What Should we eat?

Professor of Functional nutrition & Ancestral Health at McGill University
Tell us about who you are, your services and what brought you to the health world.
 I’m Pat Owen, a McGill graduate with a doctorate degree from the School of Human Nutrition. I’m currently teaching two courses in the same department – one is called the “Evolution of the Human Diet” and the other is “Herbs, Foods & Phytochemicals” I also provide private online consultations for those who wish to improve their health using an individualized ancestral and evolutionary approach. I entered the health world after having conducted fieldwork in the Himalayas among the Tibetan Highlanders in 1998. Their diet is high in saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt, and low in fruits and vegetables. Yet, their incidence of cardiovascular disease and obesity is incredibly low. At the time, I thought this was a dietary paradox and searched for possible explanations in their traditional food and medicinal plants. I was taught that vegetables were critical for good health and that too much fat, cholesterol and salt would clog up your arteries. After a few days of eating like the locals, I was worried that my health would suffer. The opposite happened and I genuinely never felt healthier in my life. When it was time to write my thesis, I included research that questioned our current nutritional dogma. I’ve since become passionate about teaching the foundations of Evolutionary Health, Functional Wellness, and Ancestral Nutrition. 

What are your top 3 non-negotiable habits?

Everything’s negotiable and it really depends on what I’m going through at the time. While I’d love to say that cold showers, meditation, and exercise form the basis of my perfect day, there are days (or weeks!) where I’m not able to fit them in. So the bare-minimum, daily non-negotiables are 1) Time spent outdoors; 2) Protein at every meal; and 3) Playtime with my daughters.

Changing our diets can be tough for most people. How do you get your clients to actually stick to their habits long-term?

Diet is a BIG habit to change, so I take a two-pronged approach: environmental and behavioural. The environmental portion involves a detailed lifestyle and nutrition plan that includes smaller, easier habits that make up a morning and evening routine. Even if the client has a hard time sticking to the diet, I insist that they keep their morning routine. Consistency with small habits wires the brain to become more comfortable maintaining consistency with bigger habits. The behavioural portion is harder but is critical to  long-term success. By far the biggest obstacle to dietary consistency is to cope with emotional eating. Most of us eat comfort foods whenever we’re stressed, angry, happy, tired, bored, or lonely. Disassociating these emotions with eating requires some difficult introspective work. I’m a big fan of cognitive mindfulness therapy and ask all my clients to take up meditation or journaling. At the same time, we need to recognize that our dopaminergic reward system is involved in our maladaptive coping strategies. So I ask my clients to limit their exposure to potentially addictive stimuli such as binge-watching TV, social media, phone notifications, YouTube, video games, alcohol, and porn. Restraint on such stimuli will help significantly with our restraint on sweets and comfort foods.

What do you think of the current weight-loss dogma of telling people to “move more and eat less”? 

The “move more and eat less” follows the Law of Thermodynamics, which holds true if humans were closed systems. From a calories-in / calories-out perspective, a simple caloric deficit can absolutely lead to weight-loss. Humans, however, are not closed systems. Hormones influence fat deposition and mobilization far more significantly than energy balance. Our species is the fattest primate to ever exist for one main reason: to feed our large, hungry brains in times of food scarcity. Women, due to evolutionary selective pressures for sexual dimorphism, carry more body fat than men to further ensure reproductive success and survival of our offspring, especially in times of food scarcity. So body fat is a tissue meant to ensure our survival, and anything that poses a threat to our survival will cause our hormones to promote fat deposition regardless of our caloric intake. The main hormone involved in this regard is cortisol. the stress hormone. So any fat-loss strategy MUST take into consideration the importance of sleep and stress management.

What are your top 3 recommendations that everyone should implement to get a good head start on their nutrition (or general) health? 

1) Stick to a sleep schedule. Wake up at the same time, even on weekends, and no snoozing! Consider this a kind of sleep training and expect a rough couple of days at the beginning. Soon after, your brain will recognize that you’ve given it a strict deadline to complete its REM cycles and you’ll naturally feel a strong pressure to fall asleep at an appropriate hour.

2) Eat protein at every meal. Animal protein provides a strong evolutionary signal that energy- and nutrient-dense food is available and accessible. It helps regulate your satiety signals and along with healthy fats, can really help combat cravings for sweets.

3) Get some sun. To calibrate your circadian rhythm, it’s best to get some sun exposure soon after sunrise. The health benefits of being outdoors extend far beyond getting your vitamin D requirements. Make sure to get at least 30 minutes of sun exposure, even in winter!

BONUS: Stay connected: Face-to-face interactions with friends and family are the best predictor of a long, healthy life. Maintain a social network and reach out to someone you trust whenever you need to talk about difficult issues going on in your life.

We’re strong believers in following habits that go in tandem with how we’ve evolved. You teach a course at McGill University called “The Evolution of the Human Diet”. Tell us about the baiss of this course and how “evolution” comes to play. 

I strongly espouse the Adaptive Mismatch Theory of health and dIsease, which is defined as the lag that occurs if the environment that existed when a mechanism evolved changes more rapidly than the time needed for the mechanism to adapt to the change. In my course, we contrast the differences between our modern environment and our evolutionary past, and how this mismatch leads to a variety of physical and mental health consequences. Beyond nutrition, we’ve also explored mismatch theory in relation to academia, the 9-5 work day, politics, dating,  relationships, shoewear, social communities, hygiene, back pain, and more! The course included a few field expeditions to get the students outside of the classroom, away from their screens, and out into nature. We climbed Mont St-Hilaire barefoot, ate a nose-to-tail meal prepared by a renowned chef, learned how to identify edible, medicinal, and poisonous plants, and discussed the human condition from an ecological perspective. It’s a class that the students will never forget!

Where can people find you to learn more about you and your services?

It would be my pleasure to help you discover your evolutionary blueprint and how you can take up habits that are aligned with your body. You can visit  www.drpatrickowen.com for more information. I can be found on Facebook at Patrick Owen, Ph.D. – Ancestral Health & Functional Nutrition, and on Instagram at @drpatowen.

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