This week we interview Dr. Tommy Wood, he’s a strength and conditioning coach (so he lifts!), he’s also a brainy fella; after studying medicine at Oxford University he went on to work as a doctor in central London for two years. He’s now completing a PhD in Norway researching neonatal brain metabolism. Tommy is also the Chief Scientific Officer for the Physicians and Ancestral Health Society and lectures across the globe on nutrition, lifestyle and chronic diseases.
We came across Tommy on the Primal Docs website when looking for qualified doctor to support some private client work. It turned out we also had some mutual friends who raved about Tommy’s approach to health and wellbeing. We invited him on to the Fitter Food Podcast and had a great laugh. We’ve chatted general paleo nutrition and peanut M&Ms and more specifically about men’s health. Check out the interview:
How did you start out on your health journey?
Having been a rather sedentary child, I started to think more and more about health during my gap year between school and university. I was working in Iceland and didn’t have a large social network, so I went to the gym every day after work. I began to read about nutrition, but much of it was from things like Men’s Health or Men’s Fitness, and all of it was body-image based. Focusing on that gave me some real first-hand experience of the negative effect that the media can have on someone’s eating and training habits.
Taking up rowing during my undergraduate degree then moved me to think about performance. I spent a lot of my spare time over the following years at medical school coaching athletes in a number of different sports, and researching lifestyle approaches to improve performance and treat chronic disease. This led me to a system that focuses on both ancestral health and up-to-date scientific knowledge. I have continuously tried to read more and learn more, and have been lucky to interact with a huge variety of people. Many times I have been certain about what I know about nutrition and training, and many times I have been wrong. That is the essence of a health journey – it never really ends.
What did you used to do that now makes you do a face palm?
Too many things to list! I spent 7 years at university, and for most of them I was frequently consuming protein powders and protein bars because I was certain I needed those things for optimal performance, health, and body composition. It was all a waste of money.
You’re a big fan of paleo/primal nutrition, what are the common mistakes you think people make when transitioning to a more primal approach to nutrition?
There’s a lot of food hate that goes on in the paleo/primal worlds. Yes, certain food groups should be avoided for certain people, and many of those are excluded by the paleo/primal diets. However, most people don’t get sick because of porridge and lentils. Removing processed foods will get most people most of the way, and we could all stand to be a little more relaxed about what is or isn’t “paleo”. It’s important to point out that the paleo guidelines do not really delineate what is good or bad for you. I’d happily see somebody enjoy some home-made hummus (not paleo) instead of brownies made from coconut flour and maple syrup (paleo). If you want some brownies, by all means eat them, but don’t automatically assume they’re healthier just because they’re “paleo”.
How would you adapt primal nutrition for fat loss?
To achieve fat loss you need two things – optimal health and a signal to the body that it is okay to be using up fat stores. Using a standard paleo template to eliminate foods that commonly exacerbate health problems is a great start. Then you can re-introduce foods and see how your body responds. But remember that this takes time, and may need to be done slowly over a number of months. Secondly, particularly in those with some kind of metabolic disease, reducing carbohydrate intake will often lead to greater fat loss. But remember that the basic rules of food quality still apply; avoid straying towards processed concoctions just because they are “low-carb”. Those who worry more about fat loss also see slower progress, so give yourself the chance to relax. Don’t get too obsessed about individual food choices, and make sure you’re doing all the other stuff – sleep, move, spend time with family, have fun, get in the sun. All of that will help you achieve your goals.
How would you adapt primal nutrition to add more muscle mass?
There are multiple ways to manipulate nutrient timing around training, and different things work for different people. By far the most important thing is to eat enough. Keeping carbs to one part of the day can help to build lean mass; either after training (efficiently replenishes muscle glycogen and gives an insulin boost) or first thing in the morning (which can help re-train circadian rhythms). Remember that more protein (much more than 1.5-1.8g/kg) isn’t necessarily better, and skipping a meal or missing a protein shake will absolutely not affect your long-term gains. Unless you’re a competitive physique/bodybuilding athlete, stick to the basic rules: eat enough, train consistently, and prioritise adequate recovery.
How would you adapt primal nutrition for endurance sports?
In endurance sports, particularly running, the gut is very vulnerable, as its blood supply gets shut down for long periods of time so that blood can be redirected to the muscles. In practical terms, endurance athletes often (though not exclusively) do very well on lower carbohydrate diets. Not only can you become more metabolically efficient on a low-carb diet, you can also avoid having to pound down carbs during training and races, because you’re using fat stores for fuel. Importantly, not having to eat as much during long periods of exercise can reduce gut-related side effects, which are very common in endurance athletes. However, what often happens is that people cut carbs and don’t maintain their calorie intake. It you reduce your carb intake, you need to make sure you increase calories from fat, especially if training regularly.
How do you guide people to ensure a primal lifestyle supports their hormone health?
The great thing about a primal lifestyle is that it helps us understand all the things that are important, and why they’re important. For optimal hormonal health we need to do the things we did regularly over the last couple of millions of years of evolution. Sleep. Get outdoors. Move. Eat enough food. Have sex. Minimise chronic stressors. If you have an autoimmune hormone problem (ie with the thyroid), try an autoimmune dietary protocol, and make sure you’re optimising gut health. For instance, people with autoimmune hypothyroidism who treat an underlying gut infection could well expect to see their thyroid function improve dramatically! Also try to minimise your exposure to plastics and additives that might interfere with normal hormonal signaling. But remember that worrying about doing everything perfectly also counts as a chronic stressor. Some people might need to get some testing or see a specialist, but these things should always be the foundation of any programme aiming to balance hormones.
What are the most popular myths surrounding paleo that drive you nuts?
The standard anti-paleo argument is still based around the assumption that we’re trying to accurately mimic the foods our ancestors ate hundreds of thousands of years ago. But we all know that’s impossible. What we’re trying to do is minimise the negative effects of the modern lifestyle (whilst also enjoying its benefits), and using the evolutionary lens to understand why that’s important. For most of us, going gluten-free will make very little difference if we don’t also move or sleep better. However, I don’t think people in the paleo world always do a good job of getting this balanced message out there. We continue to demonise certain food groups, or criticise those that criticise us. As ever, the big picture is the important thing. Too often, people on both sides of the paleo fence forget that.
Tell what a typical day of nutrition looks like for you?
Most days I don’t have breakfast, but I usually put a good amount of cream or coconut milk in my morning coffee. If I have breakfast, it’s often bacon, eggs, avocado, and some other veggies. Lunch is either a large salad, or some meat or fish with vegetables. I’ll maybe add rice or potatoes if I’ve been training hard. Evening meals are similar. In the summer, I’ll cook meat or fish with a large salsa-style chopped salad. In the winter, l usually make stews in bulk and take leftovers to work. This last weekend I made a mutton and chicken heart stew with lots of cabbage, carrots, onions, and garlic. I’ve been eating it with the last of the summer’s avocados.
My recent go-to snacks have been almond butter, pork scratchings, and this really nice raw brie I found (not necessarily all together). However, I don’t pretend to be a saint. I do love sharing a tub of Ben and Jerry’s with my girlfriend, and if there’s a celebration, there might be cake. And it might even have gluten in it!
Do you take any training or nutrition supplements to support your health?
I take creatine monohydrate throughout the year, and I have an Icelandic cold-pressed cod liver oil that I take most days. Sometimes I’ll put MCT oil in my coffee. That’s it! I have yet to see any supplement that I think everybody should be taking all the time, though I am a big fan of making sure people get enough DHA. Overall, most supplements are unnecessary until you have done some specific testing or have a certain health problem that indicates an additional requirement. Sticking to basic paleo/primal/real food guidelines will reduce the risk of those happening in the first place.
Name something you do every single day without fail to look after your health?
Try to worry less about the things I can’t change.
What has been your biggest health breakthrough in the last few years?
I stopped rowing towards the end of medical school and spent a few years doing endurance event. I did a few (ultra)marathons, and even completed the first ever 24-hour off-road ironman-distance triathlon. Then I gave up endurance racing and spent many hours a week doing CrossFit, often getting up very early in the morning to train before going to work long hours at the hospital. I’m certain all those years of training and racing have taken years off my life (and my knees). Over the last two years, I have reduced my training volume significantly, and focused on walking, lifting weights, and making sure I get enough sleep. This has had a transformative effect on how I feel and perform.
Who inspires you?
There are an increasing number of very knowledgeable and inspiring people in the health world. Though I continuously try to learn from these people in any way I can, my real inspirations come from those closest to me:
– My girlfriend, Elizabeth, has overcome difficulties I couldn’t even begin to imagine having to deal with, and has achieved incredible things because of it. On top of that, I genuinely believe that the way she approaches her work will change the face of science and medicine.
– My sister, Katie, works tirelessly for the things she believes in, and she’s an awesome bullshit-meter. She will happily tell people (including me) when they’re wrong, and frequently does so.
– My dad is a brilliant scientist, and very early on in my academic career he taught me that you never really *know* anything. Never assume, and always continue to question and be interested in things.
– My mum has shown me how important it is to be open-minded and do the things that make you happy, even if other people don’t understand why.
– My grandmother went to university when my grandfather retired, graduating at the age of 60. She is the absolute epitome of “it’s never too late”.
Everybody has these amazing people in their lives. It’s just up to us to make sure we learn from them.
What are you passionate about?
I have this unshakable feeling that everybody out there discussing health has important knowledge to offer. I also believe that most of us genuinely want to help others. However, instead of discussing these things, we engage in battles over our information because we are certain that others are wrong. This happens because we like to form groups, and we like to be right. But what if it’s not that simple? Paleo, veganism, low-carb, calorie counting, traditional medicine, alternative medicine. I think it’s important to remember that all of these ideas have data and first-hand experience that back them up. However, anybody that sits firmly in any one of these groups has also misinterpreted data, or ignored data, that disagrees with their viewpoints. What I really want to do is find a way to integrate all these seemingly disparate ideas, and use basic human physiology, biochemistry, and genetics to show why one group being right doesn’t necessarily make another group wrong.
Or maybe we’re all wrong, and we should just eat ice cream and watch The Big Bang Theory. I’m passionate about those things too.
See Tommy Live
We’ve loved chatting with Tommy on our podcast and really like his sensible, science informed yet personalised approach to health. So much so we’re flying him over from Norway to speak at the Fitter Food Academy on 21 November to present about Paleo nutrition, elimination diets and the science behind the recommendations. We can’t wait, it’s going to be awesome, grab your ticket HERE.