work to stand the test of time I need to give folks methods that WORK.

      Thanks again for the great comment and let me know if this helps.

      • excursivey

        I appreciate the response Robb!!

  • Dominique

    “This may seem a bit far afield to your readers but” –> bit condescending, especially since the story that follows is very simple and well known.

  • Great One. You perception is just off the hook