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Guest Post: The Five Failings of Paleo

Lascaux painting

Darrin Carlson

Unless you’ve been living under a 24 Hour Fitness, you’ve probably noticed that this whole Paleo thing is blowing up in a big way.

From the New York Times to ABC Nightline and the Atlantic to Dr. Oz, eating like a caveman has never been more in the public eye, and it shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

The good news is that meat and eggs are back on the table. The bad news is that, like many other diets, highly-processed stuff is out, as well as less-refined foods such as grains, legumes, and (sometimes) dairy.

I hopped onto the Paleo bandwagon several years ago, before it really started to take off. (As both a health nut and a scientist, it was inevitable that I’d eventually research the diet that humans evolved eating.)

I expected to find something resembling a raw vegan diet based on readings I had done previously when I was a vegetarian, but what I found instead was pro-meat and the easiest diet I had ever followed. It also gave me the best results as far as my health and fitness were concerned. Suffice it to say I am a BIG Paleo fan, and predict it will keep growing for the foreseeable future.

But I’ve got some beefs with it–as I do with every other diet–and it’s time to get a few things off my chest.

Arguments That Hold No Water

First off, there’s a couple of objections that often come up when debating the health merits of replicating our ancestors’s diet:

  1. Cavemen died at 30 years old. Our modern diet allows us to live much longer.
  2. Food was scarce for our ancestors. They had to burn a lot of calories to get relatively low-calorie food.

I’ve addressed both of these claims elsewhere on this site, but here’s a brief refresher.

The idea that our caveman forebears died at a much earlier age than us is undeniable. But of the millions (or billions?) of things that have changed in our lives since then, why give all the credit to diet?

It is far more likely that the unbelievable advances in medicine and medical care are the major causes of our dramatically increased lifespans. Before this technology was available what today are everyday injuries and illnesses would prove fatal… or worse!

And among modern hunter-gatherers, we see that the average lifespan is brought down by factors such as infant mortality, and that those who are lucky enough to avoid the injuries and illnesses so easily cured by modern medicine live to an old age without the “inevitable” mental and physical decline we now take for granted.

That we evolved under mainly famine conditions is a “just-so story” that has no scientific merit. The idea of living off the land horrifies most inhabitants of industrialized societies, which is where this idea originates from. Again, when we look at modern hunter-gatherers, we see that they spend far less time getting food each week than most of us spend at our day jobs.

Humans, like all successful species, have had to weather famine conditions at one point or another. But if this were to have been a permanent environment, we would have either gone extinct or adapted to a different food source. That’s how the brute force of evolution works.

Instead, we are adapted to both times of famine and times of plenty. To claim otherwise would mean that we are an outlier in this sense from the animal kingdom, and would require supporting evidence that is simply not there.

But enough with the lame criticisms of Paleo, let’s move on to the REAL problems.

Fail #1: We Don’t REALLY Know What Our Ancestors Ate

By studying the unique characteristics of the human body, modern hunter-gatherers, and our closest primate relatives, we can figure out with a high degree of accuracy what the diet of our ancestors prior to the advent of agriculture was.

In short, we are best adapted to run on two sources of fuel:

  1. Animal Fat
  2. Plant Starches

Prehistoric humans almost certainly ate a diet high in meat and vegetables, with some eggs, fruit, nuts, and seeds when available. And this is, in basic terms, the kind of diet I think most of us should eat.

But when it comes down to it, we can’t know with 100% accuracy how we ate. We have yet to find a magic phone booth that will transfer us back through time–Bill and Ted notwithstanding–to directly observe how our great-times-450-grandparents lived. Yes, we’ve found animal bones with knife scrape marks on them, and fossilized poop with plant matter, but we’ll never be able to go all National Geographic and directly study our caveman forebears in detail.

Although we clearly couldn’t have eaten dairy, grains, and legumes in large volumes, there is plenty of evidence that some of our ancestors consumed a little bit. It’s hard to believe that they disposed of the mammary glands of female aurochs when modern tribes such as the Hadza characteristically make use of every last bit of the animal.

A recent study has even suggested that we were grinding flour up to 30,000 years ago! (Shock! Horror!)

And if all that wasn’t enough, even if we knew exactly what we ate back then, most of those species of animals and plants likely no longer exist today. They have all almost certainly either:

  • Gone extinct, or
  • Drastically changed as the result of domestication.

We might have a pretty good idea of how our ancestors ate, but not a good enough idea to say that all people would be better off if they avoided grains, legumes, and dairy completely. It’s much better to test these types of food out on yourself to see how you do before you decide to completely avoid them.

Fail #2: There Is No ONE Paleo Diet

By the time the Paleolithic era had ended, about 10,000 years ago, humans had already spread across the entire planet. With the exception of some very hard-to-get-to places, we were hanging out everywhere from the frigid arctic to the sweltering tropics and from coastal areas to remote mountaintops.

There is no ONE diet, with strict macronutrient ratios and lists of things not to eat, that could have conceivably sustained the human population at this point. Instead, we would have had to learn how to thrive in environments with vastly different food sources. Some of us would have eaten hardly any plants during our lifetimes, while others would have rarely tasted meat.

Focusing solely on the Paleolithic to analyze the optimal human diet is more than a little bit arbitrary, and is likely to be the result of marketing efforts just as much as science.

Most modern anthropologists agree that the earliest primates ate primarily fruits and insects. The first “true humans” (Homo Habbilis) then started scavenging meat, which allowed us to start standing upright and grow the massive brains that now consume 20% of our energy.

There is no one magic diet for humans.Throughout the history of our species, we have proved ourselves remarkably adept omnivores, thriving off a wide variety of foods.

Fail #3: Yes, We HAVE Evolved Since the Paleolithic

One of the basic tenets of Paleo diets is that our genome is optimally designed to a nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, and that evolution moves so slow that it has not been able to evolve to suit our modern environments.

As it turns out, recent scientific evidence suggests that, not only have we been evolving since the advent of agriculture, we are doing so at a rate that is about 100 times greater than during the Paleolithic!

This can be most evident in the physical characteristics of different races. Humans scattered all over the globe and slowly evolved to suit their environments better, and we can now see the vast physical differences that characterize us. For example, those of us who remained in the tropics kept the dark skin that would prevent sunburn while those of us that moved to cooler destinations got paler skin that could more easily synthesize vitamin D from limited sunlight.

One well-studied phenomenon is the pattern of lactose tolerance. Most mammals lose the enzyme necessary to break down the sugar in milk as they grow up, but there is a minority of humans that still produce this enzyme their entire life and are able to consume dairy with no major issues. These people are almost invariably descended from people in chillier climates, where dairy would have been a crucial form of food due to the lack of vegetation.

Although we are very much a product of preagricultural evolutionary forces, the rapid evolution that has occurred since then should not be ignored. From the standpoint of diet, it suggests that many of us, depending on our ethnic roots, should expect to handle the Neolithic foods of dairy, grains, and legumes much more effectively than others.

Fail #4: What Is Natural Is Not Necessarily Optimal

The argument known as the Naturalistic Fallacy states that it is illogical to claim that something is good or right just because it is natural.

In other words, just because we probably didn’t consume very much dairy, grains, and legumes during the bulk of our evolution doesn’t mean they are inherently unhealthy for us.

Similarly, just because we didn’t eat frozen pizza, microwave mac and cheese, and White Castle burgers during our evolution doesn’t mean they are inherently unhealthy to us!

Note that the opposite is not necessarily true. This doesn’t prove that these types of foods ARE inherently healthy. It just means that you need to draw your conclusions from different sources.

It makes a ton of intuitive sense that foods new to our diet are detrimental to our health. But from a scientific perspective, this observation is only the first part of the scientific method: formulating a hypothesis that must then be tested.

Fail #5: Nutritionism Is a Horrible Basis For a Healthy Diet

Perhaps the biggest threat facing Paleo today, the one most likely to get it thrown into the “fad diet bin” by most people, is the insistence of most of its practitioners to justify it on the basis of nutritionism.

In the late 90′s and early 00′s, the Paleo diet was a low-carb, low-fat, and high-protein diet. This has been lovingly labeled the “Faileo” diet by many today due to the incredible difficulty of eating little more than salads and chicken breasts (not to mention the silliness of thinking that our ancestors actually ate like this.)

More recently, Paleo shook off the low-fat title and went strictly low-carb. This is the version of the diet most followed during its current explosion. It has been popularly dubbed as the second coming of Atkins and has been criticized on the same points.

The hypothesis that a traditional diet of meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts, and seeds causes us to be more healthy and fit meshes perfectly with all observations, but it still needs to be tested in order to meet strict scientific scrutiny.

I hate to break it to you, but our ancestors didn’t eat a strict low-carb diet. The power of Paleo comes from focusing on food quality rather than food quantity.

Most diets attempt to earn their authority by demonizing some nutrient(s) while holding other nutrient(s) up on a pedestal, all the while quoting different scientific studies they claim support their hypothesis. So you’ve got low-carb/high-fat diets, high-fat/low-carb diets, high-polyunsaturated fat/low-saturated fat diets and just about every other combination you can think of. This nutritionism may be a great way to cause a sensation and sell books, but it is a horrible way to create and defend a good diet.

As I have bemoaned before, nutritionism is a very young science and as a result many (if not most) of the findings are inherently flawed and will eventually be superceded by more accurate information. This is similar to how early astronomy viewed the Earth as the center of the world until more rigorous testing found that it orbited the sun, which was a part of the Milky Way Galaxy, which is a tiny part in a much larger universe.

Just as you shouldn’t let observations be the only basis for how you eat, you shouldn’t let scientific studies either. These two things are ultimately most beneficial for separating the wheat from the chaff and doing the most important thing of all: testing things out on yourself to see what works. You should always try things out for yourself–for at least 28 days–to give yourself the best idea of what you should and shouldn’t do in regards to your health and fitness.

The Future of Paleo

So where do I see Paleo going in the future? To be honest, I think it hasn’t even started to peak yet. It seems to be popping up in the media more and more, and lots of regular folk (i.e. non-health nuts) are giving it a shot each and every day.

I see more and more mainstream media attention coming in the future. The bulk of the articles so far have simply derided it for its emphasis on meat, to point and make laugh at the “modern cavemen,” or to compare it disparagingly to the Atkins diet. As more and more people succeed with it, you can expect the media’s view to shift from “look at these silly cavemen killing themselves with arterycloggingsaturatedfat” to “holy hell, look how healthy these people are despite not eating healthywholegrains!”

People will start capitalizing off of it. The bookstores will become flooded with crappy Paleo books (as opposed to the small handful of excellent ones currently available). You’ll see Paleo microwave dinners and supplements start creeping in. But after a certain point the wave will crest and it will no longer be the big thing.

But it won’t die out completely. Like vegetarianism, Paleo is a diet that will be around for a LONG time if for no other reason than that it is fundamentally based on much more than a scattering of half-assed scientific studies.

At the end of the day, I think Paleo is the most intelligent and effective diet that has ever been advocated. Focusing on the types of food that our ancestors evolved on is an excellent hack to making health and fitness as automatic as possible.

On the other hand, I don’t think we should be too hasty to outright hate on all grains, legumes, and dairy products. Although they are far from essential parts of our diet, I think they can still have their place if you go about it intelligently. (Hint: 7-11 servings per day is craziness for almost everyone!)

Although I agree that our modern diet is to blame for the wave of obesity and other diseases of civilization, I think it’s far more likely to be the result of such things as sugar, flour, and highly-processed vegetable oils–the things that NO ONE has eaten in large amounts until relatively recently.

And so, most of the criticism leveled at Paleo-style diets are completely asinine and based on really bad science. Which is not to say that Paleo is above the fray. There are some failings in the ways that Paleo is commonly practiced and justified, but these things likely won’t stop its momentum.

We’re definitely entering the age of Paleo, and despite its problems, I couldn’t be happier.

Darrin Carlson is a blogger at Lean, Mean, Virile Machine - Health and Fitness Hacks for Smart, Busy Men. He's a scientist, food lover, and a neophyte surfer who's learning how to get healthy and strong without spending half his life in the gym or surviving off protein shakes. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Minnesota. After working as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry for several years, he moved out to San Diego and started working as a research associate in the biofuels industry.

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Comments

  1. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned from being primal/paleo, and reading about every diet under the sun, is to listen to your body. It knows a lot more about your needs than some scientists being funded by by a group with a hidden agenda. Distrust should be the default reaction. Caution is part of what keeps smart animals like us alive, right?

  2. Only had time to skim this, but it seems like it’ll be worth reading later tonight :)

    • It’s possibly my favorite primal/paleo blog post I have ever read since going primal on April 5, 2010. Because i have my own blog and have read hundreds of blog posts… this is saying A LOT.

  3. I survive off of protein shakes and it’s working pretty good.

  4. Margaretrc says:

    A very sensible discussion and it’s difficult to find anything to disagree with. Personally, I blame the fear of fat, especially saturated fat, more than anything else, for our modern day health problems. It resulted in the substitution of way too many refined carbohydrates and PUFA for sat fat in our diet and I think all the current moves away from fear of sat fat–Paleo, LCHF–have to be a good thing. Just wish it were more widespread in this country, though I am encouraged to see more media coverage. For many, the damage may be irreparable and for them, avoiding grains and other refined sugars and high glycemic starches forever is probably best, but for the rest, experimentation to find out what works best for the individual would seem a very sensible approach.

  5. One of your claims that caveman died when they were young is not entirely true and there is evidence that suggest some of them lived into old age. They have found a skeleton were the jaw had no teeth in it. This indicates they were an older individual that had to be cared for.

    • BabyGirl says:

      Or maybe his teeth rotted out at a young age…

    • That is why he listed it under the “Arguments That Hold No Water” section. He was getting the nonsense arguments out of the way before moving to the real ones.

      • Bernardo says:

        This is what we read on wikipedia about the Snowy Owl:

        La longévité d’un harfang est d’environ neuf ans en milieu naturel et peut aller jusqu’à 32 ans en captivité.

        Translation: the Snowy Owl longevity is around 9 years in nature and can go up to 32 years in captivity.

        Well 9 to 32 is a huge difference. That’s how hard the environment can be. No, they are not eating grains at the Zoo.

    • Not quite the point I was trying to make. I meant to get across that ON AVERAGE we were dying younger. That those of us who survived infancy and avoided injury and illness could expect to live to a ripe old age is often ignored.

  6. “In the late 90′s and early 00′s, the Paleo diet was a low-carb, low-fat, and high-protein diet.”

    This isn’t correct. In the late 90′s and early 00′s the book that was followed was Neanderthin, and it promotes high fat and does not discourage fruit consumption. I believe this quote is referring to Loren Cordain’s writings. His first book did not come out until 2002.

    • Cordain’s book came out in 2002, but his published studies on Paleolithic nutrition go back at least to 1997.

      If I’m not mistaken, this was around the time that DeVany starting writing as well.

      Since none of this was on my radar at the time, I’m willing to concede that Neanderthin might have been more influential pre-2000.

      • You can follow the community discussion back then. It revolved around the PaleoFood Listserv mailing list. All of it was archived. They start in May 1997 at: http://listserv.icors.org/archives/paleofood.html

        You can pick up a copy of Ray Audette’s Neanderthin on the used book market. There was a self-published one in 1995. Then St. Martin’s published a hard cover in 1999 and a mass market paperback in 2000. And while Art did have a website and a community, no book or anything was published until recently. It was Neanderthin until after Cordain’s first book got established in the market.

      • Great resource. Thanks!

      • I got Ray Audette (Neanderthin author) to put a picture and bio at Amazon.com. It was just put up. To read click on his picture here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0312975910/
        I don’t know why the mass market paperback sells for so much more. The hard cover is a much nicer book to read.

  7. Excellent , well balanced article by Darrin for sure. I wonder if Loren Cordain is coming around on the saturated fat stuff. Hopefully. He is a reasonable and smart guy otherwise.

  8. Richard,

    Kudos to you for presenting a balanced view on this and to Darrin for a well thought out article.

    I have a couple of questions in relation to Fail #5: Nutritionism Is a Horrible Basis For a Healthy Diet.

    When I looked at judging the impact of eating (changing the way I ate), I found I was really digging around in the dark a great deal. In my so called health improvement journey, I have used blood testing (repeatedly with my dr becausse I was monitoring changes in liver enzymes), allergy testing (once with a nutritional dr), cyclical elimination of food groups (over a 3 months period, weekly weight/scale measurements, strength improvements at the gym, fat approximations, subjective daily energy levels, cognitive focus and performance post meal, and post meal (2-4 hours after I eat) energy levels and digestive experiences (comfort and discomfort). It is very complex to say the least and I am no wiser for the effort and there are so many confounding variables.

    What do you do yourself to evaluate changes and impact of diet? – some of those listed above are a little more objective and some a little more subjective.

    Thanks Paul D

    • Paul,

      I like to keep it simple. Body fat %; shoulder, waist, and hip measurements, and weight change can give you a good idea of relative amounts of fat and muscle.

      More subjective things such as photos and an acknowledgement of how you feel can also be extremely valuable.

      I tend to be a little skeptical of complex medical testing because I don’t think their interpretations are as “evergreen” as feeling good and looking good.

      Cholesterol is a great example of this. First, high total cholesterol was bad, then HDL was good and LDL was bad. Now there’s good LDL and bad LDL. Ugh. Who says this won’t change yet again in a few years?

      That being said, if the extensive testing you are doing is helping, BY ALL MEANS KEEP DOING IT! You should always trust your body more than some random dude from the internet! :-)

      • I haven’t had any bloodwork done since the 90′s, I use pretty much the same method as you, except I

        1. Look at myself naked in the mirror, and
        2. Try to be aware of how my clothes are fitting

        I also keep track of how much weight/reps I do at the gym, but that doesn’t tell you much about body composition … it’s easy to get stronger if you are also willing to get fatter.

    • Paul:

      I’ll go with what Darrin said.

      I’m totally a self-experiment kind of guy, in fact that is what my talk was on at AHS. But I like to keep it simple and artsy rather than complex and laborious, and I’m not convinced that going to all the trouble you’re going to is going to give you a lot of marginal benefit over just winging it, sticking to sound principles, and looking at your results over time in body composition, strength, and how you feel.

      For example, I don’t need to see if I can tolerate grains. I just simply stay away from them 99% of the time on principle, and have myself a good cheat now and then, like a burger, a good sub, or pizza. Likewaise with dairy. I simply got out of the habit of it. Doesn’t mean I won’t have a nice cold glass of milk now and then, or some cheese in an omelet, it’s just not part of my daily routine any more. Same with nuts. I just got over them for the most part. And on and on.

  9. Interesting post, I would say that from Europe and Britain Paleolithic diet are pretty well known to the extent that it has been observed that Ice age hunters were selecting prey based on fat content. http://www.uiowa.edu/~zooarch/1991sub.pdf
    There are lot of bones from paleolithic Europe LOTS and lots of bones, also bone (n15?)analysis shows what some people were eating too.
    Bones with cut marks have been found that suggest afarensis was butchering meat whether scavenged or hunted. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-10938453 as many simians are omnivorous I don’t see any reason to suggest that our far ancestors did not enjoy at least some animal or insect protein.
    As a side not I would like to add that agriculture may have been invented about 10,000 years ago but it took quite some time to spread from the far east (about 4500 bc in Britain).
    I await the commodification of the paleo diet with some trepidation I;m sur it;s just a matter of time before we see “paleo pasta”.

  10. Interesting points of view. My biggest criticism of the paleo lifestyle has always been aimed at the guys who insist that they KNOW exactly what “grok” ate and how he moved years and years ago and normally ignore all the wonderful points you make in this post. Really refreshing to see such a balanced article on here.

  11. Agree with the sentiment. Paleo is a nice concept, but certain not comprehensive and I’m glad folks are quickly coming around and learning to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    One possible correction- you write: “So you’ve got low-carb/high-fat diets, high-fat/low-carb diets, high-polyunsaturated fat/low-saturated fat diets and just about every other combination you can think of.”

    Should it be: ‘So you’ve got low-carb/high-fat diets, **high-carb/low-fat diets, **high-polyunsaturated fat/low-saturated fat diets and just about every other combination you can think of.’

    • I was just throwing stuff in there to make a point of its arbitrariness. Sometimes I think that every new diet fad is just the result of someone filling out a Mad Lib with names of nutrients and then cherry-picking whatever studies back them up!

      • Yes, but you see that “low-carb/high-fat diets” and “high-fat/low-carb diets” are the same thing, right? Didn’t you mean “low-carb/high fat” and then “high-carb/low-fat”?

        Great post, by the way. I’ve been a bit surprised that proponents of the Paleo diet often ignore the fact that humans have indeed been spread through-out the world for quite some time and had vastly different diets as far as proportions of meat, vegetables and fruits. What they all had in common, of course, was a lack of processing.

      • Sonja.

        Pop quiz. Who was it that said, “Paleo is equator to poles and sea level to 16,000 feet, and everything in-between?”

  12. certainly*

  13. Really great stuff, Darrin. One small quibble, I’m not sure I agree with lactase persistence (LP) being a cold clime sort of thing, though.

    “These people are almost invariably descended from people in chillier climates, where dairy would have been a crucial form of food due to the lack of vegetation.”

    A very similar mutation to the Northern European LP mutation was selected for in East Africa. From this article:

    We demonstrate that the most common variant in Kenyans and Tanzanians spread rapidly to high frequency in East Africa over the past ~7,000 years owing to the strong selective force of adult milk consumption, and we show that chromosomes with these variants have one of the strongest genetic signatures of natural selection yet reported in humans.

    And there is also a similar mutation leading to a high prevalence of LP among Suadis apparently, presumably associated with the domestication of the camel. So the selection pressure for LP seems to be pretty high regardless of the climate, a crucial advantage to anyone whose people have taken up animal husbandry.

    This also leads me to wondering why all mammals other than LP humans lose the ability to digest lactose? Why turn off something like that? There must be some sort of selection pressure for forced weaning, stop siphoning resources off of Mother and/or younger siblings. Also, I really wanted to stick a good breast joke in there somewhere but none came to mind. How about, dairy, the cleavage issue of Paleo? Yeah, I’ll get me coat.

    • Good point Sean. I recall reading somewhere that Scandinavians have the highest rates of lactose tolerance in the world, which doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone from warmer climes is intolerant. As a quarter each Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and Finnish I might be guilty of having a bit of tunnel vision here!

      • My father’s Y chromo haplogroup is I1 so assuming my mother didn’t pull a bait and switch I am also. Not sure how Scandinavian that actually makes me, I thought I was mostly Irish, English and Dutch, but it seems that at least one Viking had their way with one of my great-grandmothers. Likely it was one of your ancestors, damn you guys with your silly helmets raping my great great grandmothers!!!

    • High levels of milk production prevents pregnancy. This insures that the current offspring will have enough sustenance.

  14. I forgot to add that I also agree with Darrin that there was no one “Paleolithic diet”. It varied across the world. Some were most likely mainly vegetarian oppurtunists who dabbled in meat when it came about
    ( tropical residents) . I would think they made strong use of eggs and insects. Those near the Arctic ate some plant matter but probably hunted more often, making fat a priority fo energy. Those people had it the worst.

    I saw a show where these Amazonian people were eating a massive spider that was literally the size of a large apple pie and enjoying the hell of it. Insects ( while digusting LOL !) are very nutritious. Grub worms help you survive as Suvivor Man Les Stroud has shown , and have a very low risk/caloric expenditure to benfit ratio , which is ideal in survival.

    Tubers, creepy crawlies, vegetation probably made up massive percentages of the tropical residents’ diet back then. And when they did hunt rhinos etc I am sure many died. Tremendous risk. Those animals can turn on a dime, run about 35 MPH and their sense of smell is unmatched. Rhinos and elephants have a better sense of smell than a dog . It must have been extremely difficult back then. Hippos ( other than mosquitos) are the number one killer of people in Africa- deceptively dangrous

    Animals like the tropical AGOUTI would be a much better pick to hunt. LOL !

    Lastly, nothing kills more people than poor sanitation – even TODAY with our modern technology. It is the number one cause of death around the world ( especially poor areas). So that would probably be the number oen factor in the Paleolithic time for an early demise, among other things.

  15. Dave Sill says:

    Regarding point #1, that’s obviously true, and anyone who claims otherwise is full of shit. That’s not a failing of paleo, it’s a failing of some paleo proponents. And although we can never know with certainty what any real paleolithic diet consisted of, we *can* know with certainty that there are some common modern foods that were never part of a paleolithic diet, e.g., seed oils, refined sugar, wheat, etc. And regarding point #4, that’s also obviously true, as demonstrated by the many species of deadly mushrooms.

    The point of trying to eat foods that we evolved to eat is that they have been *proven* safe. Not all neolithic foods are as obviously unhealthy as the ones I listed above, and some may well be as healthy as those our ancient ancestors ate, but they haven’t been proven by tens/hundreds of thousands of years of evolution.

    Now, we have some knowledge and technology that weren’t available in the paleolithic, so we don’t have to blindly follow a strictly paleolithic diet to stay healthy. For example, we know that if you eat primarily “real” food, a teaspoon of sugar in your coffee won’t hurt you.

    • 100 % agreed Dave. Urgelt of YouTube says exactly the same thing. And he is a very smart guy. The things we know they DIDN’T eat ( which you mentioned above) is useful to make our decisions. Good point about #4 also. There’s plenty of things in nature that are dangerous and many plant compounds are dangerous too.

      And even if our Paleolithic ancestors picked the right non poisonous mushroom , it still could have had deer poop on it and killed them with the deadly bacteria etc. Things like that. Our dietary composition can be a minefield through which we carefully tread.

      It’s nice to see Darrin and Dave look at this using critical thinking.

  16. The two people who may have been the first to argue for paleo eating based on scientific research were Melvin Konner and Stanley Boyd Eaton (see Wikipedia entry below). Meanwhile, I agree with those who say you have to be patient and be willing to undergo trial and error regarding your diet — as compared to “dieting”.

    I was a vegan for a while years ago. And even experimented with fruitarianism for a short time (LOTS of energy, but lost muscle mass). However, reading “Eat Right 4 Your Type” made me change, because it appealed to my sense of logic. Since I’m blood type O, I began to eat meat again, and cut back or eliminated grains. With this regimen, I noticed I ceased getting “groggy attacks” sitting at my desk in the early afternoon hours at work. I made the (logical) transition to paleo a few years later after reading the books by Ray Audette and Loren Cordain. (I also include “The Maker’s Diet” by Jordan Rubin as a practical influence.)

    What’s the perfect diet? Depends . . . on you. As someone once told me: “Everybody is different. And EVERY BODY is different.” And as the physicist Richard Feynmann said following his investigation of the Challenger space shuttle disaster: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” It’s his last phrase that’s most applicable to this discussion. Nevertheless . . . I do not assume eating logically means I will live a thousand years. That millennium of me would only be worth it if they were HAPPY years. Sooooooo . . . I have a pint of Haagen-Dazs Vanilla Swiss Almond numerous times in summer and winter, spring and fall. Each one is consumed with gusto.

    Bon appetit!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic_diet

    • I’d never heard that Feynman quote. Modern day version of Francis Bacon: “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

    • Actually the first to be published were in the 1920s when Villhjalmar and a companion undertook a one year all meat Inuit diet at NYC’s Belvue Hospital.
      see:
      Stefansson, Vilhjalmur,
      “Adventures in Diet, Part 1.”
      Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Dec. 1935) 668-75.

      _____, “Adventures in Diet, Part II.”
      Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Jan. 1936) 46-54.

      _____, “Adventures in Diet, Part III.”
      Harper’s Monthly Magazine (Feb. 1936) 178-189.

      Lieb, Clarence W., M.D.,
      “The Effects on Human Beings of a Twelve Months’ Exclusive Meat Diet.”
      Journal of the American Medical Association (July 6, 1929) 20-22.
      Stefansson’s famous yearlong experiment with an all-meat diet at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

      McClellan, Walter S., Henry J. Spencer, Emil A. Falk, and Eugene Du Bois,
      “Clinical Calorimetry: XLIII.
      A Comparison of the Thresholds of Ketosis in Diabetes, Epilepsy, and Obesity.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 80 (1928) 639-652.

      _____ and Vincent Toscani,
      “Clinical Calorimetry: XLIV.
      Changes in the Rate of Excretion of Acetone Bodies During the Twenty-Four Hours.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 80 (1928) 653-658.

      ______ and Eugene F. Du Bois,
      “Clinical Calorimetry: XLV.
      Prolonged Meat Diets With a Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 87 (1930) 651-668.

      _____, Virgil R. Rupp, and Vincent Toscani
      “Clinical Calorimetry: XLVI.
      Prolonged Meat Diets With a Study of Nitrogen, Calcium, and Phosphorous.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 87 (1930) 669-680.

      _____, Henry J. Spencer, and Emil A. Falk,
      “Clinical Calorimetry: XLVII.
      Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study of the Respiratory Metabolism.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry, Vol. 93 (1931) 419-434.

      Tolstoi, Edward,
      “The Effect of an Exclusive Meat Diet Lasting One Year
      on the Carbohydrate Tolerance of Two Normal Men.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 83 (1929) 747-752.

      _____, “The Effect of an Exclusive Meat Diet on the Chemical Constituents of the Blood.”
      Journal of Biological Chemistry Vol. 83 (1929) 753-758.

      Torrey, John C. and Elizabeth Montu,
      “The Influence of an Exclusive Meat Diet on the Flora of the Human Colon.”
      Journal of Infectious Diseases Vol. 49 (1931) 141-176.

      Ray Audette
      NeanderThin

  17. Glenn Whitney says:

    Great post – many thanks. With the exceptionof the frankly silly assertion that the mamary glands of hunted-down animals would have been a meaningful source of dairy.

    The elk shot by Robb Wolf, for example, was tracked down for about 30 minutes before being killed. I bet a lactating female wouldn’t hold onto much milk amid that kind of extreme stress…

    Furtheremore the vast majority of dairy calories consumed by adults humans traditionally has been fermented. Controlled fermentation is a product of human technology, not of human evolution.

    • Dave Sill says:

      Great post — with the exception of the frankly silly assertion that “controlled” fermentation is a recent development. Fermentation is a perfectly natural process that has probably been exploited by man for hundreds of thousands of years. Granted, fermentation of dairy is unlikely to have occurred before the first cows/sheep/goats were domesticated. But other foodstuffs that could easily have been collected in the wild such as fruit and fruit juice would have resulted in wine and/or vinegar with no more technology than a storage vessel like a dried gourd or a animal stomach, and it would have happened despite the best efforts to prevent it. It would have been considered spoilage initially and only consumed out of necessity, but eventually it would be recognized as tasty in its own right, as well as a form of preservation.

    • You don’t reabsorb milk under stress, silly. And running/jogging/etc. for an hour or so does NOT slow your production of milk during that time.

  18. Lots more commenty goodnews on the “five failings” over on paleohacks:

  19. Oh yeesh … that was supposed to be “goodness” not “goodnews” … typing fail!

  20. Brilliant post. Robb Wolf got into the whole low carb deal and was suggesting it for everyone. He also recommended way too much fish oil. He has since admitted that both were big MISTAKES. Robb and Mark are by far the top 2 “leaders” in this movement… it is what it is today because of them for the most part. To see that Robb can admit to mistakes is what will make this movement go quite well.

    I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

  21. “And among modern hunter-gatherers, we see that the average lifespan is brought down by factors such as infant mortality, and that those who are lucky enough to avoid the injuries and illnesses so easily cured by modern medicine live to an old age without the “inevitable” mental and physical decline we now take for granted.”

    This is COMPLETE nonsense. Look at the anthropological studies on modern hunter-gatherers, and you’ll find that their average lifespan is about 35-40 but that escaping infant mortality still results in almost no one making it past 60. The average man who makes it to 20 only makes it to 45. And the diet is a big part of that. Hunter-gatherers move around. They have little to no stockpiles. So a one-day fast can turn into a 4-day fast which can turn into a month-long near fast which can turn into death. They die of injury and other causes at extremely high rates, too. (They also tend to be pretty violent, and that contributes.) The only reason they now die at 35-40 instead of 30 is the limited modern medicine and relief nutrition that they get.

    This does not invalidate the idea that we are designed to have short fasts. But pretending that paleolithic man was pretty much EVER an example of gleaming good health is ridiculous. Pretty much the only thing that was better for them was their teeth.

  22. Additionally, studies of modern hunter-gatherers next to modern subsistence farmers (using near-neolithic technologies) clearly indicates the role of food insecurity in the high death rate among hunter-gather societies. The farmers live 10 or more years longer, on average (depending on the groups studied), and they also live longer if they reach age 20 than hunter-gatherers do. The role of food insecurity and the dangers of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle can hardly be overstated. Again, this doesn’t negate the possible benefits of a “paleo” diet in a food-secure environment.

    • Modern hunter-gatherer are not comparable to paleolithic HG. The remaining HG are relegated to poor ecological niches (ice, desert, inaccessible forests) . The food insecurity is a consequence of the poor ecological milieu, the rich plains with easy access to water being all occupied by (defensive/agressive) agriculturalists.
      The comparative studies of agriculturists vs HG in archeological record have a quite clear cut result in showing better health in HG. This doesn’t mean that agriculturalist couldn’ t outbreed without problems HG.

  23. For all those still getting comment notifications, Doc Eades just linked this post on his latest at his blog.

    http://www.proteinpower.com/drmike/low-carb-diets/are-we-meat-eaters-or-vegetarians-part-iii/

    He did so as a rebuttal to point number 1.

  24. The paleo diet is great for getting people to eat real food again – but after that I think it is too broad.

    Here are some points where I feel the paleo falls short when going against metabolic typing.

    • Steve:

      You really should rephrase this to be the “Cordain paleo diet,” because I could have just as easily written that post and have, essentially, in many of the posts on this blog.

      For example, see here, covering primarily starch and dairy (particularly the comments).

      http://freetheanimal.com/2012/02/my-paleo-kids-are-hungry-all-the-time-help.html

      Since humans migrated to all corners of the globe, from equator to arctic and sea level to 16,000 feet, we’re generalists able to exploit a vast array or food sources, exist & thrive on a vast array of macro-and micro nutrient profiles. It’s all paleo, with the exception of dairy. I doubt dairy is absolutely essential for everyone, but it sure makes life easier for most.

  25. Yes a lot of the post relates to Cordain’s Paleo as I followed it for a while. I don’t believe the human body evolves and adapts as quickly to foods as you think.

    In the book Nutrition and Your Mind – Dr George Watson’s research concluded that a certain food would alkalize the blood of one person while acidifying the blood of another. So it isn’t a question of whether a food is good or not but rather what type of metabolism does the person who is eating it have.

    Paleo is far too general IMO and while it works for alot of people there are many that it doesn’t work for.

    I just don’t believe it is as simple as you think and the best tool we have available today IMO is metabolic typing which allows us to go paleo specific. And while dairy can be a problem for alot of people I don’t think it is essential for anyone although there are some who will thrive on it. Again metabolic typing can give clues and after that you can do MRT tests which will identify exactly what we are sensitive to.

    • I suppose I don’t have a problem with “metabolic typing,” per se, especially as a starting point. I’ve written myself many times that your starting point in paleo out to be to look at where you came from, i.e., northern Europe, Asia, Pacific Islands, etc. because generally speaking these metabolisms probably function differently from each other.

      “there are many that it doesn’t work for.”

      Again, depends how you define it. I prefer to define it in a proscriptive way: everything but grains, refined sugar, refined vegetable/seed oils, and processed food and sugar drinks in general. Include or explode dairy or particular dairy foods per personal preference or tolerance.

      I don’t see how that broad of a definition could not work for everyone. Note that is prescribes nothing in terms of macronutient ratio, so could be low carb or high carb and still be paleo.

  26. I think ”the many that is doesn’t work for” are people who followed what I call a ”broad paleo diet” and give up on it early. They probably didn’t start at a good place by identifying their metabolic type or as you say where they came from.

    This in itself can cause a whole host of problems by eating foods that make your metabolic imbalances worse. There are plenty of paleo foods that I don’t do well at all on such as fruit for example. Although most fruits are allowed on paleo diets I don’t feel good on them at all but I do thrive on fatty meats, butter, some non starchy vegetables.

    So when I say ”broad” I mean the allowed food list on most paleo’s is pretty broad when the reality is we need to be more specific based on our genetics and characteristics. Asaid paleo is great to get people eating real food again – and this is where I start with most of my clients. But after a few weeks I tell them to get more specific and that is where MT comes in.

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