The following is a guest post by Stefani Ruper of Paleo For Women, lending her unique perspective on the differences between the sexes.
[For an update, please see: Lemons to Lemonade Documentary – Ed]
Mark’s Daily Apple receives between 250,000 and 300,000 unique visitors to its homepage every month. This means that MDA has approximately 300,000 regular followers. With this many followers, MDA blows the rest of the paleosphere out of the water, beating out spot #2 at 55,000 followers (thepaleodiet.com) by more than 500 percent.*
Which doesn’t mean much, other than the fact that having an ear to the ground at MDA yields a pretty good idea of what’s trending hot in the paleosphere.
In August of 2010,** Mark posted an article, “Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy?” and said this:
A recent article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition gives a great overview of these benefits which include decreases in blood pressure, reduction in oxidative damage to lipids, protein and DNA, improvement in insulin sensitivity and glucose uptake, as well as decreases in fat mass.
He goes on: “How can you argue with results like these?”
The recent article link leads to a review of intermittent fasting studies performed in 2007. It contains the following passages:
Heilbronn et al. found that, after 3 weeks of alternate day fasting, insulin response to a test meal was reduced, which implied improved insulin sensitivity. It is interesting that this effect on insulin sensitivity occurred only in male subjects.
Another diabetes risk factor that has shown a sex-specific effect is glucose tolerance. After 3 weeks of alternate day fasting, women but not men had an increase in the area under the glucose curve. This unfavorable effect on glucose tolerance in women, accompanied by an apparent lack of an effect on insulin sensitivity, suggests that short-term ADF may be more beneficial in men than in women in reducing type 2 diabetes risk.
Following through to the research linked to by the review demonstrates that the sex differences are real.
This fact went unnoticed by Mark Sisson—certainly an innocent oversight rather than some sort of malicious chauvinism—and he is not alone in that. Sex differences in response to different food and lifestyle choices are largely ignored by the paleosphere. A paleosphere which we generally regard as presumably, hopefully, perhaps some day in the future, more egalitarian, data-oriented, and smart about diet and lifestyle than it’s conventional counterparts.
So far in this regard it is not. The world is largely ignorant of the differences between male and female diet and behavioral needs. The majority of medical studies are performed on men, and when they are performed on women, they are almost always menopausal women, in order to eliminate the presumed variable complications that hormonal fluctuations introduce into a testing environment. So even when paleo blogging gurus refer to the most unbiased research in the medical world, they are referring to studies designed to work around rather than through the needs of reproductive women.
The Problem: Perfectionism and it’s Tango with Social Norms
Paleo dieters are obsessed with being hot. Much as we might like to conflate our desire for optimum sex appeal with our desire for optimal health—and much as that may be a legitimate act, since health and physical attractiveness are in some ways significantly correlated—the fact remains that we very much prize the tangled duo of perfect health and perfect hotness. The degree to which we prioritize these pursuits varies, but it is very much worth asking the question of each of us: we might say we are in pursuit of the “healthy,” but is that what we honestly mean? Do we instead not mean “impressive”? Or “perfect”? Or “attractive”? Capable of strutting our superior life choices around haters? Or inspiring people? Are we using paleo ‘health’ as a way to cover up our real need, our need to be validated and accepted and sexy and loved?
Maybe. The question is not super relevant, other than for the fact that much of what we do is in pursuit of this dual hot-healthy goal. And that’s great, except for the fact that we are total extremists about it. If you are in doubt of this fact I invite you to go to Paleohacks, or to the MDA forums, which are the two largest online paleo communities. They are full of quotes such as this one:
I have never starved myself and your generalization that fasting for 40 days causes starvation is incorrect.
Paleo dieters often are by our very nature perfectionists. We seek optimal health, optimal performance, optimal looks, optimal life hacks. Optimal macronutrient ratios, optimal micronutrient intake…. the list is long. The whole point being that a diet that promises perfect health (literally), and that often delivers something very close, naturally attracts people who chase perfection. The diet, lifestyle, and community structure provide myriads of ways for us to do that. Even those of us who were not perfectionists to begin with get sucked into the fervor. The paleosphere is a culture of optimality-seeking, through and through.
Psychological problems aside, isn’t that all well and good? Doesn’t that lead us to better health in the end?
For men, yes? For women, no?
There are two ways in which this pursuit of optimality—specifically with respect to this dual hot-healthy pursuit—has the potential to derail health. First is the end goal, and secondly are the methods we often use to reach those goals.
Perhaps the most obvious problem with pursuing attractiveness through diet and lifestyle is that attractiveness by social standards is not necessarily aligned with evolutionary health. This we know well, but it bears repeating. Standards of attractiveness are conditioned just as strongly, if not more strongly, by social standards rather than by base physiological drives. This is evidenced by simple tropes: it is now attractive to be tan rather than pale, for example, since upper classes have more leisure time to spend outside. And it is now more attractive to be thin rather than plump, since only upper classes have access to gym memberships and CSAs, etc.
Unfortunately, the paleosphere’s vigor for bucking social norms does not appear to extend to body image. The Western world’s ideal woman is a thin woman. The paleosphere is not immune to social conditioning by this monster. Sure, the paleosphere might say that it values strength and fitness moreso than conventional counterparts, but even for those of us who believe that, this notion is almost a matter of perfectionism again, pushing ourselves to incorporate as many things into our bodies that make us attractive as possible: not just skinny, but also strong. Not just thin, but also muscled. The typical perfect paleo body is lithe, fit, and rippling. Curvy, perhaps, but never insofar as it might encroach upon a woman’s hard abs. Bear in mind, also, that even without the muscles, even without this specifically paleo ideal, thousands of paleo dieters are in it for dropping pounds.
This would be all well and good if a thin woman were actually the most optimally healthy woman.
She is not.
For reference, a model or an athlete on TV may be around 17-18 percent body fat. (For men, around 10.) Women begin dying around 12 percent body fat, and they stop menstruating at a wide variety of lower body fat levels, depending on the woman. Typically, menstruation drops off by around 18 percent, though many women stop menstruating at 20 or even 22 or 23 percent body fat, depending on her development and the strength of her metabolism and her ovaries, etc. Some women are naturally stickly thin. Most are not. Trying to jam women adjusted to 20 or 22 percent body fat bodies into 18 percent body fat bodies is practically a crime. Those last few percentage points that come off of a woman are those stored around her buttocks, hips, and thighs. This fat is specifically female fat, and it is significantly associated with a woman’s well-being.
Why do women have this fat, and what does it do?
Aside from protecting women against starvation more strongly than men, as well as assuring that a woman will have enough energy and nutrients to carry offspring, this fat is also largely responsible for partitioning DHA (the “good” omega 3) fat to a woman’s offspring. Children born of mothers with more of this DHA-heavy fat tend to be smarter than those without (PDF). Those are all important things, evolutionarily, imho.
Science agrees. The most fertile woman is not the thinnest or the most buff woman. Instead, the most fertile woman is above 22 percent body fat. Many studies even argue that women between BMIs of 25-29—often considered by our culture as “overweight”—fare better in longevity and long term health (PDF) than lower weight women. Below the healthy range of > 20 percent body fat women often begin experiencing cravings, anxiety, depression, insomnia, loss of libido, brittle hair and nails, hypothyrodism and infertility. The bottom line being that a woman’s fat around her hips, buttocks, and thighs—that which prevents her from looking like something on the cover of Shape magazine—is in many cases crucial for health, mental well-being, and reproductive function.
So that’s one thing. We fail to take into account sex-specific needs for body fat and for health, and we allow our desire for attractiveness to mangle them like a meat grinder.
The second is health and weight loss method.
As optimality-seekers, we paleo dieters thrive off of evolutionary tricks that can be used to achieve health and weight loss goals. These include but are not limited to cold therapy, carb cycling, ketosis, high intensity interval training, calorie restriction, and intermittent fasting. What is wrong with all of these practices is not their intrinsic natures, necessarily, but is instead the vigorous extent to which we pursue them, and the recklessness we have with regards to sex differences.
Enter the MDA preface. Fasting is enormously popular in the paleosphere today. But it is a stressor, through and through. Couple our vigorous pursuit of optimality with ignorance of sex-specificity, and we land in a heaping pile of female health threats.
As my analysis of fasting points to, and as study after study after study on calorie restriction indicates, men can undergo metabolic stressors relatively painlessly, and in fact usually emerge in good health and fitness. Women, on the other hand, do not. The female body is designed first and foremost to guard its fertility, and for that reason the body strongly resists and is hurt by metabolic stress.
In many cases, both anecdotally and in the literature, women on restrictive diets—whether fasts or calorie-restricted diets, fat-restricted or carbohydrate-restricted diets, typically healthy diets by paleo standards—or unhealthy diets experience hindered mental health, energy, sleep quality, insulin and leptin signalling, thyroid activity, and HPA axis function. Moreover, because the body is detecting metabolic stress and wants to defend itself, restricted women sometimes actually gain weight. I have met, in fact, several women who undertake one to three day fasts and gain a couple of pounds. The dubious nature of these restrictive diets relative to women’s health includes the effects of excessive exercise, particularly over-done HIIT.
This isn’t to say that women shouldn’t reduce calories from time to time, or certainly that they shouldn’t engage in HIIT. We should. But female bodies cannot—straight up, they cannot—handle these stressors as well as men do. And even when they do experience benefits—which is often! especially for obese women—it is a sure bet that it occurs by a physiological mechanism unique to a man. In all metabolic influences—in energy intake, expenditure, type of energy utilized, amount of body fat on the person—women require more and different safeguarding than men in order to maintain optimal health. This is the truth of science and of evolution.
All of which is to say:
We paleo dieters are conditioned by Western norms. We want to be attractive. We are driven by promises of optimality and perfection. We pursue these things with vigor. It appears that in many ways, especially as women, we are fucking ourselves.
One common solution people pose to the body image/feminism problem is an overhaul of society. I agree, to an extent. That would help us a lot. What modern media are doing to contemporary women (and men) is insidious. Malicious. Demonic. For this reason, there are more than a few influential sorts I look forward to meeting on the fiery precipice of hell.
But that is an act of asking—or of forcing—other people to change. Not only does that cause my libertarian roots to twitch in discomforted individualistic alarm, but it also a) constrains my liberation and empowerment by the wills of other people, and who the fuck would ever want to wait around for that? and b) does a disservice to my personal strength and the strength of love in the individuals around me.
The solution then is not to attack the paleo masses. Nor is it to attack the people at the top, those who are calling the shots. It’s not to attack Mark Sisson, Robb Wolf, Loren Cordain, or any of the other several male paleo bloggers who dominate the blogging scene. They are not doing anything wrong. They want women to be as healthy as women want to be healthy. In fact, while they do not necessarily trumpet women’s health issues, I’d assert pretty confidently that they do a better job loving and advocating natural female bodies than women do.
The simple fact is, however, that it’s not their job to walk the walk.
It is ours.
Our job is to stand up. Our job is to take ownership of womanhood and to live by healthy, empowered example. It is to be real and honest with ourselves as women, and to come to terms with our own desires and natures. Womanhood will never change if women are not owning and loving the right stuff themselves. We have to get over our baggage. I don’t care if we get more attention when we are skinny; I don’t care if any of us grew up with towering professional ballerinas squeezing our hips and telling us to go stand in the corner while the real dancers danced. I don’t care if we have mommy issues or daddy issues or if we grew up in a world in which being thin or exercising or meeting any of the ridiculous Western notions of womanhood were the only ways we could achieve psychological peace. That’s over, now.
I do care. I’m sorry. I care so much I spend several hours each week producing a podcast about that effort. It’s hard. More than hard. These issues are frightening. But we are never going to get over them if we do not start standing. Start refusing to listen to the insidious chatter of the outside world. Start ignoring the self-flagellation in our heads. Start walking with our chins up and our eyes ahead.
We have the power to say no to norms, and yes to our health. We have the ability to pay attention to our physiological needs ourselves. We can rise up, and be proud of our evolutionary bodies, and love our bodies as we see fit. We don’t need to ask others to do it for us. We don’t have the luxury to wait for society to catch up. We have the tools; we have the knowledge; we have each other. This goes for understanding unique physiological and reproductive needs as well as for embracing natural bodies. Now is the time for us to refuse to be caged, and to say fuck it to external pressures, and to exalt in the glory of real, natural, nourished womanhood.
The truth of evolution and a paleolithic perspective encourages this notion. When we use evolutionary science rather than norms to guide our lifestyles and our choices, it helps us break free of social norms. It helps us see what true health looks like, and it helps us embrace our natural bodies. An honest paleo perspective demands natural womanhood. It demands that a woman prioritize her health, and that she nourish herself above all other things. And then with her well-nourished body, a woman is enabled to work productively, to sleep peacefully, to live fiercely, to laugh freely. This goes for women and for men, both. Paying attention to a body’s evolutionary needs–and then meeting them–gives it the tools necessary to provide a smooth-running platform off of which the individual can spring, off of which she can live.
The paleosphere cannot help but be weighed down by the intrinsic patriarchy of Western civilization. It is trying to break free—and hats off to the men and women out there making it happen—but it will be some time before it can completely throw off those chains. And we paleo dieters cannot help but pursue perfect bodies and practices with vigor. We cannot be blamed for wanting to be perceived as sexy, healthy, empowered, strong, beautiful, lovable.
However. We cannot ask others to do this for us. Nor can we achieve these things by conventional, gender-neutral, restrictive means. Real health demands something else. Real health asks that we take the knowledge we have ourselves and act on it. And own it. And strut it. And love it. And be embodied, real, self-loving and self-nourishing human beings. That makes us sexy. It makes us powerful. And it makes us real, kick-ass, revolutionary women, in the most beautiful and inspiring senses of the word.
*The Paleo Diet has 55,000. Robb Wolf, 35,000. Everyday paleo (the blog of women as mothers), around 25,000. Whole9, 20,000. Free the Animal, 15,000. Jimmy Moore, 15,000. Melissa McEwen’s blog, 8000. Balanced bites, 8000. Cavegirleats, 2000. For benchmarks.
[Note: According to Google Analytics, Free the Animal receives 55,000 – 60,000 Unique Visitors per month. – Ed]
**This hasn’t changed. The more recent series on fasting, which occurred in April 2012, refers to the same batch of articles and leaves sex differences unmentioned.
My website, Paleo for Women, is a place at which I explore female specific health problems as well as female specific responses to general health issues such as diabetes or weight loss. It is, more importantly, however, a place for women to find passion and inspiration and community. I invite you to join us.
[For an update, please see: Lemons to Lemonade Documentary – Ed]