The Paleo, Primal, Evolutionary Distinction: Avoidance Behavior

Right off the bat I have to thank Dr. kurt harris for alerting me to this simple — and therefore — elegant and powerful idea.

What do all diets have in common and is that which also serves to differentiate all of them from paleo, primal, evfit? Whether you’re low fat, low carb, Mediterranean, South Beach, Ornish, Weight Watchers, or what have you, you will be engaging in Seeking Behavior. That is to say, you seek to eat things the diet prescribes and hence, you end up with low-calorie, low-fat, low-carb, or some "exchange" level foods that can be composed of almost anything and everything, with some exceptions. Eat whatever, so long as it falls within the range of calories, fat, carb, or protein you seek. Some are purer than others, of course.

And Paleolithic man also engaged in seeking behavior. As a rule, eat anything and everything edible that satisfies hunger.

Then agriculture happened, followed by chemistry and industrial technology, and we have the emergence of all sorts of "foods," chemicals and synthetics paleolithic man never experienced. Those of us who practice a paleo-like diet do so implicitly or explicitly on the basis of a precautionary principle: foodstuffs that weren’t around during the vast majority of our evolution might be less nutritious, less optimal, even harmful. On a practical level, most of us follow paleo because we’ve seen our own results with our own eyes and we know how we feel.

But seeking is the wrong sort of approach in my opinion; or, at best, is less advantageous than the alternative: Avoidance Behavior. You see examples of this everywhere. Those new to this dietary approach often find themselves befuddled and lost because they see "meat, fish, fowl, eggs, natural fats, veggies, fruits & nuts," but then feel like it’s devoid of variety — it’s foreign to them: the Real Food we evolved eating exclusively. Where’s the [insert dietary prescription] pizza, Hot Pockets, sodas, ice cream, fettuccine Alfredo, chicken fried steaks, cakes, cookies, fucking Cinnabon and on and on?

Where’s my damn garbage? And it’s even worse because the collateral casualty of the modern industrial social and health genocide known as processed & fast food is that families don’t eat together and they don’t eat together because they eat outta fuckin’ boxes and packages, for shit sake. How in holy hell did it come to this?

Alternatively, how about, simply, "avoid Neolithic foods;" primarily grains, sugars, and vegetable/seed oils? Avoid anything processed. Everything else is fine and the macronutrient ratios, i.e., high vs. moderate vs. low carb is up to you to determine and so you have far more flexibility and options. High fat or moderate or even low fat is up to you. I’ll go out on a limb and say that high fat, low to moderate carb, and low to moderate protein in ratios sufficient to sustain you is going to end up being the best way to go for most — but admittedly not all. And you’ll learn that it’s not Real Food that’s foreign but garbage that’s foreign, and you’ll also learn or rediscover cooking your food and your familial situation will be the far better for it, I guarantee it. paleo is a health advantage on levels that go beyond diet. It’s going to be good for your marriages & families too — though you might have to introduce things gradually if you don’t get family support. Keep plugging away. Find the Paleolithic foods your family members love. Don’t give up, and don’t give in.

Picture 2 This is what makes paleo unique, even in contrast to a vegan diet which offhand is probably the closest thing other than paleo to avoidance behavior (avoid all animal products and derivatives). vegetarians long ago went the route of seeking behavior and now you can fill a supermarket isle with vegetarian junk food. The vegans are going the same way, in my observation.

And some paleos have also drifted more toward seeking behavior. I’ve been somewhat guilty of it (paleo pizzas, biscuits & gravy, chicken pot pies and maybe a few other things). Don’t get me wrong. Those are all concoctions made from real foods and they’re fine in terms of health. Not especially so for some of the other things I see people doing with massive amounts of almond flour and fruit. But, is it possible that an overemphasis on finding paleo-compliant substitutes for neolithic goodies just perpetuates the cravings for those foods long term?

The very unique thing about paleo is that you really can’t come up with a line of paleo junk. By principle definition, it excludes neolithic agents, and junk food is almost exclusively composed of neolithic agents including all the stuff you see to your left in this low-carb bake mix.

Dr. Kurt Harris, in a post entitled Smoking Candy Cigarettes recently talked about this specific aspect of what he sees out & about on the blogs.

Would it not be better to train your kids, and yourself, to avoid Neolithic food by the simplest expedient there is? So simple a child could manage it?

Something as simple as a simple rule.

A rule like:

Don’t eat anything that looks like Neolithic food, especially Neolithic food.

What is the point of all this? I just don’t get it, and I don’t think it is because I am just too lazy to make this stuff.

It’s easy to make fun of commercial junk in a box like “low carb” pasta, zone and atkins bars, etc. All stuff that may be gluten free or have sawdust in place of of high GI starch, but whose real reason for existence is just to appropriate what should properly be freestanding, honest, real food back into the maw of corporate big-agra commercial interests.

In conclusion, notice that the principle of avoidance behavior can be applied to other aspect of the paleo path.

– Avoid thick or hard soled shoes as opposed to "go barefoot."

– Avoid eating when not hungry as opposed to "go x hours between meals."

– Avoid carrying around enough effing Tupperware for six small meals per day as opposed to "eat x number of meals."

– Avoid excessive risks as opposed to "be safe."

– Avoid chronically stressful situations as opposed to "meditate."

– Avoid staying up too late when you have to get up to early.

Can anyone think of other paleo examples of contrasting avoidance behavior with seeking behavior?


  1. Alcinda Moore on February 21, 2010 at 21:18

    Oh but Richard! Don’t you know that you are not supposed to “deprive” yourself? (sarcasm intended)

    This is what I try to do. Making things that look like neolithic, like paleo pizza, to me isn’t bad, it’s creative!

    One of the things that irritates me about all of the low carb “foods” out there is how unnatural they are! Natural beats out everything!! I sure have become a much better cook since I’ve tried to stick with paleo eating!! (I do low carb/paleo)

    • Richard Nikoley on February 22, 2010 at 12:13

      I definitely think something like “meatza” is totally fine and is far off from making cakes, cookies and baked stuff in general, much made with large quantities of nut flours.

  2. Patrik on February 21, 2010 at 21:51

    And Paleolithic man also engaged in seeking behavior. As a rule, eat anything and everything edible that satisfies hunger.

    Interesting discussion. However, I don’t know if we can pigeonhole Paleolithic humans as engaging in either seeking-type or avoiding-type behaviors. My assumption that we, just like any other species, satisfied our hunger by both seeking and avoiding behaviors.

    After all, what one defines as “edible” is species-specific. Take acorns for example:

    Wildlife which eat acorns as an important part of their diets include birds, such as jays, pigeons, some ducks, and several species of woodpeckers. Small mammals that feed on acorns include mice, squirrels and several other rodents.

    Such large mammals as pigs, bears, and deer also consume large amounts of acorns: they may constitute up to 25% of the diet of deer in the autumn.[1] In southwest Europe (Spain and Portugal), pigs are still turned loose in dehesas (large oak groves) in the autumn, to fill and fatten themselves on acorns. However, acorns are toxic to some other animals, such as horses.

    The larvae of some moths and weevils also live in young acorns, consuming the kernels as they develop.[2]

    Acorns also contain bitter tannins, the amount varying with the species. Since tannins, which are plant polyphenols, interfere with an animal’s ability to metabolize protein, creatures must adapt in different ways to utilize the nutritional value that acorns contain. Animals may preferentially select acorns that contain fewer tannins.

    For some unknown reason, the article makes it sound like acorns just happen to have bitter-tasting (to us and presumably horses) compounds as if it were simply random coincidence — when the truth is that those tannins are a part and parcel of an oak’s evolutionary adaptation/response to its environment.

    • Kurt G Harris MD on February 21, 2010 at 22:37

      I like Richard’s expansion on the concept. I think he is more making a point about seeking vs avoidance in in distinguishing how our neo-paleo (not the real paleo) diets differ from the less successful diets we are all familiar with.

      The central idea, it seems to me, is that if the neolithic and postindustrial food environment differs most from the paleolithic by what it has in it that should be avoided, then avoidance will be more successful than seeking as we have to work our way through a permanently altered food environment.

      Seeking low carb, seeking vegetables, seeking antioxidants or magic compounds, seeking big pharma drugs, etc, etc.

      He really has identified a PaNu central dogma here, even if I had not articulated it exactly that way before.

      My patients find it easy and can often do it with no written instructions as it’s somewhat easier to remember what not to eat than what’s allowed.

      • Patrik on February 21, 2010 at 23:49

        He really has identified a PaNu central dogma here, even if I had not articulated it exactly that way before.

        @Kurt Harris

        Now that I think about it, what is also very interesting is that you, Richard and I have somehow come to a similar “conclusion”, for lack of a better word, quasi-independently. I say quasi- because I am clearly influenced by your and Richard’s thinking/writing on this — but multiple times now I have explained how I eat to my friends by describing my diet in the negative i.e. what I generally don’t eat or try to avoid eating – not by what I eat.

      • Dave C. on February 22, 2010 at 08:03

        A lot of people do tend to ask, “So, what do you eat?” I think it is a valid question though. Look at how much carb and bread based the standard American diet has become. If you say, “I don’t eat bread” that excludes a lot of things, and so people will rightly ask, “Then, what do you eat?”

  3. Theresa on February 21, 2010 at 20:39

    Great idea – sometimes it isn’t the program, but the frame of mind that makes all the difference. I’ve been avoiding grains and sugars and feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. For your list, you could also add “avoid people that suck the life out of you” rather than trying to meet new people. An overabundance of negative energy is never good.

    • Steven on February 22, 2010 at 08:09

      “For your list, you could also add “avoid people that suck the life out of you” rather than trying to meet new people.”

      That should be #1 on the list…. amen… class dismissed…

    • Travis on February 22, 2010 at 11:30

      “avoid people that suck the life out of you”

      Indeed! I am no longer friends with two such people and I’m glad that I ended those negative relationships.

    • Lucky on February 23, 2010 at 11:21

      Boy, you said it Theresa!

      In my early days of experimenting with a primal lifestyle, I had a few friends who really forced me to second guess myself. I’m glad I gave my trial a good, honest attempt. I’m equally glad that I minimized my time with these folks. They’re still friends, but when they start to go negative on me, I just put up my hands.

  4. Heather Lackey on February 21, 2010 at 20:50

    Between Dr. Harris’s post and what I’ve been learning about nuts, n-6, rancidity, etc., etc., I ended up walking away from nut-based (nut flour or nut butter) baked goods, and the interesting thing was that I went from absolutely jonesing for almond-flour chocolate chip cookies once or twice a month to not missing them at all (much the same way I stopped missing bread and pasta, etc., after I got them out of my system–and out of my psyche.)

    When I first read his Smoking Candy Cigarettes post, I was kind of on the fence, thinking, “Yeah, some people take it too far, but a little every now and then….” Now I’m thinking he got it right.

  5. Grok on February 21, 2010 at 21:15

    Since I started ramping up my exercise, I’ve simplified the meal plan again.

    Just like Heather, I mostly ditched the nuts a while back. Finished off the last of the almond butter last week just to get rid of it. Dairy is my next victim. Although I mostly consume fermented raw stuff, I believe it to be too inflammatory for me and causes overeting & binging. I think I’m going to do a full cut of dairy for April. Even going to ditch butter during the n=1, but might keep ghee in the mix.

    I’ll +1 Theresa’s “avoid people that suck the life out of you”

  6. Alex K on February 21, 2010 at 21:34

    When I went paleo, I had so many enormous health benefits within a short period of time that my Doctor and I both think that I have a form of Celiac’s (bloodwork pending), so for me, avoiding wheat is the primary focus of my diet, though right now I’m avoiding grains entirely except for the occasional side of wild rice.

    I disagreed with Kurt Harris’ “Candy Cigarettes” post, though, largely because all I care about is the macronutrient composition of my food. I like food, and I like to cook, so I don’t see the problem with making a pizza or a cake out of paleo ingredients so long as I’m, well, eating paleo ingredients. I use Fitday to verify that new recipes keep me on the basic nutrient path that I like (50-60% fat, 25-30% protein, 15-25% carbs) and double-check glycemic indices every now and again to help me control my hunger, but other than that I eat what I want as long as no grains are involved.

    I’m glad that Kurt has the ability to eat pretty much the same couple of meals every week, but if I tried to do that, I would go insane. I’m also not convinced, like he is, that dairy is bad. Sure, you should avoid it if you’re lactose or casein intolerant, but the Mongolians and the Masai seem to belie the idea that dairy is generally unhealthy.

    • Kurt G Harris MD on February 21, 2010 at 22:27

      My meals have incredible variety. They just don’t purposefully mimic pancakes.
      You are perhaps confusing the lack of food porn on my site for a lack of variety in my own meals, which I assure you is totally unwarranted.

      The point of the essay was not remotely proscribing variety. It was about culture and how our own behavior conditions our own and others perceptions.

      If I said, “don’t make paintings depicting Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot” and you were a painter, and you then told me your creativity was constrained by not being able to make portaits of dictators, I might reasonably respond that you were not that creative or imaginative a painter in the first place.

      Glad the wheat-free thing is doing you so much good.

      • Alex K on February 22, 2010 at 04:59


        Fair enough. I don’t make paleo pancakes primarily because they taste disgusting, so there’s that. I do avoid the elaborate substitutions, but I don’t see the problem with the occasional almond flour cookie or banana nut bar.

        As to your meals, my apologies–I thought I read a post of yours that implied you are fine with less variety. I just went back and read it and determined that that was my faulty memory.

  7. redcatbicycliste on February 21, 2010 at 22:36

    This might be harsh, or difficult to do, for some, but it has worked for me: Avoid eating any meals/food that I have not prepared; especially, do not eat in restaurants, unless it is absolutely necessary. I haven’t eaten in a restaurant (neither take-out from one) in a little over two years. When I made the change to eating only real foods, I felt that I could not trust, that I was unsure of, the quality of the ingredients a restaurant would use to prepare a meal. Also, many restaurant workers/cooks have poor hygiene habits, which is something, when I imagine it, gives me the willies.

    Avoid taking the quick-fix (which is usually a no-fix) medicines that too many doctors prescribe (unless it is a life-saving medication). That rule worked very well for my grandmother, who died at 95 years old. Who, when she was in her early 50s was “diagnosed” as having high-blood pressure, and was given a prescription by her doctor for medicine to lower it. My grandmother trashed the prescription, and lived 40-plus more years (in spite of the fact that she smoked cigarettes until she was 87 years old; she gave them up because one day she went to purchase a carton, but found the price was too high for her liking, so she quite smokin–cold-turkey!) in very good health.

  8. Veronica on February 21, 2010 at 23:40

    I dunno, but I’d much rather take the positive “seek” than the negative “avoid” way of thinking. Who says you can’t be creative is someone lays a table full of meat, fish, vegies, fruit, nuts and seeds, herb and spices in front of you. I can make a pizza without “dough”, I can make granola without oats, I can eat mexican without tortillas or burgers without “buns” and I can make cake without flour. I don’t have to “avoid” anything and don’t feel deprived.

    • Patrik on February 22, 2010 at 00:05

      This comment is NOT aimed at Veronica — just in general, at the idea of feeling deprived as being a legitimate complaint.

      From my perspective, so-called “deprivation” comes down to health cost/benefit analysis. For example, I love wheat-derived products. I really do. Wheat beer. Hearty peasant bread. Pasta etc etc

      Love ’em and always did. But I avoid them like the plague.

      Do I feel deprived? Fuck yes! Not a joke BTW. Inasmuch as I’d love to be able to chow down on endless bowls of pasta and be able to suck down a nice, yeast-y weissbeer and not suffer the consequences. I do feel deprived. It is not fair (again, not a joke).

      But so what? C’est la vie. Woe is me. (Rhyme unintentional BTW)

      Cuz I also know how I feel after I eat them. (I am not typical — as I get massive migraines within a day or so of ingesting wheat products) — I also know that if I eat them continually I suffer from facial inflammation and other stuff (sleep disturbance), not to mention all the metabolic stuff that I don’t see or feel.

      Viewing wheat through the Paleo lens, allows me to make a cost/benefit analysis that indicates to me that the benefit/pleasure I get from eating wheat-based products, while truly very large (!), is dwarfed by the associated massive costs in short-term how I feel (migraines) and costs in terms of long-term health.

      In short, I don’t feeling deprived is a good reason for anything.

  9. Chris on February 21, 2010 at 23:49

    How about, “Avoid arguments with internet trolls from Monkey Island?”

    Good post by the way

  10. Harpo on February 22, 2010 at 00:22

    Avoid reading too many “paleo”, “primal” or other such websites.

    Seek the *basics* then continue. Grok didn’t have the support networks, databases of nutrient and mineral contents of foodstuffs.

    Live. Stop *thinking* about it.

    • Aaron M Fraser on February 22, 2010 at 05:49

      This is a good point – but, on the other hand, Grok knew all of these things intuitively. His entire environment supported a healthy lifestyle, and the aspects in it – the natural poisons, plants and areas to avoid, etc., learning these were an integral part of his upbringing.

      Most of us have been taught very different things about what is healthful, about how to live a “proper” life. Some of us have been taught almost nothing.

      Comparing us to ‘Grok’ in that sense is a little misguided, but I definitely see where you’re coming from.

  11. Tami on February 22, 2010 at 01:07

    Harpo, you´re absolutely right! I would add avoid all the health advise stuff websites ´cause they lead many people in hypochondria. Enjoy your life. I think people with the slightest knowledge are often the happiest.

  12. Harpo on February 22, 2010 at 01:16

    I think my point was that when you switch to something which is so evolutionarily sound – such as paleo – it’s such a wake-up call that it’s a danger of being all-consuming.

    By all means think about what you eat and how you live. But if it’s constantly on your mind then it’s simply unhealthy.

    As a vague digression, avoid telling everyone you know they way they eat and live is wrong. It’s none of your business. Ever.

    On a complete digression: to all those adhering to strict paleo or primal scriptures [yeah, being purposely provocative there :) ] what about medical care? Antibiotics? Vaccinations? Hell, even anti-bacterials?

    • Patrik on February 22, 2010 at 01:34


      If your main point is that to stop obsessing about food is healthier, I think I agree.

      But regarding your intentionally provocative digression, can we just put the whole strawman/nonsense of alleged Paleo re-enactment to fuckin’ bed already? Except for a few harmless idiots amongst the Paleo enthusiasts who buy the myth of the Noble Savage shit, NO ONE WANTS TO GO BACK AND LIVE DURING THE FUCKING PALEOLITHIC. As Kurt said somewhere on his blog, “Nature is very beautiful, and nature is trying to kill you.”

      Nathaniel says this very well here:

      Following a paleo-type diet does not require a person to embrace every aspect of pre-agricultural life. As Dr. Harris said, the paleo philosophy is more like, “What can we learn from human evolutionary biology?” and not “Let’s all live in caves and hunt with spears!”

      Choosing to shun modern processed foods and grains does not mean you have to also shun modern technology and medicine, and anyone who is criticizing “paleo” on that basis is being intellectually dishonest himself. There is no contradiction whatsoever in accepting modern science while seeking to emulate the diet that we evolved eating.

      • Steven on February 22, 2010 at 08:15

        “Nature is very beautiful, and nature is trying to kill you.”

        I want that on a shirt… really I do…. :)

      • Kurt G Harris MD on February 22, 2010 at 09:16

        Coming soon with a logo – seriously.

      • Steven on February 22, 2010 at 13:54

        Sir you just made my year! Put me down for 2…. :)

  13. Tim Starr on February 22, 2010 at 01:50

    Avoidance is easy for me as I have several food allergies: almonds, walnuts, avocado, whole wheat, bananas, etc. Adding carbs to the list is easy for me; my summary of the diet is: “Stop eating carbs!” More to it than that, of course, but that’s the essence for me. I get to eat pretty much anything else I want.

  14. TXCHLInstructor on February 22, 2010 at 04:10

    I guess I’ve been practicing mainly avoidance myself, ever since 1999, when I discovered that grains were the thing causing my severe arthritis. Remembering how bad my hands used to hurt (I had to quit playing the violin completely, after playing professionally for over 30 years) has made it easy for me to avoid gluten. That was as a side-effect of doing some detailed diet logging while incrementally going from a SAD to a low-carb diet.

    Another side-effect was the loss of 100 lbs. And I’m back to playing my violin (and teaching). Unfortunately, I needed to lose a bit more than 150 lbs.

    Along the way, I made the observation that low-carb junk food did not work for me. I managed to make the essential connection between low-carb junk food, and low-fat junk food, that being the work “junk”. I find it a bit harder to avoid junk, although I have succeeded in putting low-carb candy into the psychological non-food category, along with the grain-based junk. Artificial sweeteners present a difficulty, and I also find myself ‘seeking’ substitutes for things I miss from the SAD days, like pizza and bread. My wife has come up with some marvelous things along that line, and in particular, has accomplished some pretty amazing things with eggs, fat, and protein powder. And, of course, the protein powder falls squarely into the Neolithic category. I’m reasonably sure that Grok did not have access to either protein powder nor a blender.

    Or, for that matter, a sous vide controller for his crockpot.

    I am currently doing mostly Paleo, but that last 50 lbs is really stubborn. Every time I get below 248, my body temp drops about 3 degrees, and I go around feeling sluggish and sleepy until I get back up to 248. My current theory is that if you have ever been more than 100 lbs overweight, you have inflicted some permanent damage to your body, and I’m looking for a way to work around that damage. Hence, I tend to discount the advice I get from anybody who has never had a major weight problem. So I’m *seeking* advice from people who have successfully gone from 100+ lbs overweight to something less than about 30 lbs overweight, and stayed there long-term (over 10 years). According to the so-called ‘medical’ establishment (the same clowns that gave the the low-fat diet advice that got me to 350+ lbs) my ‘ideal’ weight is 170, which I consider ridiculous. My goal is 200.

  15. Suzan on February 22, 2010 at 04:56

    Lots of good stuff to “chew” on here in this post and in the comments. Thanks for this.

  16. Ryon Day on February 22, 2010 at 20:29

    I’ve written about my own journey to health and wellness on my own blog.

    Needless to say, I avoid almost anything that comes in a box.

    I avoid brightly colored wrappers and containers because I know they’re merely trying to emulate the brightly colored skins, rinds, and peels found in fruits and veggies, with none of the nutritious contents.

    I avoid consumable substances (these are not food!) that don’t go bad.

    I avoid thoughts of emulating my “ancestors” because I choose to look forward for my health.

    I avoid thinking myself of different in kind than my “ancestors” because I know in ways we are still the same.

    I avoid asceticism. Sometimes I bake bread or cookies for friends, or have some ice cream or pizza, because I enjoy those things. The feeling afterward makes certain that I don’t do this too often, though.


  17. Scott on February 22, 2010 at 07:11

    So, I just recently switched to the a Primal/Paleo lifestyle, so my POV might be a bit skewed.

    However, I was just thinking–its not just Neolithic food that is bad for us, but tons of things that exemplify the Neolithic world. Yet here we are, on the internet, sharing resources. We’re humans–we adapt.

    So why should we say “Avoid Neolithic Foods” if we’re not going to say “Avoid Neolithic EVERYTHING”? And if we’re -not- going to say the latter, because we’re capable of adapting and controlling ourselves, then why do we need to go by the former?

    Now, I’m not saying you can’t push all Neolithic representations of food out of your life if that’s what you need to do, but I’m just not sure what’s inherently wrong with doing the human thing and adapting?

    Basically, I’m just curious as to why we have to let “Neolithic Culture” own these things and taint them? Just because there -are- bad cupcakes doesn’t mean we should avoid all cupcakes. If Paleolithic man reacted that way, he wouldn’t have eaten anything at all.

    Some mushrooms are poisonous. Some seeds taste horrible. Some green vegetation is toxic. Some animals aren’t edible.

  18. Jeff P on February 22, 2010 at 07:46

    A new book to hit the shelves is Switch by Dan & Chip Heath. The book looks to explain Change and how to change things when it so hard. This avoidance behavior is easy enough if it were up to our rational brains to make those choices. According to Switch, we have “schizophrenic” brains that wreak havoc because of our emotional side and our rational side. I blogged about this recently.

    I believe the longer we engage the Avoidance Behavior the longer we form habits and become less schizophrenic, as the book Switch might suggest. Kicking sugar to the curb is hard initially, but now that I have been primal for almost 4 months, I can now drink coffee with no sugar or sweetener.

    Another avoidance behavior I’d list would be on exercise. Avoid being a coach potato as opposed to moving frequently at a slow pace or simply PLAY.

  19. zach on February 22, 2010 at 08:35

    I can’t imagine how easy a real food diet could be. I have eggs fried in butter, whole raw milk for breakfast, and sometimes bacon and nothing for lunch because I’m not hungry. Most dinners I just put grass fed steak and onions in the iron skillet and I’m completely satisfied, sometimes a salad or vegetables with it. If you can cook and have opportunity, I don’t understand how chronically eating crap could pose a temptation to anyone. I used to have chronic sinusitis. I don’t know if it was the sugar or the wheat or both, but it’s gone now. I don’t think I’ll look back.

  20. Jay on February 22, 2010 at 10:14

    Thanks. I am very interested in all of this and find it encouraging that so many people find time to discuss it here. Keep it up. Controversial or not, at least it is interesting, and at most it may help. What then, is the harm? I appreciate the line of thought and trying to apply it to my own life in my own way has been a satisfying effort.

  21. shel on February 22, 2010 at 10:32

    good quote:

    “The very unique thing about paleo is that you really can’t come up with a line of paleo junk. By principle definition, it excludes neolithic agents, and junk food is almost exclusively composed of neolithic agents”

    got a little story. i was paleo before paleo was cool. followed Cordain’s plan after going through a hellish health crisis, and did very well. then discovered some different concepts through the blogzoo. i went high-fat, moderate protein, and did well for a while. after a time (18 months?), i began to experience a painfully pounding heart at night, then later to go along with it, a vibrating anxiety that kept me up nights. Not. Fun.

    …i then decided to follow my instincts and eat whatever i craved within a paleo context. i’m doing better than ever.

    here is my average macronutrient ratio by weight: p/24, c/51, f/25.
    like i said, every “expert” has his take. they’ve got blogs all over the net. if you have a problem with my carb intake, maybe you should look at ayour particular guru and question your faith. but if you can’t handle low carb, discover the wonders of sweet potatoes (orange and purple flesh), cassava and taro. you’ll be glad you did.

    bottom line: doctor or layman, everybody’s an expert, nobody knows it all, and most have heads up asses. i discovered that, within in a paleo context, one must discover one’s own macronutrient ratio for health. no “expert” knows your body. tell anyone to go to hell, who tells you to eat a low-fat or low-carb or low-protein diet; or that we’re opportunistic carnivores, or mainly tuber eaters/frugivores/herbivores. its bullshit.

    …and yeah, i eat those cultivated candybars on trees called fruit… out of season!!! omg!

  22. Katie C on February 22, 2010 at 10:42

    I’ve been eating paleo-ish (I do eat some meals out, which I’m sure have vegetable oils, and I also eat some organic heavy cream, butter, and hard cheese) for about 5 months. For me, it was a process. At first, I did a 30-day “challenge” where I agreed to eat only meats, vegetables, nuts, seeds, healthy fats, and some fruits. For the most part, I cooked everything I ate and ate only real foods–no neolithic garbage.

    Then, after 30 days, I realized I wanted to stick with it but I MISSED some of my old foods, such as cookies, cakes, pies, pancakes, etc. After a nasty carb binge, which left me pretty sick, I decided maybe I would try some of the paleo substitutes for neolithic foods. So then I went through a phase where I was eating mostly real foods during the day, but I would almost always have some kind of “paleo” baked good based on some sort of nut flour on hand for a treat at night. Oh and of course almond flour pancakes at least once on weekends. I found after awhile that I started getting sick of all the garbage, and that it seemed to stall my progress.

    So I finally moved on to a point where I’ve given up most of the paleo substitute junk and just eat real foods. But, much like there are different stages of grief, I think I needed to go through these “stages” to the switch to eating real foods to really appreciate the difference it’s made in my health and to be able to actually stick with it. I don’t feel deprived because I’ve tried all these things, and they just weren’t very good or they made me feel terrible.

    I still eat full fat dairy, which I know some people are opposed to. But, as long as I’m still getting leaner, healthier, and stronger (I’m a 5’7″ female and weigh around 140 lbs., so pretty close to where I want to be), I’m going to leave it at that for now. FWIW, I totally agree in terms of carb level. I think people generally do better at a lower carb level than the SAD, but that once you start getting down to it, different people do better at different levels. I tried very low carb and had issues with really cold feet and hands, so I’ve upped it to more like 75g a day, where I feel better. My husband seems to do better in the 30g range. As long as we’re eating real foods that we’ve prepared, I don’t stress about it.

  23. Ned Kock on February 22, 2010 at 11:50

    Here is one that is from the Paleolithic, and one that more people these days should seek, not avoid: Social interaction, particularly face-to-face, and, second best, non-face-to-face social interaction that involves oral speech.

    Written (or symbolic) communication is a very recent phenomenon, in evolutionary terms; so is communication online. Cave paintings have been around for about 40,000 years, but most of the evidence suggests that they were not used for communication. Written communication dates back to about 5,000 years ago.

    Moreover, oral speech evolved around 200,000 to 100,000 years ago, at a big cost, by the human species. And costly adaptations are usually costly not to use.

    There are a number of hormonal responses associated with face-to-face and even oral speech that are health-promoting.

    Text-based online communication gives the perception of being safer, but litigation attorneys know better than anybody that this is completely untrue. What you say in writing may come back to bite you, even if said anonymously. (By the way, online anonymity is a myth … but I digress.)

    No need to avoid online interaction, but a balance between online and face-to-face (or at least oral communication, as in audio-conferencing or talking on the phone) is important, IMHO, for optimal health. This includes mental health.

  24. Steve D on February 22, 2010 at 17:18

    I don’t think it is really possible to make a distinction between Paleolithic and Neolithic food. At the start of the Neolithic people simply domesticated the plants and animals they were already using as a food source. Paleolithic man ate plenty of grains, sugars, and vegetable/seed oils. Many had diets consisting primarily of wild grains or in other cases nuts. Before the late Paleolithic most humans barely managed to maintain enough calories to survive. Definitely many archeological sites suggest that before the late Paleolithic period meat was rather rare for most hominids.

    The Paleolithic diet pegs to the Late Paleolithic periods (between about 50,000 and 10,000 years ago) and then only in certain locations. The meat is fine but you need the technology to catch it.

    “foodstuffs that weren’t around during the vast majority of our evolution might be less nutritious, less optimal, even harmful.” or they might be more nutritious, more optimal or even beneficial. No way of knowing exactly unless you have detailed metabolic and biochemical background on them. However as I said above wild grains were available for most of our evolution, anyway.

    “On a practical level, most of us follow paleo because we’ve seen our own results with our own eyes and we know how we feel.”

    On the other hand this is a far better argument than evolution and is really the only argument you need. Diet is still one of those areas where there is a lot more to be learned so experimentation, listening to your body and (probably) diversity in food sources are in general good ideas. I should point our that in terms of diet and medicine there is a lot more variation between individuals than most people realize. Therefore, it is essential to tune any diet to your particular metabolism.

    • Richard Nikoley on February 23, 2010 at 19:50


      You’re wrong on just about every level, every point.

      You’re more wrong than a very wrong thing. So wrong, in fact, I really have no interest in discussing it ’cause, judging by essentially the same comment you dropped over at Diana Hsieh’s place, you’re on some crusade or something and I’m just not interested.

      • Steve D on February 24, 2010 at 16:10

        “You’re wrong on just about every level, every point.”

        I am wondering, though if you noticed in my previous comment the place where I quoted your statement and then agreed with it.

        You mentioned that you read my comment on Diana Hsieh’s place. You may have noticed that at no time in either comment did I state or imply any criticism of the paleo diet. There is a reason for that. I also did not criticize your view on the conventional diet advice. There is a reason I didn’t do that either. Of course you are mostly right about both points. After all starch breaks down to sucrose in your mouth, right? I also agree with quite a lot I’ve read here. Your research into this matter is laudable and experimentation with diet regardless of ‘authority’ is absolutely essential. If more people took command of their diet (and other habits) as you seem to have done the world would be a lot better place.

        My criticism is directed to the specific point of whether or not we can use human evolution to define an ideal human diet, particularly for today’s environment. With the exception of perhaps some very broad generalizations or some very specific cases (which would still need to be validated scientifically) my view is that we cannot. We can make a hypothesis but we can’t prove it. This point goes to the heart of evolutionary theory and what it can and cannot tell us. I think at best and if we are lucky we get a starting point from which to experiment. I’ll explain below why I think this.
        “you’re on some crusade or something”

        The ‘something’ is that evolutionary biology is one of my top interests so I find it hard to resist commenting, particularly during discussions about how it can be used and what it can predict. There are a number of reasons why I am very skeptical that the ‘ideal’ diet can be discerned in our evolution, some due to the principles of evolutionary theory itself and its precision, others to particular cases. Besides, I believe there is better non teleological biochemical explanation for why some diets are better. (We feed animal protein to cows for a very good reason).

        Still it is quite possible that my information on some of the specifics is out of date. I am a biochemist not a paleontologist. However, I stand by my general understanding of evolution – I have studied this particular topic pretty carefully, and therein lie my chief objections.

        Key Point: Evolutionary theory supposes that natural selection is based on the struggle to reproduce and this will lead to adaptation. In theory if you know what the changes in the environment are you might be able to predict the adaptations which occur. However, we don’t really ever do this. We look at the adaptations we already observe and try to come up with plausible explanations for them. The problem is that the explanations are historical, there are usually multiple plausible explanations and therefore it is extremely difficult to validate or falsify any particular explanation. The best we can say is that the explanation makes some logical sense but that other explanations are possible.

        Key Point: Evolution as an adaptive process is decidedly sub optimal. Natural selection works on what it has, not what would work best and adaptations are placed over top of what already exists without really any way to reverse the earlier more fundamental changes. Organisms never see an ideal environment – that goes for humans as well particularly in the remote past. The best we can say is that the diet hominids ate allowed them to compete well enough with other organisms in their particular environment to survive. Only in an unchanging environment with every possible useful food source would we adapt to use the ‘ideal’ diet. Yes, perhaps we evolved larger brains because of the increasing meat in our diet – but this was under suboptimal conditions; it doesn’t mean there aren’t better substitutes for meat, it simply means at the time the meat was the easiest way to get this done. We can’t be sure that this trend can be extrapolated into the future either. What we are and what we should be may be two entirely different things.

        All of our cousin hominid species went extinct, and the line leading to modern humans also came very close at least once and probably multiple times. This suggests strongly that resources were limited. This illustrates the point that sub optimal conditions prevailed. Also skeletal remains of earlier hominids does suggest in many cases limited food. (this was not the case for Upper Paleolithic humans)

        Key Point: Natural selection works through reproductive success not necessarily good health (particularly beyond child bearing years). We live a lot longer now. Even if we had evolved to an ideal diet our conclusions would be mostly limited to people less than 20 years of age.

        Key Point: Evolution occurs mostly through developmental changes and this pinpoints embryos and younger children, not adults.

        Humans are omnivores; moreover they are generalist and intelligent at that. They SHOULD be adapted to make good use of a lot of different foods. There are also cultural factors that gum up the problem. This is another reason why it is difficult to make conclusions as to what is the best diet.
        Adaptation is continuous. There is never a time when any species is optimally adapted to its environment. Also diet changed continually over time and differs from place to place: exactly which iteration of this would you call the paleo diet? During the Lower Paleolithic the hominids didn’t really run down deer all that often – there are lots of small bones at the sites as well. Just because there were antelope bones at their sites doesn’t mean they ate this every day – if they were scavengers or even hunters this still could have been relatively rare. The estimates based on studies of fossil teeth, I’ve read suggest 20% meat diet for Australopithecus. By the time of Homo erectus the level of meat had increased a great deal (40-50%). Even 20% though is far higher than most other primates. Chimps though do eat meat (e.g. red colobus monkey).

        Actually, there is still a lot of controversy over what ancient hominids ate. My guess is that this varied considerably between populations and this would account for the disparity in the studies. C13/C12 isotope ratios can tell us only so much and there simply are not enough fossils which have been tested to tell us what diets were most common. This ratio discriminates between C3 and C4 plants so this can tell us whether our ancestors ate C3 or C4 plants or if they ate animals that ate C3 or C4 plants – it is not really possible to distinguish these two possibilities (Proc. R. Soc. B 2007 274, 1723–1730, 2007). For example the C4 conundrum – combined evidence from fossil teeth (e.g. Australopithecus) and isotope studies actually suggest some diets might consist of the roots tubers of C4 plants, since the teeth suggest a vegetable diet and it is unlikely they ate grass. (Another possibility the authors don’t mention are C4 broad leafs).

        Plant food stuffs are generally unrepresented at paleontological sites since they do not contain hard parts – but they are found, particularly seeds since these desiccate and can be preserved.
        The bottom line is that there is still quite a bit of controversy over the specifics of human diet in the past, big discrepancies between studies suggesting large variations over time and geography. Even if this was not the case evolutional science still cannot guarantee that nature has provided us with the ideal diet.

        I have a few final points to consider:

        Even though I disagree with your physical evolution hypothesis I think the fact that many Upper Paleolithic Homo sapiens chose this diet is significant. After all at this point at least some of them had the technology to eat whatever they wanted and they chose that diet. So from a cultural evolutionary point of view that hypothesis might hold up.

        I mentioned the person to person variability in my last comment for a reason. If you look at a lot of diet studies the variability is extremely high. I think this means that the ‘ideal’ diet will vary considerably between individuals and that based on this as well as what I have already said. This means that individual experimentation is crucial.

        Feeding 6-7 billion people using this diet is not going to be an easy task. We may be human because of energy from meat but we cover the planet because of energy from plants. Ideas are welcome.

      • Richard Nikoley on February 24, 2010 at 17:23

        Steve D:

        based on the first few paras read on my phone It’s probably my bad. Let me take a closer look when I get in front of a real screen.

      • Future Primitive on February 24, 2010 at 18:08

        “Evolution as an adaptive process is decidedly sub optimal.”

        This is true in my experience doing numerical optimization with various evolutionary algorithms. You are in no way ever guaranteed to find the global optimum of a function, especially high dimensional functions (it would take a while to explain why…) Getting stuck in local minima is the expectation, and you’re essentially hoping to find a result that is at least close enough to the correct answer, at which point you stop the algorithm – even if the algorithm ran forever, the global optimum isn’t guaranteed to be found.
        When there are multiple functions to optimize, Pareto optimality can come into play as well – that is, often a given function can’t be optimized without impacting the optimality of other functions, so a best compromise is all that can ever be hoped for. Period. I’ve got to think tuning the regulatory network of the metabolism (by way of Darwinian evolution) isn’t so unlike this.


      • Steve D on February 25, 2010 at 16:56

        ” so a best compromise is all that can ever be hoped for. Period. I’ve got to think tuning the regulatory network of the metabolism (by way of Darwinian evolution) isn’t so unlike this.”
        It seems difficult to believe otherwise. That argues that our ancient diet was a compromise between what was ideal and what was available. However it is still quite possible that there is a correlation between the best diet these suboptimal conditions and what would be the best diet under ideal conditions. So I am not suggesting we should ignore what the ancients ate simply that we can’t just eat what they did and automatically expect it to be the best. Nature doesn’t always provide the best of everything. If it did we would still be literally living in caves (or trees).

        Are you using this technique to try to predict evolutionary change?

        I am not sure exactly how closely these numerical optimzations conform to what really happens but once you are in an evolutionary valley I would assume the only way out would be a genetic change which caused a large and benificial phenotype change which would be very unlikely to happen. Well without genetic engineering anyway!

        “that is, often a given function can’t be optimized without impacting the optimality of other functions”

        So many biochemical and physiological interactions in living organisms expecially the multicellular ones. You might get a genetic change with a positive effect on one paremeter and a negative effect on another which would be an example of what mean.

      • Richard Nikoley on February 25, 2010 at 17:03

        This is all excellent reasoning in my view. I agree. Doubtful that NS would have evolved optimality even if every available nutrient was available, which was probably not the case and even them, it’s probably more optimal to introduce hormesis anyway. Accute stressor via mild starvation and milt toxicity makes us more resillient.

        I might also suggest that in modern times where we cam get almost anything from anywhere anytime, we have the opportunity to take up the pursuit of optimality individually, where evolution left off.

      • Richard Nikoley on March 1, 2010 at 14:21

        “Key Point: Evolutionary theory supposes that natural selection is based on the struggle to reproduce and this will lead to adaptation.”

        I think that’s way too narrow. It’s based on the struggle to survive, and so anything the aids in the endeavor ultimately leads to greater reproductive success and so on.

        A couple of other quibbles but nothing major. The main thrust I agree with: every individual needs to find out what “paleo” means to them, because paleo can be high carb, low carb, high fat, low fat and everything in between.

    • Melissa on February 23, 2010 at 20:08

      There is no wild grain that can support a human population for most of the year. Talk about starving…butchering in the wild is hard, but you can do it with no technology, just shells and rocks. Gathering wild grains is highly seasonal. I gathered wild rice myself once and it was a paltry harvest. Tubers are a little more accepted by anthropologist are a sustenance food, but they are seasonal too.

      You have access to google scholar. Search for meat and evolution and isotope studies. The isotopes don’t lie. Neither do bones, which show that paleolithic peoples were not starving.

      • Steve D on February 23, 2010 at 21:15

        I don’t need to access goggle scholar. I’ve studied evolution all my life. You didn’t read what I said. I made a specific distinction between the late paleolithic period and the earlier periods.

        From the later paleolithic period (50,000 BC to 10,000 BC) I agree with your points. At that point technological improvements led to a large increase in food harvest, especially animals. Before that period things were a little different. Well before that things were even more different.

        However, if you are talking about physical human evolution you are talking about a long time ago, not just the period of modern humans when most of the physical traits had evolved. And you also have to consider the location where humans evolved.

      • Dave C. on February 24, 2010 at 09:37

        Steve, you are referring to the Upper Paleolithic? – to some extent I think he has a point. The fact of the matter is, there wasn’t just a light switch on/off where people hunted and gathered, and then all of the sudden starter farming grains and domesticating livestock. it was a gradual process.

        However, the Lower Paleolithic stretches back to 2.5 million years ago. So, the 10,000 to 20,000 years where humans were experimenting with farming before the Neolithic, was essentially just a blip compared to the millions of years before where they ran down deer in the summer heat.

      • Richard Nikoley on February 24, 2010 at 10:04

        Or, evolved large brains compensated by small guts (reverse of our primate ancestors 4 million yrs ago) per Kleiber’s Law.

      • Dave C. on February 24, 2010 at 10:56

        Woh, great link – this will be some awesome reading material tonight, thanks!

      • Dave C. on February 24, 2010 at 11:15

        Wow, the Expensive-Tissue Hypothesis categorically refutes the possibility of humans evolving as vegetarians. :O

      • Richard Nikoley on February 24, 2010 at 12:05

        Yea, Dave. Y’know gorillas already eat virtually all waking hours. And even if they ate more hours all that means is they would still need the enormous gut to ferment & digest all that low-density nutrition.

        There’s no way around it. You have to substitute low-density plant matter with high value nutrition, such as the marrow & brain accessed by scavenging primates breaking the large bones and skulls open with stones.

        And, so, when it’s also claimed by veggies & vegan that we don’t have fangs & claws, we have something better that allowed our primate ancestors to access the high-value nutrition the animal predators could not: a bigger brain, sufficient to conceive of tools, and the hands to employ them.

      • Steve D on February 24, 2010 at 16:08

        You have a point about the relative time spans. My point is that for the most part people domesticated what they were already eating assuming it was an easily domesticated species. In fact very likely this was done accidently and not experimentally, and this happened because the plant was being extensively consumed.

        How long they were eating these grains is not known but soft plant parts generally do not last like bones and so are probably unrepresented at most sites. Cereal grains have been found at sites going back at least 0.5 million years but there is no way of knowing how important they were to their diet.

        My other point is that there were extensive advances in technology at the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic. In many ways this was a golden age compared to earlier or later periods. This goes back about 50,000 years – still a drop in the bucket.

      • Steve D on February 24, 2010 at 15:50

        I wasn’t suggesting they ate one single type of plant nor did I say that most of them didn’t eat any meat. In tropical areas there are ceratin wild plants available year around and of course it would be supplimented by what they could catch.

        Isotopes don’t lie but they can be misinterpreted. I am assuming that you are talking about C13/C12 ratios. These differentiate carbon atoms coming from C3 orC4 plants (or animals which eat primarily C3 or C4 plants), not between plants and animals per se. I am unaware of an isotope which can differentiate between plants and animals (or a hominid which eats plants vs. animals)

  25. […] a couple days ago Richard Nicolay wrote this piece about his belief that you should practice avoiding behaviour rather than seeking behaviour. […]

  26. […] At to diet specifically, I practice avoidance behavior rather than seeking behavior. […]

  27. Steve D on February 25, 2010 at 16:38


    My first paragraph wasn’t particularly well stated. I was trying to get across the idea of gradual change and the fact that technological improvements at the beginning of the Late Paleolithic were really significant but grains were harvested as a significant diet source in certain areas (Middle East) well back – how far back is really unknown. I don’t have a problem with animal protein being important to human evolution. The reason it was important and what that means for our diet today are still open questions IMO. Also, I think food preference in hominids (what they would eat if they could) is a more important consideration for us than their actual diet.

    Regarding the Gorilla eating habits I am sure a lot of this is related to their size of course although low energy density of their food is a factor. (Fat is over twice as dense as protein or complex carbohydrate and even more so than sucrose). I am not about why they have such large gut though, sucrose is already digested and starch breaks down to sucrose very easily. It may be related to the shear amount they have to eat to remain alive.

    I agree that brains and marrow are pretty nutritious and actually would probably be reasonable additions even to our modern diet. Interestingly chimpanzees do consume these tissues albeit in a rather sporadic fashion. They also use stone tools although they can’t fashion them in any non random way.

    BYW: I’ve also heard it theorized that there is lot of factors which would be necessary for the development of intelligence (omnivory, bipedalsim, warm bloodedness, moderate body size etc.) suggesting that if developed again it might be similar to us (given their tool use and omnivory chimps might be right on the cusp).

    • Richard Nikoley on March 1, 2010 at 14:24

      “I am not about why they have such large gut though”

      I believe it is to break down and digest cellulose. It may be somewhat like happens in ruminants where, bacteria digest the cellulose and the animal digests the bacteria.

  28. Richard Nikoley on February 25, 2010 at 16:42

    I had your prevous long comment open in a tab all day and unfortunately didn’t get to it. But I will. Thanks

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