I have mentioned the Paleo diet a couple of times in recent articles as a means to be significantly more productive. In this article, I would like to explain why that is so and why you should start eating a Paleo diet for productivity too.
Ever since I was a child, I would have several really bad sinus infections a year. And trust me, these are not to be confused with the common cold. My nose would be so stuffy I couldn’t get any air. Even the really potent nasal sprays would only help temporarily. Every night, I felt as if I was suffocating. On top of that, my throat would get so sore, I couldn’t eat much for days (great way to lose weight though…). But by far the worst was the sinus pressure below my eyes – it was constantly there, no matter what medication I took, and it wouldn’t let me sleep for more than 4-5 hours a night. As I got older, these infections would take longer and longer to run their course, sometimes up to 10 weeks. Imagine! For 10 WEEKS, I wouldn’t be able to think straight or get much work done, because I was constantly feeling like shit or completely stoned by hardcore medications, as my doctors had started to prescribe me some really strong stuff, like cortisone and prednisolone (also used for treating cancer patients).
I had surgery twice to realign my nasal passage, so more air could get through it and infections wouldn’t take hold so easily; with no success. I looked into getting surgery for a third time, as several of the doctors I consulted recommended, but eventually, I decided against it, because I was not convinced it would help. At this point, I gave up. I would have to live with the fact that I would have to use nasal sprays for the rest of my life, just so that I could fall asleep, completely destroying the mucosa in the process. And that for close to half a year each year, I would be pretty useless.
Until one day, I blew out my knee training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in Rio.
When I got back from Rio, I immediately had surgery, as both the meniscus and the ACL in my right knee had been damaged. After the surgery, I was required to undergo a lengthy process of physical therapy, meeting up with the same therapist 2 to 3 times a week. It was during the fall when I started going for therapy, so of course I was starting to get sick again as always around this time of year. Then one day, my physiotherapist casually remarked: “You know, you could get rid of these infections for good, by eating a Paleo diet.” I thought she was crazy – after all, I had battled with these infections for almost my whole life. Turns out, she was right.
I got the book “The Paleo Diet” by Loren Cordain, which argues that we should eat a diet closely resembling the diet of our pre-agricultural hunter gatherer ancestors to become healthy and strong again. I read it and decided to give it a try. Within two weeks, my really bad sinus infection was gone, instead of the usual 2 months. And it has never returned since. I couldn’t believe it, I still sometimes can’t. I could have saved myself 20 years of almost constantly being sick by just changing my diet?! It was an almost maddening thought. As I carried on eating the way Loren Cordain had explained in his book, I experienced a couple of “side effects,” that were also almost too good to be true. I would not get tired in the afternoon anymore. I could focus on tasks a lot better. My quality of sleep improved. And even when I didn’t get enough sleep, I would still be okay the next day, instead of being grumpy and unproductive. Oh, and my hair got thicker and grew a lot faster, so did my nails (I’m not kidding).
How to eat Paleo
At this point, you are probably wondering what actually constitutes a Paleo diet. Here is the cheat sheet:
What to eat:
- Unprocessed meat and fish, preferably organic
- A wide variety of vegetables, preferably organic
- Healthy fats, like olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and ghee
What to eat in moderation (especially if fat loss is a concern):
- Starchy vegetables, like sweet potatoes
- Some fruits (about 200-300 grams per day)
- Some nuts (about a handful per day)
Small quantities of certain dairy products (200-300 grams), IF you digest them well, e.g. Greek yoghurt, kefir, cream; all full fat and preferably organic
What not to eat:
- Any kind of junk food / highly processed food
- Anything grain based: bread, rolls, noodles, etc.; if it doesn’t run around outside, swim in the sea or grow in a garden, it’s probably not Paleo
- Most dairy products, like pasteurized milk
- Industrial oils, like corn oils
- White potatoes
Why so many people fail with the Paleo diet
Having told you my story, it should be really obvious to you why I stuck with the Paleo diet. By eating this way, I got rid of a serious health problem that was drastically compromising my quality of life. But I am also positive I would NOT have gone through with it if I hadn’t had my health issues to motivate me. I have noticed the same in other people. Even having understood the advantages of Paleo on an intellectual level, they will not switch over to Paleo for good, until they experience a level of pain that will convince them to make the move. Why is that?
- We are food addicts
Had you told me that about 3 years ago, I would have told you “You are an idiot!” I have not been overweight at any point in my life, I’ve always been working out, and I made a conscious effort to eat a lot of whole grain products and not too much meat. So how does that make me an addict? My reply: “Idiot!” That was until I went on the Paleo diet. It went okay for the first couple of days, except for the fact that I had some sugar cravings. So I ate more fruit. Then the cravings got worse, and worse. After a week or so, I finally had the first cold turkey experience of my life. For a night that I will never forget, I was alternately shaking, sweating, running to the bathroom, all the while being in a state of – and I’m not exaggerating – complete mental delirium. After that night, only pure stubbornness made me continue, but it was also soon after that I really started to notice the improvement in my sinus condition. And then my general physical and mental condition improved – significantly. It was like waking up from a bad dream and finally realizing that you could live in High-Def.
At first I thought it was just me, just my bumpy road into Paleo life. But then I heard of other people experiencing similar problems, especially if they switched over to Paleo from one day to the next, without any kind of transition period. Then I came across studies that, for example, showed exposure to the smell of baked goods would activate brain areas that were the same as for heroin addicts. It slowly started to dawn on me that our current way of eating was not just “unhealthy” but qualified as a full blown addiction, with withdrawal symptoms, cold turkey experiences, relapses, and all the other psychological baggage that comes with it. And the only way to deal with that in earnest is to admit to yourself that our commonly accepted way of eating, even eating “healthily” is just that: a real addiction. And the worst kind at that, as everybody around you is also doing it, and “if everybody is doing it, it can’t be so bad, can it?!” – which actually leads me on to my next point.
- We are suckers for being social creatures
Completely intertwined with the problem of food addiction is the problem of being social creatures. And of course, there are many, many positive aspects to this, like love and family. But there is also some really dark stuff that comes with it, including our craving for “social” proof. We usually don’t accept something as right just because it is right; we accept it as right because everybody else around us thinks it is right – the herd mentality, so to speak. And trust me, once you go Paleo and therefore at least implicitly challenge everybody’s favorite addiction “food,” you are going to experience some serious resistance. People WILL ridicule you. “So, are you a caveman now?”; “Do you hunt down rabbits in the park too?”; “You really like to punish yourself, don’t you?” and so on. And no matter that you don’t get sick anymore when everybody else around you is sick; and no matter that you lost 30 pounds while everybody around you is still fat; and no matter that you suddenly experience great energy during the day and revived agility, when everybody else around you seems to be already living in a retirement home – no, none of that counts. We just don’t like deviation from the norm.
And it’s not just the peer pressure on an ideological level. The REAL peer pressure is to be experienced on a typical Saturday night. So you meet up with your buddies at the bar. Everybody is already wasted when you get there and order your water. For the next 20 minutes or so, you are the hot topic of the night, but not in a good way. And of course, with a bunch of bored drunks around, it becomes a recurring theme for the rest of that lovely evening. And then, the grand finale: at the end of the night, everybody stumbles to the next Taco Bell or the sad pizza parlor around the corner. And being too stupid have left yet, you come along, sit there watching everybody munch delicious smelling junk food in a state of trance and you really, really wonder, why you are putting yourself through all of this. Such is the beauty of being a social creature…
- We can’t deal with “hidden” wins
So, why ARE you putting yourself through all of this? As you expend more and more energy and willpower going through with Paleo, going against your inherent food addiction, going against peer pressure, you will ask yourself that question – a lot. And the answer will seem to become less and less obvious. Yes, sure, you started this to become “healthier,” or to look better, or to be able to touch your toes again. But faced with late night Taco Bell, all these good reasons seem to be pretty abstract. And they actually kinda are. Because going Paleo is not really a quick win, it’s more of a hidden, long term gain type of win. And we just don’t like these, do we? We just want to do action A and immediately experience result B. Put some Paleo food in your mouth and wake up with 8 percent body fat the next day. In other words, we just like the idea of Radical Effort way too much. On the other hand, late night Taco Bell provides some serious “action A – result B” – and bang! You put that chalupa in your mouth, and bam, you experience instant gratification. Now, that’s better. And then you do it again, and again, slowly building up your food addiction to the point where Taco Bell Inc. wants it to be. Seriously though, don’t blame the industry for supporting these addictions. It’s up to you to understand why “hidden wins” are the right kind of wins, and only you can make yourself go for them. That’s why you need to clarify to yourself as much as possible, why you want this Paleo diet thing so much. And in my opinion, unless you are already seriously ill, the answer is: You want Paleo for increased productivity.
Paleo for Productivity
“Health” by itself is just way too abstract a concept, especially if you are still relatively young and not sick. It really doesn’t mean anything as long as you have it in abundance. What might be a better way of convincing yourself to eat healthily is looking at the concrete productivity benefits it provides.
- The extra time you get by not being sick
Imagine you could cut the time spent being sick in your life by half or more. This is not a statistics or exact science blog but if you look around online, a pretty common estimate for the time being spent sick in an average life is about a year; and that just refers to minor sickness, usually the common cold and other infections, not major health issues like cancer. So, for at least a year of your life, you lie around feeling absolutely miserable and not getting anything done. Now imagine you would get half a year extra to do with you as you please, since from when you start eating Paleo, you will hardly get sick from that point on at all. Therefore, if you start around the age of 40, you would still gain roughly half a year. How would you use these 6 MONTHS of extra time in your life? You could build your own business during that time. You could write a novel. You could travel the world. You could become really, really good at playing the ukulele. You could spend a lot of time with the people you love. These 6 months of extra time could make a major difference in your life. And it doesn’t stop there. It stands to reason, even though there are no studies yet, that a Paleo diet has a life prolonging effect. I said there are no studies for this claim yet, as the Paleo diet is a relatively new phenomenon. But there is extensive research about the absence of terminal illnesses like heart disease and most cancers in the few hunter gatherer societies around the world that still exist. And yes, the general life expectancy of these cultures is not very high. But they don’t die from heart disease or colon cancer, they die in child birth, falling from a tree, or trying to kill something with very sharp teeth. If I was a hunter-gatherer, I would have died at the age of 32 as a result of blowing out my knee, grappling another sweaty man on the ground, i.e. doing Brazilian Jiu Jitsu… Running after moving food or running from predators becomes fairly difficult after that, you know. So, in all likelihood, you actually gain SEVERAL YEARS of pain free, productive living over other people. If that is not a competitive edge, I don’t know what is.
- The extra energy during the day
Speaking of competitive edge, for most people, just the extra energy they’d get during a normal non-sick day would already be worth it. For the average person, there comes a point in each day where you are basically done for the day, because you have no personal energy reserves left, but you still need to go on anyways because of external demands, like work, family, bills to pay, a nagging girlfriend / boyfriend. And almost universally, that point in each day occurs a few hours after an abysmal lunch made up of processed foods. Weird how these things interconnect… After this point, most people start to slump and just drag themselves through the rest of the day as best they can. There is just no way they will get any meaningful work done though. Now here is what’s going to happen once you make the switch to Paleo: Every day, you eat a Paleo lunch, consisting of some high quality meat / fish, a wagon load of veggies, all of it cooked in some healthy fat like organic butter. Maybe you have a piece of fruit for dessert. For the next couple of hours after your meal, you feel like you could tackle the world. You get some of your most difficult work done. You make some crucial decisions on a new project. You decide to get a quick workout in at the park outside your office, because you really feel like moving. And all the time you wonder what all the zombie like people around you are doing. Shouldn’t they be full of energy and throwing themselves at things?! After all, we just had lunch!!!
- The hidden benefits to other areas of your life
The last part of my “Paleo for Productivity” pitch focuses on the “hidden” benefits to other areas of your life. And just because they are “hidden” doesn’t mean they are insignificant. They might actually turn out to be the biggest goodies you get from eating a Paleo diet. As an illustration, let me tell you about my best friend. Unlike me, J. is not really a productivity freak by nature. He is actually pretty laid back. Okay, he is naturally fucking lazy (J., when you read this, I love you!). But the most astonishing thing has happened to him over the last 12 months. He started eating a Paleo diet and experienced all the positive health effects that go with it. No sick time anymore, more energy during the day, blah, blah, blah. He was really surprised by that and enthusiastic about it, but in all honesty I was not. I had already experienced it myself, and I had talked to others who had gone through the process, so I knew it was bound to happen. What absolutely blew me away though – for the first time in his life, J. discovered a passion: music. And I really mean PASSION; like in practicing an instrument several hours a day, getting up early in order to do so; like in contacting other musicians to play with and learn from; like in setting up his first gigs; like in putting his first recordings online. That is a pretty mind boggling transformation for anyone who works full time, but almost scary for someone who for the last ten years I have known him would take a 1-2 hour nap every day because he felt too tired, who would avoid leaving the house because of the physical and mental energy required. Now I have to stand him rambling on about instruments, amps, and singing harmonies for hours, the few times he is not doing something music related… But I still love you J., I really do!
In all seriousness though, going Paleo might change your life in ways that you cannot even imagine at this point. It’s not just my best friend J., it’s a very common occurrence in other Paleo eating people as well. I might actually tell you some of these stories I know in later articles. But it’s this kind of promise that should get you fired up about sticking with this way of eating, not some abstract health concern. That’s what Paleo for Productivity is all about.