The Science of Practical Application

If you haven’t already noticed, blog topics in the Paleo community tend to trend in waves.  The current trend, following discussions held at the recent Ancestral Health Symposium (AHS), can be summed up in two words: 

It’s Complicated.

First, Mat Lalonde’s AHS presentation, in part, urged the educators in our community to get the science straight.  To ensure our credibility, Lalonde says, we must acknowledge that things are complicated, and that context matters. The summary:

Take care not to over-state the science, draw broad conclusions based on observational epidemiology, or cling to a “one size fits all” approach to nutrition (such as, “low-carb diets are good for everyone”).

Shortly thereafter, Stephan Guyenet of Whole Health Source wrote this article on carbohydrate’s role in obesity.  The summary:

Carbohydrate consumption by itself  is not behind the obesity epidemic – there are many other factors at play.  Obesity is a complex problem, and it will not be shoehorned into simplistic hypotheses.

The very next day, Chris Kresser of The Healthy Skeptic posted this article expressing a similar viewpoint on the cause of obesity.  The summary:

Why do people get fat?  It depends.  There are many variables involved in weight regulation, and it would be difficult (impossible?) to come up with a single, unified theory of obesity.

What do all of these expert opinions have in common?  Nutritional science is complicated,  the explanations are multi-factorial, and we should take care to frame our recommendations in the appropriate context.

Practical Application

Last week, we also came across this article from blogger Bethany Glaser, written as a reflection of her experience at the AHS.  The summary:

Yes, we should all geek out on paleo ideology and get our science straight… but how do we put this stuff into practice?  My Mom isn’t a part of this (Paleo) community, and she’s not going to spend hours digging through the science… but I want health and happiness for her too.

We couldn’t agree more, Bethany.  So, how are these subjects related?  They’re two sides of the same story – and they all reflect something Whole9 has been doing our best to balance since the very beginning.

The Science of Practical Application

To first answer Bethany’s question, there are people out there (like us) who are all about the practical application.  We take all the science-y, technical information for which your Mom, co-worker, or  teenage daughter haven’t the patience, the interest or the background, and we do our best translate that into practical, applicable advice.  We promise at the end of every one of our nutrition workshops that no one will walk away saying, “So what do I make for lunch?”  We enable people to change the way the eat for the rest of their lives with our Whole30 program, and tens of thousands of people have done so with great success.

But reaching tens of thousands of people means we often have to paint our readers’ health and fitness picture – and the nutritional recommendations we offer them – with broad strokes.  And sometimes, it could be argued, we over-simplify our explanations, and generalize our dietary prescriptions.

You know what? That would be a fair point. But we take that approach on purpose…because we’re just trying to help you and your Mom get healthy with our articles, programs and public recommendations. And with very few exceptions, those broad strokes are greatly successful.

Our Broad Strokes

We know the science we present here isn’t complete. Frankly, we’re not biochemists. We leave the really complicated science-y stuff up to people who do that best – folks like Robb Wolf, Mat Lalonde and Paul Jaminet. And then we take what we’ve learned from their research, and from our own education and experience, and create the practical application guidelines we present here.

These are our broad strokes with a big brush, all designed to help get people on the road to eating healthier as effectively and efficiently as possible:

  • Chronically high levels of blood sugar and/or insulin are damaging to the body.
  • Systemic inflammation plays a causative role in most lifestyle-related diseases and conditions. 
  • Normalizing gut integrity and function is necessary for good health.
  • Over-consumption of nutrient-poor, carbohydrate-dense foods make you less healthy. 
  • Added sugar (in any form) and alcohol make you less healthy.
  • For multiple reasons, grains, legumes and dairy generally make you less healthy. 
  • Creating a healthy psychological relationship with food is key for long-term success.

We know our approach doesn’t explain (or address) every factor that affects health and nutrition.  We know it’s far more complicated than the information we present to the general public.  But our job is practical application.  We are not scientists or academics – we’re nutritionists.  While it would be fair to say that some of our recommendations are over-generalized, we’re okay with that, as long as what we’re presenting helps our readers understand the basic concepts, follow our advice and get healthier 

Science Matters

That’s not to say we don’t care about the science.  We do, of course – which is why we continually work to ensure our broad strokes are still, at their core, scientifically accurate.  But our job isn’t about detailing the science down to the level of a chemist or physiologist – lots of folks (like those we’ve already mentioned) do that really well already.  Our role is to provide our readers, clients, Whole30 participants and workshop attendees with guidance, support, and a structured program designed to help them improve their health.  That is the essence of practical application – and that is what we’ll continue to focus on in the coming months with our workshops, consulting practice and upcoming book.  

In the meantime, we agree with Mat, Stephan and Chris – it is complicated, it does depend on a multitude of factors, and we all need to keep seeking knowledge and accuracy in the science behind our recommendations.  And as evidenced above, there is still a lot of nutritional know-how that is yet to be determined. In the meantime, however, people need to live, and eat, and improve their health. So we all do the best we can with the tools we have, in the roles we all serve within the community.

For Bethany, who wants to know how we can all best put all the science into practice, take heart.  Between the researchers, academics, physicians and all of us practical application folks, we’ve got a well-rounded team ready and willing to take our information, experience and passion to the masses.

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  1. says

    Bravo! And such a good job of it you both are doing! We need the ‘tweeners’ like you guys to go between science and practice. ‘Bench to bedside’ is the expression frequently used in the medical world where lab bench results can be translated to bed side practices in managing and curing illness and disease. It’s probably one of the toughest jobs, to have one foot in each camp. Keep up the awesome work!

  2. says

    Love this. It gives all us normal-folk a place to start when the science is too confusing and debilitating for the lay person to muddle through. Can’t wait to see you preaching on Oprah or Dr. Oz (as Dr. BG predicts).

  3. says

    This, is a properly good post. It really can’t be said any better than what you guys have written here. Yes, we are all grounded in science. But then science doesn’t always lend itself readily to a form of application that will gain buy-in from the very people that science is trying to help. I have always said that health-related fields are a mixture of science and art. If one gets the mix right, then you can achieve great things with patients/clients. Compromises, on both sides, always have to be made. And we need to be aware that we are often trying to play a long game with these people. For example, the science might suggest that going very low carb isn’t necessarily the best practice. But in the short term, it might have to be a strategy that you undertake, to break the back of some bad habits, cravings, etc, before you reinstate carbs again.

    I discussed this with a few people at AHS, that starting with a baseline based on years of consuming an unhealthy diet and living an unhealthy lifestyle, isn’t the best place to start. But where do you start when you are facing an individual who may have multiple factors present in the aetiology of where they are currently at? I think the best place to start is something like a Whole30 programme. This, whilst not necessarily being the best diet for that individual to move forward on in the long term, I think it provides a better baseline from which you can make adjustments than that of a Standard Western Diet and its accompanying lifestyle.

    Finally too, we as practitioners need to be prepared to use some strategies as a ‘clinical treatment’, to achieve an outcome from which the patient can move forward from. This can involve types of dietary manipulation, such as carbohydrate restriction for SIBO, or it might involve various forms of supplementation in order to make corrections, replenish nutrient stores, or to specifically treat conditions. The science here might be less solid than what the likes of Mat Lelonde would be happy with from a strict perspective, but in the short term, it can achieve what you need of it, in order to get an individual on more solid ground.

    Love your work, guys!

  4. Jake says


    We should give up trying to convince the mainstream nutrition establishment. (universities, goverment, dietians and doctors) about the wisdom of the paleo lifestyle. It will take decades for them to change and the change will only happen when the old guard stuck in the 1970’s die off.

    Instead we have to use viral marketing techniques to spread the word about the Paleo lifestyle that you have outlined using social media and word of mouth. Millions of lives are at stake.

    I personally purchased and given away to my acquaintances 35 Mark Sisson or Robb Wolf books. Those people who have adopted the paleo lifestyle have seen dramatic improvement in their health.

  5. Morten G says

    Right on!

    I recognize exactly what Mat Lalonde is talking about – some blogs about paleo will have information where even basic chemical structures are wrong. While biology, and by extension biochemistry, is a mishmash of balances and controls you can’t get chemical structures wrong and they are not up for discussion! And when someone does it shows that their grasp of any of the science involved is probably tenuous at best and they have no credibility.

    I love the Whole30 program and more and more when people tell me “Why are you eating like that? That’s stupid. Where’s the science?”, I tell them to do a Whole30 and then we can discuss afterwards. And I’ll help them with what to cook and shop etc.