The following post is by professor Risa Stein of Rockhurst University.
For over 25 years I have counseled others in weight loss, researched weight loss interventions, and taught college students about obesity and weight loss strategies. For about 23 of those years I practiced and taught what I was taught – fat is evil and when calories in is greater than calories out, you get fat. I bought into this message whole heartedly and made sure to train my undergraduate Health Psychology students in the fine art of calorie and fat gram counting. (I also did an unfortunately good job on my parents).
About 2 years ago my family switched to a Paleo diet and lifestyle. It has been revolutionary. Teaching my students about it and the relationship between carbohydrate consumption and the obesity rate has been particularly rewarding. Fortunately, college students are much more open-minded than many folks. They are skeptical of the message at first, but once I present the history (both evolutionarily and since the McGovern administration), they are full of great questions. I also show them Fat Head and we discuss the biochemistry (best I can) of macronutrient metabolism. They seem to readily buy into the paleo concept, after all it makes good sense. However, they look like deer in headlights by the end of the lecture and video and the discussion quickly turns to “so, what should we eat then?” I hear a lot of “Well, do graham crackers count? How about peanut butter? Can I still have the toppings from pizza? BEER?????” We spend quite a bit of time on good/better/best food choices since they are somewhat limited to the food on campus.
During subsequent class periods we discuss heart disease, cancer, and several other modern illnesses – all of which are tied together by the unifying high-carb intake model. We talk at some length about how they, as practitioners, will be challenged to assist their clients in making a behavioral change. We review strategies aimed at meeting people where they are psychologically (stages of change or the transtheoretical model), obstacles to behavioral change, and factors related to increasing adherence. One of the ways I broach these topics with the students involves comparing them to the average person. They clearly recognize themselves to be among the best and brightest, educated, middle- to upper-class individuals. Yet, very few of them engage in all or even some of the leading health protective factors (e.g., maintaining a healthy weight, eating fruits and vegetables, exercising, not smoking) on a consistent basis. I ask them how they can expect their clients to remain healthy when young, intelligent men and women with numerous resources aren’t even engaging in the top health habits. Most assume that since they are young and in pretty good shape, it doesn’t matter too much. At this point, our talks typically turn to a discussion of telomeres, acne, and inflammation.
As we progress, I explain to the class, many of whom are athletes and/or interested in health related professions, that those folks who are noticeably overweight, particularly at their age, really have an advantage over the thin people with similar diet compositions. This is usually good for a few quizzical looks. So, I explain that none of us are built to run on grains and starchy carbs and those of us who respond noticeably by putting on weight are at an advantage because we have a clear sign that our bodies are rejecting this dietary component. It’s the rest of the relatively thin class who should really take note. I tell them that their bodies are reacting in a variety of similarly distasteful ways, but they likely have either failed to recognize the clues or attributed them to non-dietary sources. I challenge them to go 2 weeks without grains, rice and potatoes. I generally use the looks of sheer horror on their faces or their complete exasperation over the impossibility of such a monumental task as evidence that they are clearly addicted to carbs and that the detrimental effects of carbs are already manifesting themselves. The addiction is no better than smoking or using heroin. In fact, carb consumption is more insidious and potentially damaging since the impact can be stealthy and pervasive and carbs are so readily available. Gradually over the course of the semester I see fewer bagels, cereal, and Mountain Dew being brought into class. Kids start to rib each other whenever they “fall off the wagon” and eat starchy carbs. They bubble with pride and joy (which I effusively share) when they tell me they’ve gone a whole week without carbs and are feeling great.
We go on to discuss their parents (who are generally about my age). Several have already had heart attacks, many are on medications, very few are trim and athletic with few vestiges of midlife health problems. During most semesters, the 2-week carb-free challenge has included a short school break period when many students make a trip home. This is a crucial time. Of course mom and dad want to know all about what they are learning at school. Many students have reported back that they rented and watched Fat Head with their parents and that their entire family now intends to try and reduce or eliminate starchy carbs. These discussions, where they become the teachers of the paleo lifestyle for their parents, further reinforce the message for them.
Most rewarding are the comments I get back from students by the end of the semester or later in the year that fall along the lines of, “Dr. Stein, my dad switched to a paleo diet and he’s not diabetic anymore (or his cholesterol is great and he’s off medicine, or substitute any of the other benefits of which you are well aware). Recently, I was talking to a young lady who has not been a student of mine but recognized that I teach psychology. She very excitedly said “Oh, I went shopping with my boyfriend the other day and he was in your health psych class. He told me all about all the foods we should eat and all the ones to avoid”. The boyfriend was in the first class I began discussing paleo with – two years ago! Score!!!
When I teach Health Psych again in the spring semester of 2012 my only required text will be Robb’s book. There will of course be additional numerous journal articles on a variety of topics, but the principles Robb outlines are fundamental to so many of the health and illness topics I cover in class. It will be very useful for students to have a resource to which they can repeatedly return to study the physiology of macronutrient metabolism, as well as advice on creating healthier dietary habits. I also know college students will enjoy his sense of humor, Buttercup.
My experience has been that college students are a very open-minded and receptive group. They also live in a rather closed-community. With each new class I instruct, a new set of Paleo devotees are born. Some students may never give up bread and ice cream, but I feel pretty confident that every student I impact spreads the word to another group. Just like grain seeds spreading in the wind, I hope my students will go out and pollinate the minds of numerous others with the paleo message. Maybe if there are enough of them, they will eventually choke out the fields of grain.
Risa J. Stein, PhD
Professor of Psychology