The Law of the Vital Few
In business, the law of the vital few (aka the 80/20 rule) is used to explain that 80% of total revenue is generated by 20% of its total customer base .
In other words, 20% of the input can account for 80% of the output.
If that’s the case, the 20% is where you would place your focus, because this select few are providing the majority of your returns. Keeping them happy is what should matter most, if your plan is to stay in good business-shape.
It’s a very efficient use of available resources and it provides us with a powerful metaphor that we can apply to our long-term health and body composition goals; we should prioritise the things that are going to provide the most bang for our buck.
If you read my previous post, you now know that calorie counting and weight tracking should have been left behind in the last millennia.
Now it’s time to dig a little deeper.
This article will deliver a shortlist of four priorities that will give you the most results with the least required effort. The minimal effective dose, as Tim Ferriss would say.
Priority # 1: Don’t play games with your evolutionary biology
Counting calories for the purpose of caloric restriction severely hinders our body’s ability to optimise vital autonomic functions.
As the phrase suggests, these functions are automated. We do not consciously exert any control over them. They happen involuntarily, unconsciously. Breathing, sleeping and blood sugar regulation, just to name a few, are all autonomic functions .
The point is this; that you do not consciously initiate the myriad of functions that your brain performs because there would be no time left for conscious thought.
Not starving to death – energy metabolism – is also one of these vital functions [2, 3].
The master gland
These functions are controlled by the Hypothalamus, aka the master gland. It has the power to decide what to do with the calories you consume, or lack thereof. Does it assimilate them, does it store them, or does it ignore them completely and burn them off as heat? .
It is the master regulator of your metabolism. When you start taking away calories, your infinitely smarter Hypothalamus will quickly trigger a series of hormonal changes that result in your metabolism slowing down [3, 4-8].
On top of having to bother counting your calories, you will also quickly become extremely tired and experience a nasty surge in cravings [4, 7-10]. As an added bonus, you’ll also become a not-so-nice person in general [Referenced by anyone who knows a hangry person, whether they simply missed a meal or are actually on a “diet”].
Essentially, the lower your calories go, the more efficient your body becomes at using energy – in order to avoid death.
See Appendix 1 for a real-world example of this human evolutionary biology at play.
Implementing Priority # 1
- Keep your brain happy by eating enough to match your activity levels
- Don’t be tempted by way of caloric restriction to interfere with its responsibility to regulate your metabolism
Priority # 2: Nutrient density
If you count calories, you are making the incorrect assumption that they (meaning fat, protein, carbohydrates and even alcohol) are all the same, and that they do the exact same things in your body.
It’s like pulling in to a petrol station and just randomly selecting a pump as if it did not matter to the engine in your car. Your body is infinitely more complex than a car engine, so it’s infinitely more irrational to assume that fuel is just fuel to your body.
I’m not going to start breaking down differences between macronutrients, not in this post anyway. There is a simple way to think of food that can help us prioritise the foods that suit our goals.
Nutrient density. We should focus on quality, not quantity.
This effectively places fibrous vegetables, complex proteins and healthy fats at the top of our list, and resigns most other forms of carbohydrates to bottom of the pecking order.
Let’s back up a little bit.
Industrial food enterprises have birthed a selection of so-called foods that are readily available, and hyper-palatable, aka, 100% enjoyable to eat. The mouth pleasure they impart is real. The downside to all this is that these foods will never sate your appetite, and, as an added bonus, will make you fat and unhealthy.
“Once you pop, you can’t stop” has been used by Proctor & Gamble since 1976 to market Pringles [3, 12]. They are literally telling you that you could eat them, all day, and still want more. Amazing.
They do fill you up, quite literally, but they will never allow for your body to think that you’ve eaten enough. In part, this is because they severely lack nutrient density, leaving your body starving for important vitamins and minerals, and imploring you to dig your hand into that tube just one more time.
I’m not saying that you can never eat these hyper-palatable foods again. I wouldn’t even do that. That’s excessive, and undoubtedly unsustainable for most of us. It may even be entirely appropriate to indulge, depending on the individual and their level of activity .
That being said, for our aforementioned goals – being lean and healthy – they are definitely not optimal forms of nutrition.
Now, we should be aware of the nasty trick that hyper-palatable foods present, not only for satiety’s sake, but rather for a much more sinister reason.
Triage theory deserves much more attention than I’m about to give it, but this is what you need to know. The bare minimum.
Without adequate levels of micronutrients, your body lacks the ability to function optimally but is resilient enough to continue on, even if on the surface, it appears unhindered.
In actual fact, in times of micronutrient deficiency, your body will prioritise your short-term survival (for reproduction), at the expense of your long-term health [13-16].
So in the short-term, there’s no obvious consequence to being deficient in micronutrients. However, in the long-term, you will pay dearly.
Mitochondria are the powerhouses of your body’s cells. They provide energy to the cell in a form that it can use for work . Triage theory explains that sustained micronutrient deficiencies cause damage to the mitochondria over time. This results in the manifestation of various diseases, notably; cancer, heart disease and a slew of other age-associated diseases [13-16].
So in other words, by subjecting yourself to a nutrient-poor diet, your body, at the cellular level, will begin to malfunction, and die a very slow death.
On the flipside
The good news is that it’s also preventable; so let’s turn this ship around.
Let’s say we begin prioritising foods that are packed full of these vitamins and minerals – the ones that can provide the most bang for our buck.
This begins to optimise several of our interests, all at once:
- Gut health (the microbiome)
- Hormonal function
- Longevity / reducing our risk of age-related disease
- Recovery and repair
- Body composition
These issues are all interconnected, but they each deserve a mention in their own right. Without addressing such concerns in a holistic manner from the ground up – from the cell – you will always be clutching at straws and may never reach an optimal state of health.
Traditional snack food is full of nasty ingredients that actively undermine your short and long-term health. Remove these foods from your every-day life. Feed your body the right things and it will take care of a litany of issues (again, for free).
If you can’t visualise the going’s on in your body, and you’re still unsure about all this hormone talk, cell and mitochondria voodoo, I would recommend you check out a video endorsed by Harvard University entitled The Inner Life of a Cell.
Implementing Priority #2
- Nutrient density is your ultimate priority
- Foods containing mostly fat, protein and fibre should be at the top of your shopping list
- See Appendix 2 for some pointers
Priority # 3 – Reduce your stress
Stress hormones are produced by the adrenal glands in the body [2, 17]. Cortisol, a type of stress hormone, has copped a lot of flak in recent times.
The truth of the matter is that it can be a powerful ally, but most of us are unintentionally over-indulging in this hormone. Elevated stress hormone levels create an environment where the body is more adept at both storing fat, and breaking down muscle tissue – the exact opposite of what we should be looking to accomplish .
Diet induced stress
Low calorie diets have been shown to increase total cortisol production and increase perceived psychological stress [7, 8, 18, 19].
There’re another few nails in the calorie-counting coffin.
Exercise induced stress
Jogging, or any comparable form of traditional long-session “steady-state” cardiovascular training down-regulates anabolic hormones and throttles your metabolism. It further provides a significant upsurge in your stress hormone production. Jogging appears especially detrimental to women [20, 21-24].
Sprinting – in the right amounts – has quite the opposite effect.
I’m not saying that you should never go jogging again, especially if your goal is to do an Iron Man. Or even if you just enjoy the post-workout endorphin high. You may even be able to get away with it, intermittently, without seeing much of a difference.
But know this; for the goal of improving your health and positively changing your body composition, it is definitely a waste of your time. Indeed, it seems only to dig a deeper hole.
If you want to exercise, you should resistance train.
If you want to do cardio, then sprint, or go for a long walk. Maybe up a hill.
As simple as it seems, walking is very powerful. It’s a great way to simultaneously reduce stress, burn stored body fat, and recover from your resistance training sessions. It is sufficient to greatly increase cardiovascular fitness, and is also the best way to cleanse your lymphatic system [25, 26].
Be cognisant of how to control your stress hormones, or they will make life difficult for you and keep your goals dangling out of reach.
Implementing Priority # 3
- Don’t go jogging
- Resistance train, do sprints or go for a walk
- A meditative, mindfulness practice has a profound impact on your stress levels, and is correlated with less body fat, specifically belly fat 
Priority # 4 – Get quality sleep
I’ll keep this one simple. Sleep is your secret supplement. Underestimate its powerful effects at your own loss.
Anabolic hormone production, muscle building, fat burning, metabolic repair and consolidation of your memories are some of the all-important tasks that the body performs while you’re in a happy state of slumber [10, 27, 28]
Conversely, lack of sleep can accelerate aging, is linked to increased energy consumption, and reduces energy expenditure [29-31].
Don’t sacrifice your sleep. Give your hormones time to play. They will reward you with less body fat, stronger bones, and more lean muscle. Also, your brain will work better.
Some people need more sleep than others, but what we really want to focus in on is improving the quality of our sleep.
”Sleep like you’re being paid for it”
– Shawn Stevenson.
Implementing Priority # 4
- Sleep in a very dark, cool room
- Avoid excess alcohol consumption, or stimulants (i.e., caffeine) before bed
- Limit blue-light exposure before bed i.e., electronics, bright lights. Read a book, or do a puzzle. If that’s not going to happen then at least mitigate the stressors by enabling Night Mode on your iPhone, or by using an application called f.lux on your computer
The elevator pitch
You may still not be convinced that these strategies are specific enough to you and your mission, especially if it’s purely aesthetic, or body (re) composition-related.
However, the psychological stress, coupled with the physiological consequences that stem from focusing solely on weight loss and your body image make it not worth the squeeze. It turns out not only to be less effective, but also detrimental to your overall health.
Thus, in addressing our long-term health – and indeed, prioritising it – we will tackle several concerns at the same time, one of which, oddly enough, is body composition.
But it’s really no coincidence.
Our priorities are all mutually supportive. if we foster a positive feedback loop within the body, we will gain the most leverage from the least effort.
Minimal Effective Dose
So what’s going to deliver 80% of our desired returns?
After we nail these priorities, then we can get more specific.
Because only then do the little things truly make a difference.
The Hazda, a hunter-gatherer population who live in the savannah-woodlands of northern Tanzania, have been found to expend no more daily energy than the average Westerner, despite their increased physical activity level . Think on that for a second. All of that walking, hunting, carrying, foraging, building fires, fetching water etc., despite all of this, their body uses no more energy than the average desk-minding, snack-gobbling Westerner who probably won’t even get in a lousy 30-minute walk.
How is that possible?
Well, the brain moderates the efficiency of energy usage based on environmental conditions. In our case, cutting calories would represent an environmental condition. One which would be rather unfavourable to fat loss, given the brain’s proclivity to dump valuable muscle tissue, and down-regulate the metabolism to match the incoming energy.
The Hazda are not intentionally regulating their energy in/out. I doubt they know about calories. Their environmental conditions (an unpredictable food supply) are regulating their energy usage by proxy. The brain does the work, but the stimulus is undergoing the experience itself (starvation).
So basically, less energy in equals less energy out.
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