This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
I'm thrilled that Grub Street shut down its entire Chicago department so that instead of writing about Chicago’s vibrant food scene, they can publish garbage like this: The Rise of the Lady Paleos: How a Dubious Diet Aimed at Men Appeals to Women, Too.
What really struck me is how they linked to the New York Times article from 2010:
The Paleo diet has always been difficult to take very seriously. The program aims to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era and is most often associated with city-dwelling males who go around pretending they're cavemen. But the new shepherds of the Paleo diet aren't hypermasculine men who install meat lockers in their apartments and gnaw on turkey legs; they're friendly, perky women who wear polka dots and create Paleo-approved recipes for banana porridge. Including women has made the Paleo diet more popular than ever — even as the science it's supposedly based on looks more and more dubious.
Since that article first was published in 2010, it has been linked that way many many times in the context of suggesting paleo is a diet for faux-manly men, not women. Back in 2010, women were simply not allowed to eat such a meaty diet. We had to survive on cupcakes.
Oh, but right there on the top of the article is a picture, and in that picture guess who is there? Me. And I'm 100% sure I'm a woman. Maybe I'm just not "perky" looking enough?
Interestingly there were a large number of photos of me taken for the article. One of the nicer photographers, a woman, sent me hers. I can’t post them here for legal reasons (they still belong to the Times), but I look much like myself in them. The New York Times chose a picture where the lighting and angle seems designed unflatter everyone in the picture (a great illustration of how powerful this can be in this great video), and for me it makes me look somewhat less "perky" than I usually do to say the least. I felt like the editors who chose that particular picture had an agenda, which was to portray the paleo diet as conforming to outdated stereotypes about “cavemen.”
The NYtimes photo they chose, where half my face is in shadows vs. a much more flattering professional photo by Pro Creation of Bacon.
Despite my criticism of the paleo diet, to reduce these women– best-selling authors who run their own successful businesses, to being defined by stereotypically girlish personalities, food and clothing, is disgusting. “Meat lockers” (what some of these reporters call chest freezers) are for men...and porridge is for women? I have little interest in porridge, but I’ve had a so-called “meat locker” for several years now and I love it.
Notice they did not choose to interview women who do not fit stereotypes as easily, women who have had paleo books on the market for quite a long time. One of the co-authors of one of the FIRST paleo diet books was Marjorie Shostak, a prominent feminist anthropologist. It was published in 1989 when I was just toddling around. I sometimes wonder what influence she might have had if she were still around. Sadly she passed away in 1996. The Vegetarian Myth and Primal Body, Primal Mind (I’m not particularly fans of the accuracy of those books these days, but they had an influence on MANY people) were published in 2009. I guess since these women don’t fit girly GOOP-like diet empire guru stereotypes, it’s OK to overlook them.
Marjorie Shostak, who lived with !Kung hunter-gatherers
The 1989 book
The really stupid thing is that they chose authors that are actually moderate and flexible in their approach (esp compared to other authors) and then criticized the paleo diet for not reflecting the flexibility and variation of the past. They say they are excluding things like dairy and grains, while several of the authors consume dairy and in that very article they say one of them feeds her son grains (albeit sprouted, but still grains)! If this article gets anything right, it’s that a lot of them seem to call their junk food -free whole foods diets “paleo” just to call it that. I have to say, that while they didn't dig their own graves, they did hand the reporter a shovel. After the New York Times article and several other horribly biased articles, I learned how to figure out what reporters to avoid and what not to say to them. And most importantly, what editors hold their reporters to a higher standard. I learned that the number of these people was vanishingly small.
Recently I wrote an article about Malort, a bitter spirit, for NPR's The Salt and I was really impressed by how their editors encouraged me to write in a balanced and fair fashion. It also forced me to confront my own biases. Because of an article I had read before, I honestly thought when I started out that the people working for Jeppson's didn't really know how it connected to Sweden. Because the editor questioned this, I tracked down Peter Strom, who ended up completely changing my mind. I ended up re-writing a lot of the article.
But the thing is that "paleo" has grown increasingly scientifically and rationally vapid in the past few years. Most of these approaches aren't based on "dubious" science, a lot of them don't even bother for science. They are like Gwenyth Paltrow's GOOP inc. for people who like bacon.
There are issues with the paleo approach, but the author of this article is clearly not qualified to address them, instead resorting to Gawker-like sensationalist bullshit. I like how they cited Paleofantasy as being a book about debunking the diet, when not even half the book is about the paleo diet.
The sad thing is that Grub Street had a host of great reporters on restaurants, booze, and that sort of thing that they cut very recently in my home city of Chicago as well as other cities. They should have stuck to writing about bacon burgers and local pubs.
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 who writes the blog Life Extension*. She is a graduate student in archaeology and social anthropology. 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 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.
Recently a friend sent me this piece on the "paleo" diet and libertarianism in The New Inquiry, which quotes me. It is well-written and thought-provoking, even worth reading if you probably disagree with the author's politics. I myself had thought of writing something similar for awhile, because at some point it's just too interesting how the diet-self-identity movements have become associated with various political leanings. My own are somewhat nebulous. To some corners of the blogsophere I am a beer-swilling Feminazi. Others seem to see me as a raw-meat eating proto-mini-Ayn Rand. Either way, I my interest in the paleo diet partially came from the very fringes of the libertarianish politic, from anarcho-primitivism, which is fairly far left-leaning and was associated with the more stereotypically leftish vegan diet until some of the leaders started suffering health problems from that diet and others figured out that the average edible plant on the market is part of the same destructive industrial complexes as the factory-farmed eggs they so assiduously avoided. Lierre Keith's The Vegetarian Myth not only made anarcho-primitivists don hunting camo on the quest for wild venison, but became a cult classic among even those outside anarcho-primitivists, as the book contains elements that appeal to standard low-carbers to people dissatisfied with vegetarianism or veganism. Unfortunately, about the time that was published, Keith and her various associates also started to advocate terrorism, a very old-fashioned anarchist solution, as a solution to the "problem" of civilization, something many readers might not be aware of. I am glad that she and other primitivist piqued my interest in anthropology, but doing that also drove me further away from primitivism as what I learned about the paleolithic and about foragers did not match the picture that primitivists painted.
At the same time I was interested in primitivism, I was also studying economics, and started reading the more moderate libertarian (though I actually think it's more correctly classical liberal, as am I) blog Marginal Revolution, which is written by economists and linked to fellow economist Art De Any's now-defunct paleo blog. One of the authors there is Tyler Cowan, and like many libertarians he seems intensely attracted to skepticism and that which questions the status quo, something I also share. I think that is where Gary Taubes got pulled in, with his articles in the press like the Big Fat Lie in the NYtimes questioning the lipid-heart disease hypothesis. Interestingly, the reaction among the moderate libertarian crowd was not always initially positive- I remember this scathing article on Taubes published in Reason. And Tyler Cowan himself isn't exactly paleo, instead a champion of hole-in-the-wall ethnic cuisine.
And then there is was a third main strain that I think contributed to making paleo the "libertarian" diet, which is that a lot of the paleo crowd embraced buying from small local farms, a crowd that tends to both lean libertarian economically (or at least professes to) and also has been legitimately harmed by inappropriate government regulation. Everything I Want to Do is Illegal by Joel Salatin, in my opinion, is a seminal tome in getting libertarians interested in food issues. And also in pulling some of the more lefty crunchy local food crowd in that direction along with the fact some of them got tied up in red tape when trying to open their green businesses.
These three basic strains I think explain some of the seemingly nonsensical juxtapositions (why butter? why bacon?) you find in the "paleo" community. The wild foods and occasional romanticism about foragers the first (though that seems to be dying out), the anti-status quo love of bacon and butter the second, the passion for raw milk and grass-fed beef the third.
Some of these strains also explain why it attracts other groups on the fringe. I remember four years ago I was part of a committee organizing an open-source web app conference and brought up having gluten-free food. Let's just say it was not received positively. These days it seems like every sci-fi, software, or other nerdy convention has gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free, and other fringe food identity fare.
Unfortunately, the such diets haves also become popular with other political groups that are skeptical of the government, but more authoritarian on the political compass. Lately there has been a kerfluffle over Dr. William Davis of Wheat Belly fame, Jimmy Moore the low-carb creationist (doesn't believe the paleolithic era existed) figure associated with paleo for $ome reason, and Dr. Doug McGuff who wrote Body by Science appearing on David Duke's podcast. Moore also included Duke's blog in a list of best new LC/Paleo/Health blogs, though he removed it when people pointed it out after a period of denial. Then he wrote a long post about how his critics were using Gestapo-like tactics (wording since removed) to persecute him They couldn't be bothered to Google Duke before going on his show, but in summary David Duke is a race-separatist, the "nicer" face of Neo-Nazism ("we don't want to kill you, we just want you non-whites to stay far far away from us"), though once he was a leader in the much more virulent KKK. Duke believes that there is a Zionist media/government conspiracy that wants to dilute the special white "race" by encouraging race-mixing.
Moore said he only agrees with Duke about nutrition and Duke is "spot-on" in this matter. Unfortunately, Duke's nutritional views are tied together with his other views. In his intro to his Wheat Belly interview he says "The Zionist media is fueled by advertising revenue of foods which are bad for you! But the huge and growing establishment Medical industry and pharmaceutical industry are also fueled by growing unhealthiness. Although I love the taste of bread and wheat products, I recognize the wheat addiction that I and millions of others have — so I avoid wheat as much as possible in my diet." I don't think anyone would say that these people interviewed share such views (though it is interesting that on the defensive they hardly criticize Duke, I guess harsh words are reserved for the evils of wheat/sugar), but it highlights the appeal of certain ideas to the darker edges of the fringe, people for whom they fit into grand paranoid conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, it fits quite well with the general trend towards demonization of specific whole foods and entire food groups that books like Wheat Belly and fundamentalist Low-Carb ideologies typify.
When I see authoritarian articles about "sugar genocides" it makes me more than a little alarmed. I've noticed the mere mention of feminism induces mouth-foaming "help help we are being silenced by the feminists who want to damn us to a politically correct hell" among certain bloggers, but actual authoritarianism doesn't seem to bother them as long as its part of their mutual admiration society. And I think is a symptom of how little ground some of this stuff, scientifically, has to stand on given its reliance on such feedback loops for propagation. And in some ways, the spottier versions of "paleo" and some of the racist theories of people like Duke have a lot in common. As The New Inquiry article points out:
Incomplete or flawed interpretations of our biology have long been used to marginalize women, racial groups, even entire civilizations, and nutrition may well become the next variant in this pattern of discrimination.
Duke, with this theories about the superiority of the "white race," is a good reminder that bad science should not be taken lightly and unfortunately as some Creationist websites point out, various evolutionary theories have a long history of association with such hateful authoritarianism. That's why I'll keep criticizing it here, even though I get letters that say that criticism is unproductive.
So understanding the political background of the "paleo" diet gives many insights to some absurdities and troglodyte-like behavior encountered among that community and various orbiting communities associated with diet. And why it appeals to certain people. I have sometimes mused on the fact I have been treated more viciously (called a "cunt" in a vicious manner in response to an argument about science for example) based on my sex in this sphere than anywhere else, primarily by the anarchist blogger Richard Nikoley, which is surprising considering I work in a male-dominated industry not known for friendliness to women. It has not made me particularly interested in participating in "paleo" or what it has devolved into, especially given certain people in the community's willingness to turn a blind eye as long as the person in question is a member of their mutual admiration society. If anyone wonders why paleo, much like libertarianism, fails to attract a large number of female contributors, there it is.
Oops I wasn't done with this post and I hit publish, probably shouldn't have been up at 1 AM (thanks after-dinner coffee :/ ), so the comments from earlier on 1/3 are from only the first paragraph.
I want to explore the evolution of the evolutionary nutrition concept and how evolution was lost from it.
An early variant, The Stone Age Diet, by Walter L. Voegtlin, shows up in the record in 1975, but whether this carnivorous book is an ancestor of later variants is questionable, so it's hard to consider it an ancestor. A more likely candidate would be the paper written in 1985 by Dr. Boyd Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner, Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. While elements of the paper seem dated today, it was a pioneering collaboration between a medical doctor and a medical anthropologist.
This paper explored how evolutionary concepts could shed light on modern health problems. It was not just a paper about eating well, it was about eating well in the context of human beings having a long evolutionary history, one shared by many other species. And that the selection pressures faced during the long evolution of primitive species to humans could tell us things about diseases, particularly chronic degenerative diseases, humans face today. It was unapologetically a Darwinian paper. It has been cited 964 times.
Around this same time, in 1980, Paul Ewald, a zoologist, published Evolutionary biology and the treatment of signs and symptoms of infectious disease, which explored the implications of host-pathogen adaptations and the "potential importance of determining whether signs and symptoms are adaptations of the host, of the disease organism, both, or neither." The main focus was on acute disease. This paper is considered one of the first in Evolutionary Medicine.
Around this time, the Konner/Eaton team turned their work into a book for layman. Adding Konner's wife Marjorie Shostak to the slate of authors, in 1989 they published The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living. The book drew extensively from the fossil record of hominid evolution, as well as Konner and Shostak's own fieldwork with the !Kung, one of the last foraging societies that exists today (Shostak's books on this fieldwork are also a great read). It mentioned the word evolution 40 times. They also published a commentary together in 1989 Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective (PDF).
In 1991, evolutionary biologist George C. Williams and psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse published a paper titled The Dawn of Darwinian Medicine, another pioneering work in Evolutionary Medicine that outlined methods for applying evolutionary biology to modern medicine, such as understanding "iron deficiency" as one of many potentially costly adaptations to a war between ancestral vertebrates and pathogens that has gone on for millions of years.
Many people seem to think that an adaptationist approach is based on the assumption that organisms are perfect. This is a misconception. It is true that the adaptionist holds the power of selection in high regard and is skeptical of explanations that take quick refuge in proposed defects in the organism. Paradoxically, however, the adaptationist is also particularly able to appreciate the adaptive compromises that are responsible for much disease. Walking upright has a price in back problems. The capacity for tissue repair has a price of cancer. The immune response has a price of immune disorders. The price of anxiety is panic disorder. In each case, natural selection has done the best it can, weighing benefits against costs. Wherever the balance point, however, there will be disease. The adaptationist does not view the body as a perfect creation, but as a bundle of compromises. By understanding them, we will better understand disease
The Eaton/Shostak/Konner team continued to refine their approach over time. The last paper they wrote together was An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements in 1996, published after Shostak's death, along with her book recounting her last journey to visit the !Kung, Return to Nisa. 1996 also saw the publication of Nesse and Williams' book for layman about Evolutionary Medicine, Why We Get Sick (mentions evolution ~78 times).
Eaton and Konner started collaborating with exercise physiologist Loren Cordain and medical doctor Staffan Lindeberg. Cordain became particularly prolific on the subject, publishing a wide variety of academic papers and inspiring a Ray Audette's Neanderthin in 1998, which mentioned the word evolution 14 times. His own diet book, The Paleo Diet, was published in 2001 and mentions the word evolution roughly 11 times. Around this time you start to see intersection between the work originating from the Eaton/Konner paper and Evolutionary Medicine, with the original 1999 compilation Evolutionary Medicine edited by Wenda Trevathan containing Paleolithic nutrition Revisited by Konner, Eaton, and Boyd Eaton's son S. Boyd Eaton III. Nutrition was always part of both approaches and bringing them together influenced many later books and papers on the subject of evolutionary nutrition.
As you can see, the whole foundation of this was always Darwinian Evolution, the idea that humans share a common ancestor with all life forms.
Unfortunately, many Americans reject this. A recent survey found that only 39% of Americans accept evolution as fact. One of the reasons for this is in America, evolution has become politicized due to forms of powerful Evangelical Christianity that started promoting a reactionary anti-science form of Biblical Literalist Creationism (when I refer to Creationism, I refer to this) in the 1920s. Welding significant political power, they have managed to suppress the teaching of Darwinian evolution in public schools.
I have pointed out that Creationism and Creationists are harmful and incompatible with evolutionary nutrition. On Paleohacks, Karen from Paleo Periodical referred to this when she said: "I'm seeing the accusation that someone doesn't "believe" in evolution more and more, which strikes me as intolerably elitist (I say "believe" because I don't think evolution cares what you think about it)."
It's only elitist because Creationists have succeeding in making sure that most Americans are ignorant of evolution. There is no "believing" in evolution, there is accepting scientific evidence. And while you don't need to accept evolution to eat real food, evolution is the foundation of the paleolithic diet concept. So it is disturbing to see Creationists like Jimmy Moore framing debates within the paleo diet community. Over the past few years, he has moderated panels on paleolithic diet debates, published "state of the paleosphere" articles, and generally positioned himself as a person with clout in the "paleosphere." At some point he stopped just putting out podcasts with various paleo voices and instead stepped over a line into shepherding the paleo movement, which alienated many science-based paleo writers like Dr. Kurt Harris and many others, some who simply stopped describing themselves as "paleo" in lieu of a being part of a movement gutted of all meaning.
I do get hatemail for saying this and expect to get more. The latest letter said "Who cares if Jimmy Moore doesn’t believe in evolution? Truth is, there is not much to this Paleo “thing”. Exercise, eat like a caveman and reap incredible benefits." If you need a story about cavemen to tell you not to eat crap and that sprints are good exercise, I think we have a problem. There is already a "real food" movement among Christians. Go to Wise Traditions and you'll meet many of them, though a paleo dieter might have trouble convincing them of their common quasi-religious precept that grains are the devil. I think it's great when people start to eat real, whole foods. And there are many reasons to do so that have nothing to do with human evolution (even if a lot of the science behind them is based on evolutionary models).
But I also think that evolutionary models are important in biology and are the future of understanding what makes our bodies tick. It is more than about eating meat, fruit, and vegetables, it's can help us develop sophisticated treatment protocols for all kinds of diseases. It is sad for me to see that suppressed and stifled for marketing purposes. As Staffan Lindeberg said:
Why does the same thing happen to a piece of food after it has been swallowed by humans of different ethnicity? Why is the anatomy and physiology of the gut virtually identical in a Chinese and an African? Why do all human have the same endocrine system and metabolism? You know the answer: because we share an ancestor from way back when. The experts estimate that our latest shared ancestors lived around 200,000 years ago in Africa.
Before that, during millions of years of evolution, the digestion and metabolism of our primate ancestors had been fine-tuning how it uses the available food substances in the most beneficial manner possible. Nobody would doubt that the best food for the human species would be the kind of food that was available in those days, rather than those that were introduced long after the construction of our physiology. Funny that nutrition authorities never say it loud.
Our primate ancestors have been consuming fruit, vegetables, nuts and insects for 50 million years or more. Meat was successively added, with a probable increase around 2 million years ago. Underground storage organs (roots, tubers, bulbs, corms) possibly become staple foods 1-2 million years ago. The variability was large: single plant foods were rarely available in excess, which reduced the risk of adverse reactions to bioactive substances in plant foods.
I think loss of this is one of the reasons why more and more books are published on paleo that either contain nothing about evolution at all or have evolutionary narratives that seem pulled out of thin air. If the caveman stories are just stories, I suppose it doesn't matter to people much whether or not they resemble the Flintstones more than they do science. Paleo Diet guided by those who don't care about evolution is low-carb dressed up in a sexy leopard skin coat. By far, it's not Creationists who are wholly responsible for this, there is also a secular anti-intellectual slant that overemphasizes self-experimentation and scoffs at reading about science or at those who point out certain "facts" about evolution peddled by gurus are not based on anything but fiction.
The loss is ours, as the difference between caveman stories that tell us not to eat garbage and the adaptationist evolutionary approach is enormous. The former does rely on reenactment of some golden age in which humans lived according to our design. Is it any coincidence that this resembles the story of Adam and Eve? In contrast, the adaptationist approach is one in which species are constantly under pressure and must adapt. Some of these adaptations are imperfect and even costly. It is possible we can do even better by thwarting some of these adaptations through modern technology. Evolutionary medicine isn't just about eating like your ancestors, it's possibly about outrunning some of the adaptations that cause things like aging through pharmaceutical or even cybernetic augmentation. It's not regressive like some calls by various authors like Lierre Keith to give up our technology and return to the Stone Age, it's cutting edge, even daringly post-human.
We have the opportunity to be on the front lines to show that evolution is important to humans now, that evolution, by enhancing our understanding of ourselves, can improve the way we live.
Some have also accused me of discriminating against Christians. As far as I'm concerned, Jimmy is welcome to learn more about biology and join the millions of Christians who are not anti-science. I made that journey myself, having been educated in Creationism as a child, with such anti-science absurd books like It Couldn't Just Happen. I was reading the reviews for that book on Amazon and it's interesting how many other people grew up with that book, but later learned more about evolutionary biology. Some became disillusioned atheists, others realized you don't have to be a Creationist to be Christian. Christians have been fighting Creationism for a long time. A notable example is Orthodox Christian Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution in 1973 response to anti-evolution Creationists:
Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. ...the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.
It's funny awhile back someone recommended that I just attend some less extreme churches than the ones I grew up in, just to see what it's like to go to a church that doesn't spend time preaching against homosexuality or evolution. Because at that point, that was really the only Christianity I knew. I really enjoyed going to those churches and met a lot of wonderful people, people who generally do not take Genesis literally, people who do not reject evolutionary biology and in fact some who work as evolutionary biologists! I also have learned much about the history of Early Christianity through attending Orthodox churches and it was stunning to me to realize how divorced modern Evangelical Christianity is from those roots or understanding how the Bible was put together by humans. I also came to question many things "paleo" dieters accept almost religiously as facts. Did you know that the monks on Mount Athos live long lives free from modern disease thanks on a diet that is pretty much vegan and high in grains? It is possibly partially due to ancient Christian fasting traditions.
I think American Creationists (and people who think Christianity requires such nonsense) could use some history lessons on their religion, the Bible, and on life itself. As priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said "Is evolution a theory, a system, or a hypothesis? It is much more it is a general postulate to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems much henceforward bow and which they must satisfy in order to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of though must follow this is what evolution is."
If you are interested in learning more about how human evolutionary origins shape us today, some great books for anyone to read are Your Inner Fish, Written in Stone, Why Evolution is True, Why We Get Sick, or Before the Dawn, especially if like me, you did not learn much about evolution in grade school. Talk Origins is also a good resource.
In academia, Evolutionary Medicine continues to thrive. It has a society and many different conferences. It is also too bad that so many interesting and relevant evolutionary medicine/nutrition resources are so expensive. Many books on the subject cost upwards of $100 each. Two extensive papers were just published on the subject. One is $45, thank goodness the other is free, which is very unusual. But why aren't these folks publishing writings for laymen like the original pioneers of evolutionary medicine and nutrition did? As we discover more and more about how humans evolved, books become outdated quickly, so perhaps they should consider blogging rather than books.
I'd love to see more writings for laymen by them and more writings not afraid to mention evolution and even to educate readers about it. I think such interactions would not only be beneficial for us, but for them, since I feel the online community in particular can generate hypotheses faster than in academic publishing. You can see some academic researchers, like anthropologist Miki Ben Dor, drawing on hypotheses that have primarily been pushed by the online community like the idea that larger amounts of fat might have been more important in hominid evolution than previously thought.
Edit: here is a great editorial written by Randolph Nesse and Detlev Ganten recently:
The human body is a living archive of evolution, written in our genes, cells, and organs. The line is continuous to the beginning of life on this planet, so nature is inherently conservative. Sequences that are ancient parts of our genomic heritage tend to persist. Those important for survival and reproduction change less over the eons, so genes important for basic functions are generally “old” genes. The basic mechanisms that regulate cellular metabolism, cell division, and gene duplication are fundamentally the same as those occurring in unicellular organisms at the beginning of life on earth 3.5 billion years ago. Likewise, the molecules, cellular functions, organs, complex organization of muscles, bones, sensory organs, and nerves in vertebrates derive in an unbroken line from ancestors millions of years ago. Much of modern man's biology dates back to the origins of life; a complete understanding of this biology can only be appreciated with an evolutionary perspective .
We are not "designed", we are "adapted," and adaptations can be incomplete and imperfect. It matters less what our ancestors ate, than what selective forces were at play and how we adapted to them. Such a paradigm can help us see the costs and benefits of something like getting large amounts of calories from meat, which humans are definitely not perfectly adapted to, which is possibly responsible for such diseases as hemochromotosis.
Edit: Also worth reading is evolutionary biologist Michael Rose's 55 Theses on using evolutionary biology to improve your health, particularly in understanding (and possibly beating) aging.
Cheeseslave wrote a post titled Top 10 Reasons I'm Not Paleo. Not surprisingly, it upset a lot of people. Which is funny, since it didn't exactly bother me. I'd love to see that furor directed against woo-bearing charlatans who call themselves "paleo" and mainstream media publications that make anyone who doesn't eat garbage look like a weirdo.
Either way, I don't need to write a long post about why I'm not paleo. I just need one bullet point. So here it is: the Top 1 Reason I'm Not Paleo:
I think defining your identity based on a diet is a bad idea. I had enough of that as a vegetarian and a vegan. And absolutism means your diet doesn't degrade gracefully. In web development, the concept of graceful degradation is an important one. It means you can develop fancy widgets for websites that are snazzy in the latest best web browser, but designed in a way that they are still functional even in an older or less capable web browser. Being committed to real whole food is a better rock to stand on than adherence to a "diet." It means that if I go out to eat I order home-made tamales or tacos rather than binging on processed pizza, soda, and candy.
Plus, I end up eating meat, fruits, seafood, and vegetables most of the time anyway. My favorite thing to say to people who say "Well, people have been eating bread for thousands of years!"
"Great! Got any three-day fermented einkorn bread? I'll gladly eat that."
Most of the time, the bread they have is store-bought and made with industrially processed bleached flours and tons of additives. Not healthy, not delicious, not worth it. Of course, I make exceptions. I suppose the 80-20 rule has fallen out of vogue, but for me it works quite well. Given I have none of the alleles associated with Celiac, do not test positive for it, and self-experiments show that gluten per-se has no effect on me, I do indulge in so-called "bad" food sometimes. But it's not a staple of my diet and I'll generally only have it if it's at a nice restaurant or in a foreign country.
A week or so ago I got an email advertising a new "paleo" product. I've written several times about various products parasitically riding the "paleo" bandwagon. Most of them suck.
We are about to launch a AMRAP Nutrition Paleo Refuel Bar and would LOVE it if you guys would help us out by being a taste tester and possibly write up a review in your blog regarding your thoughts about the bar. Our bars are completely raw and and in our opinion, the most nutritious and delicious paleo bar available:) The ingredients include the following: almond butter, egg whites, almonds, coconut, honey, sesame seeds, flax seeds cinnamon and sea salt.
I was genuinely curious, but I also have a troll streak and so I responded
Thanks for the offer. I have a few questions. Are the egg whites raw too? Are they sourced from pastured hens?
No reply so far.
Just because I'm not a vegan anymore doesn't mean I don't care about what happens to animals. In fact I care about it even more because I need good animal products for my diet.
In Jonathan Safran Foer's Eating Animals, he notes that the egg industry is definitely one of the worse of all the industrialized forms of animal agriculture. Feedlot cattle at least enjoy some of their lives outside, whereas the average factory laying hen will never see the light of day, crammed into a tiny cage. Male chicks are discarded, often ground up while still alive. Animal factory farms also often do not discard waste properly, polluting their local landscapes. I don't like supporting this. I don't think it's a good way to produce animals and I sincerely doubt the finished product is as good as a true free range egg.
Who knows where they get their eggs. Even if they are from truly pastured hens, I would wonder how they keep them fresh in bar format. The form of a product often can determine food sensitivities. I react to powdered milk, but not to fresh milk, for example.
Flax is a hilarious example of what happens when people demonize specific foods. Soy is soooo bad because it has phytoestrogens. Man boobz amirite? Turns out flax seed has even higher levels of phytoestrogens than soy! Also would you like an enormous amount of omega-6 fat? Because you will get them from the almond butter.
Either way, I'm sure this company would say that some people need a bar because people are so busy and would you rather have them eating McDonalds. Luckily there are already plenty of good products on the market. Even if some aren't completely transparent with their sourcing (baby steps, I suppose), they at least are using grass-fed and/or organic animal ingredients. Nearly every locality has a grass-fed jerky company at this point. In NYC I sometimes bought from Kings County Jerky. In the Midwest we have Grassfed Gourmet (and several others). You can get pastured bison Tanka bars at a lot of places. Lara Bars are a decent on the go snack, though carrying a fair amount of sugar and sometimes omega-6. Same goes for delicious Hail Merry pies and macaroons.
But I do think there is definitely room for innovation. There are lots of things I'd love to see in the grocery store for when I'm traveling or busy. There isn't really a good non soy/canola mayo on the market right now for example. What would you like to see at the grocery store?
If you've been reading this blog long enough, you'll know I have a rather dim view of reporters. Besides a tiny number I count as friends, I've had some bad experiences where I spent a lot of time working with them, only to see the final story had major errors. Getting cut out entirely is better than that.
So I often just ignore them. The stuff I do with food is my hobby and I don't typically see any benefit to dealing with them. But one kept emailing me about my meatshare Chicago group and so I did call him and later provided him with pictures and names of other people he could talk to about the subject. It seemed like he was on a tight deadline so I was surprised how quickly the article went up.
It's not bad, but I was disappointed to see that the paleo diet was described as a fad diet:
Kent Cowgill, a 40-year-old software engineer, falls into the latter category. Two years ago, Cowgill began experimenting with the fad diet known as the paleo diet or caveman diet, which is meant to mimic the diet of stone age hunter-gatherers by emphasizing grass-fed pasture raised meats, vegetables, fruit and excluding grains and processed foods. It was through the website paleohacks.com that Cowgill and became acquainted with McEwen.
As annoyed as I get with the whole "paleo movement" and I myself have settled into a way of eating that doesn't have all that much to do with the original concept, when I did discover it I was so sick. To name a few, I was on anticholinergics, proton pump inhibitors, steroids, antihistimines, leukotriene receptor antagonists, and constantly on antibiotics. I didn't think I could ever travel internationally. I worried I would never find love because I was so sickly. I missed out on things. I can't forget that terrible place I was in and that learning about the "paleo diet" allowed me to make the kind of dietary changes that allow me to live a relatively normal life, though I certainly had to discover many other things before I totally got off medications.
I told the reporter I was disappointed to hear it called a fad since it's not just for weight loss and I feel "fad" is a pejorative. The reporter said that he thought it was a fad because "t reverting to that kind of a diet in a world where we have access to foods beyond that, is what I would call a fad." OK, so I guess veganism and vegetarianism are also "fads?" Either way, it doesn't matter, it's just poor form to call someone's food choices a "fad" while writing an article about something else, unless you intend to make them look trivial.
But I've noticed that in America at least, your food choices, if you choose to eat differently, are always somehow insulting to people. Ask for something gluten-free unless you have a gold-sticker framed certificate that says "Real Life Celiac" and you are a bad person who just follows the latest fads and have "first world problems." Never mind that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a real (and possibly deadly) thing. You are fascist and should be ashamed of yourself (I love Ruhlman, but I don't think anyone's dietary preferences should be such a big deal). Meanwhile in Sweden, when I worked in food there, no one gave a fuck if you didn't want meat or gluten or cheese or whatever. We cooked from scratch, so it was not a big deal, not a source of frustration or judgment. Some of it comes from ignorance of confusing allergies with sensitivities and intolerances. Yes, real sensitivities and intolerances can wax and wane with health status, age, and a host of other factors. For example, when I was much more sickly, I could not tolerate much dairy, but now that my gut is healthier and I'm overall in a much better state, I tolerate quite a lot. However, the commenters on Ruhlman's blog post seem very angry that other people might not be eating things for what they perceive is the "wrong" reason. There is something very Puritan about these kind of attitudes.
That said, I've never expected a restaurant to not use a certain ingredient and I understand some menu items simply cannot be adjusted. Also, when I had to eat a more strict diet, I would bring things like my own gluten-free soy sauce to restaurants and ask permission to use that (I was never denied). Some people do act entitled about their diets, which makes people even more unsympathetic to say the least. Like someone I know couldn't roast a goat at his wedding because his vegan aunt was so offended by the idea, even though there were several good vegan items on the menu. That's a whole different issue, but overall when someone tells me they can't eat something, I don't even bother asking why. It's none of my business and it's usually not a big deal to accommodate.
What do you think?
Just last week a guy named Joe contacted me on Facebook to tell me about his Kickstarter project- a paleo food cart! I didn't get around to blogging about it until today and in the meantime it was fully funded!
I totally understand why. A food cart fills an important niche in the food landscape. When I worked in a Midtown Office building, they were not only a quick meal option, but there were always new interesting trucks and carts randomly showing up. It was like being a kid and waiting for the ice cream truck. Unfortunately, most didn't exactly serve healthy food, but I hope the paleo project can show it is possible. In NYC you can actually get a pretty good rice and meat bowl with TONS of pickled vegetables at Korilla.
Unfortunately, I now live in a city where the Illinois Restaurant Association has managed to quash the food truck scene. Ever heard of rent-seeking? What a perfect example. The Illinois Restaurant Association is using the government's laws and police force to protect their own businesses from competition. That's not only an abuse of government power, but it's stupid.
They say that food trucks are "unfair" to restaurant owners. Yes, the restaurant owners in NYC are really suffering. That's why NYC has some of the greatest restaurants in the United States and a vibrant eating-out culture? Even the real competition to food trucks, mediocre Midtown delis and fast food lunch places, seem to be doing more than fine in NYC.
I was excited to see that The Institute for Justice has taken up the food truck cause in Chicago. On Saturday they are having a free symposium and meetup that I'm going to. I might have to use my Official Guide to Eating Badly, especially since the law here prohibits cooking on the truck, which means food can't be made to order. They are also trying to make it so that food trucks can't sell food near restaurants, which means they would pretty much be banned everywhere:
Also, a random tagged on rant: I am really tired of meeting ex-New Yorkers in Chicago who say how "behind" we are in food, but who have never even bothered to eat at the city's most innovative restaurants (like El Ideas or Schwa) because they stay in their mediocre Lincoln Park/Gold Coast neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, there are restaurants and food things I miss in NYC, but Chicago has it's own very cool (and very different) food scene.
Now that it's been over four years since I first heard about "paleo" diets, I have been reflecting on how such diets have worked for me. When I first heard about paleo, I definitely thought it was a solution to all my problems and it worked really well for most of them. The original bane of my life in the pre-paleo era, GERD, is gone. But my IBS symptoms were harder to fix and even now I find myself experimenting. In the beginning, I often thought the solution was more "purity" in my diet. I thought if I just were better at my diet, then my problems would go away. But IBS is too complex for that. And it doesn't seem to care about evolution all that much. While evolution can be useful for hypothesizing, my gut is the product of a C-section birth, a subpar diet for almost two decades, and many many courses of evolution. I think of my maternal grandmother who is in her nineties and claims to have only had a stomachache once in her life. Compared to her stomach, my own stomach is a rather unfortunate thing.
So when I ate a pure "paleo" diet, what happened? My stomach problems got WORSE.
Luckily I found the SCD (specific carbohydrate diet). It's really for people with worse problems than mine, but it clued me into some of the things that were going on, namely that there was something wrong with how I process certain carbohydrates. Well, not just me, but my own microbiome in my gut. They were taking something I was eating and having a party consuming it and belching out all kinds of bad things. Bloating, cramping, gas, bouts of IBS-C and IBS-D were the result.
Unfortunately SCD is both too strict and not strict enough. The "legal" list of SCD foods, like the typical "paleo" list, contains foods I cannot digest properly. The specific carbohydrates I'm sensitive to are not the same as those that the SCD concerns itself with. I ended up just going carnivore for awhile, which helped with a great many things, but I had other symptoms on that diet (like extremely low blood pressure) and it is on the pretty extreme of restrictive. I also think that some products of carbohydrate fermentation are important.
I have no idea where I first encountered FODMAPs, which stands for
But the theory is similar to the SCD, which is that for certain people, certain carbohydrates aren't processed correctly by the gut and end up feeding bad bacteria. But I think it was more useful for me because it breaks down the issue into a variety of potential baddies to experiment with. Lactose intolerance is the most famous type and all the other types are similar in that they can be dose-dependent. That's why I was so confused at first. Sometimes I'd eat potentially bad food X and feel fine and other times I'd feel terrible. Amount effects it, but that's the tip of the iceberg, because the context can affect it too. For example, with fructose, the amount of glucose ingested at the same time can affect tolerance.
So far you can see where my experiments have left me vs. the typical paleo diet:
It seems I have some fructose intolerance, but my tolerance is comparatively high. I can eat an apple, but if I start eating a bunch of dried apples (more concentrated fructose), then I start getting into problems.
Then there are foods that I can tolerate almost none of, such as brassica vegetables like cauliflower. Many "paleo" recipes use cauliflower in place of rice. I am much worse off if I eat that compared to real rice and in fact I've found that rice soothes my stomach quite nicely when it's upset, particularly when cooked in broth as a congee.
I'm still torn about wheat. I think I've tried every possible type of wheat at this point, including wheat that was fermented to remove gluten and a variety of "heritage" wheats. I still didn't tolerate it, which makes me think that it was never about gluten for me, but about fiber.
It's also pretty important to self-experiment and not just write entire foods off because they contain something that might be the culprit in causing you problems with another food. Onions are a major issue for me, but I've found I can tolerate them pretty well if they are cooked into oblivion (for example, in a sauce), which frees me to enjoy certain delicious Indian dishes. Tomatoes are only an issue for me raw.
I think this jives very well with the evolutionary idea that cooking was important in human evolution because it transferred digestion to the small intestine rather than the large. That seems to be exactly what is happening here. The large intestine is where fermentation takes place, so if fermentable carbohydrates are the issue, then cooking them to make them more available to the small intestine could help. Of course there is all kinds of fancy cooking science here I'm not getting into, which I need to research further. There is also the issue of tolerance improving if you manage to heal the gut lining and balance the gut bacteria somehow. I think that overall my tolerance has improved as I've eaten healthier. I used to not tolerate spicy food at all, which was practically a tragedy for me since I love it, but now I eat it quite often without an issue.
But people are always asking me to do an IBS post or series. And I kind of can't because it's been just all one weird experiment of me trying to figure out what I can tolerate and at what level. That's why I'm such a huge proponent of self-experimentation and not such a huge fan of dietary dogma.