When we talk about tinkering with our diets, exercise protocols, and other lifestyle factors, we often use the phrase n=1. What does this mean, and how does it apply to you? For those of you unfamiliar with scientific research, “n” is shorthand for the sample size. It’s the number of people involved in the study—the total number who tested a drug, tried some regimen, or answered a survey. So when we say “n=1,” this means an experiment of one, where you are the only subject.
There are two main reasons to start experimenting within a Paleo framework:
1: Things are going well but you want to see if you can make them even better.
2: Two: things aren’t going well and you want to figure out why.
Experimenting in the first scenario is relatively simple. Depending on where you are and what you’re trying to accomplish, maybe you’d want to up the intensity of your workouts, get a little more sleep, sunlight, or add in or eliminate a food/supplement you think might give you that extra edge, or could be keeping you from reaching the peak of the peak. Tinkering in the second scenario can be vastly more complicated—and a little more intimidating. But fear not: you don’t need to be a PhD or MD to know your own body. It doesn’t require fancy certifications to know whether you feel better or worse after doing things differently for a bit. No one knows your body better than you. And if you don’t know your own body so well, what are you waiting for? Pull your head out of the physiological sand and start paying attention, grasshoppers!
The first step in playing around with things is to have the courage to do it! After all, there are only three ways things can go: you’ll feel better, you’ll feel no different, or you’ll feel worse. If you feel better, great! Case closed until you find something else you want to try. If you feel no different, congratulations—by process of elimination, you’re one step closer to finding what will work. But if you feel worse, now you’ve got some thinking to do. Do you feel worse because whatever you tried wasn’t the answer to your issue, or is it possible it’s working just fine, but there’s a die-off or detox process making you feel worse before you’ll feel better? (This happens sometimes…it’s the ugly truth.)
So where do you begin? The supplement aisle at the health food store is packed with more bottles and boxes than a hoarder’s living room and you feel like you need the village shaman in tow to make sense of it all. Do you need to exercise less or more? Are you overdoing it on nut butter? Not enough protein? It’s enough to make you want to give up before you even start. Don’t be overwhelmed. Paralysis by analysis will drive you crazy and scare you away from trying anything.
Start with the obvious. It’s not experimenting when you do the things you’re supposed to do. If you’re dumbfounded as to why you’re not leaning out when you start your mornings with a smoothie of pineapple, mangoes, berries, and a can of coconut milk before sitting at your desk nearly immobile until quittin’ time, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to hazard a guess on what might be going on. If you’re at your wit’s end on why your arthritis flares up when you’re totally Paleo except for “only” having pizza on Friday nights and pancakes with the kids on Sunday mornings, you don’t need to experiment; you need to get real. If you’ve been hitting the gym hard 5-6 days a week on six hours’ sleep and less than 30g of carbs a day, and you have no clue why you’re exhausted, irritable, and can barely make it through a workout anymore, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel with supplements and superfoods; you need to back off, increase recovery time, sleep more, and not be terrified of actually giving your muscles the fuel they need to perform at the level you want.
But what about when you’ve been doing “all the right things” and are still plagued with nagging health issues or body fat that won’t budge? (And “healthy” body fat levels for adult human beings could be a post all on its own. If you can’t get every last molecule of fat off your hips or gut, your body might be telling you something…like, I dunno…it needs a little fat to keep you healthy and sane. But I digress…)
So what do you do when all your ducks are in a row: you’re eating clean, getting sufficient sleep, spending time outside in the fresh air and sunlight, and getting some exercise, but you don’t feel like a stellar success story?
Start with the path of least resistance. In many cases, this will net the best results. You don’t have to be meticulous about weighing and measuring every morsel of food that passes your lips (although this can be useful for some), but do pay closer attention. Maybe you’ve been slipping more than you realize. Little onesie-twosies add up when they happen often. Maybe your workouts aren’t really as challenging as you think they are. Or maybe they’re more challenging than you realize, and you’re doing yourself more harm than good. It can be hard to discern exactly what the problem is, but a dose of common sense is worth its weight in gold. Evaluate things logically and see if anything jumps out at you.
Above all, don’t be afraid. You can’t get too far off the map when we’re talking about a little changeup in your food, supplements, sleep, and/or exercise. You’re not going for Robb’s oft-cited hookers and cocaine bender. Remember what you used to eat on any given day before finding Paleo: bagels, margarine, cookies, frozen burritos, you name it. You might have eaten that way for decades and you were still on this side of the ground. If that didn’t kill ya, a little more magnesium or a little less fruit isn’t going to, either. For years you subsisted on cereal, soy milk, or fast food and mocha-frappa-whatevers? And you’re worried about trying a sweet potato after your workout?
Compared to playing around with macronutrients, vitamin and mineral supplements can be a little scary. But it doesn’t have to be. If you’re genuinely deficient in something, getting replete will only help. If you’re not deficient, adding some more won’t do you harm in the short term. We’re not talking megadoses for long periods of time. You can overdose on vits & mins, but that generally takes a concerted effort. It’s hard to enter dangerous territory in a matter of days or weeks. Most people who become “toxic” in vitamins & minerals end up that way after very high doses for extended periods of time. You’ll know if something makes you feel better or worse long before that happens.
How do you know what, exactly, you should try? Ideally you would enlist the help of a qualified healthcare practitioner or trainer/coach to help you find the answers. You don’t want to shoot completely in the dark, and getting some testing done can be a huge eye-opener. (This is especially true if you suspect hormonal imbalances. Thyroid, adrenals, male/female hormones—don’t try that at home, kids!) But if you’d like to try and help yourself first, search the website. Go through the podcast archives. Check out the forum. Even though you’re a beautiful and unique snowflake, chances are someone else has gone through what you’re experiencing. What worked for them might not translate exactly for you, but it’s a place to start. And give things time. Whatever’s plaguing you likely didn’t develop overnight, so it probably won’t go away that fast, either. Give your body a chance to respond. Keep a log; jot down how you feel and see if you notice things improving. And remember—it’s called experimenting because some things will work, some won’t! Don’t get discouraged.
Being your own test subject isn’t always fun. It might mean going without your favorite food for a while, or turning off the TV or computer and hitting the sack earlier than you’d like. You might have to do things you don’t want to, but if the pieces fall into place, it’ll be worth it. Get in the driver’s seat. Take responsibility for your health. No one wants you to feel better more than you do.
Amy Berger is currently earning a master’s in Human Nutrition. A proud U.S. Air Force veteran, she struggled for years doing “all the right things,” but failed to see any results. Through shifting to nutrient-dense, low-carbohydrate foods and intelligent exercise, she has transformed her health and self-esteem, and plans to share the lessons learned with those still fighting the battle. She is especially interested in helping young women heal their relationships with food and serving as a source of sanity in the sea of nutritional madness. Amy can be reached at [email protected].
Ruthie Douglas says
Thank you for this article today! Loved this: “You need to back off, increase recovery time, sleep more, and not be terrified of actually giving your muscles the fuel they need to perform at the level you want.”
Aaron Anderson says
@Ruthie Douglas: Check out the Podcast where Robb interviewed Mark Scisson. You’ll like it.
I didn’t know I was doing so much n=1 experimenting. Thank you for clearing up the usage! Great writeup and encouragement too.