The answer: very, very s-l-o-w-l-y.
It seems well-nigh impossible. Many folks have successfully put sweets aside, but starchy carbohydrates are another matter entirely.
By this point in human civilization, every culture on earth has a starch-based cuisine. We long ago gave up our hunter-gatherer ways in favor of staying put and harvesting food from the land. Grains have been our food staple of choice for millennia, with some veggies and protein on the side.
Plus, we love us our carbs. I know that excessive carbs are unhealthy, but I’ve never met a serving of au gratin potatoes, curry rice, miso ramen, or pastaofanykind that I didn’t like. And I’m not alone.
Why did the farmer have smelly thumbs?
As the punchline goes, sticking his thumbs in his armpits and readying himself to tell the tale, It’s a looong story.
But fascinating as the speculation is on why we love us our starchy carbs and whether it’s been good for civilization that we got to this point, bottom line: you probably need to be able to limit your starchy carbohydrate intake. You may not need to eliminate grain-based carbs — though from what I know about public health and treating individuals, the chances are excellent that you have to reduce your starch intake. But I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in your life, a major cutback will be necessary.
Jared Diamond penned an interesting article that makes the rounds of the Paleo community from time to time. Converting from a hunter-gatherer to an agrarian, farm-the-land lifestyle, he argued, was The Worst Mistake In The History Of The Human Race. About 50,000 years ago, it gave us a nominal boost in individual life expectancy, an uptick in population growth, and civilization as we know it. Less time hunting meant more time developing skills, staring at the stars, and thinking about…everything.
It also led to accumulation of wealth (you can store grain), entrenched hierarchies (chief, enforcers, farmers), and wide-scale social injustice (chief sits on his behind, enforcers make everyone contribute to his wealth). And there are certain health issues that arise when plant-based, antinutrient-rich foods become the main food source of humans who don’t have the guts of cows. (Functional medicine and Paleo folks argue that this causes a ton of health issues, if not MOST of the diseases we consider chronic conditions.)
Again, it’s a long, arguable story.
Don’t care about Korg, me care about now
Korg, Chief Ug, and Mitochondrial Eve may be a passing footnote from an anthropology class you audited in college.
Why should you care about cutting back on your banh mi, your morning oatmeal, or your rice or pasta now?
I can make the argument, even not knowing specifics about you.
Something north of 3/4 of America is overweight or obese. And excess body fat is NOT just about looks and fashion; it connects very well with the increase in diabetes, the prevalence of heart attacks and strokes, worse outcomes in COVID, cancer — so, all the top killers in the US right now — the problem known as fatty liver, as well as the decrease in testosterone/increase in estrogen/the development of breast tissue in males. Okay, maybe that last one is fashion related, but the related fatigue, drop in sex drive, and difficulty with gaining strength and maintaining muscle mass is no joke.
The prime driver in the obesity epidemic is excess sugar and starchy carbohydrate intake. This is not a one-off issue for a handful of folks among a population of millions. Count the next ten people you pass on the street; 7 or more will be chunky, probably including yourself.
…and it’s not just about habit science
I’ve written about the most powerful tool you can put in your personal toolkit for moving yourself in the world or moving the world around your self: habit science. It’s how you take advantage of how the brain works to create repeating patterns of behavior (habits) that can exponentially accelerate your progress in desired directions. The ultimate superpower, if you will.
And it’s not enough.
It should be enough — what more do you need to achieve greatness than a superpower that you aim and that automatically rockets you to your goal? As Archimedes said, Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.
The other key variable, though, is you. You and your willingness to push down on the crowbar that is your habit science tool, and to decide where you’re going to brace it. Weight loss? Increased muscle mass? Cleared up brain fog? Pain relief?
My wife and I recently finished the 5-day Prolon diet. It comes in a box with instructions, and we got several boxes, to do about once per quarter. We stared at those boxes for months. Once we cracked them open, we were good to go: everything inside was pre-prepared, just peel wrappers off the bars and add hot water to the soup. The traditional barriers to success were greatly reduced (what to eat, who is going to make it, any involved meal prep), and we completed the 5 days successfully.
But until we actually unboxed the first box, the diet remained unadopted. We had to decide, today is the day to proceed.
In BJJ, it’s called “cooking”
This reminds me of a key concept in Brazilian jiu-jitsu: appropriate to this discussion, it’s called “cooking” your opponent.
Rather than focusing on a flashy joint lock or a cool choke to make them submit, “cooking” refers to achieving and holding a dominant position. Usually with your body weight smushing your training partner, as they try to roll out from under you.
They roll to the left, you shift your weight to the right. They go right, you roll left. All the while, you’re sinking deeper and deeper into the smushing hold, until they get so fed up being a pancake that they make a mistake and THEN you apply a finishing move.
Cutting back on your rice, bread, noodles, or cereal is like that. Any health goal pursued by complex biological systems known as human beings is like that.
The situation calls for you going one way, and you make some progress. Then things change, and you have to do something that’s different, but that still takes you closer to your goal. Back and forth, up and down, left and right you go, until you achieve the goal. You can’t just go at it directly, they’ll see you coming and block you. You have to be patient, persistent, and crafty. Versatile, if you prefer.
Having a method to reduce roadblocks and keep you on track over the long haul is super helpful — habit science, for example. But there will come a time when the clouds part, a shaft of sunlight illuminates the plain, and your commitment snaps into focus — your New Year’s resolution, or bad news about a friend that’s your wake-up call. And what carries you over the finish line (or makes you step foot onto the path of improvement) is a momentary surge in willpower that makes you DECIDE.
How does a smaller, weaker martial artist defeat a bigger, stronger opponent? How is it possible to separate yourself from beloved carbs? They’re equally daunting, “How the heck is that possible?” type goals. And the answer is a) these goals can absolutely be achieved, b) a method (habit science), a guideline (a Paleo or similar diet), and a commitment work the best together, and c) the progress is more a back and forth, more a ratcheting motion, than a straight line.
I suspect we need both the commitment to the goal and an efficient method to take us there, and that neither is enough by itself. And that’s real life for us messy humans. Straight lines exist in math textbooks, in biology not so much.