Someone I know who follows a gluten-free diet said that he saw an ad for this product called GlutenCutter, an supplement that claims it helps people digest gluten, on Facebook. I would assume he "likes" many gluten-free/paleo/etc. blogs on Facebook that that is why he saw this ad. I looked at the product out of curiosity and it is a bit worrying, particularly the FAQ:
Q: Is Gluten Cutter intended for those with Celiac Disease?
A: It is recommended that those with Celiac Disease first consult with a doctor prior to using Gluten Cutter.
I would only hope they have a competent doctor who tells them the truth, which is that while some research is being done on using enzymes that would possibly allow a celiac to digest gluten, this is in very preliminary stages. There is currently no safe accepted dose of gluten for a person with celiac disease.
Furthermore with the state of our health care systems, I would worry that people with celiac symptoms would use this product. People who haven't had celiac ruled out. In the US I meet many people like this who cannot afford the diagnostic tests, particularly since the gold standard if it's not ruled out otherwise is biopsy that is performed as a surgical procedure. In places like the UK, it is often hard to obtain these tests as well, as it is not easy to see a specialist.
The supplement industry often thrives by filling in the gaps of the healthcare system, and sometimes in unsafe ways. I would not use this kind of product if it were possible that I might have celiac.
I have used Glutenease in the past, but celiac is ruled out in my own case. Glutenease mainly contains one of the enzymes under study, which is dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPPIV). It seemed to help me transition out of a gluten-free diet, but I stopped taking it late last year and haven't had any problems. I think if i had continued to need it, it would have indicated the possibility of a more serious problem since low levels of it in the body are tied not just to celiac, but to other diseases that cause mucosal damage.
Compared to Glutenease, Glutencutter contains a host of other supplements which might have unintended side effects. One of the many reasons I think people experimenting with supplements should avoid bundled supplements and just supplement what they need in doses that are adjustable.
It just reminds me that gluten is probably a major public health issue in our time because
- it is ubiquitous in the food supply
- current tests for celiac disease are inaccessible to many (if not most) people at risk for celiac
- even the screening tests are rarely done for people at risk, even those with symptoms
- like other food allergies, celiac disease seems to be increasing in prevalence
- many at-risk populations are in some developing countries
Not being gluten-free anymore has significantly broadened my ability to travel, eat-out, and go to social gatherings. And that's kind of a sad fact considering not everyone has that choice.
In developing countries, this problem is magnified:
Wheat and barley are major diet constituents with few acceptable alternatives, rendering the convincing of parents that bread is the cause of diarrhea very hard. Also, convincing patients with atypical CD to adhere to a GFD is difficult. Finally, lack of information about CD manifestations, lack of benefit from a GFD and lack of encouragement to adhere to such a diet may contribute. More than 10% of adults with CD do not adhere strictly to long term GFD and more than 30% who believe they are, are actually consuming grams of gluten daily.
Interestingly, some of the most at-risk populations come from the "Fertile Crescent" where wheat agriculture originated. Rather than poor adaptation to grains, celiac might be more of a legacy of more recent evolutionary trade-offs, an issue explored in Aaron Sam's dissertation (PDF). The crop that these early farmers so successful may also have ended up being a curse on their wide-ranging descendants.
Every two years or so I notice a cyclical trend in the online “paleo” community. It’s the resurgence of dogmatic carnivory. It has two main themes: plants are “poisons” that cause most of our health problems and humans “evolved to be” very low carb. Always an undercurrent with some very zealous devotees (“The Bear” of Grateful Dead fame was probably one of its most prominent popularizers), it suddenly finds popularity among normally more moderate people, picking up some non-paleo low-carb followers in the process. Then it goes away again, hilariously with some of its top cheerleaders renouncing it in the process (like Danny Roddy).
It’s been back again lately. A few readers have written me about Anna Fagan who writes the blog Life Extension*. She is a graduate student in archaeology and social anthropology at the University of Melbourne. Anna’s most popular post so far is “Debunking and Deconstructing Some ‘Myths of Paleo’. Part One: Tubers.” Sadly, an opportunity for greater communication to the public from a much-maligned discipline becomes a manifesto for low-carb diets. The tagline is “Glucose restriction represents not only the most crucial component of ancestral diets but is by far the easiest element to emulate.” I think we’ve heard this one before, but this time it is in language that is more authoritative than usual. This is the kind of writing I would have liked Paleofantasy to take on.
Unfortunately she doesn’t refer to sources directly in her text, so I’ve done my best to figure out which sources she is referring to.
Most archaeologists don’t go around promoting diets, because they recognize the limitations of their field. There is so much that is unknown and unknowable. It’s pretty easy for nearly anyone to pigeonhole what we do have to fit their own narratives.
The reduction in size and robusticity of the human skeleton is a clear temporal trend of newly agricultural communities. Diachronic skeletal comparisons reveal large-scale, significant reductions in growth rates.
Yes, of some newly agricultural communities, and that doesn't mean it stayed this way. I’ve written about it more than I would have liked. I just wrote about it in my last post about Paleofantasy (which cites this review).
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story. - Marlena Zuk
It also brings up how questionably height is used in these narratives. The few hunter-gatherers that exist today are very very short (mostly due to genetics). The rest of the world has grown taller and taller. Staffan Lindeberg in his magnum opus suggests we are too tall from overnutrition. Other markers that extremists attempt to use to show that agricultural humans show a downward trend in terms of health suffer from similar limitations.
Instances of porotic hyperostosis brought on by iron deficiency anaemia increased dramatically in agricultural settings.
There is a new appreciation of the adaptability and flexibility of iron metabolism; as a result it has become apparent that diet plays a very minor role in the development of iron deficiency anemia. It is now understood that, rather than being detrimental, hypoferremia (deficiency of iron in the blood) is actually an adaptation to disease and microorganism invasion.”- Porotic hyperostosis: A new perspective
Either way, I’m not sure what the transition these communities in upheaval experienced has to do with whether or not tubers or any carbohydrates are bad for you. It wasn’t just the food that changed for these people, it was their entire way of life, and it was a transition that changed their biology. And while there are trends, there is no linear health decline. There is a more systematic database of human remains and health markers that is in the process of being created right now that should be a great resource in the future. At this point a lot of papers claiming a decline are using inappropriate sample sizes and statistical methods.
Far too little evolutionary time has passed for us to be successfully acclimated to the novel conditions of agricultural life.
Another common thread that is begging the question. How long is long enough? How many adaptations are enough?
Speaking of evolutionary time:
Spending most of our human history in glacial conditions, our physiology has consequently been modelled by the climatologic record, with only brief, temperate periods of reprieve that could conceivably allow any significant amount of edible plant life to have grown.
Like Nora Gedgauda's paleo book Primal Body, Primal Mind, which she cites for unknown reasons, this sentences implies to her lay readers than glacial conditions = something out of the movie Ice Age. Which is just not true. A glacial maximum left some people in the cold, but Africa was still quite warm, and if we are talking about evolutionary time, that’s where we spent most of it. Outside Africa, most humans seem to have clustered in fairly temperate refugia such as Southern Iberia during the last ice age.
Many think of the late Pleistocene as the “Ice Age”, a time when continental glaciers coveredmuch of the earth and where the land not under ice was inhabited by giant cold-adapted animals—wooly mammoth, wooly rhinoceros, and cave bears—pursued by hardy humanhunters. While this image may be somewhat accurate for part of the world, most of the earthremained unglaciated throughout the Pleistocene.” -In Glacial Environments Beyond Glacial Terrains: Human Eco-Dynamics in LatePleistocene Mediterranean Iberia
Of course “significant amount” is also going to be a point of contention. Only in the very coldest tip of the arctic do levels of plants in human diet fall to close to zero. Beyond that, many people might not be aware of levels of starch and sugar available in the environment because traditions surrounding them have died out. I have written quite a bit about Northern sources of carbohydrates- “Siberian potatoes” and Alaskan native plant foods.
Further information on the evolution of our diet can be garnered from the genetic data of present populations, which demonstrates the historically-late biological adaptation to less than minimal quantities of starch and to only few and specific starch compounds.
I assume this refers to amylyse (AMY1) copy number, the function and history of which is not quite clear, much like lactase persistence. For example, I do not possess lactase persistence, even though my ancestors probably raised livestock for dairy, they were diversified pastoralists, so it’s likely there was not enough selective pressure for them to develop this trait. They consumed dairy, but the majority of their diet was not dairy.
It is unlikely the ancestral human diet was as high in starch as some horticulturalist tropical diets are now, where the majority of calories come from starch. But in the end, the differences in AMY1 copy number between humans are small compared to our differences with other primates, indicating that perhaps this was selected for in our own evolution. And in the original paper it is kind of mind-boggling they use the Mbuti as a “low-starch” population given their high starch consumption.
The Mbuti are particularly interesting because they are hunter-gatherers, but trade their surplus meat for starch and have done this for quite some time (when this isn't available there are forest tubers utilized as fall-backs). The only time they don’t trade is when honey is in abundance.
Anna’s assertion that starch is comparatively “inefficient” compared to meat using optimal foraging models doesn’t mean that humans would have chosen to eat only or mostly meat. That data includes game from South American environments, which is unusually fatty in comparison to African game. Even in South America, such game is not available in unlimited amounts in the first place, which is why even hunter-gatherer cultures that have access to it like the Ache also extensively gather and process starch and gather honey.
The consequences of limited availability and time investment of edible Palaeolithic plant foods has been analysed by Stiner, who compared food class returns amongst contemporary hunter-gatherer groups. Stiner found the net energy yield of roots and tubers to range from 1,882 kj/hour to 6,120 kj/hour (not to mention the additional time needed to dedicate to preparation) compared to 63,398 kj/hour for large game.
Anna’s assertions stand in stark contrast to the paper she seems to cite:
Staple plant resources present an extreme contrast to large game animals with respect to prevailing economic currencies (Table 11.1). Large animals generally yield high returns per unit foraging time (kJ per hour) but are unpredictable resources. Seeds and nuts give much lower net yields per increment time (kJ per kilogram acquired), but they have potentially high yields with respect to the volume obtained and the area of land utilized.
Surveys of hunter-gatherers show overwhelmingly that preferred foods are fatty game and honey, highly caloric (and delicious), yet these are not the majority of the diet because they are not available in high predictable amounts, like the modern equivalents are.
As Kim Hill, who studies the Ache says “High-ranked items may be so rarely encounteredthat they represent only a very small proportion of the diet; low-ranked items in the optimalset may be encountered with sufficient frequency to contribute the bulk. It is interesting to note that on several occasions, reports of nearby palm fruit (ranked 12) were ignored, something that did not happen with oranges. On several other occasions people discussed the relative merits of hunting monkeys (ranked 11). reaching consensus that monkeys should not be pursued “because they are not fat.”
Anthropologists have theorized on the importance of having carbohydrate fallback foods in the event that high-fat game is not available, either because of seasonality or over-hunting. In these cases, “rabbit starvation” from excess protein is a real danger. Surviving off of game is a real challenge, which probably accounts for the fact that many humans have any exploited seemingly tedious to gather plant resources in nearly every environment.
Some of Anna’s arguments indicate that she has decided on some issues that are actually very controversial in anthropology and archaeology, such as the date of regular fire use (Anna asserts it was much later than many think) and that “However, plants have been preserved in the Lower Palaeolithic, and they are used primarily for functional and material – rather than nutritional – purposes.”
She does admit that “I will concede however that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but then goes on to list some sites that show possible non-food-related plant use that aren’t even associated with Homo sapiens, many are hominid offshoots that are unlikely to have contributed to our line (except for some of us who have a possible small amount of neanderthal ancestry). Other sites she mentions aren’t dated to the lower Paleolithic anyway.
Later sites such as Kebara she also dismisses, implying that legumes would have been used as fire starters rather than food. But admits that hominids would have supplemented their diet with “low glycemic” foods when meat was scarce.
Firstly, Neanderthals were highly carnivorous and physiologically inept at digesting plant foods. This can be measured using the megadontia quotient of Neanderthal postcanine tooth area in relation to body mass, which reveals that H. neanderthalensis must have consumed a greater than 80% animal diet. Nonetheless, the evidence of phytoliths and grains from Neanderthal skeletons at Shanidar Cave may reveal the rare consumption of starches in this singular context, but not the deleterious costs to the health of those that ate them.
The megadontia quotient, which is controversial in the first place, is not meant to be used in this way. Neither is the also mentioned expensive tissue hypothesis. They are meant to analyze use of uncooked fibrous plant foods and is not particularly enlightening in the case of large-brained hominids with cultural adaptations to food such as cooking. Some of the most recent research that reappraises the carnivorous theory of neanderthals is covered in this recent talk by neanderthal experts Dr. Margaret J. Schoeninger and Dr. Alison S. Brooks.
Humans show up as carnivores, even when they are known corn-eating agriuculturalists, like these people. But what happens when you plot other plants?
Now the data makes more sense (remember this data is showing where protein in the diet came from, it doesn't tell us how much protein was eaten).
As you can see, initial isotopic studies (which can only show where the protein came from, not the amount of protein in the diet) that showed neantherthals as top carnivores came into question when farming populations were showing similar values. They realized that they needed to consider analyzing plants based on their most nutritious fractions, since when was the last time anyone sane ate something like a whole stalk of corn, husk and all? Another great paper by John D. Speth also summarizes some of the recent research on neanderthal diets and debunks hypercarnivory.
humans were no longer able to transmute fibre into fat – as other primates can (consequently, they eat a high-fat diet) – through fermentation in the large intestine.
This, as anthropologist Dr. Richard Wrangham has pointed out, could also be an adaptation to cooking. And we didn’t lose this ability, it is just reduced, though no biologist would argue it the SCFA produced in the colon, which can provide calories and also modulate inflammation, are unimportant. SCFA metabolism is not comparable to longer chain fatty acid metabolism, so it’s not really appropriate to call these diets “high fat.” Furthermore, there are other primates with similar guts to ours like capuchins, who most certainly do not eat a carnivorous diet– they eat sugary fruit. But it’s very hard to compare our guts to the guts of other animals since cultural traits like cooking are so important for our food consumption.
I think it’s a bit amusing to read these posts alongside those of PaleoVeganology, written by a graduate student in paleontology who criticizes many popular paleo narratives. However much I disagree with him on the issue of modern diet choices, I commend him for not using his expertise to promote his chosen diet- he is explicit that his dietary choices are built on modern ethics and not the murky past.
The skeletons at Shanidar are certainly the first of many analyses of starches on teeth, which rules out theories like that plants were only used as decorations or fire starters. Since that first paper was published, others using the same method have followed and more will. But there is no way to use such data to speculate on how often or how much of these foods were consumed.
The coprolite “paper” that Nora Gedgaudas frequently cites also comes up, which I’ve addressed here.
Another common thread in carnivore narratives is that plants were used “only” as medicinals. I would not consider this as insignificant in any way– in most cultures, the line between food and medicine is a thin one. Many foods we enjoy as foods these days have medicinal roots.
Anna rightly criticizes the use of non-hunter-gatherers as hunter-gatherer proxies in writings about the so-called paleo diet and then cites a study that does the exact same thing-
In an attempt to reconstruct the diet of ice age hominids, a recent study analysed the macronutrient dietary composition of existing hunter-gatherer groups within latitude intervals from 41° to greater than 60°.
But where did this data come from? Anthropologist Katherine Milton responded quite well to this paper by Cordain:
The hunter-gatherer data used by Cordain et al (4) came from the Ethnographic Atlas (5), a cross-cultural index compiled largely from 20th century sources and written by ethnographers or others with disparate backgrounds, rarely interested in diet per se or trained in dietary collection techniques. By the 20th century, most hunter-gatherers had vanished; many of those who remained had been displaced to marginal environments. Some societies coded as hunter-gatherers in the Atlas probably were not exclusively hunter-gatherers or were displaced agricultural peoples. Because most of the ethnographers were male, they often did not associate with women, who typically collect and process plant resources.- Katherine Milton
The Ethnographic Atlas used in the “study” is available online and quite clearly does not contain 229 pure hunter-gatherer cultures. The 229 Cordain uses includes people who trade for or cultivate foods.
There is no evidence that mostly carnivorous groups of humans have particularly high longevity and in fact mummies, whatever their limits, have shown people eating these diets were not in fantastic condition, which of course like the bad condition of some early agriculturalists cannot be blamed on their diet.
It is awfully convenient to build a narrative to convince people to eat a limited diet based on the murky unknowns of the far past and near-mythical groups of supposedly extremely healthy carnivorous hominids. The carnivore-ape hypothesis is about as credible as the aquatic ape one.
One of the problems with human evolution, as opposed to, say, rocket science, is that everybody feels that their opinion has value irrespective of their prior knowledge (the outraged academic in the encounter above was a scientist, but not a biologist, still less an evolutionary biologist). The reason is obvious – we are all human beings, so we think we know all about it, intuitively. What we think about human evolution "stands to reason". Hardly a month goes by without my receiving, at my desk at Nature, an exegesis on the reasons how or why human beings evolved to be this way or that. They are always nonsense, and for the same reason. They find some quirk of anatomy, extrapolate that into a grand scheme, and then cherry-pick attributes that seem to fit that scheme, ignoring any contrary evidence. Adherence to such schemes become matters of belief, not evidence. That's not science – that's creationism.
I saw the same story building among vegans, who often craft similar narratives around our lineage's long plant-eating past. It speaks for a deep desire for people to justify their own choices. What all these dietary narratives have in common is that they confirm a particular limited diet is our “natural” diet and one that is best for humans, animals, and the environment. It’s not possible for them all to be right, and that’s because none of them are.
Ancient humans ate a large variety of foods, which is why we are adapted to so many. Human variation is high though, since our lineage has become so populous and geographically wide-ranging. There are many reasons for a modern human to adopt a low-carbohydrate or limited carbohydrate diet either temporarily or permanently. None of those have to do with this being the optimal diet for all humans or with a mostly-carnivorous ancestry.
I guess I’m kind of late to the party on reviewing this book, but I actually haven’t noticed a lot of reviews of it, which is surprising given the amount of buzz the articles about it generated. I also suspect some reviewers didn’t actually read it, since they seemed abnormally fixated on defending their paleo diet, when the book only has two out of ten chapters devoted solely to diet and covers many other topics.
Like Marlene Zuk, I am also quite critical of some of the movements that use (and mis-use) evolutionary logic like the paleo diet. So I wanted to like this book.
It has its good moments, but is overall in need of a good editor. It could be much shorter. And much less meandering.
Much of the skepticism is directly towards the frequently-inane postings on online discussion boards, which I a have the misfortune of being very familiar with having moderated one of the most popular until I rage-quit in annoyance.
While a lot of people get dumb advice on internet discussion boards, do they really define these movements? While they are fun strawmen to take down easily, most people don’t take such posts seriously. What they take seriously is the often scientific-sounding books written by various gurus, often with many letters, legitimate and not, preceding and following their names. While she mentions them, it’s only in passing. Her “paleofantasy” seems to consist mainly of cacophony of crowd-sourced internet discussion.
Not to say you won’t learn anything from this book, but it hardly challenges the status quo, which makes the hysteric reactions of many against it and the author seem all the more ridiculous. A lot of it reminds me of the excellent The Beak of The Finch or The 10,000 Year Explosion. She covers many methods that evolutionary biologists use to understand evolution, why they matter, and common misconceptions about them.
But if only people were talking about evolution when they were talking about the paleo diet. Talk about actual evolutionary biology and you might be met by some of the silent crickets that Zuk studies. Only 54% of paleo dieters in a recent survey accept evolution as a fact.
But it’s beyond that the increasing specialization in of academia becomes a limitation. Zuk specializes in the evolution of crickets, which yes, does have surprisingly broad applicability, but she spends a long time on that and other similar research that I think a skeptic would find irrelevant and unconvincing. I read The Beak of the Finch, which discusses this type of research in length, in high school, and it didn't stop me from adopting the paleo diet narrative. I think the most common problems with the “paleo” worldview come from anthropology. For example, misinterpretations of isotopic studies, coprolite fossils, and paleopathological surveys are used very often to justify “paleo” diets.
On the cultural anthropology side of things, people often seem very confused by terms like “hunter-gatherer” or “forager.” Rather than elucidating the complexity of historical humans lifestyles, the book muddles this further in parts. If you were confused about this before, you’ll stay confused, and a clarification would improve her arguments anyway. For example, whether or not the Yanomani (of the Chagnon controversy) are relevant to revealing some aspect of hunter-gatherer “human nature” is pretty questionable considering that while they do forage and hunt for some of their food, they are horticulturalists, a lifestyle that probably not much older than agriculture. Same goes for Jared Diamonds extrapolations from the horticulturalists of Papua New Guinea in The World Before Yesterday.
This is also common in Paleo diet books– authors like Cordain cite starch-cultivating horticulturalists like The Kitavans when convenient, while recommending a diet that bears little resemblance to theirs. I noticed recently that paleo guru Art De Vany’s blog header has a picture of some imposingly muscular tribal warriors. The site doesn’t seem to say anything about them, but I knew they are Asaro “mudmen” of Papua New Guinea, who are horticulturalists and grow many crops that De Vany would view as unhealthy. It is a shame to see them exploited to promote his diet and as of late, extensive advertising of his own supplements.
Fuled by sweet potatoes, sugary fruit, and peanuts they grew in their forest gardens
If you are confused, for almost all of the paleolithic humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers with primitive weapons. There are really no people today who practice this lifestyle. If agriculture is a drop in the bucket of human history from a relative perspective, even the innovations of the Middle and Upper Paleolithic, are similar in relative timescale. These innovations included better weapons- the atlatl and later the bow and arrow, which would have affected hunting significantly. They also included the culinarily important pottery and grease-processing (smashing up bones to make a fat and protein rich broth). I made this crappy timeline that gives a vague idea of some of these innovations in human history. What time do you choose as the optimum?
Our ancestors’ diets clearly changed dramatically and repeatedly over the last tens, not to mention hundreds, of thousands of years, even before the advent of agriculture.
Even the few representatives of nomadic hunter-gatherers that exist on the planet use these relatively modern technologies, like the Hadza’s bows.
I don’t think these groups of people are irrelevant to health discussions though, if anything, these people show that diversity of lifeways in which our species has been able to thrive, a thread that seems constant no matter the time. And every lifeway has involved trade-offs. For example, while rheumatoid arthritis, which is common in industrialized first world cultures these days, seems to have been rare in foraging cultures, osteoarthritis seems to have been more common.
And in the end while it’s fascinating to think about how so much we are familiar with is “new” in their scale of geologic time, Zuk rightly points that evolution works faster than many might imagine.
I think the sections on lactase tolerance, which talk about in how many places and ways humans acquired this trait, are fascinating. But left also many unanswered questions that show just how far we have to go to understanding human evolution.
Interestingly, about half of the Hadza people of Tanzania were found to have the lactase persistence gene—a hefty proportion, given that they are hunter-gatherers, not herders. Why did the Hadza evolve a trait they don’t use? Tishkoff and coworkers speculate that the gene might be useful in a different context. The same enzyme that enables the splitting of the lactose molecule is also used to break down phlorizin, a bitter compound in some of the native plants of Tanzania. Could the lactase persistence gene also help with digestion of other substances? No one knows for sure, but the idea certainly bears further investigation.
But while she mentions a little elephant in the room, which is our microbiota. Of “our” cells, bacterial cells outnumber “human” cells ten to one. And they have had a lot more generations to evolve than “we” have.
Microbiologist Jeffrey Gordon says, “The gut microbial community can be viewed as a metabolic organ—an organ within an organ . . . It’s like bringing a set of utensils to a dinner party that the host does not have.” 44 As our diets change, so does our internal menagerie, which in turn allows us to eat more and different kinds of foods. The caveman wouldn’t just find our modern cuisine foreign; the microbes inside of us, were he able to see them, would be at least as strange.
I like that she takes on the common narrative of “people were really healthy until they became farmers and then they shrunk and had bad teeth etc.” The reality is while some of the earliest agrarian cultures did seem to suffer compared to their predecessors, it wasn’t all about the food and people by and large recovered. Besides, if we were going to pick diets based on bone and teeth health, we might as well pick the pastoralists like Masaai, who tend to be much much much taller than any hunter-gatherers.
Then a funny thing happened on the way from the preagricultural Mediterranean to the giant farms of today: people, at least some of them, got healthier, presumably as we adapted to the new way of life and food became more evenly distributed. The collection of skeletons from Egypt also shows that by 4,000 years ago, height had returned to its preagricultural levels, and only 20 percent of the population had telltale signs of poor nutrition in their teeth. Those trying to make the point that agriculture is bad for our bodies generally use skeletal material from immediately after the shift to farming as evidence, but a more long-term view is starting to tell a different story.
Many paleo diet books present our species as that of fragile creatures rather than what we really are, which is the consummate omnivore resilient and adaptable enough to thrive on a large range of foods. A curious being, that was travelled far and wide and tasted many things, rather than being defined by fear and a narrow food exceptionalism. I’ve even seen people, some of them fairly well-known bloggers, on Twitter and Facebook discussing buying an island where “paleo dieters” could be free from “non-foods” like grains and the people that eat them. It’s not as bad as blog posts from paleo dieters travelling in foreign countries who talk about how difficult it is to explain their special food to the local people. Traditional cultures are venerated, maybe even exploited, unless they don’t fit the paleo narrative.
The question is whether the various forms of the paleo diet really do replicate what our ancestors ate.
Unfortunately Paleofantasy focuses on this absurd strawman of dietary replication and only begins to scratch the surface of neurotic botany of many paleo writings. Books that fret about whether or not “nightshades” grew in Paleolithic Savanna Africa and their plant chemicals, while blithely consuming other classes of similarly alien plants with other potentially problematic chemicals. Because that’s what plants are– bundles of chemicals that can be friend or foe depending on amounts and contexts.
The skeptics she cites aren’t much better than the internet commenters representing paleo. They include the Ethnographic Atlas, a survey of modern populations, that she claims puts to “rest the notion of our carnivorous ancestors.” Or the U.S. News & World Report’s rating of diets.
It doesn’t take an evolutionary biologist to understand what the paleo diet has become, especially in alliance with the low-carb diet promoters, industrial supplement companies, or the standard dieting-culture food fear mongerers. It functions not as an attempt to use evolutionary biology to understand the human diet, but has become a social engineering scam to sell mediocre books, processed powders, and other crap. It was only about evolution in the beginning, mostly it’s just a diet in caveman clothing now.
Paleofantasy has just come along for the ride. It’s not going to convince very many people caught in the scam. It’s just going to make those who haven’t feel smug. At least it might teach a few people about evolutionary biology.
And I liked the section about attachment parenting, which is surprisingly rational about the matter, a welcome break from so many writings that either are almost religious about it or decry it as some kind of upper middle class fad.
The evolutionary psychology section is also not as critical as I thought it would be from the reactions of those are are enamoured with the subject.
There is a long section on barefoot running, which talks about how some paleo diet proponents like Art De Vany think we did not evolve for long-distance running and other evolutionary fitness advocates like anthropologist Dan Lieberman think is it a critical part of our evolutionary heritage. I think this highlights the fact that the past is so hazy that it’s pretty easy to use it to support a whole host of contradictory arguments.
It’s a shame Zuk tilted at internet idiot windmills and not at the far more sophisticated arguments that are dressed up as science. I sometimes wonder if publishing companies don’t want authors to criticize other authors. They have 199 Paleo Fried Chicken Recipes (I made that up, but it’s not that far out) and other book-like products to push before people get bored.
These books are also relentlessly shallow shadows of some of the earliest texts in the genre of using the deep past to better understand how we should live. Recently I was struck by the similarity in the cover of The Primal Connection: Follow Your Genetic Blueprint to Health and Happiness and the late Paul Shepard’s Coming Home to the Pleistocene.
I read Coming Home to the Pleistocene when I was twenty. While I certainly don’t agree with everything in it, it is beautifully-written and thought-provoking. It challenged the way I thought about the world. Paul was not afraid to espouse controversial ideas, unlike the books from the diet industry that turn the original ideas into drivelling Flintstones platitudes in order to appeal to everyone. I suspect people will still be reading Shepard in a decade when all the paleo publishing bubble books languish in the bargain bin.
Zuk says in closing that “I am all for examining human health and behavior in an evolutionary context, and part of that context requires understanding the environment in which we evolved.” I agree with this. I think evolution is important and will continue to improve our understanding of our world. And I eagerly await a book that more fervently challenges common misconceptions about it.
My friends and I got a mention in the Chicago Reader's Food Edition for our themed dinner club that we call The Sup Club. It's been a fun year of cooking with them. We've cooked foods inspired by all kinds of places and times. I've marinated goat legs in beet juice, learned to cook sardines, eaten awesome "egg baos", and had more fun than I can possibly recount here.
We also rustled up a little Wordpress site with some of our favorite photos and stuff. People have asked me how they can get one of these started. And honestly I don't know how. It was pretty much always something I wanted to do, but it was hard to find like-minded people. I guess going to a lot of good food events is a way- it's how I met most of these people. But this is something that probably couldn't have happened in NYC. in NYC who except the super rich have big enough dining rooms to host 15 people?
To clarify though, I don't think 1950s food is "bad" per-se, but researching it I was surprised how monotonous, bland, and full of industrially processed ingredients it could be. Of course not all of it is that way. I have some good 50s cookbooks. But some I just keep to laugh at.
I liked the Viking food, minus the stockfish smashing in my living room.
Also I'm on the BoingBoing Gweek podcast this week. I'm always a little terrified to listen to these things, so I hope it's good!
I occasionally get emails and tweets admonishing me for being hostile to paleo and low-carb, having moved on and having to take a glancing blow behind me. It’s not an unfamiliar experience– I received the same when I stopped being vegan.
The truth is that I’m not hostile to paleo, low-carb, or vegan. All three represent food subcultures that taught me a lot about food and how it affects my health. I am thankful for that. Unfortunately all have quasi-religious underpinnings that can be detrimental to health. They are also hostile to critics.
It has been very difficult for me as a skeptic since criticism is frequently deemed to be a personal attack and is ironically often answered with personal attacks. Furthermore, when I was embedded with it socially, it was almost if you spoke up, you were in danger of being socially ostracized. It is my own experience that no one is blacklisted even for the worst behavior...unless they are openly skeptical.
It has been hard to leave. I mean there were good things– I got involved with grass-fed livestock because of it and many of my best customers, friends, and mentors also have a similar story. I thought maybe things could go back to the way they were when I started, when it was far more casual on a dietary level and it was largely a movement of people passionate about things like sustainable food, anthropology, evolutionary biology, and figuring out what worked for them.
I have told my own health story what seems like a thousand times, but the thing is I got better without being very restrictive at all beyond a period of very low carbing that had a targeted purpose, which was to allow my stomach to heal. It was more about adding foods to my diet such as meat and seafood then subtracting them, as well as letting go of dietary dogmas that were damaging my health like the idea that the best way to treat stomach issues was with more fiber or that fat was bad. It was also about diversifying the sources of food and the foods I relied on. I was only about 80% paleo then. It was fun and interesting to be a part of. I never worried about some ice cream or beer.
In Sweden I was very healthy until towards the end of my stay, when I think I messed up my stomach with NSAIDs again. I took to the corners of the internet where I found fringe diets for messed up people like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, VLC (very low carb), raw paleo, and the Failsafe diet. I learned from these, though I never adopted them fully. In some ways they were bad because they foster extreme nitpicking, including lots of combing through papers, finding out of context studies to make people paranoid about food. In other ways they were good, because they helped me realize that there were more targeted approaches to my issues rather than just thinking about what I did or did not probably “evolve to eat.”
When I moved to New York City from Sweden I had trouble adjusting. I met most of the people I hung out with through Paleo meetups. At the time I think the larger community was moving towards those fringe diets I had encountered becoming more what paleo was about. Paleo was adopting the food paranoia of the aforementioned fringe diets combined with the hubris of the idea that it was the optimal human diet our ancestors were supposedly so healthy on. It crossed the line from awareness to fear-mongering, with more and more leaders associated with it promoting the idea that even if you feel good, you are being quietly “damaged” by certain demonized foods. Much to my chagrin as someone who is very interested in evolution, I noticed the movement was minimizing the role evolution played. Around this time I was first called an “elitist” for pointing out a major figure in the movement rejected that evolution even existed.
At the same time it was increasingly hard for me to accept that this dietary philosophy was the optimal solution. My testimonial was true– I did feel better, but better than what? Things were up and down. Episodes of fatigue haunted me, as well as my stomach problems returning intermittently. My response was to turn to the internet, where I became increasingly convinced that certain “bad” foods I was eating occasionally like beer were the culprit. I had to be better at this diet, so I gave them up. I didn’t feel any better. I met a lot of people in real life who had glowing online testimonials, but who were obviously struggling as well. I felt disillusioned.
The composition of people who mattered was also changing from quasi-anarchist back to the land hippy types to more and more slick marketing people who seemed to have little interest in anything beyond selling products, wearing leopard print, and eating bacon. The first processed "paleo" “products” appeared on the market. But at that point I was in too deep. Almost all my friends were from paleo. I wanted to save it from its growing association with stock internet junk science that I had once seen pollute the vegan community.
Also the movement was getting an infusion from some new blood, some input from the Weston A. Price Crowd for example from Chris Masterjohn, and Paul Jaminet’s Perfect Health Diet made people suddenly less afraid of things like rice. Influced by them and NEEDING to make a change very much after my serious fainting episode, I started eating white rice regularly again, as well as more carbs in general. I felt a lot better, but still continued to have health problems, particularly with my energy levels.
The paleo community however was just getting worse. It started looking more like a front to sell crap and a bunch of low-quality content farms rather than a community centered around real food. I started speaking out about it and experienced large amounts of harassment and then when I complained about that I was basically told to shut up and that I was attacking people who had devoted their lives to saving people (sounded pretty familiar to me from veganism). Behind the scenes, many of the figures I had admired were not what they seemed. The discourse had gone toxic.
But I was really really fortunate offline. I moved to Chicago. I waffled about being paleo-ish for a time, trying to get back to that original spirit I had about it in the beginning. I told myself I’d just remain gluten-free and “mostly paleo.” I had learned about FODMAPs and adopted that procol with good results getting my stomach stable. But then I joined Crossfit and completely lacked the energy to do much of anything. I crashed again.
Luckily I went on a trip to Europe. I ate what I wanted and felt great. After that I was pretty much done with paleo, even as paleo-ish or 80% paleo like I was before, though I remain interested in learning from physical anthropology and evolutionary biology, that’s pretty far from what paleo is about these days anyway and when it is it’s a bowdlerized scientifically anemic version. I turned down a book deal, knowing I was not qualified to write a book yet and that paleo community-associated publishers were churning out consistently low-quality books with little critical editing. I was ready to try new things.
Online, I started hanging out with the “bad kids”- the ex paleos, which is its own little movement at this point. It was probably started by Matt Stone who has been variously mocked all over the paleo community despite probably being able to make a good entry into the vapid testimonial wars the various gurus engage in. From Danny Roddy I started exploring Ray Peat’s work, though I don’t completely embrace it 100%, it gave me the courage to eat the ice cream I once enjoyed with impunity, as well as things like orange juice, which pretty much banished the fatigue episodes. I also realized via Amber of Go Kaleo that I needed to just stop trying to have a diet and “Eat the Food,” that all these years I’d been trapped in an unconscious haze of chronic undernutrition calorically. I never meant to eat too little, but so much of appetite is unconscious.
My appetite was frequently suppressed to the point of nonexistence, which was compounded by fear of eating certain foods like grains, so having to make a huge effort to eat a meal. Some people I’ve met seem to be able to get out of it while maintaining a particular diet, particularly if they monitor themselves very carefully, but I wasn’t able to and I think it’s the same for many people. Maybe our hunger signals can be broken both ways, not just in the overeating direction our culture is more worried about. In the end I realized I was doing this out of fear, because of food paranoia, not because it was the best way for me to fuel myself.
Since then a lot of my intolerances have gone away. It could have just been improving my metabolism through ending the chronic undereating or the probiotic supplementation I decided to pursue more aggressively. I stopped taking all supplements except for the Pearls IC, which I make sure to take every single day, and bromelain. I drink milk (despite being genetically lactose intolerant) and eat things like rye, broccoli, cauliflower, and other foods that used to tie my stomach in knots. I think the difference is I am aware that most intolerances are dose-dependent and potentially modifiable (barring a serious autoimmune disorder like celiac), not a limitation of evolution.
I think taking some of the approaches paleo has borrowed from or skimmed off (FODMAPs for digestive issues, very low carb temporarily for heartburn, ketogenic for certain neurological issues, awareness of gluten intolerance and sensitivity) and applying them in a targeted manner would be much more effective without the baggage. A lot of times I see people doing a strict paleo challenge who really could benefit from an elimination diet. Yes, some of the approaches have a re-trial phase after the challenge, but considering what we know about gut bacteria and digestion that is not the best approach. When you don't eat a food, your body will sometimes downregulate enzymes used to digest it and your gut bacterial population will shift. Vegans sometimes have issues re-introducing meat because the production of certain protein-digested enzymes is downregulated. Does that mean meat is bad? No, it means it needs to be reintroduced gradually and carefully.
I also can't deny that there were family members and friends who adopted paleo because of me, as well certain people I met through paleo that I grew close with who I saw really struggle with health issues, caught in the same trap I was. Some of them are doing better now, some of them aren't. I feel just as bad about a few of them as I feel about a friend from my past who I introduced to veganism and who now has terrible health problems and won't even consider there might be something beyond veganism that would help. These people are my anti-testimonials, especially since so many of them post online about their success on the paleo diet while I see them crashing.
Offline, my social life changed as well. I met people who really loved food, all kinds of food, and I’m grateful for them every day. I don’t have a diet anymore. I largely eat what I want, but thankfully what I want is largely from-scratch food made with local plants, pastured animal products, and wild seafood. In some ways my diet is more "paleolithic" in spirit than ever, considering its anti-fragile diversity of plants and animals, including many wild foods.
So I’ll continue to write here about evolutionary nutrition. And point out resources from the paleo community if I feel they are useful and good, as well as continuing skeptic writing about certain paleo topics. But I do not consider myself a paleo dieter, writer, or anything like that. My choice to distance myself is because I do not like the way the community treats skeptics or people who do not do well while paleo. In these ways it is nearly identical to the vegan community it frequently derides. It is sad, but not at all surprising, to see some gurus and bloggers finally come out as feeling not so great. The community’s response seems to usually be to increase fat in the diet or restrict it further. Or to embrace diagnoses that are unknown to the scientific literature (parasites a normal doctor can’t detect but a special “practitioner” can, adrenal fatigue which is usually self diagnosed or diagnosed questionably*) to explain things that are often simply undernutrition. Leave and you simply “didn’t do the diet right,” a convenient way to dismiss problems. It's too bad to see it go this way, but seems to be the way many internet diet communities end up.
When people ask me about paleo these days, I recommend they explore it, but also explore a lot of other food books with a skeptical mind. And to explore less sexy solutions like FODMAPs. And ultimately to consider not adopting a "diet" at all, but a greater awareness and a better relationship with the food system. Like ex-low-carber Darya Pino, I emphasize unprocessed foods from healthy food systems. The farmer's market, the pasture, the woodlands are my solace.
And yeah, I'm enjoying some chilaquiles made with local corn tortillas and a good beer while writing this, and no, my biomarkers haven't changed in the past year except my HDL is a lot higher. And I'm loving food rather than fearing it.
*I was tested for adrenal insufficiency by an endocrinologist when I fainted, which is advised if you suspect adrenal issues
Edit: I honestly can't believe that people are commenting that I'm actually still paleo but with some cheats. C'mon people. I'm eating sandwiches. I bake BREAD with GLUTEN in it. I drink liquid sugar. And other people are commenting that meat is the best food ever and why would anyone eat grains which are inferior. I never understood that argument. Just because a food is more nutritious doesn't mean it should be the only food you eat. Most foraging peoples get their calories from a bland not very nutritious source and fill int he blanks with a variety of plants and animals.
Since I get regular emails on this subject, I thought I might as well create a whole post on restaurants (and a smattering of bars) in Chicago that I think are worth recommending.
The first of these is Elizabeth Restaurant ($$$), run by my friend Iliana Regan and her excellent staff. I chanced on an extra seat back when she was doing dinners at her apartment and ever since I’ve been a fan. I love her intricate approach to showing off what the woods and fields of the region have to offer. She has three menus, the ones that are probably the most interest to a visitor are the Owl, which is focused on Midwestern agriculture, and the Deer, which is focused on foraging and hunting. I’ve had bear, venison, raccoon, wild mushrooms, and other unique local woodland products here, all presented beautifully in multi-course formal tasting menus. You have to pre-buy tickets to this restaurant to secure your seats.
Salmon wrapped in turnip at Elizabeth
People who have serious food allergies who read this blog will be delighted to learn of the existence of Senza ($$$ previous post), a fantastic restaurant staffed by many veterans of Chicago’s most respected fine dining institutions that happens to be very strictly gluten-free, which is a boon for anyone with celiac disease. Unlike other gluten-free restaurants, the cuisine is more focused on meat, fish, fruits and vegetables than gluten-free bread and pasta that dominates the less accomplished restaurants of this genre. Tasting menu only, but it’s a perfect way to experience the talents of the kitchen.
Two less formal restaurants I frequent are Vera ($$) and La Sirena Clandestina ($$) in the West Loop, which is really the hub of the food scene here. Vera is a seasonally-focused Spanish-inspired wine bar. Sit at the Otro bar and enjoy delectable deviled eggs topped with creamy uni, the famous jamon iberico, the most perfectly cooked crispy brussel sprouts with anchovy dressing, and a glass from their very long list of sherries. Menu items change often as the seasons change, so I can’t recommend any one thing, but be sure not to miss ordering something each from the meat, the seafood, and the vegetable sections of the menu.
Bacon wrapped dates in blue cheese fondue and kale salad at Vera
La Sirena Clandestina is a romantic little South American-ish spot. I think some of my readers will enjoy it because the chef uses cassava flour for things like pao de quijo, which are cheese puffs (also found in Lakeview at Cassava, a gluten-free cafe), and fried smelt, which are little fish served with an aioli-like made with Brazillian malagueta peppers. I personally have an addiction to the empanadas, which are always filled with something new and interesting like spicy duck chorizo. Seafood dishes are a highlight here and there are lots of little appetizers that are surprising hits like the cilantro coconut risotto. Don’t miss the excellent cocktail program. I think the pisco sour is one of my favorite drinks in the city.
Cassava battered smelt at La Sirena
Another good option in the West Loop closer to the city core in Embeya ($$$), which has a nice selection of Southeast Asian dishes like this sausage stuffed squid and excellent drinks. If you are wheat-avoidant there is hardly any on the menu.
For Lunch, Blackbird ($$$ except for lunch special) is a great place to get a tasting menu that’s not very expensive. $22 will get you an excellent three-course menu that varies with the season. If you want something a little less formal, Publican Quality Meats ($) is a butcher shop that has a variety of really great options, like the butcher’s meal, which lately is Cocido, a Spanish blood sauage, cumin, and chickpea stew. I also go to Au Cheval sometimes for their chopped liver, which is so far my favorite liver in the city.
In my own neighborhood, which is above the West Loop and is usually called West Town, I am a huge fan of Ruxbin ($$), which is just really wonderfully cooked comfort foods with unique, often Asian-influenced, touches. One of the best dishes I had here was a perfectly cooked steak with miso-butter rice “tots” and the best crispy savory broccolini I’ve ever had. The catch is that it’s impossible to get into on Sunday, which is reservations only, and the rest of the days there are no reservations, so sometimes the wait can be long and unpredictable. I suggest putting your name down and heading to Noble Rot or Lush where you can get great beer or wine to bring back when your table is reading since Ruxbin is BYOB. I need to try more of the Mexican options in Chicago, but I typically go to the dive called Taqueria Traspasada ($), which is on the corner and open late, for simple good tacos.
For lunch, the local butcher shop, The Butcher and the Larder, serves up delicious sandwiches and soups. Other neighborhood staples for me are The Green Grocer, a small grocery store which has an excellent selection of pretty much everything I like, and Nini’s, a little Cuban-Lebanese deli that has an assortment of homemade and high-quality goods.
In Wicker Park I like Carriage House ($$), which features low-country Southern Food, Violet Hour ($$) for cocktails (but on weekends there is often a very long line to get in), and Trencherman ($$) for brunch and cocktails.
Logan Square is another food-lover’s mecca. I really enjoy the cocktails at Billy Sunday($$) and the Japanese-influenced food at Yusho ($$), particularly the savory egg custard known as chawanmushi. Longman & Eagle has delicious tallow fries.
Up north in my old neighborhood of Lincoln park I recommend The Peasantry ($$), which is very rich and delicious dishes inspired by street food, and Rickshaw Republic ($$), which is oddly enough Indonesian street food. I guess it makes up for Chicago’s anemic food truck scene,a consequences of draconian regulations here. For drinks in that area I recommend Barrelhouse Flats for cocktails and Deliahs for beer.
If you are willing to go further north, there are very good Indian, Thai, and Korean restaurants. For Korean I usually go to Dancen ($), which is a Korean dive bar where you can get cod roe soup that is really made with cod sperm sacks. It’s better than it sounds, but if that’s not your style, the seafood pancake is also really really good. For Thai I love Andy’s Thai Kitchen ($) and Sticky Rice ($), which have many authentic dishes, one of my favorites being the fermented sausages.
If you are willing to go way out of the way, Bridgeport is a fun artsy neighborhood further South that has Maria’s ($$), home to a truly impressive beer list and cocktail program, and Pleasant House ($), where they have managed to give British food a good name with their delicious flaky savory pies.
The more central areas of the city are not my preferred place to go, but if I have to be there, I will go to The Purple Pig ($$), a gastropub that is sometimes impossible to get into, Gyu Kaku ($), tasty Korean-Japanese barbeque with many offal options, Slurping Turtle, and Xoco ($), which has good hot chocolate and Mexican caldos (soups). For drinks I like Sable’s cocktails. I keep meaning to try Sumi Robata bar and will report back since that looks really awesome too.
That’s a lot of places, so if you want other recs for other neighborhoods or other types of cuisine, let me know in the comments. Also there are still places I need to try, so I will add more to this as I think of things or find new things.
Also don't forget to try the local Chicago-Swedish spirit, Malort, which I bet all of you will really really enjoy. It's a must!
If you want to know some underground dining options, you can email me privately.
A few months ago when my friends and were planning another themed dinner party, I submitted the idea for Mesopotamia on a whim and it was picked. So I delved a bit into cooking from the Fertile Crescent, where many foods we eat every day originate. There are "recipes" that exist from this time and place, in the form of tablets from Babylon in the Yale collection written in cuneiform. The problem is that these terse "recipes" have certain ingredients that have not been conclusively translated. Perhaps archeology will fill in the gaps. Archeologist Patrick McGovern, for example, used chemical analysis of pottery residue to reconstruct an ancient Phrygian drink and brew something similar for Dogfish Head called Midas Touch.
Jean Bottero published the most complete translation of the Yale Tablet recipes, but interestingly, food bloggers have contested some of his translations. Jean supposedly loved to cook, but perhaps held a French contempt for other cuisines, declaring the Yale Tablet recipes not fit for anyone except his "worst enemies."
It is interesting because a lot of the recipes are for broth and I've been been thinking about the influence French cooking has had on how many people make broths. I sometimes get emails about how I prepare broth and sometimes people are shocked I don't remove the fat from my broth. I leave it in the vast majority of the time.
But in traditional French cooking, which has influenced so much of the Western world, the fat is often removed in various ways such as skimming. This reaches its pinnacle in French consommé, in which egg whites are used to effectively remove the fat. That's cool, but I don't really feel the need to do that at home. I think this is partially because I have been so influenced by Korean food, in which broths are often purposefully cloudy or fatty.
The removal of fat is probably a recent development. The first broths ever made were probably made in the later paleolithic as part of a survival strategy known as grease processing. The very purpose of breaking and boiling bones was to probably acquire extra fat with the added bonus of the savory umami bones impart into liquid. I think a paleolithic human would be horrified by the process of consommé, which involves essentially wasting both the egg whites and a bunch of fat (though if you have a dog at home, they appreciate eating the leftover "fat raft").
Apparently Babylonian broths were similar to paleolithic and Korean broths, in that they were nice and fatty. If you don't like fat, you might call them greasy, but a good cook should be able to design the rest of the recipe in order to make them more balanced.
Similarly, whereas most modern cooks use purified salt, ancient cooks were probably more likely to cook with salted condiments (similar to fish sauce or soy sauce)and other foods like salt-fish or salt-pork. And probably if they were making beer, they were also making other fermented foods like pickles. Unfortunately, the fragments on the tablets don't have much information on the specifics of these things, but I would not be surprised if pickles or salt-cured foods were some of the unidentified ingredients like suhitinnu, though some believe there are spices or even vegetables.
Either way, it was an excuse to whip up some Middle Eastern ingredients that possibly have a long history. Harissa was out, because it relies on peppers, which didn't exist in Babylon since they came to this region of the world through the Columbian exchange. But like how Korea was making kimchi with other Ingrid before the Columbian exchange introduced peppers, it is likely the Babylonians made something like harissa, which is so good because it's essentially a bunch of delicious spices marinating together. I made my regular harissa recipe, but used more garlic and other spices: cumin, coriander, cinnamon, and caraway being the dominant ones (you can see what spices I have on my Trello board). I also made some delicious preserved lemons, though the Babylonians would have more likely had a type of citron.
One ingredient I had a lot of fun with was some tears of mastic I bought in Greektown here. I first had mastic in New York City at a goat ice cream shop (yes, really) called Victory Garden, where they used it to flavor soft serve ice cream. I have a strong affinity for evergreen flavors that evoke both forests and cathedrals, so I was addicted to mastic immediately. It is often sold as "tears", since it is the harvested resin of the mastic tree, and I bought the lowest grade small ones to experiment with. I ground them with a mortar and pestle and made some teas, which are supposed to be very good for your stomach lining, though you have to be careful when adding the mastic to liquid. If you don't add it slowly it literally turns to gum and you realize where humans probably got the idea for chewing gum. There is evidence that ancient humans chewed tree resins. But that doesn't bother me too much, it actually makes a rather nice gum, albeit with a fickle texture. Mastic has a very complex flavor, being both bitter and sweet, but that makes it actually rather perfect for balancing fatty foods.
The small mastic tears I use
I decided to make a goat leg since I had one in my freezer. I hadn't cooked one in a long time, so I googled for some recipes and found one that suggested marinating in beets in order to give an attractive red color. I thought I'd go one further and use the beets for the acidic component of the marinade as well by using some Scrumptious Pantry pickled beets I had in the fridge. Full disclosure is that Scrumptious Pantry invited me to the Localicious event at the Chicago Good Food Festival, but I've been buying their excellent products from the Green Grocer since I started shopping there. At Localicious I sampled many good local foods, like the genius Billy Sunday deviled eggs that had liver mousse whipped into the yolk, and cider from Red Streak. While I was getting some locally cured ham from the chef at Big Jones, my friend and I bumped into a man and we promptly apologized, only to realize it was Sandor Katz, who is largely considered a fermentation god. I love my copy of his Wild Fermentation. We chatted a bit and various things, including the excellent practice of marinating meat in pickles, which he has also tried with good results. God knows what marinating meat in pickles does, I get the impression that pickle juice is a much more complex in its actions than plain lemon or lime juice.
The rest of the goat leg marinade was Midas Touch beer, Wild Blossom mead, and good olive oil. The next day I made my spice/aromatic mixture, which was plenty of shallots, olive oil, garlic, preserved lemons, pistachios, sesame seeds, mastic, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, black pepper, fish sauce, cumin, dates, and fig vinegar processed until smooth and rubbed all over the leg. I braised the leg in the marinating liquid diluted with duck stock for a couple of hours. It was delicious- tender, red, meaty, earthy, slightly sweet, and highly aromatic. I served with some full-fat Greek yogurt mixed with sumac.
Thanks Jen Moran Photography!
I wish I could give exact ingredients to my recipes, but I usually improvise when I cook. I didn't grow up with fancy food- I loved Hot Pockets, Lunchables, Chick File A, and Kraft Handy Snacks. But I was lucky enough to spend a lot of my childhood outside in the woods. I think that helped me develop a "nose" for flavor, and flavor is as much about the nose as the mouth. I have found memories of sweet honeysuckle, crisp wild chives, pungent tulip trees, balmy pine needles, and the fragrant vines of wisteria. When I have my own children, I hope they can be as exposed to things like these as I was, as I think they are not just important in giving children an appreciation of nature, as to give them other sensory experiences that can help them appreciate many other things that draw on nature for inspiration later in life. If you didn't grow up in such an environment, I think educating yourself about flavors and just trying lots of diverse and interesting foods can help you learn to improvise. As far as educating yourself about flavor, I started a book recently called Taste What You're Missing which is written by a food developer who had to develop her palette as an adult on the job, and so far it's pretty good. Also, have plenty of spoons so you can taste while you are cooking and adjust. I tend to use at least seven different spoons a day, which makes me feel very glad I now have a dishwasher.
I've written about mummy abuse before, but today the press is having a field day with the preliminary findings of the Horus study, an examination of atherosclerosis in ancient mummies. Luckily, you don't have to listen to them, because the study is available online for anyone to read. It's also pretty readable as studies go.
The Horus study took a sample of mummies from around the world and CT scanned them for evidence of atherosclerosis, which is accumulation of fatty materials on artery walls.
Here are the raw numbers:
137 total mummies, 34% (47 total) with evidence of atherosclerosis (25 definite, 22 possible)
- 20% in aorta
- 18% in iliofermoral
- 18% in popliteal or tibial
- 12% in carotids
- 4% in coronary arteries
76 Ancient Egyptians (farmers), 38% (29) with evidence of atherosclerosis
51 Peruvians (farmers), 25% (13) with evidence of atherosclerosis
5 Puebloeans (forager-farmers), 40% (2) with evidence of atherosclerosis
5 Unanagan (true hunter-gatherers living in the Arctic), 60%(3) with evidence of atherosclerosis
Obviously, with such disparate sample size, differences were not statistically significant. Detailed tables give information about each mummy, which is very helpful.
The "with evidence" is important because we are dealing with mummies here and interpreting calcifications are atherosclerosis. Even modern CT scanning of living humans is not perfect at identifying atherosclerosis.
What is really interesting is that these people had very different lifestyles: the Peruvians probably ate a high-carbohydrate diet with lean meats, whereas the Unanagans lived in polar regions and ate mostly marine animals.
I think this can put to rest the idea that Ancient Egyptian mummies had plaque because of their high socioeconomic status allowing them to eat a high-fat diet. But it also questions the idea that a high omega-3 diet can prevent it.
There are a great many factors though that can contribute to atherosclerosis though and the fact that it exists in these different populations emphasizes that we shouldn't forget them. There are several infections that can contribute, smoking and exposure to smoke from primitive cooking fires is also a factor the researchers mention. In the end this is not a study about diets, as most press accounts would have you believe. I have to say that the best coverage comes from the Washington Post, and the worst I've seen is at NPR (inapprorpriately makes it about modern diets) and the Atlantic (fails to mention non-dietary factors).
As I've read different arctic mummy studies over the years, I've made this very incomplete spreadsheet that gives a little idea as to how many different conditions some of these people suffered from. The ones from the Zimmerman papers are from the same cave as the arctic mummies in this study. Live was certainly no picnic. Despite the fact that they are hunter-gatherers, it is pretty debatable whether or not the harsh arctic lifestyle is one ancestral to humans, which is why it is important to gather data from savanna and jungle foraging cultures, who probably live lifestyles closer to what humans did for most of our history as a species. Looking at the mummy data, it seems pretty evident that the arctic lifestyle is one that humans live tenuously, unable to keep their body temperature up without smoky fires and possibly suffering from a fair amount of vitamin deficiencies and famine.
But let's not forget that the atherosclerosis levels are still lower than modern levels. In a study of modern humans, by age 50 atherosclerosis was present in 82% of men and 68% of women, whereas in the mummies at an estimated age of 40-49 years (n=43) only around 55% of mummies evidenced the condition and in the mummies older than fifty (n=20) it was closer to 40% (and interestingly little evidence of sex differences). Even more alarming, a study in the US of those aged 14-19 showed that ALL had atherosclerosis of the aorta (compared to 20% of mummies), and 50% had atherosclerosis of the coronary arteries*, whereas only 4% of mummies showed evidence of this, all of these mummies estimated to be in their 40s and 50s. This study is not an exoneration of modern diets and lifestyles.
Of course the data is of vastly different quality, but if you are going to try to use this study to show that humans have always been unhealthy, this is the reality of the comparison.
And that atherosclerosis is a complex condition that does not always lead to disease. In studies of forager-horticulturalists like the Kitavans (who smoke like chimneys, though cigarettes are probably less unhealthy that arctic cooking fires, which produce coal-miner-like lungs) it has simply been assumed they did not have high rates of atherosclerosis because they did not have high levels of diseases associated with the condition, but in reality this might not be the case because atherosclerosis does not always lead to these diseases. As Chris Masterjohn has written, the connection between atherosclerosis and disease requires the plaque to rupture. There are many factors at play here, from the composition of the plaque to where it is located.
But if anything, this study shows the need to not assume atherosclerosis is low just because disease is low. Since there are few relevant studies even on different Western dieters, it's hard to say if there exists a diet that can possibly prevent this condition.
* Though as Stephan Guyenet points out, the stats in the paper are marred by the fact that they are counting mummies without hearts in the denominator, without them the number rises a bit, but still not to modern levels
A few months ago I had some serious fungi in my bathroom. And unlike the time it appeared, grey and speckled, in the dark dank bathroom of my old rat-trap Brooklyn apartment, I was thrilled. This time it wasn't mildew, it was oyster mushrooms.
My apartment is certainly the best place I've lived in during my adult life, but it doesn't get a ton of light. I have a mint plant in the one window that gets some sun, but otherwise my gardening options are limited. So when Fab.com had a sale on mushroom cultivation kits from The Imaginary Farmer, I bought one, choosing the Hantana Phoenix Oyster kit.
The Imaginary Farmer kits caught my eye because they promised a more hands on experience than the other kit I had bought last year, which was an already inoculated pressure-cooked substrate. With that, I didn't have to do much beyond mist it to get it to grow, but I didn't really learn that much either. This kit required me to assemble the environment for the spawn myself.
Reading the booklet that came with the kit, I realized I would be assembling a war in a bag. A type of microscopic war I was rather familiar with given my experiments in wild yeast ciders and exploration of the role of microfauna in human health.
I've often been a bit amused by straw-man rich anti-organic agriculture writings that accuse advocates of sustainable agriculture of being Luddites desirous of dragging us all back into a miserable 14th-century peasant past. The reality is that most modern farms that are part of this movement utilize methods that didn't exist until recently. The modern sustainable farmer is more likely to own pipettes and beakers than they are to own scythes (not that there is anything wrong with scythes).
While humans have been consuming mushrooms for a very long time, cultivating mushrooms is newer, perhaps dating to the late 1700s. Many methods used today date to the 1970s, when certain people were very interested in cultivating err...certain "magic" mushrooms. Even to this day, an innocent cultivator of culinary mushrooms is likely to wade through a lot of material of the more psychedelic persuasion, which is credit to the fact that these people did a lot of the pioneering work in indoor growing out of necessity (similarly a lot of stuff used in indoor growing of vegetables can credit marijuana growers). Culinary and "magic" mushrooms are not the only options though, it is also possible to grow many important medicinal mushrooms like reishi.
The method in the Imaginary Farmer kit used oyster-mushroom inoculated grain, which was barley. This led to some question from gluten-free friends about whether it was safe for them. Honestly, I have no idea, but it would be interesting to study. For the rest of the substrate I used coffee grounds and sawdust. I was lazy and just used tap water for everything even though you are not supposed to because of the chlorine.
Did I mention this was a war? A war between the things I wanted to grow, which are mushrooms, and the biodiverse bouquet of ubiquitous other flora and fauna in the air, my breath, the sawdust, my hands... pretty much everything. My job to to give my team the advantage, but introducing as little of the other little folks as possible into my growing environment. I kept my hands clean with rubbing alcohol and the spawn sold by the Imaginary Farmer was selected to be resistant to hydrogen peroxide, which allowed me to use that to clean the sawdust. I put that all in a special mushroom-growing bag that had a filter-vent. And then I left it in my cupboard in the dark for awhile. And eventually it started to look like tempeh with a nice white mycelium binding the substrate into a block, which is the real "body" of the mushroom creature.
The bad thing here for mushroom growing about my apartment is I have central heating, which makes it really really dry. So I put the block in my shower window, cutting a small growing hole and then covering the rest. I misted them in the morning and at night when I got home from work and suddenly one morning they appeared!
The cool thing about this variety of oyster mushroom, which is a clone of a mushroom the company found interesting, is that in its early stages it has this salmon egg-like "tears."
Otherwise they aren't very photogenic. Some visitors called them "creepy." They got a bit more photogenic as they grew and I opened up another hole to start a new fruiting body (that's the actual mushrooms). I was really happy with my results. I was keeping a nice humid environment and my apartment temp tends around 50-62F.
The other things are terrariums I made in a Dabble class that ended up not doing very well.
I had to harvest them a little earlier than I wanted because I went on a trip, but they kept well in a paper bag in the fridge, though some dried out a little.
I cooked some of them with a steak I made and used the rest for a Viking themed party. For that I cooked them in smoked duck fat with some bog myrtle I got in Montreal, then cooked some lingonberries in duck fat with birch syrup, and served on a sourdough rye crisp with a bit of seaweed, cured duck breast, and wild boar, and shavings of getöst.
Photo by Jen Moran
They were really excellent in flavor and not at all like anything I've had from a store. They had a faint funkiness, which as a fish sauce lover, I welcomed, as well as the fantastic umami punch that characterizes the best mushrooms. If you don't eat meat, they can add a meatiness to dishes, but if you do they somehow manage to make meat even more "meaty" and flavorful.
Sadly the next few weeks were busy and while the block continued to fruit a bit, I neglected it and they dried up. The death knell was on a nice warm(er) day I left the window open and then the temperature dropped 30 degrees while I was out at dinner (thanks Chicago). When I came home the mushrooms had turned black and they shriveled up. It hasn't fruited since, but I might try "restarting" it by soaking it in water, even though that's kind of a crapshoot. I also wanted to try another variety and maybe other more attractive methods (like logs) or methods that could be used on the farm.
So when I saw a class on Meetup.com by the Chicago Permaculture Meetup's Kevin Hovey, I signed up. It was at the Stone Soup Coop, a place that definitely feels like what I imagine the 70s were like.
We went over different varieties (I want to try the almond agaricus, which is supposed to taste a bit nutty) and methods we could use from logs to bags to "terrariums." I'd love to use the logs on the farm and the terrariums in my apartment, particularly if I could use a pretty bell jar. Kevin talked a bit about how he wants to build a lab so he can get the kind of sterility in a filtered hood that really gives the mushroom cultures and spores an advantage.
He also talked a bit about getting your own spores and cultures. He gathered some local Chicago oyster mushrooms from a tree and cultured them. We used slow cookers to pasteurize brown rice bran substrates (gluten-free this time!) in jars and then used a homemade hood and needles to inoculate a variety of cultures and spores, which we got to take home. I have them in my cabinet at home and hopefully I will see some mycelium running soon, which incidentally is the name of a book by Paul Stamets that I've been reading. I also should probably pick up his more academic tome Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. He also has a popular TED talk.
I took a mycology class when I was in school in Sweden, but it was on forestry pests and I learned more about killing than growing them. But really the more I learn about this subject, the more I realize that there is so much that humans don't know about mushrooms. For example, only a few people know how to cultivate morels (I'd love to order some pre-inoculated trees for the farm) and black truffles. No one knows how to cultivate the prized matsutake, with its heavenly pine-forest aroma.
But these mysteries are certainly part of the appeal. And for the matsutake, even if you could grow it, would it really be the same? It is a mushroom defined by the ecosystem of the pine forest, with its flavors and aromas you can't get in a plastic bag. Wild mushrooms have a distinct terroir that many cultivated mushrooms can lack. For example the chaga I have in my cupboard task incredibly like the birch they came from, but you can hope that mushrooms grown in a bag don't taste like a bag. Growing outdoors in logs might allow me to cultivate a greater terroir by selecting different types of logs.
Either way, I've had a great deal of fun so far with mushrooms without even getting high and I'm looking forward to learning more. Have any of your grown mushrooms? What are your favorite resources and varieties?
When people use the contact form on the bottom of this site, maybe they should take a few seconds and think about two things I don't tolerate very well, which are
- packaged industrial products being sold under "real food" or "paleo" labels
- complete and utter misuse of history to sell a particular diet
Maybe don't send me that stuff, because I will post about it, and I will criticize it. Or maybe on the latter case, just leave the historical narrative out of your spiel if you can't waste more than an hour thinking about what it might actually imply.
One thing I really regret is when I first got healthy by eating a paleo diet, I thought that if everyone just ate like me, they could have a slim body like mine. It didn't seem that hard to me. So I became a zealot about it. But that process of being a zealot forced me to talk with a wide range of people about their experiences with food and health- from relatives to people I met at paleo meetups in real life. What shocked me were the people who ate like me, some of them ate "better" than me, and yet they were struggling with their weight. I even met people who gained weight on diets like mine. It was eye-opening.
And then there was the process of me discontinuing my strict diet, once when I moved to Europe, and next after I was having low blood pressure issues. I was talking to a friend who lost a lot of weight on paleo successfully and now works...making pizza. We were both joking how we have worried that we were going to suddenly gain a bunch of weight. But it never happens. It's not like we returned to a junk food diet, but I'm not going to turn down some ice cream or homemade pizza. And yet there are people right now turning down the kinds of things who can't seem to slim down. And then there are are fair number of people who slim down on diets full of paleo demonized foods like legumes and whole grains.
Some of them realize that health is about more than being slim, and while gaining weight might be a bad sign, the fact that they can lose a little and feel healthier is more than satisfying. Others however give up, disenchanted with the promises of a slim figure, dismissing it as just another fad diet.
Recently Jonathan Bailor sent me a contact email not once, but twice with his new "Slim is Simple" video to celebrate the creation of a non-profit devoted to distributing his educational material on healthy eating. I was surprised that so many got excited by this video. I criticized it on Twitter and some people were upset by that, saying it was a great educational tool and we need more such "simple" tools. No reason to be obsessed with scientific accuracy. Now I don't think I have that problem- I have recommended books that are quite imperfect on this blog many times from The Primal Blueprint to The Paleo Solution, but I don't recommend something unless I feel it has a useful and correct core.
Luckily I wasn't the only one who saw right through this video, Beth at Weight Maven, also posted a skeptical take on it. Evelyn has also written about Jonathan's other work before. I won't even get into his questionable calorie math that doesn't seem to bother with the fat that the correct equation takes maintence, which depends on body size, into account.
But I also would love to see more books that simplify eating without bordering on inaccurate propaganda like this video. I felt like I was watching a cult indoctrination film. Not only that, but it would seem its bolsters didn't even notice he's recommending a diet that is pretty different from the one they recommend- a diet based on three pillars of protein, fiber, and water. Eat as much as you want of those three things (maybe it helps that if you eat too much of the first two, you'll get diarrhea).
That's right- have as much protein as you want on this diet, have twice as much as normal, you'll be so satiated you'll supposedly forget about ice cream.I think this is exactly the kind of diet I coined the term "faileo" to describe (though sadly I feel this eventually contributed to a culture that somehow thinks you can guzzle as much coconut oil and bacon fat as you want, when I was kind of just trying to get people on board with more reasonable things like lamb shanks). The language is also exactly what many of us have tried to get away from, like the idea that we are "designed" for certain "clean" (an excessively moralistic word reminiscent of Kellogg and other health puritans) foods. Other foods, like starches and sugars (including most fruit- only citrus and berries are given a pass), will "clog our body."
But then I gets weird, because he says "almost everyone stayed healthy and fit without even trying until very recently" and the visuals for this are very interesting:
So we have an early bipedal ancestor, and than an Egyptian, and Pioneer, and someone who looks like they are from the 40s or 50s. Oh and a rather curvy person, who we presumably don't want to be...if only we knew what those Egyptians did. But Egyptians ate diet rich in bread and beer. Wait, I thought all these foods were the ones the video describes as "unnatural" and are responsible for our modern "clogs"? Hmm, well maybe we'll see about the pioneer woman. American pioneers had access to much more meat and fat than the average Ancient Egyptian, but they also ate things like biscuits and hoe cakes. 40s to the 60s? Well I collect cookbooks from those eras and they are certainly not full of an austere cuisine of protein, fiber, and water. Even if he had used the typical types of people that paleo dieters hold up as examples- the Hadza, The !Kung, the Kitavans, and other modern peoples who still live foraging lifestyles and remain very healthy, it would not make sense, because their diets contain a large amount of starch and even simple sugars.
Another use of history offender is Dr. Lustig in his new book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Others are more qualified to comment on the biochemistry errors in this book, but the food history in this book is so inaccurate that I wonder if publishers even bother to employ fact-checkers any more. His take on food history involves dividing ancient people into "hunters" mythic fat-burning intermittent fasting meat-guzzlers who "didn't know what a carbohydrate was and they didn't need to." The modern remnants are the Maasai and Inuit. Then there were the "gatherers" who ate carbohydrates and protein in the form of fruits and vegetables, "this is the basis for today's vegan diet. It is practiced in multiple cultures around the globe, because if you grow your own food, that's what's available." Yes...the vegan tribes of India, oh wait, there is no such thing. And has Lustig ever raised his own food or visited a farm? Where do you think most farmers are getting fertilizer from? Hint: it's not vegan.
And the Maasai, while they may sometimes be fat burners, are not a low-carb culture. As for ancient foragers, there is a reason they have been called hunter-gatherers, not hunters AND gatherers. In fact the vast majority of foraging peoples in the Ethnographic Atlas eat fairly mixed diets, the people who are primarily hunters or gatherers are exceptions.
But Lustig has to make up this false narrative so he can get to his all-encompassing theory of all our problems (and also because for some weird reason he wants to pander to both the Atkins and plant-based folks, a weird thread in this book), which is the "Omnivore's Curse"- "it wasn't until we became gourmets, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same meal, that our cells first felt the wrath of mitochondrial wear and tear." Apparently, with the advent of farming we started mixing fat and carbohydrates together in meals and thus we became diseased, because in nature there are no foods that have both things, which means somehow that we should take our lessons and cease our evil cooking of potatoes in butter. "This accounts for the appearance of metabolic disease with the advent of trade in the early seventeenth century; before that, food was still a function of what you killed or you grew yourself. Eventually, we became gourmands, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same food."
Reminds me of my maxim not to take advice on food from people who don't actually seem to like it very much. My friends and I have a historical eating club and this Saturday is our dinner based on ancient Mesopotamia. I still have some mead (liquid carbohydrates mmm) left over from our Viking dinner, though we might have some ancient beer as well. For dinner I am making lard-rubbed goat leg with cumin, mastic, coriander, mint, and ginger. There will be sides of roasted barley and roots. Yes, I will be mixing carbohydrates, fat, and protein in one meal, which presumably people have been doing since they have been cooking. Pottery dates well into the Paleolithic, and before that people probably used other containers to mix things together. We know they were cooking because they left residues of grease and boiled fruits and all sorts of other things. Because humans are curious creatures and some of us really do like to play with our food (though as Gary Nabhan has pointed out, there may be some evolutionary reasons some cultures adopted things like spices).
Some people cook less than others- for example the Hadza don't seem to cook very many "recipes" though they do mix baobab (which contains both fat and carbohydrate) with honey for a drink sometimes. It's funny that Lustig later mentions that Ancel Keys in his heart disease study left out populations like those in Tokelau- in Tokelau their diet is starch and coconut. If mixing fat and carbohydrate were an issue, we would have been the way we are now for a very long time. Not that I think ancient people were perfectly healthy- for example, both Egyptian and Inuit mummies show atherosclerosis, though back then it may have been caused by constant infections and cooking smoke inhalation rather than food and there is no evidence it caused any mummy's death. Lustig does also make a good point that heart disease was a problem in the 1930s, back before the "obesity epidemic".
When I think of my very slim (though probably wearing a corset) great-great grandmother pictured here, I don't think of diets based on protein, fiber, and water. I think of people who ate reasonable natural homemade food. The same food I eat now. I doubt she would have touched things like the Slim is Simple Peanut Butter Pie (which contains ingredients I actually do try to avoid: low-fat dairy, industrial whey protein isolate, and extremely high omega-6 peanut butter, cooked almond flour...he recommends leaving the honey out of the crust, which is funny because it's probably one of the healthier ingredients) with a ten foot pole.
She didn't count calories, and neither have I. As someone who eats made-from-scratch foods that are highly variable it would be pretty pointless for me to count calories, as it would be inaccurate. I know when I'm losing weight I have a calorie deficit though, even if it is going to not be possible to quantify it accurately. Some people find success with trying to do the math, but I always found it easier to try things that have been shown in studies to subconsciously reduce the amount of calories eaten. One of these is to eat a lot of protein, which is funny because that's one of Bailor's main strategies. Though it certainly never made me stop thinking of other foods, and I had significant energy issues when I was on the very high-protein, low fat, high fiber kind of diet Bailor advocates. Frankly, I felt sick and catatonic, but I guess his diet works for some people, and not for others, the same way some weight loss diets work for some and not for others. Because nothing to do with the human body is simple. Slim is not simple.