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Paleo for the Holidays, Part 3: A Different Way to Give Health

How many times have you lovingly wrapped up a book on fitness and nutrition for an unhealthy family member, hoping against hope that it will help them start taking steps to improve their lifestyle? Maybe you’ve spent hours online searching for healthy meal delivery services, picking out gift boxes of nutritious snacks to arrive at a friend’s door every month, or gathering together all your favorite recipes into a personal cookbook.

It’s only natural to try to “give the gift of health” by gently nudging our loved ones in the right direction. But unfortunately, this strategy rarely works. The books gather dust; the healthy meals get eaten with a big glass of Coke and a side of chips; the recipes stay un-cooked.

This Christmas, why not take a different approach? Instead of trying to help your loved ones get their nutrition or fitness in order, give them the gift of Paleo health in a different way. Don’t give it as a physical book, or gadget, or subscription service. Give it as social nourishment – in other words, your time, attention, and support.

We all know that social nourishment is just as vital to our long-term health as physical nutrients. And the modern lifestyle is just as socially malnourishing as the modern diet is physically inadequate. We evolved to live as part of the tribe, but today 27% of Americans live entirely alone (that’s the highest rate in the world), and according to a recent survey, 25% of American adults have no close confidante at all: nobody they can ask for a favor or talk to when things get rough.

Our brains just aren’t wired for this: it makes us stressed, depressed, and demoralized. And that rebounds in a big way on our physical health: modern stress can be even worse than the modern diet. In this study, “infrequent social contact” was about as dangerous as smoking, and even more dangerous than obesity, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol. But before you get depressed, think of the flip side: by reducing someone’s loneliness, you can actually do them more good than changing their diet. And it’s more likely to work, since many people are resistant to diet change but nobody objects to having a good time together.

Translation: if you really want to give the gift of health, focus on building your relationships with loved ones rather than worrying about their diet or exercise. Take a look at the priceless gifts you can give someone through sharing just a few minutes of your life with them:

Gut Healing

Have you ever tried and failed to get your family eating probiotic foods, knowing how crucial their gut flora are for just about everything? You might want to try some quality social time instead. Because the gut and the brain are so closely connected (for example, the vast majority of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin is found in the gut), you can actually improve someone’s gut flora just by making them feel happy, relaxed, and stress-free.

Take a look at the research: in this study, just 3 days of psychological stress (separation from their mothers) had a negative impact on gut integrity and gut bacteria function in baby monkeys. In other words, stress actually gave them bacterial dysbiosis and a leaky gut, even without any change in diet! And increased levels of the stress hormone norepinephrine make potentially pathogenic bacteria – like Campylobacter, Salmonella, and E. Coli, more dangerous.

This means that helping to reduce someone’s stress or anxiety – by making them feel secure, loved, and appreciated – is a very real benefit to their well-being. Simply put, strong social relationships keep your gut flora happy.

Happy gut flora, in turn, deliver enough benefits to write a whole book about. They’re crucial for weight loss and gastrointestinal disorders; they help a person heal from metabolic disorders like diabetes; they improve acne and skin health in general; they boost immunity and help fight off any pre-existing problems.

That’s a whole lot of benefits just from an afternoon spent chatting over coffee! So instead of giving someone a probiotic supplement that will sit in the back of their fridge going bad until they throw it out, give them a hug and do something that will make them feel relaxed, stress-free, and happy. Their gut flora (and yours) will appreciate it – even if they don’t eat one Christmas cookie less.

Diabetes Management

How many times have you looked at a family member struggling with diabetes and wished they would just be a little more open to what you know? If only they would get rid of the pasta and stop being afraid of healthy fats! But even if they aren’t interested in getting or reading Paleo books about carbs and blood sugar, you can still help them manage their disease just by building strong social bonds with them.

In humans, loneliness is strongly associated with metabolic syndrome. And the research we have indicates that this might actually be causal, and not just a correlation. In this study, for example, mice under “chronic psychosocial stress” spontaneously overate and developed far more symptoms of insulin resistance and high cholesterol: diabetes and all its consequence. Mice not exposed to stress, on the other hand, had no such problems even eating a terrible diet.

Another reason why loneliness is bad for diabetics is that it reduces their ability to manage their own symptoms. Roughly 50% of diabetics are “non-adherent:” whatever kind of treatment plan they’re on, they don’t stick to it. Needless to say, this is a huge risk above and beyond the diabetes itself. But diabetics who have strong social support networks are far more likely to self-manage successfully. This review goes over all the ways that strong family support and social networks improve diabetics’ ability to manage their own care and treatment.

At this point, you might be thinking something like “…so I’ll spend some quality time with my diabetic aunt and help her stick to the ridiculous high-carb diet that her doctor is probably pushing on her. How does that improve her health again?”

First of all, even the recommended diabetic diet is better than the diet that non-adherent diabetics typically eat. The one good thing you can say about a plate of pasta is that it’s better than a plate of Twinkies. But more importantly, making your aunt feel happy and not overwhelmed improves her feelings of self-efficacy, the idea that “I can do this.” That makes her much more likely to question the bad advice she’s probably getting, and much more open to learning the truth. But the self-efficacy has to come first. Letting a diabetic family member see that you care about them and support them is the first step to helping them manage their disease: it’s worth a thousand books, meal plans, and low-carb recipes.

Reduced Inflammation

Chronic inflammation, like gut flora dysfunction, is another big-picture problem that underlies a lot of different diseases and symptoms. Paleo is often described as an anti-inflammatory diet because it reduces or removes so many of the factors (Omega-6 PUFA, grains and legumes, sugar-rich junk food) that cause chronic inflammation. And so if you know anyone suffering from an inflammatory disease (like arthritis, for example), you might be tempted to introduce them to Paleo: wouldn’t healing their pain be the best gift you could possibly give? But do you know what else can help reduce inflammation overall? Social connections.

This is an effect that literally goes down to our DNA. In this study, chronic loneliness actually turned on pro-inflammatory genes and turned off anti-inflammatory ones. On the other hand, social connections (just having people to talk to, and feeling like you’re part of a strong web of relationships) can relieve this inflammatory burden and lower the risk.

For the Paleo gift-giver, this means that you don’t have to fight a huge battle over the Crisco to help reduce your family’s inflammation levels. In fact, fighting a battle is counterproductive, since it raises the level of inflammatory stress hormones! Instead, give your inflammation-lowering gift in the form of a friendly Monopoly tournament or a game of charades. Just as effective, and far more pleasant.

Lower Blood Pressure

Another benefit you might be hoping to “give” your loved ones via Paleo is lower blood pressure. But this is another gift you can deliver without even a mention of food or diet, just by being there for them.

This study tracked subjects over 4 years, and found that loneliness at the beginning of the study was a strong predictor of blood pressure 2, 3, and 4 years later – and this was after controlling for age, gender, race, medications, depression, perceived stress, and other cardiovascular risk factors. So if you’re trying to help a friend or family member with chronically high blood pressure, try a hug and half an hour of your undivided attention before you suggest any dietary improvements.

Weight Loss

Paleo isn’t a weight-loss “diet.” But it is a way of eating that can be very effective for losing weight. So if you have a family member or friend with a history of trying and failing different diets, yo-yo dieting, or other weight control issues, it might be tempting to coax them into trying Paleo instead.

But weight is such a touchy subject that giving someone a book or diet program is likely to go over poorly. Yet again, if you really want to help them in a way that works, a supportive relationship to the person as a human being is the way to go. Obesity is very lonely: these researchers, for example, found that obese patients scored an average of 3.4 on a loneliness scale that defines “lonely” as anything above a 3. And that loneliness can drive overeating as a coping mechanism: higher levels of loneliness strongly predicted a “palliative” response to stress (in other words, distraction – at least some of which probably came in the form of food). This study also found that a feeling of loneliness preceded almost 50% of “typical binges.”

To make things even worse, the constant stigma that obese people face every time they leave the house makes them more likely to withdraw from social life, and become lonely. This sets up a vicious cycle of loneliness and overeatingthis study documents how the pattern starts as early as 8 years old.

You cannot break into this vicious cycle by turning up the weight-loss pressure with yet another book. But you can break into it by building a loving, respectful, and deep relationship with the other person regardless of their size, addressing the loneliness without worrying about their body size.

Think about it: who’s more likely to turn to food for comfort, someone who just spent family dinner having her body shamed as an example of “what not to do,” or someone who knows she’s loved unconditionally regardless of how much she weighs? If you want to help a loved one who’s struggling to lose weight, go for social support first, diet advice later.

Immune Function

Another of the many benefits of Paleo is a strong immune system – the ability to fight off colds with ease (or never catch them in the first place), and the power to face down whatever’s “going around the office” with confidence. But here again, some quality time together with a loved one will do a whole lot more for their immune system than a book of recipes they never cook or a warning about diet that they forget as soon as you’re out of the room.

Take a look at the evidence: in this study, loneliness was strongly associated with a weakened immune system. And in this one, college freshmen who got a flu shot were tested for the antibody response to the vaccine (in other words, what kind of defence their body was capable of mounting against it). The students with the highest loneliness scores had the weakest natural defences.

The upshot is that if you want to help your family (and yourself!) stave off a winter bug, your time and attention will do the trick, with no diet-talk required.

Mental Health and Cognitive Performance

The connection between loneliness and depression is fairly obvious. But did you know that loneliness also decreases people’s intellectual performance? In this study, subjects who were told they were “likely to end up alone in life” did significantly worse on tests of intelligence and brainpower than controls. Interestingly enough, subjects who were warned about other potential misfortunes, like getting in a car accident, did not suffer on the tests – the effect was specific to loneliness, not just worry about the future.

Summarizing the research, this study really says it all:

Research indicates that perceived social isolation (i.e., loneliness) is a risk factor for, and may contribute to, poorer overall cognitive performance, faster cognitive decline, poorer executive functioning, more negativity and depressive cognition, heightened sensitivity to social threats, a confirmatory bias in social cognition that is self-protective and paradoxically self-defeating, heightened anthropomorphism, and contagion that threatens social cohesion.

Research in mice backs this up. In this study, mice isolated for a month took longer to find their way through a maze. And in this one, mice isolated for as little as a week showed symptoms similar to human ADHD. The lesson: if you want to give someone an IQ boost for Christmas, enjoying some time together will do the trick, with no need to worry about what is (or isn’t) on their plate.


The most socially malnourished people in our society are probably the elderly. Retirement, health problems, moving to a care home or retirement community, children who live far away, and the death of a spouse are just some of the factors that contribute to increasing rates of isolation among older adults.

A whole raft of studies – this one, for example – have found that loneliness among the elderly is a powerful predictor of physical and cognitive decline across the board. It’s a marker for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other diseases of aging, all the way down to early death.

So by spending some quality time with an aging parent or friend, you’re improving their overall physical health in a measurable, substantial way. Instead of upending Grandma’s diet and trying to swap out all the cookies for kale chips, try a visit or an invitation to a family celebration. And bring the kids too: in this study, taking care of grandchildren was associated with much better rates of mental health among the elderly.


Better health is the most precious gift you could get for anyone on your list. But you’ll do a lot more good if you’re smart about how you give it.

The power of social connection really highlights the way that Paleo is not just about food or diet, and using Paleo principles to help your loved ones doesn’t have to involve food at all. None of us evolved for the isolation and loneliness of the modern lifestyle, and it damages our health just as much as the toxins and gut irritants in modern food. So a “gift” of time and attention can be just as effective as persuading someone to change their diet – and considering that you usually can’t persuade someone to change their diet by giving them books or recipes, your time is a considerably better investment.

None of this is an argument that diet doesn’t matter, or that as long as you have the right attitude, your food won’t affect your health. Far from it! Ideally, we’d all get both: a strong social network and a healthy diet. But in the real world, we all have to work with what we have, and sometimes social benefits are the only way you have to help someone.

So if you really want to give your family the gift of health, give it to them in a way they’ll actually use and appreciate: your time, energy, and love.