This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
About the spring of 2008 I enjoyed the best health I had experienced in 25 years. I gained 20 pounds and my blood level did not show anaemia. I looked like a healthy person and I felt terrific. There was no medical explanation whatsoever. I ate everything, I over ate and I was drinking. I was going to author something that I was going to call ‘The Drinking Cure’. I thought that I had beaten the illness – something in my physiology had changed.
Then of course he has a devasting intestinal rupture.
I think the past ten years has seen an explosion in similar stories- "I cured X, here is my advice." They underpin quite a few blogs, even perhaps this one. But as this blog has aged, I've realized how unimportant my own story is. Sure, I managed to get rid of some illnesses, but it's very hard to say how given how much of my life has changed since I started out this journey.
So many of these "Paleo" or whatever diet challenges change so many things about a person's eating, drinking, and living habits that's it's very hard to isolate what is going on. Same goes with personal stories. Furthermore, many autoimmune disorders are known to go into spontaneous remission. At best they give people leads to try, at worse they are used as a "banner for the cure" that makes people try to obsessively follow an individual's success and then become disillusioned when they don't experience that same success.
Reiner's disease, Crohn's, is a great example– I know people who have had great success with things like the Specific Carbohydrate Diet and zero carb, but I know others who got worse on those same diets and ended up having to have conventional surgery and medication. Some of them felt like failures even though they felt better receiving conventional treatment.
But if we understood what really causes these diseases, they wouldn't be so frustratingly hard to treat.
Recently I was about to write a followup about how I fixed my neck problems, which had been gone for awhile. As I drafted the post, they came back worse than ever. Of course I am disappointed, but I'm entertaining the possibility that the problems are related to my work and work stress far more than to my posture or the exercise I do.
I've been glad to see that famous success story Terry Wahls is spearheading studies that would possibly show if her remission on a "paleo" diet would apply to others as well. Though a problem is that she is promoting the diet as a potential cure well in advance of these studies being completed. Is this harmless or not? I'm not sure.
If there is anything I've learned from blogging in this sphere, is that one person's cure is another person's poison and I've certainly encountered people for whom her extremely vegetable-rich diet would be harmful. I know from experience that I cannot consume such a diet as it causes immense gastric distress. I've gotten more tolerant of things like brassica vegetables over time, but I still have to be careful.
My own advice is to try a variety of things, but don't expect them to work for you just because someone else has a miracle-cure story.
I don't always agree with everything Fanatic Cook says, but her series of fish oil is worth reading.
My view on fish oil is: it's not as good as eating fish, it is often from suspect sources, and who knows what's really in it?
I used to take it, thinking it would cancel out the effects of excessive omega-6 in my diet. But my rule these days is "you can't eat a bunch of peanut butter and expect to cancel it out with fish oil." The modern Inuit are a good example of this. They get plenty of omega-3, but still suffer from obesity and diabetes.
Want to balance your fatty acids? Don't eat oil, do eat fresh oily fish. There are so many tasty fish out there that there is no reason to take fish oil.
My other rule: if you don't want to taste it, don't put it in your mouth. Our tastebuds evolved for a reason- to protect us from poisonous foods and to encourage us to nourish ourselves. Don't bypass them. If you take cod liver oil, buy the unflavored stuff. Your mouth will tell you when you've had enough :)
I would hate for people to think that the paleo diet is about recovering some "paradise lost." Just because peasant agriculture was miserable for most people doesn't mean foraging was a walk in the part. Almost every foraging culture studied has a wide range of remedies for illness and medicine men are revered. Hunter-gatherers suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, parasites, wounds from wild animal bites, and all sorts of horrendous infections.
The preferred medicine against diarrhea was clay, kaolin-like powders or pulverized bone ash while bee larva, certain tree barks and the fruits of two trees were eaten to relieve constipation.
But many detractors of the paleo diet point to studies of more modern hunter-gatherer cultures to draw out evidence they were ill. We have to remember that what is left on that lifestyle is people who were able to survive on the worst lands not coveted by farmers. The Inuit or the San diet might be healthier than most American diets, but neither is really similar to the diet of paleolithic people.
In Innu mythology, Matshishkapeu (literally the "Fart Man") is the most powerful spirit—even more powerful than the Caribou Master, Kanipinikassikueu. He proved himself when the Kanipinikassikueu refused to give the Innu any caribou to eat. Matshishkapeu was so angry that he cursed the Caribou Master with a painful case of constipation.
It's even possible we could do better. For example, both the high and low fiber diets of hunter-gatherers are touted as solutions to digestive problems, but digestive ailments clearly still plagued cultures eating both diets. Personally, I try to eat the vegetables that work for me and I don't worry about counting fiber. I'm pretty such that if I ate the bazillion grams of fiber the San eat, I would feel pretty sick. Maybe that's what anecdotes like this convey: there is lots of learn from hunter-gatherer and ancestral diets, but imitating their fiber consumption with BRAN4LIFE bread is on the same level as imitating snake bite wounds by keeping your own pet PALEOvipers.
Despite all that hunter-gatherers suffered, the paleo diet is about avoiding diseases of civilization, and it seems they did that well. We should eat like them, but still with an eye to the fact that they ate what they could to survive.
Postscript: I think many of the stomach problems attributed to hunter-gatherers were probably post-infectious or in the case of the Inuit, because of a lean time...literally...Vilhjalmur Stefansson found that without ample amount of fat, stomach issues ensued.