This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
When people use the contact form on the bottom of this site, maybe they should take a few seconds and think about two things I don't tolerate very well, which are
Maybe don't send me that stuff, because I will post about it, and I will criticize it. Or maybe on the latter case, just leave the historical narrative out of your spiel if you can't waste more than an hour thinking about what it might actually imply.
One thing I really regret is when I first got healthy by eating a paleo diet, I thought that if everyone just ate like me, they could have a slim body like mine. It didn't seem that hard to me. So I became a zealot about it. But that process of being a zealot forced me to talk with a wide range of people about their experiences with food and health- from relatives to people I met at paleo meetups in real life. What shocked me were the people who ate like me, some of them ate "better" than me, and yet they were struggling with their weight. I even met people who gained weight on diets like mine. It was eye-opening.
And then there was the process of me discontinuing my strict diet, once when I moved to Europe, and next after I was having low blood pressure issues. I was talking to a friend who lost a lot of weight on paleo successfully and now works...making pizza. We were both joking how we have worried that we were going to suddenly gain a bunch of weight. But it never happens. It's not like we returned to a junk food diet, but I'm not going to turn down some ice cream or homemade pizza. And yet there are people right now turning down the kinds of things who can't seem to slim down. And then there are are fair number of people who slim down on diets full of paleo demonized foods like legumes and whole grains.
Some of them realize that health is about more than being slim, and while gaining weight might be a bad sign, the fact that they can lose a little and feel healthier is more than satisfying. Others however give up, disenchanted with the promises of a slim figure, dismissing it as just another fad diet.
Recently Jonathan Bailor sent me a contact email not once, but twice with his new "Slim is Simple" video to celebrate the creation of a non-profit devoted to distributing his educational material on healthy eating. I was surprised that so many got excited by this video. I criticized it on Twitter and some people were upset by that, saying it was a great educational tool and we need more such "simple" tools. No reason to be obsessed with scientific accuracy. Now I don't think I have that problem- I have recommended books that are quite imperfect on this blog many times from The Primal Blueprint to The Paleo Solution, but I don't recommend something unless I feel it has a useful and correct core.
Luckily I wasn't the only one who saw right through this video, Beth at Weight Maven, also posted a skeptical take on it. Evelyn has also written about Jonathan's other work before. I won't even get into his questionable calorie math that doesn't seem to bother with the fat that the correct equation takes maintence, which depends on body size, into account.
But I also would love to see more books that simplify eating without bordering on inaccurate propaganda like this video. I felt like I was watching a cult indoctrination film. Not only that, but it would seem its bolsters didn't even notice he's recommending a diet that is pretty different from the one they recommend- a diet based on three pillars of protein, fiber, and water. Eat as much as you want of those three things (maybe it helps that if you eat too much of the first two, you'll get diarrhea).
That's right- have as much protein as you want on this diet, have twice as much as normal, you'll be so satiated you'll supposedly forget about ice cream.I think this is exactly the kind of diet I coined the term "faileo" to describe (though sadly I feel this eventually contributed to a culture that somehow thinks you can guzzle as much coconut oil and bacon fat as you want, when I was kind of just trying to get people on board with more reasonable things like lamb shanks). The language is also exactly what many of us have tried to get away from, like the idea that we are "designed" for certain "clean" (an excessively moralistic word reminiscent of Kellogg and other health puritans) foods. Other foods, like starches and sugars (including most fruit- only citrus and berries are given a pass), will "clog our body."
But then I gets weird, because he says "almost everyone stayed healthy and fit without even trying until very recently" and the visuals for this are very interesting:
So we have an early bipedal ancestor, and than an Egyptian, and Pioneer, and someone who looks like they are from the 40s or 50s. Oh and a rather curvy person, who we presumably don't want to be...if only we knew what those Egyptians did. But Egyptians ate diet rich in bread and beer. Wait, I thought all these foods were the ones the video describes as "unnatural" and are responsible for our modern "clogs"? Hmm, well maybe we'll see about the pioneer woman. American pioneers had access to much more meat and fat than the average Ancient Egyptian, but they also ate things like biscuits and hoe cakes. 40s to the 60s? Well I collect cookbooks from those eras and they are certainly not full of an austere cuisine of protein, fiber, and water. Even if he had used the typical types of people that paleo dieters hold up as examples- the Hadza, The !Kung, the Kitavans, and other modern peoples who still live foraging lifestyles and remain very healthy, it would not make sense, because their diets contain a large amount of starch and even simple sugars.
Another use of history offender is Dr. Lustig in his new book Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Others are more qualified to comment on the biochemistry errors in this book, but the food history in this book is so inaccurate that I wonder if publishers even bother to employ fact-checkers any more. His take on food history involves dividing ancient people into "hunters" mythic fat-burning intermittent fasting meat-guzzlers who "didn't know what a carbohydrate was and they didn't need to." The modern remnants are the Maasai and Inuit. Then there were the "gatherers" who ate carbohydrates and protein in the form of fruits and vegetables, "this is the basis for today's vegan diet. It is practiced in multiple cultures around the globe, because if you grow your own food, that's what's available." Yes...the vegan tribes of India, oh wait, there is no such thing. And has Lustig ever raised his own food or visited a farm? Where do you think most farmers are getting fertilizer from? Hint: it's not vegan.
And the Maasai, while they may sometimes be fat burners, are not a low-carb culture. As for ancient foragers, there is a reason they have been called hunter-gatherers, not hunters AND gatherers. In fact the vast majority of foraging peoples in the Ethnographic Atlas eat fairly mixed diets, the people who are primarily hunters or gatherers are exceptions.
But Lustig has to make up this false narrative so he can get to his all-encompassing theory of all our problems (and also because for some weird reason he wants to pander to both the Atkins and plant-based folks, a weird thread in this book), which is the "Omnivore's Curse"- "it wasn't until we became gourmets, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same meal, that our cells first felt the wrath of mitochondrial wear and tear." Apparently, with the advent of farming we started mixing fat and carbohydrates together in meals and thus we became diseased, because in nature there are no foods that have both things, which means somehow that we should take our lessons and cease our evil cooking of potatoes in butter. "This accounts for the appearance of metabolic disease with the advent of trade in the early seventeenth century; before that, food was still a function of what you killed or you grew yourself. Eventually, we became gourmands, eating fat and carbohydrate in the same food."
Reminds me of my maxim not to take advice on food from people who don't actually seem to like it very much. My friends and I have a historical eating club and this Saturday is our dinner based on ancient Mesopotamia. I still have some mead (liquid carbohydrates mmm) left over from our Viking dinner, though we might have some ancient beer as well. For dinner I am making lard-rubbed goat leg with cumin, mastic, coriander, mint, and ginger. There will be sides of roasted barley and roots. Yes, I will be mixing carbohydrates, fat, and protein in one meal, which presumably people have been doing since they have been cooking. Pottery dates well into the Paleolithic, and before that people probably used other containers to mix things together. We know they were cooking because they left residues of grease and boiled fruits and all sorts of other things. Because humans are curious creatures and some of us really do like to play with our food (though as Gary Nabhan has pointed out, there may be some evolutionary reasons some cultures adopted things like spices).
Some people cook less than others- for example the Hadza don't seem to cook very many "recipes" though they do mix baobab (which contains both fat and carbohydrate) with honey for a drink sometimes. It's funny that Lustig later mentions that Ancel Keys in his heart disease study left out populations like those in Tokelau- in Tokelau their diet is starch and coconut. If mixing fat and carbohydrate were an issue, we would have been the way we are now for a very long time. Not that I think ancient people were perfectly healthy- for example, both Egyptian and Inuit mummies show atherosclerosis, though back then it may have been caused by constant infections and cooking smoke inhalation rather than food and there is no evidence it caused any mummy's death. Lustig does also make a good point that heart disease was a problem in the 1930s, back before the "obesity epidemic".
When I think of my very slim (though probably wearing a corset) great-great grandmother pictured here, I don't think of diets based on protein, fiber, and water. I think of people who ate reasonable natural homemade food. The same food I eat now. I doubt she would have touched things like the Slim is Simple Peanut Butter Pie (which contains ingredients I actually do try to avoid: low-fat dairy, industrial whey protein isolate, and extremely high omega-6 peanut butter, cooked almond flour...he recommends leaving the honey out of the crust, which is funny because it's probably one of the healthier ingredients) with a ten foot pole.
She didn't count calories, and neither have I. As someone who eats made-from-scratch foods that are highly variable it would be pretty pointless for me to count calories, as it would be inaccurate. I know when I'm losing weight I have a calorie deficit though, even if it is going to not be possible to quantify it accurately. Some people find success with trying to do the math, but I always found it easier to try things that have been shown in studies to subconsciously reduce the amount of calories eaten. One of these is to eat a lot of protein, which is funny because that's one of Bailor's main strategies. Though it certainly never made me stop thinking of other foods, and I had significant energy issues when I was on the very high-protein, low fat, high fiber kind of diet Bailor advocates. Frankly, I felt sick and catatonic, but I guess his diet works for some people, and not for others, the same way some weight loss diets work for some and not for others. Because nothing to do with the human body is simple. Slim is not simple.
As per the last post, here is a paleo diet for those of us that have trouble getting calories and aren't always able to cook a giant pork roast to eat at home. This is a diet for the real world, where salads have tiny amounts of meat and ordering a burger without a bun is bound to lead to hunger later. This is about doing your best and getting the calories you need to fuel an active and happy life. This is the way I make my eating decisions. Paleo foods are my TOP choice, but I don't think the other foods on the chart are bad and I think they can support great health, particularly for busy people. I call this the paleo priority diet. Notice we avoid choosing insulin-crashing technically-paleo foods like Larabars and fruit salad here. Sure, also not bad, but also the path to an irritable late afternoon for me.
If an orthodox paleo approach is what you REALLY REALLY need to support your serious goals, by all means rearrange your life to make sure you can get fuel from meat, fish, and vegetables only. For the rest of us, this is a pretty damn good diet.
One of the best part of the paleo diet is that unlike the Zone, tracking your food is not a requirement of the diet. Paleo is about foods rather than numbers. But sometimes I actually do track my intake. Not often, but it's a good check up. I use a freeware tool called Cron O Meter every so often and it's often very interesting. For awhile I had issues with fatigue, but when I did a Cron O Meter check in I realized I wasn't getting enough calories! That's actually an easy mistake to make on paleo because of all the foods we aren't eating. Often when I eat at restaurants my meal is a normal one with the bread or pasta subtracted. Sadly, it's not like they are giving me more meat to make up for it. It's a great way to accidentally undereat yourself into tiredness and irritability.
Also it's a good reality check on hard to get nutrients like calcium. I realized last year that I simply wasn't getting enough and that was a major motivator to start eating stock and bony fish. It's also a reality check on cheats! Putting in that slice of cake and seeing your numbers mess up really makes you question whether it was worth it.
Someone on a forum was going on and on about grains being A.O.K. because traditional societies like the Japanese or some of Weston A. Price's healthy cultures ate them and were not obese. I think he misses the point, but also underscores a very annoying misconception. Many of my friends have told me that they have no need for anything like the paleo diet because they are skinny and always have been.
But last time I checked skinny does not equal healthy. There are all kinds of health problems a skinny person can have and new studies show that within a single person insulin sensitivity may vary. Skinny programmers chugging Mountain Dew might be lucky enough to have belly fat tissue that is not insulin sensitive, but they might still be damaging other organs.
A paleo diet is about avoiding diseases of civilization. Obesity is just one of those diseases. I think well-planned veganism can do wonders for improving weight, cholesterol, and other basic measures of metabolic syndrome, but I do not believe it is the diet that brings out the best in the human body. I did raw grain-free veganism for time and like many people I initially felt good, probably because of all the wheat and dairy I wasn't eating, but eventually I just felt diminished. I alternated between fruit-induced sugar highs and extreme fatigue. I mainly just felt hungry. I realized that vegetables just don't have many calories and you have a choice of eating massive amounts of sugar from fruit or massive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from nuts. I feel the paleo diet has the optimal amount of nutrients, in the best ratios, and in forms that are easily utilized by the human body (bioavailable). That's important, because many of us have damaged our bodies with junk and we need to do more than avoid obesity, we need the nutrients to repair.
Many other raw vegans, including The Raw Model, a popular raw blogger, have found that their health has improved dramatically since they added animal products.
Societies like the Japanese avoided many problems by eating a diet low in total calories, but they did not reach their potential for height and bone development until fairly recently (incidentally as consumption of meat and fish has increased). It's the same with many agrarian societies: they aren't obese, but they aren't completely healthy either. There is plenty we can learn from peasant diets, but we can do better than peasants who worked a backbreaking day on very little in the way of calories.
I think a sugar-free vegan or agrarian diet is certainly a step in the right direction and an agrarian diet can be made optimal with the careful addition of small amounts of meat and fish and by the fermentation of grains, dairy, and legumes. But the animal component of the diet has to be foods like liver and sardines, not skinless boneless chicken breast.
In the end people can go on and on about fruits and vegetables, but that's not where the calories are. The big question is where you are going to get the calories and whether you want to burn sugars or fats. Plants might enhance your health, but your fuel is going to make a bigger difference. I encourage anyone who hasn't read Good Calories, Bad Calories to get a copy or at least check out the detailed notes.