This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
A reader left an interesting comment:
I'm a Polyface intern and CrossFit enthusiast. Polyface has a pretty amicable relationship with the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has a lot in common with Paleo. The difference, however, is that WAPF espouses traditional diets that often include grains. The crisis in nutrition didn't start with the introduction of grains 10,000 years ago, right? It started with the maturation and confluence of the food and marketing industries and the flight from agrarian areas to cities. This was mere decades ago. Traditional diets are the answer.
A Paleo diet seems to me to be ultimately fundamentalist and impossible to follow. There is no way we can know what hunter/gatherers 10,000 years ago actually consumed. It makes much more sense to follow human culture and eat traditional diets like we have been for millennia, including sprouted grains!
I tend to be very sympathetic with the idea that agrarian diets are good. But there is simply no escaping the fact that
1. Grains are not necessary to be healthy
2. Despite that fact that many agrarian populations are health compared to us, archaeological evidence shows that they are shorter, have smaller crania, and sometimes have worse teeth. Of course agrarian populations vary quite a lot. I find it quite odd to see people like Matt Stone and other starch-pushers extol traditional potato-based diets. Yes, those people were not obese, but they were very short and when immigrants from these populations move to the US the height gains in their children are quite dramatic. Traditional grains and starches might not be "bad," but are they the best foods to pick when you have access to plenty of easily-digested nutritious meat and fish?
As for the Paleo diet being fundamentalist and impossible to follow, I actually don't think it is. I eat at normal restaurants and shop at normal stores. I am a fan of the WAPF and eat some agrarian foods. Ironically it's THOSE foods that require me to engage in illegal activity, order stuff online, spend hours grinding grains, planning ahead to ferment them. I LOVE idlis and buckwheat pancakes, but I almost never make them because they are too much of a pain. I run my own consulting business and it's much easier for me to just throw a bunch of meat and vegetables into a pan and eat it. I think WAPF is a good diet, but I'm not sure it's the best diet and I'm positive it's not the easiest.
You are right, I don't know exactly what hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago ate. They didn't leave any recipe books. But paleo isn't reenactment, it's about nutritional principles: fat is good, animals are the perfect food, and grains should be limited are the main principles I live by.
* as for shortness being a bad thing, it's only an indicator of a less than optimal diet if people aren't acheiving the max height possible for their genes. There is plenty of evidence from immigration that a lot of people in agrarian cultures don't reach that max height. Caries in agrarian populations are well documented, with some having very high rates (mostly corn based) and others low (milk and rice based).
I'd like to point the compass to an excellent new blog that I've been reading called Evolutionary Psychiatry. The hot topics in paleo health are diseases like heart disease or diabetes. While this are alarmingly common, the elephant in the room is that mental disorders are just as much of a threat to modern human health. The World Health organization estimates that in twenty years depression will be the world's biggest health burden. Unfortunately, depression has more of a stigma than most other diseases of civilization and...that's saying a lot considering the hatred directed towards people who have more fat on them. Treatment and causes also remain somewhat of a mystery, with many patients opting for expensive methods that remain acceptable despite lack of scientific evidence for their effectiveness. And depression only one of many serious mental health problems that are on the rise.
Dr. Emily Deans of Evolutionary Psychiatry explores these problems with an eye towards evolutionary solutions. The posts are rich with fascinating questions and scientific data, so I definitely recommend checking it out.
My own perspective is that I definitely think that depression is a disease of civilization caused by at least partially by poor social ties, miserable and un-engaging working and living environments, lack of movement, and a highly inflammatory diet. Unfortunately, the paleo diet can only fix the dietary causes, but that can definitely provide a boost. During high school and early on in college there were days when I struggled to rouse myself from bed or shut myself in my room crying. This no longer happens. It stopped happening around the time I got control of my stomach issues and there is a definitely connection between some stomach disorders and depression. I'm often reluctant to blog about problems like this because unlike, let's say GERD, having such a problem tends to warp people's view of you as a person no matter how common those problems are.
Diet might not solve them completely, but it's a little worrying that most mental health professionals either don't address diet at all or advocate a low-fat diet. It's low-hanging fruit that can make a huge difference. Another good blog about food and depression is Rebuild from Depression.
I'm grateful for my process, but would definitely would still like to improve my mood and ability to be resilient, but unfortunately I have found that grass-fed lamb tenderloin doesn't fix broken relationships*, especially if just reminds me of how that used to be his favorite meal and how our food choices had once melded with another's in seamless unbroken domesticity that seemed so permanent at the time. But then I remember that I made that same exact meal for the boyfriend before that and it makes the whole thing a little less romantic, but at least that means perhaps there will be more to enjoy roasted rosemary lamb with black pepper yogurt sauce.
*Ice cream might, but further studies need to be done. It seems like the effect is more about a sugar-induced mirage of happiness than actually mending relationships.
In the dim light, the red walls glowed the pictures of various delicious animals. Brown paper tablecloths were stained with tiny conspicuous spots of grease. We had waited a long time to be here, and we were rewarded with course after course of succulent meats with vegetables whose sole purposes were to soak up the salty fatty drippings that tasted of rich flavors- savory black pepper, piney rosemary, lemon, and garlic. Of course the meats were delicious, but what the meat did to the vegetables was even more impressive. Ramps wilted in brothy sauce melted in my mouth. Asparagus fried in lard had been morphed into a pork rind-like delicacy that crunched pleasantly as it dissolved into fat. The waitress asked if we wanted dessert- we ordered another plate of ham.
The rich flavors of that night haunted me for days, until I bought some asparagus and fried it in lard with my friend's home-cured pancetta, garlic, black pepper, and a splash of lime juice since I had run out of lemons. It was incredible and I can't wait to make it again.
It is in these moments that I'm glad I didn't chose the paleo diet's rival- the low fat diets of Ornish and his ilk. With both high-fat and low-fat diets getting similar results in studies, I don't see any reason to give up my fatty treats in favor of bowls of barley and steamed carrots. My stomach is flat and free of pains it suffered with I ate loads of gluten and sugar every day, avoiding fat like the plague.
Sometimes I miss things like the cinnamon rolls in Sweden or the buttery biscuits from my native land, but on a low-fat diet I would have had to give up these....AND bacon/pancetta/lardo/fatty steaks/lamb shank. Yeah right. Life is too short for eating rabbit food. Maybe I'm just too much of a foodie, but how can a diet that purports to improve the quality of your life exclude the best foods in the entire world?
"Of the 229 hunter-gatherer societies listed in the Ethnographic Atlas, 58% (n = 133) obtained 66% of their subsistence from animal foods in contrast with 4% (n = 8) of societies that obtain 66% of their subsistence from gathered plant foods...For worldwide hunter-gatherers, the most plausible (values not exceeding the mean MRUS) percentages of total energy from the macronutrients would be 19–35% for protein, 22–40% for carbohydrate, and 28–58% for fat "
Paleolithic people clearly preferred animal foods as they represented the highest quality nutrition, but only those without the choice to eat plants survived on very low carb diets and the Inuit clearly prized berries when they were in season.
I think a very low carb approach to paleo is as un-paleolithic as a vegan approach. Both can be done and technically fit the definition of paleo, but they are far from optimal. The funny thing as that the people I know on very low carb are often as dependent on supplements as vegans, which doesn't speak much to the suitability of their diet for humans. Although it probably doesn't help that they often don't really try to emulate the diet of successful human carnivores like the Inuit who certainly consumed more than just ground beef. They ate kelp, berries, and a wide variety of meats ranging from fish to polar bear. In fact, arctic foods like smelt and seal are very high potassium and would prevent cramping.
My answers to the ten most common question I get about paleo in 140 characters or less for Twitter:
What does it mean to eat paleo?
Eat simply: meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Oh, and learn to love fat!
Grains/sugar/legumes/seeds/dairy are new foods and not part of our evolutionary continuum and eating them causes diseases of "civilization"
How did you get started with paleo?
I had serious stomach problems and prescribed medicine didn't work. Found paleo by researching on Google and decided to try it. It worked!
Isn't your diet bad for the environment?
Industrial agriculture is unsustainable for pork OR corn, perennial grass ecosystems are the only truly sustainable way to produce food.
What are the health effects of eating paleo?
No more stomach problems, lost weight, less acne, no headaches, more energy, better mood, stronger hair and nails, milder periods+++
Is the paleo diet a masculine diet?
Paleo is for men AND women. But it does a particularly good job of supporting male nutritional needs for better performance in all things :)
What are the benefits for women?
Paleo is the ideal fuel for women to support hormonal health, fertility, and if they want to...pregnancy!
Does paleo involve eating lots of meat?
Americans already eat lots of meat. Paleo means higher quality meat with more fat and better fat.
Is paleo a temporary diet or something you can do forever?
Paleo is not a crash diet. It's a lifestyle with lifelong benefits and most people are in for the long haul.
Isn't it difficult to have a real life when eating paleo?
Nope. Its not like meat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts are rare foods! Just hold the bread and sugar please!
Bonus: How do you know what ancient people ate?
Archeologists find bones of butchered animals, but the bones of humans provide evidence as well. Isotopes show the mark of meat and seafood.
What are your questions and answers?
The gate of knowledge is closed!
Oh how ungrateful I was back then when I was enrolled in a big university. I didn't realize how annoying it would be to not have access to a large academic library. Sciencedirect now asks me to pay five gazillion dollars for the studies I want to read. It almost makes me want to enroll in school again.
I live in freaking NYC, but the library here doesn't have the richness of that library in the middle of Illinois.
When I did have access to the wonderful online research databases, I remember seeing that some misguided nutritionists and anthropologists cited papers by S. Boyd Eaton when they tried to say the paleolithic diet was plant-based and low-fat. So it's nice to see Eaton himself in this recent article about the paleolithic diet in Macleans eat his hat:
He says he had failed to consider the contribution of non-muscle meat like brain and fat depots, and thus underestimated the amount of fat we need. “It makes me feel stupid!”
Oops. Also on display is tehstupid
Konnor still thinks that was the right call, and believes his original concerns about fat were prudent. “You can’t just go to the supermarket and buy meat loaded with fat and say you’re doing the Paleolithic diet. You’re not.”
Ugh, such an annoying misconception perpetuated by restaurants that serve miserable cuts of miserable game for miserable prices. Yeah, that wild boar tenderloin roast at terrible overpriced restaurant is lean because the company that sold it is feeding the public's desire for "lean" healthy game. Any real hunter can tell that that game varies in fat content by species and season. Some game is very very fatty! And the cuts served at Green Meadows Fancy Golf Course Grill, typically lean cuts, are not representative of the real richness of game. This Hazda article speaks more to traditional consumption
Bones are smashed with rocks and the marrow sucked out. Grease is rubbed on the skin as a sort of moisturizer. No one speaks a word, but the smacking of lips and gnashing of teeth is almost comically loud.
Speaking of bones, I just finished reading the excellent cookbook Bones, by Jennifer McLagan. A full post on this excellent book is due, as bones are absolutely essential for a successful paleo diet, providing ample amounts of fat, calcium, and other important nutrients.
Also, what's the deal with lacto paleo? I must say I'm not a fan of this trend or term. A paleo diet with dairy is not a paleo diet, it's a nomadic pastoralist diet. Such pastoralists are pretty healthy, but they are not representative of stone agers. There is absolutely no convincing evidence that dairy is paleo. That doesn't mean it's bad, but it does lead to some dilution of the paleo terminology.
Also annoying is this NY Times article about some who argue that depression is somehow an evolutionary adaptation. In my opinion it's like arguing that heart disease is an evolutionary adaptation. I think it's fairly clear that depression is a disease of civilization caused by living inappropriately to our evolutionary heritage whether it's working inside all day staring at a glowing rectangle or not getting enough omega-3 fatty acids. Unfortunately this viewpoint is not in the article. The opposing view is that it's a hopeless disorder that can only be treated with modern drugs.
I thought about that when reading the graphic novel bio of logician Bertrand Russell. He is devastated by the schizophrenia that seems to be an inevitable part of his bloodline. But there is increasing evidence that omega-3 fatty acids play a role. That this type of research is being done in the age of drug fixes is very hopeful and I would bet that scientists will eventually find even more nutritional factors that govern mental illness.
Mmm fatty fat flavored fatty fat
The earlier graphic was a pyramid, which many mistook for a dietary recommendation graph like the USDA's' idiotic food pyramid. I feel this graphic illustrates the philosophy behind my thoughts better. Plus it adds on a new concept, which is thinking about diet in terms of the human continuum. Just like the babies in The Continuum Concept biologically expect to be held, our bodies biologically expect certain food. When we consume things like soybean oil our bodies just don't function properly, just like babies that are never held as infants. Of course there is variance based on genetics, gut bacteria, etc, but overall animal fat is the nutrient that the human body seems to be evolved to eat.
Animal fat is the nutrient our bodies can handle most perfectly. We absorb it and utilize it in a way that fuels us without dragging us down. Contrast that with a dinner of just some chicken breast and some spinach. It's a meal that's "paleo", but unlike anything our ancient human would have encountered in a thriving environment. It takes energy to digest all that protein and fiber. Add a chicken thigh with a bunch of skin and things are looking a lot better in terms of actually fueling us.
Not on the human evolutionary continuum: too much omega-6, too much fructose, too many antinutrients, too few nutrients
Butter and ghee might get to jump the continuum...after all, they are very close to being like lard, tallow, and the other animal fats. But they have their detractors.
Another interesting thing about the analogy is that The Continuum Concept maintains that the consequences of not raising children the way humans evolved to be raised aren't just horrifying things like reactive attachment disorder, but annoying behaviors we very as normal in modern children. It's the same for not eating the way humans evolved to eat. Heart disease and diabetes are the tip of the iceberg. Health problems that probably aren't normal for humans include things we view as nuisances like acne, constipation, cold sores, and a whole host of other "small" things.
You've heard about this great thing called the paleo diet and you decide to try it. Lean meat, salads, fruit, some mixed nuts, some fasting...how hard can it be? Unfortunately, a few days later you are sick with hunger. You crave some delicious potato chips and give in. You end up back where you started. You decide the paleo diet is bunk.
Unfortunately, you never were on the paleo diet. You were on the faileo diet. It's unfortunate because certain people have been plugging this diet as THE paleo diet, when really, it's not.
WHAT? Why are leafy vegetables, lean meats and seeds in the middle? It's simple- they are a total waste of any true forager's time. Think about optimal foraging theory: how much time does it take to collect 500 calories of leaves, seeds, or lean meat? How easy are they to digest?
Well, it takes a freaking long time and any forager would say...why bother? (unless the particular leaf or seed has some prized medicinal quality). The amount of protein in lean meat is hard to digest. Inuits threw the lean meat to their dogs! Seeds and leaves aren't that easy to digest either. Humans, unlike many other apes, can't extract much energy from leaves.
Foragers spend their time looking for energy dense foods- coconut, yams, and of course...the king...ANIMAL FAT! It's easy to digest and has tons of calories. If you are in a scarce environment, calories are simply king. Eat enough calories should be the number one rule of the paleo diet. Foragers that didn't eat enough calories died. If you are utilizing intermittent fasting, doesn't forget to feast too! Also, when you are fasting you should NOT feel hungry. If you do, you probably aren't ready for IF and you need to nourish and heal your body to be ready. A doctor in NYC that uses the paleo diet to treat illness has his patients fast before a physical. How hungry they were is a good indicator of health. The practicing paleo dieters typically don't experience hunger at all.
Furthermore, how bad are those less-evolutionarily appropriate foods like butter? They probably aren't as good as pork belly, but plenty of agrarian cultures thrived on them. Don't fall into an obsessive purity trap- figure out what foods actually drag you down, and don't sweat the rest. Gluten grains upset my stomach, but butter doesn't hurt me as far as I can tell.
As far as I'm concerned salads aren't really food. It's hard to get enough calories from them without resorting to oils, which aren't really that paleo. They are maybe medicine, maybe dessert...I've had some enjoyable ones, but relying on them as meals has led to many an episode of hungry angry irritability.
Try counting your calories. If you are eating salads, chicken breast, lean reindeer jerky, salmon filets, or Planter's mixed nuts...no wonder you feel sick! These foods are fine in moderation, but they aren't truly nourishing from a caloric perspective without some fat or carbs or both. Eat some freaking pork belly....a lot of pork belly maybe in some mashed tubers...and some fatty lamb cooked coconut milk...and some short ribs cooked in tallow...and a bunch of shrimp cocktails. Eat that stuff until you aren't hungry and then tell me whether the paleo diet works for you.
I don't think lean meats or greens are BAD, there just aren't meals in themselves. Don't eat greens unless they have bacon on them is a rule I personally follow :)
PS: Someone pointed out that nuts probably don't belong on that second tier in terms of logical foraging because most are really more trouble to open than they are worth. Mongongo nuts are an exception. Most others like butternut are impossible to open and have almost no flesh to reward you with, or are easy to open but hard to detoxify like acorns.
Outside Magazine recently had one of their reporters try the Paleo Diet for Athletes. His cholesterol improved, but he felt hungry and irritable, which caused him to ultimately dismiss the diet. I think one of the problems with The Paleo Diet for Athletes is that is doesn't do a complete paradigm shift. Eating lots of lean protein and continuing to fear fat is actually not a paleo diet.
I don't believe that paleo diet is a magic diet that I want everyone to follow. However, I do believe thinking about diet in terms of human evolution is extremely valuable. Many of my close friends and family members aren't going to be paleo any time soon either whether it's because they oppose eating animals or because they can't imagine breakfast without oatmeal. Luckily, I think there are simple steps anyone can take to improve their diet using evolution as a lense.
I write this from personal interest. While my boyfriend is interested in health, he doesn't see the need to go paleo and he really doesn't like eating meat. But it's very easy for us to eat nourishing meals together with things like pumpkin soup, sauteed mushrooms, buttered yams, pickled carrots, and garlic kale. Admittedly, I try to steer him away from things like Boca Burgers/soy milk and towards alternatives like homemade fermented dosas, properly soaked beans and farro, and traditional sourdough bread, but those things are delicious, so it doesn't take much convincing.