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).
Raw flesh might sound scary, but every traditional healthy culture studied by Weston A. Price ate at least some raw animal products. I was reminded of that when I dug up this article from the Washington Post about raw meat eating in Siberia. Raw meat also has a following in NYC too and I know several people who subsist on over 50% raw. I started doing raw foods as a vegan, but I gradually moved over to raw meat when I found that raw veganism made me feel malnourished and fatigued. That was a time in my life when I had been a little wild and I had probably done some damage to my stomach. I found raw meat, eggs, and fish was about the only thing that I could eat that didn't make me feel like crap. I never fell ill during this time.
Why don't I eat raw anymore? Well, I certainly eat plenty of raw foods still, primarily oysters, fish, and some grass fed meat. But raw is expensive because you really have to be careful about sourcing and you absorb fewer calories per gram of meat according to Richard Wrangham's book Catching Fire. I'm also a foodie at heart and once my stomach was healed, it was hard for me to find a reason not to eat delicious cooked food. But the raw paleos have some good arguments for their way of eating and it is definitely beneficial to eat some raw food even if it's just an oyster or two.
There has also been lots of buzz about carnivore-only diets in the paleo community lately. Such diets are traditional and there are numerous instances of healthy peoples like the Inuit who ate that way. Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson was perhaps one of the first urban NYC cavemen when he frequented Greenwich Village Salons back in the 1930s. Studying the Inuit, he was amazed to find that there were healthy despite eating a diet of almost 100% flesh. Back in the States, he did a study where he and another explorer agreed to eat only meat for a year to prove anyone could be healthy on such a diet. The diet was a success and he remains an idol to the carnivore community. I suggest everyone check out his excellent books.
I think though that while such diets can be successful, they are not paleo (there is no evidence of completely carnivorous pre-neolithic cultures) and not necessarily appropriate for everyone. In the long term, Inuit suffer from osteoporosis, probably because of excessive amounts of protein. There are some genetic differences that appear to allow them to eat their diet more successfully. Carnivore is just one option to investigate if other diets don't work, but it can be a difficult road and perhaps it's not so optimal for the long term.
Either way, there is much we can learn from cultures like the Inuit. Here are several rules I have gleaned
I hear it all the time: why not just eat a diet like the Okinawans, the healthiest and longest lived people in the world? Traditionally they ate rice, tofu, and almost no meat! Unfortunately after WWII Americans introduced bad foods like pork and now disease rates are increasing.
That's the conventional narrative at least. Honestly, I'm not sure about the Okinawan diet. Most of the people discussing it are Americans with some sort of ax to grind. I would love to hear some Okinawan voices tell us what they actually ate, but those are few and far between.
Americanized nonsense "Okinawan Diet"
The picture that is painted from the actual studies available is pretty murky, but shows that what is being promoted as an Okinawan diet is cultural misappropriation for profit, with American nutritionists making $$$ passing off what ends up being a Mediterranean diet with rice as the secrets of Okinawan elders.
The real traditional diet seemed to consist of yams, goat, pork, tofu, seaweed, and seafood harvested from the island. It seems like it was pretty similar to the diet of Kitava. After the devastation of World War II, importation of food increased and oils, sugar, flour, white rice, and other processed foods became staples. The narrative of fat consumption increase only takes statistics starting from World War II, so we really don't have much of an idea of how much fat was in the traditional diet.
We do know the the consumption of traditional foods like raw goat, yams, and seaweed decreased dramatically. Also, that domestic meat production didn't really change much after WWII and much of that increase was probably recovery from devastation of the war. The increase of meat consumption came mostly from imported animals that were probably factory-farmed...or SPAM, which is now hugely popular there.
It does seem that their traditional diet was high in carbohydrates from yams, but its nonsense make up an Okinawan Diet plan including foods that are nothing like what pre-WWII Okinawans consumed such as whole grain bread, olive oil, soy milk, apples, and yogurt. The traditional Okinawan diet doesn't seem to be far from my own paleo diet, except for the soy . Fortunately, the harmful effects of that can be mitigated by fermentation. I occasionally consume some fermented soy since I am an Asian food enthusiast and I adore the taste of miso and ssämjang. Yam are controversial on the paleo diet, but personally I enjoy them without ill effects. I would say my own paleo diet is heavily influenced by Japanese cuisine and benefits from it tremendously. I could never tolerate a diet of just eggs and ground meat...I'm too much of a foodie and an omnivore for that!
Here is a recent paper on the importance of the yam, kombu, and pork offal in Okinawa. Paleo dieters could definitely benefit from the consumption of kombu, which is rich in iodine, and pork offal (feet, ears, blood, intestines), which is delicious and contains many important nutrients. The problem with this paper is that they assume that people threw away pork fat...I don't know of any agrarian culture that exhibits that kind of waste. They say akunuki is removal of fat, but it also seems to mean removal of astringent taste.
Speaking of Japan, I was just reading this editorial by Swedish scientist Uffe Ravnskov:
In a study of Japanese migrants in the United States the cultural upbringing was the strongest predictor of coronary heart disease. Those who were brought up in a non-Japanese fashion but preferred the lean Japanese food had a heart attack almost twice as often as those who were brought up in the Japanese way but preferred fatty American food.4
I think it's possible that the issue here was that they thought fat wasn't traditional for Japan, but it sheds light on the fact that fat doesn't seem to cause heat disease.
There is plenty to learn from traditional cultures, but it's also important to remember that they didn't know everything and there are plenty of traditions that are foolish in the light of modern science. I thought of that because of an article I was just reading about malnutrition in Vietnam in Fast Company called Find A Bright Spot And Clone It adapted from the upcoming book Switch. Apparently many poor children were malnourished, but not all; these were the "bright spot kids". What made the healthy kids different? Apparently, what their mothers fed them:
The healthy kids were eating different kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them in with their kids' rice. (Shrimp and crabs were eaten by adults, but they weren't considered appropriate food for kids.) The mothers also tossed in sweet-potato greens, which were considered a low-class food. These dietary improvisations, however strange or "low class," were doing something precious: adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to their children's diet.
In many ways the paleo diet is about tradition, but it does better than that by adding in the scientific and analytical aspect. Seaweed isn't traditional Southern food, but by bucking Southern traditions I've provided myself with a good source of iodine.
The Fast Runner trilogy is available free online. The films are made by Inuits and for Inuits and are a great window into a way of life that few of us are truly aware of beyond "Eskimo" stereotypes.
"All animal carcasses shown in the film were used properly, for food or for their hides." The Inuit have been devastated by Western foods, but remain relatively healthy compared to other First Nations tribes like the Pima in the US, probably because hunting traditions still persist. But they have to fight to keep their lifestyle and foodways legal in the face of Western opposition to hunting.