In many ways the Paleo playbook in retrospect—back to when I got involved in 2008—models a tendency in humans to have easy, formulaic answers and solutions to complex problems—rather like church and state as just-so solutions to complex philosophical and social problems.
At various times and places, the predominant emphasis was on one of these things:
- It’s the grains
- It’s the high PUFA vegetable & seed-based oils
- It’s the toxins and anti-nutrients
- It’s the corn and corn-fed livestock
- It’s the carbohydrates
- It’s the processed food
I’m sure I’ve overlooked a devil or two (I just can’t get excited about avoiding certain light spectrum!). But these evils gave rise to various fads all along the way, sometimes emphasizing one evil, sometimes integrating several. I’ve participated in and promoted a number of them myself, if not all of them.
- “Paleo” baked goodies from breads, to cookies, to various treats, desserts…even candy
- “Paleo” enterprises with a giveaway a day
- “Paleo” echo chambers called conferences and symposiums
- Thousands of “Paleo” How-To and Cookbooks
- “Paleo” orthorexia in the form of hysterical fear of “toxins” and “anti-nutrients”
- Fear of starch, followed by a limited embrace, dubbed “safe”
- “Paleo” Low-Carb
- “Paleo” Very-Low-Carb
- “Paleo” Ketosis, dubbed “nutritional”
- “Paleo” for Women, Girls, and Mothers
- Wheat Bellies and Grain Brains (the apparent fad du jour)
There are many others but for purposes of brevity I’m only touching on the mostly diet related stuff and setting aside all the various lifestyle, fitness, athletic stuff like workouts, play, fasting, footwear (and lack thereof), cold exposure, sleep, sex, social relationships, workaholism, etc. And frankly, I find the endeavors in all of those lifestyle things to be far more “Paleo” than virtually all of the dietary and food stuff, which, frankly, has kinda been a Royal Fucking Mess.
I really just wanted to toss this out there for thought and discussion, so rather than a long essay, let me show you some of what I’ve been reading and chewing on during my recent low-activity status after spine surgery.
What follows might be really surprising to you, but not nearly as surprising as what’s coming in a little while—another installment of The Duck Dodgers—and quite unlike anything we’ve ever touched on. In short, we’ve been on the trail of something that forms a reasonable hypothesis towards a common denominator to explain all global dietary paradoxes, particularly the French Paradox, and other epidemiological paradoxes. Stay tuned. …And no, it’s not generally regarded as a toxin or anti-nutrient…it’s not even a compound. (…The juxtaposed irony with the opening of this post isn’t lost on me.)
The following is not to be taken as advocating making gluten or grains a dietary staple. It’s meant to question the just-so narrative surrounding grain avoidance and to prefigure what’s to come.
—The author of “The Gluten Lie” on our fruitless search for clean living, and why we’re so quick to scoff at science
The numbers are hard to pin down, but roughly 1.1 million Americans keep kosher in their homes. Around 15 million are vegetarian. Meanwhile, according to a 2013 survey, more than 100 million Americans are trying to cut down on gluten, and (as of 2014) more than 10 million households are gluten-free. Simply put, gluten avoidance is the reigning dietary restriction of our time.
It’s harder to pin down why gluten-free diets should have conquered the culture so quickly. Few people have the kinds of serious medical conditions, such as celiac disease, that necessitate the elimination of gluten from the diet. Billions of people thrive on gluten-rich foods, all around the world.
Yet somewhere in our collective search for health, security, and purity, gluten transformed into a mainstream taboo. Scientific-sounding language (and savvy marketers) have driven this transformation, though one suspects that mass gluten avoidance has more in common with religious food restrictions than it does with anything premised on actual medical data.
Fittingly, Alan Levinovitz is a religion professor at James Madison University and a chronicler of our peculiar dietary culture. In his new book, The Gluten Lie, Levinovitz digs into the fear and moralizing that surrounds dietary fads, including gluten avoidance and the MSG scare. […]
“I saw this countercultural rejection of grains, and then I saw almost the exact same thing, with the same kinds of hyperbolic claims, happening again with books like Grain Brain and Wheat Belly. And I thought to myself, you know, it’s funny, people are trying to debunk these fad diets with scientific evidence, but what they’re not realizing is that really these beliefs aren’t scientific at all. They’re wrapped in scientific rhetoric, but ultimately they’re quasi-religious beliefs that are based on superstition and myth.”
The most obvious question is also the most difficult to answer: How could gluten, present in a staple food that has sustained humanity for thousands of years, have suddenly become so threatening? There are many theories but no clear, scientifically satisfying answers. Some researchers argue that wheat genes have become toxic. […]
Joseph A. Murray, a professor of medicine at the Mayo Clinic and the president of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease, has also studied wheat genetics. He agrees with Kasarda. “The wheat grain is not a lot different than it was fifty years ago,’’ Murray told me. “Chemically, the contents just have not changed much. And there is something more important to note. Wheat consumption is going down, not up. I don’t think this is a problem that can be linked to the genetics of wheat.”
But something strange is clearly going on. For reasons that remain largely unexplained, the incidence of celiac disease has increased more than fourfold in the past sixty years. Researchers initially attributed the growing number of cases to greater public awareness and better diagnoses. But neither can fully account for the leap since 1950. Murray and his colleagues at the Mayo Clinic discovered the increase almost by accident. Murray wanted to examine the long-term effects of undiagnosed celiac disease. To do that, he analyzed blood samples that had been taken from nine thousand Air Force recruits between 1948 and 1954. The researchers looked for antibodies to an enzyme called transglutaminase; they are a reliable marker for celiac disease. Murray assumed that one per cent of the soldiers would test positive, matching the current celiac rate. Instead, the team found the antibodies in the blood of just two-tenths of one per cent of the soldiers. Then they compared the results with samples taken recently from demographically similar groups of twenty- and seventy-year-old men. In both groups, the biochemical markers were present in about one per cent of the samples.
“That suggested that whatever has happened with celiac disease has appened since 1950,’’ Murray said. “The increase affected young and old people equally.” These results imply that the cause is environmental.
Studies — such as this one in the journal Gastroenterology — have found that many people who think they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity actually don’t. Some wonder whether gluten sensitivity truly exists, or if there’s something else going on.
An alternative hypothesis suggests that people who say their symptoms improve on a gluten-free diet may actually be reacting to another set of carbohydrates in wheat called called FODMAPs (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). In other words, it’s not the gluten that’s bothering people, but other sugars found in wheat. […]
One of the leading researchers in the area, Dr. Umberto Volta from the University of Bologna in Italy, put it this way: “This is an emerging condition mainly self-reported by people who claim an association between foods containing gluten and digestive symptoms.” While some self-report an improvement in symptoms, this is usually “a result of a placebo effect unavoidably related to the elimination diet.” When these patients are assessed more thoroughly, he added, it’s often other factors — lactose intolerance, FODMAPs — rather than gluten that cause their discomfort. Still, gluten gets the blame.
- FALSE: Humans have been in a genetic holding pattern for the last ten to twelve thousand years.
- FALSE: The Paleolithic Area hardcoded human feeding behaviours and dietary needs into our DNA, which is the only thing defining a healthy human diet.
- FALSE: Sugar is absolutely addicting, as defined by our Paleolithic DNA.
- FALSE: Humans have a single Paleolithic heritage, and therefore Paleo is a one-size-fits-all protocol.
- FALSE: Observing modern Hunter-Gatherer societies helps us define the healthy modern diet.
- FALSE: Humans did not evolve eating significant amounts of grass-based grains such as wheat and barley.
- FALSE: Dairy farming is too recent for humans to have properly adapted.
- FALSE: Yams and sweet potatoes are biologically appropriate ancestral foods (and maybe white potatoes too).
…On point #8, you might think it’s a typo, but it’s not. It’s actually a kinda in-your-face, because virtually all modern vegetables are more hybridized and selectively modified than much of what Paleo advocates we eschew.
20 Things You Didn’t Know About Paleo, Chris Kresser. Each point is elaborated upon in Chris’ post.
- Following a Paleo diet/lifestyle today is not about re-enacting the exact diet/lifestyle of our ancestors.
- Most hunter gatherers did not eat a “low-carb” diet.
- A very-low-carb (VLC) or ketogenic diet and Paleo diet are not the same thing.
- It’s best to consider Paleo as a template, rather than a “diet”.
- There is no single approach that works for everyone.
- The foods emphasized on the Paleo diet are loaded with the nutrients our bodies need.
- Vibrant health is your birthright (chronic disease is not inevitable).
- You don’t have to be 100% compliant to benefit from a Paleo-style diet.
- Sugar isn’t “toxic”.
- You might not instantly feel better when you start eating Paleo.
- The Paleo approach is not just about weight loss; it can also prevent and even reverse chronic disease.
- Full-fat dairy products can actually be a healthy addition to a Paleo diet—for some people.
- Red meat is one of the healthiest, most nutrient-dense foods you can eat.
- High cholesterol is not the primary cause of heart disease.
- Many of the packaged “Paleo friendly” foods are full of modern additives—and some of them are not so friendly to your health.
- Eating a Paleo-style diet doesn’t have to be expensive.
- Legumes are more Paleo friendly than you might think.
- Paleo is not just about food.
- Paleo-friendly starches are not the same as industrial starches.
- Paleo cooking can be both delicious and easy.
Last but not least, Mark Sisson (who gets a favorable mention in Part 2 of that “Abandon Paleo” series, above). I just saw these images last evening via Jamie Scott’s Twitter feed.
- Life is just a long string of choices—no right or wrong
- It all depends on what I can get away with
- Purpose of the n=1 exercise is to explore the boundaries of what gives you pleasure and enjoyment without overtly sacrificing health or comfort
- Examples: sugar, legumes, RS, cardio, lights at night, alcohol
- Any choice is good if done mindfully and you “own” it
- Fats are great—but best in moderation
- Grains and legumes might be appropriate for some
- Carbs can be tailored to the lifestyle
- Keto is a fine tool—probably not a way of life
- Calories do matter—whether stored or burned
- Cardio can have a place in a healthy, happy life
- Some meds can actually enhance a Paleo lifestyle
- LGN has become FGN—ideal body comp
Nope, I don’t know what that last point refers to.