Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hero of the Week #2: Robb Wolf

First off, I changed the name from "Heroic Thursdays" to "Hero of the Week," so if you got last week's post re-sent it's because I had to edit and re-publish the post.
My Hero of the Week this week is Robb Wolf.  He's been in a lot of media lately because he has a book coming out soon (which I do plan to purchase), but I've been following his articles, forum posts, and podcasts since long before the book was anything but a gleam in Robb's eye.
Robb is a former research scientist, now trainer, who is squarely in the Paleo camp as far as diet is concerned.  If you don't know what Paleo means, it's a dietary plan roughly based around eating the way we evolved to eat - the way our ancestors spent a couple million years eating.  Mostly meat, vegetables, some nuts and seeds.  No grains or dairy (which didn't even exist until ten thousand or fewer years ago, just a blink on the evolutionary scale). 
The Paleo diet is very popular right now in the blogging/ fitness community, and a number of people have blogs focused around the concept.  Art De Vany was probably the first to do so, and do it well, but his blog is subscription based now, so I won't link to it.
Paleo bloggers/ endorsers generally fall into a handful of categories.  First are the research based guys - these are the people who take the basic theory and either look for or do scientific studies to support their position or to fine tune the diet.  Loren Cordain is a pretty excellent example of this, but there are others, many operating on an amateur level, using PubMed to refine their ideas.
I'm all for doing research, but for reasons I'll address in future posts I'm somewhat skeptical of the validity of basing an approach to lifestyle on any scientific studies - basically because no science done on human behaviors can be done in a double blind fashion. 
Next are the self-experimenters.  These are people who basically had some kind of health issue - overfat, autoimmune diseases, heart disease, poor athletic performance, whatever - and, after turning to a Paleo style of eating, saw dramatic improvements.  They report on their personal progress and spend time either promoting the lifestyle with encouragement or recipes, making arguments supporting the diet, or picking apart anti-Paleo press statements or studies reported in the popular media.
I'm all for self experimenting, but just because an individual or a group of individuals gets great results from a lifestyle change doesn't mean it will work for many or most people.  Art De Vany is an amazing specimen of health at his (or any) age, but he might be just as vigorous if he'd lived on donuts and coffee for the last forty years.  The guy could just be a genetic freak that way.  The same could be said for any other "I eat this way and now I'm healthy" bloggers - they could be the exceptions, not the rule.
Last is Robb Wolf.  Robb does a ton of research - the guy's about as well read as anybody I know of, probably because he's been doing a lot of reading as research for the book he's writing.  And he's turned his own health around with a Paleo diet.  But he also has a large population of clients, many with drastically varying goals, with whom he experiments, and has been doing so for many years now. 
If Robb's recommendations didn't work for the majority of the people who wander through the doors of his gym then he wouldn't have a job anymore.  This broad base of experience lets him address questions in a way many other authorities can't.  For example, take the nightshade question - basically, can people eat nightshades (which are a family of plants that includes potatoes and tomatoes) despite the fact that they weren't available paleolithically.  Many bloggers can report on their own experiments with eating nightshades or removing them from the diet, but Robb has done this experiment with many clients, measuring their performance with and without nightshades in their diets, and can report that some saw big improvements while some didn't.  This may not sound like that great of an answer, but it actually is - I can tell anybody who asks that they may or may not be sensitive to nightshades, and that they should try taking them out of the diet for, say, 30 days, and see how they feel.  Contrast that to the advice I'd give about whole grains, which is simply that no human should eat whole grains ever, and that if at all possible we should take them out of our diets completely.
Robb answers questions on his excellent podcast, and his advice generally looks like this:  Eat Paleo.  If you're not meeting your goals, make adjustments depending on the goal - need to bulk up? Try adding some dairy.  Still dealing with inflammation?   Add some fish oil, cut the nightshades, get stricter.  He's a lot more knowledgeable than I am, but that's the gist of it.  Make the change for 30 days and measure your performance.  If you get better, stick with it.  If not, go back and try something different.
Within the basic framework of the paleo philosophy Robb does, and encourages others to do, actual science.  He's not a knee jerk, drank the Kool Aid follower of Cordain - if someone needs to bulk up, he might advise them to try adding dairy in to see if they experience adverse reactions.  He knows from past experience that some clients will respond very well to that change.  He's got a central standpoint but he's not enslaved by it.  He's only a slave to results. 
One last attribute of Robb's I really enjoy is his willingness to admit when he's not sure of something, and to admit that he might change his ideas as time goes on and his understanding of various issues deepens.  I've heard him say on his podcast a number of times that he's leaning towards one position or another on a topic but isn't yet convinced.  That kind of honesty and open-mindedness is invaluable and rare in the world of thinking.
That's why Robb Wolf is my hero.  Of the Week.

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