Engineering a High Performance Startup with Diet & Lifestyle; An Interview with Robb Wolf of The Paleo Solution

May 20, 2013

11:47 am

This post is part of Tech Cocktail’s “Healthy Entrepreneur” series, bringing you insights on food, exercise, and sleep on Mondays and Wednesdays throughout May. The series is presented by Coromega (more info and a giveaway at the bottom).

At age 19, Robb Wolf was the California State Power Lifting Champion, with a bench press of 345 lbs, and was in what he considered to be relatively good health.  At age 26, despite eating 4,000 – 6,000 calories per day, Wolf was down to only 140 lbs., unable to bench even that, and had such severe ulcerative colitis that doctors wanted to surgically remove his large intestine.

Because both of his parents suffered from cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders, doctors attributed his failing health to faulty genetics.  After all, Wolf was exercising and eating the perfect vegan, grain-based diet.

…yatta, yatta, yatta, research fellowship with the godfather of Paleo, health problems disappear, etc.

Today, at the age of 41, Robb Wolf is in perfect health, owns and operates one of the top 30 gyms in America (according to Men's Health), coaches and consults world class athletes, and is the author of the New York Times Best Selling The Paleo Solution.  

I caught up with Wolf to learn how startup founders can get the greatest performance from their employees, how much exercise is enough versus what's optimal, and exactly why he believes Paleo is paramount.  Our conversation is below with the transcript highlights beneath.

Who is Paleo for?

“The people who tend to gravitate toward a lot of these approaches tend to be either very, very sick or they tend to be high level athletes who are looking for a performance boost.  So what does that mean for the average person?  Within the Paleo scene, what we have figured out with our research, directly and indirect inferences from looking at epidemiology and other research, is that the Paleo diet is very anti-inflammatory.  It's a low inflammation producing diet.  Inflammation is a natural process in the body, it's an outgrowth of our immune system doing what the immune system should do, but it's kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.  You don't want too much, you don't want too little, you want the right amount of inflammation.  Too much inflammation, too much immune activity, is an autoimmune situation.  Too little immune function is immune compromise- like in HIV/AIDS or a predisposition for cancer development- so we want just the right amount.  The pieces that go into that are beyond even just food, but sleep, vitamin D levels, photoperiod, exercise, socialization, and then also the food.  It's interesting, even though I'm the food guy, I'm constantly talking about this bigger picture, kind of evolutionary medicine perspective of us developing and evolving as hunter-gatherers.  There's much more than just the food that we need to talk about to get to the optimization.

But within the food, what we see is that this tends to be a very, very nutritious diet.  My friend Mat Lalonde did an amazing research project where he took all of the food in the USDA nutrient database – and there are thousands and thousands of entries.  He basically put all of these foods into an Excel spreadsheet comparing the amounts of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants per calorie that these different foods have.

What was interesting that came out of that was that meat, fish, and seafood came out on top as far as nutrient density.  The best foods that you can eat per calorie as far as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.  

Right behind that was fruits and vegetables.  And then kind of distant from that was grains, legumes, and dairy, which tends to be the cornerstones of this government recommended food pyramid or MyPlate.  Even using the parameters that most registered dietitians would recommend which is a nutrient dense diet, ironically the dietitians will recommend a nutrient dense diet but then recommend foods that are in fact not very nutrient dense.  This paleo/evolutionary perspective actually provides the most nutrient dense foods and then as an aside these foods tend to be very low in immunogenic potential.  They tend not to cause gut permeability.  They tend not to cause allergies.  We get some really synergistic benefits 0ut of all that.  We get highly nutritious food and we tend to have a low inflammatory potential from eating this way.

So is it nutrient density or anti-inflammatory?

“That's really tough because a lot of the situation that we see some characteristics of autism, some characteristics of type 2 diabetes are far from nutrient deficiency.  But then it's interesting if you become inflamed from gut irritating foods like gluten – which we get gluten in wheat, rye, oats, barley, millet, or some other gut irritating foods – when we go under an oxidative stress from inflammation we tend to burn through vital nutrients like vitamins and antioxidants.  So depending on what day you ask me that question, I could literally flip-flop.  One day it's way more important to get the nutrients from foods so that we are as healthy as possible, so that the foods we do eat that are pro-inflammatory cause little problem.  And another day, you ask me that question and I'll say that it's really important to avoid the pro-inflammatory food because then the nutrients that we are getting are able to act as effectively in our body as they can.  It's a little bit chicken and egg.  It's interesting from an anthropological perspective, this is a little bit what we see as the transition from the hunter-gatherer life way into the agrarian life way, is we tend to see an increase in cavities with the adoption of agriculture.  We see increased infant mortality rates, we get shorter, we see less calcium in the diet.  So it tends to be a synergistic effect. When we're eating these lower quality foods, they're both inflammatory and lower in nutrient density.  That's a really good question, depending on the hour or the day you ask me that I may lean a little more in one direction versus the other.

Which diseases/disorders does paleo work best against?

“I was going to say auto-immune disease – that's still true but, type 2 diabetes and insulin resistant conditions benefit enormously from paleo, but we've seen really shocking benefit with type 2 diabets and insulin resistance, peri-diabetic situations, with simply eating low carb.  We've know that for thirty years, forty years.  Sticking type two diabetics on a low carb diet is incredibly beneficial.  The fact that our medical community still fights that situation should be grounds for medical malpractice.  Something that mainstream medicine has really failed to address in an effective way throughout all of medical history is auto-immune disease.  This includes lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis – a huge variety of skin conditions, vitiligo, which is a condition where people lose pigmentation in the skin, a variety of alopecia, hair loss.  Autoimmune conditions go on and on and on.  Even narcolepsy, where people will get excited and then fall asleep, that actually has some autoimmune underpinnings.  Very interestingly, we've seen shocking improvements in autoimmune conditions with a grain, legume, dairy-free paleo diet.  We still are not 100% sure what's going on.  There's definitely appears to be some gut permeability, some ability for the intestinal contents and the bacterial exterior products to make their way into the body, and through a variety of immunologically driven processes we get an autoimmune response.  We also get a systemic inflammatory response, which tends to cause insulin resistance also, but that's kind of an aside.  What we've found is that if we can quiet that gut permeability, if we can dial down the systemic inflammation, we've seen people reverse their autoimmune conditions.

It was interesting, we've been humping Dr. Oz's knee for three or four years now to talk about paleo.  One his main producers, her cousin is a beautiful young woman who had multiple sclerosis.  She was actually wheel chair bound.  We had brain imaging showing scarring lesions in the brain.  And then she went paleo and the MS reversed.  Her brain healed, she could walk, run, and lift weights, and live a better life now.  We were trying for years to get Dr. Oz to talk about this.  Apparently his production assistant finally wore him down, and they had several people on the show that have reversed auto-immune disease.  I would say the thing we really have a better understanding for is autoimmunity and particularly severe systemic inflammatory conditions that are not being resolved at all by vegetarian eating, by vegan eating, clearly by standard American eating.  And mainstream medicine is very ineffective at dealing with them.  Besides cardiovascular disease and cancer, autoimmune diseases are the greatest threat with regards to morbidity and mortality.  Mainstream medicine is very ineffective at treating them.

My greasy, used car-salesman pitch on that whole thing is give it a shot for thirty or sixty days and see what happens.  If it doesn't work, either way please tell me, tell Professor Loren Cordain, tell somebody in the research community around us so we can continue to develop our intellectual framework around this.  We have an NIH funded RO1 study that is hopefully going to launch this year looking specifically at paleo and autoimmune disease, but again my greasy used car-salesman pitch on this, is just give it a shot for 30-60 and see what the heck happens.  If it doesn't work, you can use something else, but we've had really, really good success with people give the autoimmune flavor of the paleo diet a shot.

How to Engineer a High Performance Tech Startup

So I'm the food guy, but I inevitably end up talking about sleep even before food.

If you were to do one thing that was a maximum return on investment, it would be to – by hook by crook, whether it's buying jawbones for all of your staff – really encouraging people to sleep more.  Sleep more at night, take a nap.  My wife is part of a startup with some really high level people on her team.  These guys will work themselves to the nub, and I'm friends with all of them and help them with their food and lifestyle stuff.  You can see immediate drop-off in productivity when these guys burn the sleep.  They'll do a really productive night, but then for days afterwards their productivity is impacted.

I just had a guy on my podcast – episode 181 of The Paleo Solution Podcast, Dr. Kirk Parsley, who's a former US Navy Seal, went to med school, came back and started doing all of the medical concerns for the West Coast Seals, and the guy is a sleep expert.  He's a wealth of information on this topic and has really helped me refine my understanding of all this.  It's clear that when we sleep deprive ourselves, we feel like we're being more productive, but we're not.  The cognitive neuroscience studies are crystal clear.

There's a strong argument to be made for wrapping people up at a reasonable hour.  I know that a lot of tech startups will use a lot of monitoring softwares so they know how many lines of code people are writing- and it sounds totally counter intuitive and maybe it sounds a little bit wimpish to recommend it but I would try for a month.  See how people work as a baseline and what their productivity is and what their error rate is – how many bugs you have to go back and fix – and then for a month force people to go to bed earlier.  Turn off the TV, turn off the iPhone, no electronics in the room, pitch black rooms, and try to get people to sleep an extra hour or two.  Try to get people to go to bed without any pharmacological aid and then try to get them to wake up without an alarm and see what their productivity is under those circumstances.

I think what you would find ironically and counterintuitively is that fewer hours of work will end up being more productive because people are on task better and they create fewer errors.

The cognitive neuroscience studies on this are crystal clear.  Even an hour or two of sleep deprivation day in and day out ends up really severely impacting productivity and creativity.  I can't think about what things are more important for a startup.  I think this is also part of the reason why we see a real shifting toward the youthful side of things in the startup world.  When you're younger you can withstand the impact of sleep deprivation a little bit better.  As you get a little bit older, in your late 20s early thirties, that stuff really starts kicking your knee caps, and by the time you hit your 40s, you're ancient like I am, it really impacts you.  But if you can get people to sleep better they can be just as productive, just as creative as they were in their 20s, they just need to mind their sleep a little better.

From there clearly eating better, trying to eat along the paleo side would be amazing.  Ironically, the food guy is recommending that folks focus primarily on sleep as the first they try to fix.  They're going to get the greatest ROI compared with any other thing you can do.

How much sleep is enough?

There's huge variability on this.  There are legitimately some people – and I hate these people – but they legitimately, 5-6 hours of sleep and they're firing on all cylinders, their brain chemistry, their immunological function is normal, their gut function is normal.  One of the insidious features of sleep deprivation is that an hour or two of lost sleep, you notice it the first day in a subjective manner – I feel tired, I feel lethargic, I don't feel very creative.  But after about 3 or 4 days, this becomes your gray altered world of existence.  You just never even notice that you feel like hell and that you're really not firing on all cylinders.  There are some people who are fine on less sleep.  Interestingly, these people live less long.  So in total hours of wakeful life it ends up being about the same as those who sleep longer, but live longer.  That's kind of an interesting aside, our wakefulness seems to be very tied to our total longevity.

The litmus test for me in this whole thing is, when the sun starts going down, the person turns off every electronic item in their house.  This is the test.  They turn off their cell phones, they maybe have some candles lit, their room is pitch black, and the sun is going down.  When you have all of your stuff turned off, you tend to not be fidgety and anxious, and so you go to bed.  It's like the hunter-gatherer scene.  The sun went down, we went to bed.  The sun came up, we got up.  So in this scenario, if the person legitimately, in a pitch black room, no alarm clock to wake them up, no electronics to mess with their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis to keep them awake.  If they legitimately sleep 5-6 hours then that's what they need.  The main thing is…

…if you were on vacation on a desert island, with no electronics and you were allowed to go to bed when the sun went down and wake up when you want to wake up, how long do you actually sleep under those circumstances.  That is typically what your body really needs to fire on all cylinders.

Other Lifestyle Tips to Maximize Productivity

“People find it very difficult to exercise…I know being a writer, it's hard to be interrupted and to break focus.  I know when people are writing code, this can be a challenge- but the recommendation I'm going to make, is instead of trying to find a specific block of an hour and half a day to work out, try to do mini workouts throughout the day.

That could involve some body weight activities like getting a TRX setup so you can do some body rows and elevated pushups, air squats, maybe get a kettle bell so you can do some kettle bell swings.  Every hour, every hour and a half you do set a timer, you jump up and kind of run around get a foam roller, do some mobility, do a quick little body weight circuit, and then get back to your work.  It's interesting, a walk or  a little bit of exercise- again research has shown is much better than even snacking on a sugary snack as far as normalizing blood glucose level and improving creativity and productivity.

Trying to get a little bit of sun on your skin and in your eyes – that interaction of our photoperiod and HPTA axis is really critical for normal sleep and productivity for normal immune function.  From a work and efficiency standpoint, trying to break up, our workout throughout the day.  Get maybe four or five or six mini workouts throughout the day.  You'll tend to feel better. People who are tending to write code get horrible posture, they're hunched over, they're sitting all day.  They get some low back problems, tight hamstrings and hip flexors.  So there's an opportunity to do that stuff and to do it in punctuated pieces.  You just have to play the ROI element of that vs. having to be able to focus on a project…When I'm working on a long book project it sometimes takes me an hour to just really get a head of steam going.  If you have a really juicy project you're working on you may not be able to come up for air for 3 or 4 hours because you really need to focus to get that continuity down.  But the one thing folks could try to do is to get mini-workouts in throughout the day.

Optimal Exercise Pattern for Entrepreneurs Willing to Invest More Time

You really don't need much.  Full-body circuit training, maybe twice a week.  It would take you 15 to 30 minutes max each session.  Somewhere between a half hour and hour per week.  I really like to get people outside and walking.  If they can do it in nature or a more natural environment, that's preferable, but short of that just getting sun on their skin.  Again this is all the biophysical communication between our  body and our environment – so getting out and walking.  With that, walking can be a little bit time consuming, because you can go walk for several hours.  Maybe that's a little bit unproductive in a maximum ROI.  So people would tend to recommend some interval training tabata intervals, 20 seconds of work, 10 seconds of rest, sprinting, exercise bike, or rower, you only need four minutes of that.  You get a potent response.  There's something to be said also from just really relaxed, low intensity walking.  Getting out in the environment and covering some ground…As much as possible just get out and walk.  Maybe bring a voice recorder and you do some vocal notes of some projects you're working on. Just getting out in nature and walking and unplugging from the indoor environment is incredibly beneficial for folks.”

Advice to Those Considering Becoming Entrepreneurs

“Having started a couple of reasonably successful businesses now…there's a cost associated with it.

The worst thing I ever did for my health and athleticism is open a gym.  The second worst thing I ever did for my health and athleticism was write a New York Times Bestselling diet book, and do all of the stuff associated with supporting that.

With that said, I've also loved what I've done more than anything I ever did in my life and I loved being a research chemist and getting into the scientific underpinnings- I really enjoyed that, but being an entrepreneur I've loved like nothing else.

If you're going to go into the entrepreneur scene there are definitely going to be some sacrifices along the way.  You need to be prepared for that, some people are not.  I had always identified myself as an athlete and that was part of my psyche and my makeup, and I had to really let go a lot of my athleticism to put the work in to be able to do the projects that I've done.  Now that I'm 41 I'm actually circling back.  I'm able to go to BJJ 3-5 times per week and lift some weights, and I'm still very busy on the business side but I've managed to pull out  of the technicians and be more in the administrative, CEO role, and have people under me and take ideas and implement and run with them.  But it took a lot of hard work to get to that spot.  There are rewards to endeavor, but there are going to be some sacrifices along the way.  Even though I'm constantly talking about sleep and food and exercise, there was a long period of time where my sleep and exercise sucked.  I was the worst example of good lifestyle management, but it's what I had to do to be able to get through that for that process.  I've been able to tighten things up and make them better.  It's really understanding that you're going to be in for a long haul.  You may be in a 10-year long battle.

Get more from Robb Wolf at, The Paleo Solution Book, and The Paleo Solution Podcast.

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When Zach Davis isn't getting lost in the mountains, he is hustling from Boulder, CO as Tech Cocktail's Director of Marketing. He is the author of Appalachian Trials, a book chronicling the mindset necessary for thru-hiking all 2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail, a feat he accomplished in 2011. Zach is a green tea enthusiast, die-hard Chicago sports fan, and avid concert-goer. Follow Zach on Twitter: @zrdavis.