This post is a continuation of A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I and Part II. In this post I’ll discuss three proponents of the so-called Paleolithic Diet. In Part II I introduced the Paleolithic Diet and discussed its core concepts — if you’ve never heard of it you might want to read that post first.
In short, the Paleo Diet is a method of eating that excludes foods that were not widely available or consumed by our pre-agricultural ancestors, such as grains, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, oil, and salt, instead favoring non-starchy vegetables, less-sweet fruits, meat, fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, nuts, and seeds.
Personally, I no longer find this way of eating to be “kooky” in any sense. When I first heard about it, it seemed both radical and silly. Sure, it’s reasonable to cut back on white sugar and white flour, but to also cut out whole-grains? Wholesome oats and brown rice are out? Whole-grains are good for you, aren’t they?
Whole-grains may be good for you when compared to eating refined grains, and that’s what most of the research examining the health benefits of whole grains has looked at. For whatever reasons, few researchers have compared a diet including whole grains to a diet including no grains. Those that did found that a grain-free diet led to rapid weight loss, improved glucose tolerance, faster muscle gain, and a number of other benefits (please see Part II for links to clinical studies).
The Paleolithic Diet has been around since the 70′s, but more recently a number of Paleo evangelists have been spreading the word; grain-free is the way to go. I’ll introduce three of these health nuts and you can draw your own conclusions.
Arthur De Vany
I first became aware of Arthur De Vany after reading an interview with him about nutrition and exercise, and seeing the picture on the right. A guy approaching seventy who looks that ripped?
There are plenty of meatheads in their twenties or thirties can develop a ripped physique, even if their diet includes Pop Tarts and pasta. Decent genetics, lots of working out, maybe some steroids, and BAM! there you go — comic book muscles. But Art De Vany — he seemed to defy aging. It got me, and a lot of other people, very curious.
I began reading Arthur De Vany’s blog at
. I learned about his system of health dubbed Evolutionary Fitness, based on a “Paleo-Med” eating plan (a cross between Paleolithic diet and Mediterranean diets) and short, irregular bouts of intense physical exercise, with an emphasis on weight-lifting, sprints, jumping and leaping, and no distance running or jogging (the latter two being actively discouraged). He also blogged about more personal things, including his beloved wife passing away, his frustrations with his incompetent softball team, and his occasional trouble with insomnia. His blog included a wide range of intellectual ideas; he shared his opinions and theories about teaching, Hollywood economics, evolution, climate change, and a number of other topics. I use the past tense because he has since made his blog private — its popularity was resulting in excessive bandwidth fees and occasional outages. Art De Vany himself is still going strong — and you can still read his blog if you don’t mind paying the subscription fee.
One interesting feature of his previous public blog is that he would occasionally post a picture of a meal. At first Art seemed a bit baffled — why were those simple posts so popular? His readers kept requesting more pictures of his meals. The fact is that it’s hard to imagine what a grain and starch free meal looks like if you’re used to eating cereal and milk for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner. Seeing pictures of Art’s breakfasts (maybe an omelet with fruit on the side, or a pork chop with half a melon, usually with a cup of black coffee), and lunches and dinners (colorful salads, grilled vegetables, sizzling steaks, racks of ribs, slices of avocado, olives, sometimes a glass of wine or a beer) helped me and a lot of other people think more creatively about our meals. That’s what a diet is, after all, it’s meals. You’ve got to put food on the table three times a day, and like it, in order to stick to any kind of eating plan.
At the time I was reading his blog on a regular basis, Art De Vany’s version of the Paleolithic Diet included lean meat, poultry and eggs, seafood, nuts, non-starchy vegetables (both raw and cooked), and fresh fruit. Olive oil and olives were included, as well as some wine and cheese (the “Med” part of “Paleo-Med”). De Vany, at least at that time, limited his saturated fat intake by trimming the fat off of his steaks, and preferring low-fat cheeses such as Jarlsberg.
For supplements, Art De Vany takes (and recommends) cod liver oil and l-glutathione, the first for its Omega-3 and vitamin A content, the second for its antioxidant and anti-aging properties. He also recommends Mark Sisson’s supplement pack, which is how I came to learn about Sisson (who I’ll discuss next).
Art De Vany is an interesting character. His writing style can come off as over-authoritative, but at the same time he’s obviously well-educated and extremely knowledgeable. I heard a radio interview with him, and was surprised by how soft-spoken he was … somehow I expected a more macho or at least enthusiastic tone. How to put this … he’s like a nerd-athlete hybrid.
Art De Vany’s views around climate change have generated some controversy. His opinion, as I understand it, is that most models of climate change are bunk; there is too much randomness and there are too many variables that influence climate to be able to generate a reliably predictive model. This opinion has somehow “rippled out” among the “Paleo community” as it is; there seems to be a large of number of “climate skeptics” or “global warming deniers” — whatever you want to call them — among Paleo diet enthusiasts. Maybe it has to do with people who identify themselves as bucking the status quo and thinking differently from the mainstream. Or maybe it’s the macho thing, eat meat and drive a big car? I really don’t get it. The logical approach to environmental issues if you are a skeptic of global warming models is extreme conservationism, as outlined here (see entry #120) by Nassim Taleb (the author of The Black Swan, and also a follower of Art De Vany’s Evolutionary Fitness program).
I’m glad I discovered Art De Vany’s site … it influenced me to eat more healthfully and helped me imagine what a meal without a “pile o’ starch” could look like. But it wasn’t until I started reading Mark Sisson’s blog, marksdailyapple.com, that the Paleolithic Diet really came together for me.
Mark Sisson is a former professional athlete (distance runner and triathlete) who now writes a popular blog at marksdailyapple.com. He’s written a number of books on diet and exercise, and also runs a supplement company called “Primal Nutrition.”
He’s 56 and in very good shape.
His blog is an abundant (and sometimes overwhelming) source of information. He’s not kidding about the daily part; there really is a new, detailed post every day. Topics are centered around what Sisson calls the “Primal Blueprint” — his holistic plan for total health that is based on his version of the Paleolithic diet — but also branch out to cover a vast array of health-related topics.
Sisson’s version of the Paleolithic Diet is comparatively easy to follow. He recommends cutting out grains, legumes, potatoes, and refined sugar almost entirely, but moderate amounts of coffee, tea, wine, beer, salt, dark chocolate, and even cheese are not discouraged. Sisson comes right out and says that a Paleo Diet should be a high fat diet. The first time I read that, I remember feeling skeptical, but those two words turned out to be the key for me to personally adopt a Paleo eating style. Before I started using more olive oil, butter, coconut oil in my cooking, and eating fattier cuts of meat and more fatty fish, I would just get too hungry if I wasn’t eating breads and cereals.
Sisson also recommends supplementing with fish oil. In fact, he recommends supplementing with just about everything. Check out the ingredient list for his top-selling supplement “Damage Control Master Formula.” If those doses are
supposed to be daily, some of them strike me as too high. The water-soluble vitamins aren’t a problem, but trace minerals like zinc, copper, selenium, and manganese can build up in the body and have toxic effects. This article references symptoms of manganese toxicity occurring in individuals drinking water with levels as low as 2mg/liter (each dose of Damage Control Master Formula has 10mg). On the other hand, the same article points out only one case of manganese toxicity from supplement use, and none from food, so maybe 10mg/day is a reasonable dose.
Questions of dosages aside, Sisson gives the impression of genuinely caring about the health of his readers and customers — I don’t doubt his claim that his supplements contain fresh, high quality ingredients.
There is definitely a sense of community among the readers of Sisson’s blog — people supporting each other in a lifestyle choice that many people view as radical (for some reason people are more threatened by the idea of the Paleolithic diet than they are by vegetarianism). Sisson often shares reader testimonials — like this one which I found to be quite moving. It parallels my own experience — feeling that my body was somehow permanently damaged or broken (with adult-onset asthma and allergies in my case) and then experiencing a total cessation of symptoms within days of changing my diet. A “second chance,” a “new lease on life,” — those phrases don’t do the feeling justice. Here’s a brand new body — one that works! That’s more what it felt like.
Mark Sisson’s blog is a great source of information, and his tone is friendly, non-dogmatic, and nonjudgmental. If a friend or family member expresses interest in changing the way they eat, I usually refer them to marksdailyapple.com
Cordain’s take on the Paleolithic diet is similar to both Art De Vany’s and Mark Sisson’s. He suggests that genetically, human beings are poorly adapted to eat grains, beans, dairy products, alcohol, and salt, and recommends eating fruits and vegetables, lean meat, seafood, poultry, nuts, and seeds instead.
In the Paleo community, Cordain’s view that saturated fat intake should be limited is controversial. In The Paleo Diet, Cordain clearly puts saturated fats in the “bad fats” category, along with trans fats and polyunsaturated fats like corn oil (as opposed to “good fats” like Omega-3 fish oils and monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocado). In the same book he argues that wild game is quite lean as compared to domestic cattle.
Since then, it seems that Cordain’s view on saturated fats has become more nuanced. If you carefully read the FAQ on his website you’ll see that Cordain no longer recommends reducing saturated fats. He seems to consider them more “neutral” than “bad” at this point, and concedes that prehistoric humans probably preferred fattier meat when they could get it (this coincides with the Inuit’s warnings regarding the overconsumption of lean winter caribou as discussed in my previous post A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I).
Cordain still holds to the view the eating lots of bacon, sausage, and other salty, fatty meats is no good for health and may raise the risk of heart disease. To me this seems reasonable, despite the fact that it overlaps with conventional dietary wisdom.
Cordain has some interesting views regarding tomatoes. Unlike other Paleo advocates, he considers them a neolithic food (my wife Kia challenged this assumption when she heard it — tomatoes had to grow in the wild somewhere and someone must have been eating them since pre-agricultural times. The Department of Horticulture at University of Wisconsin-Madison agrees with her — early inhabitants of what is now Peru probably dined on wild tomatoes.)
In any case Cordain consider the lectin in tomatoes (which, by the way, is impervious to heat) to be harmful to human health. He views the peanut lectin, the protein casein in milk, and grain lectins with equal disdain, but we already knew those foods were not allowed for wannabe cavemen, didn’t we? But the delicious and healthful tomato? Packed with vitamin C, potassium, lypocene, and glutathione? Really?
If you have the time, and can stomach it, watch Cordain’s hour long lecture on lectins and multiple sclerosis. It’s fascinating (and disturbing). He explains in great detail how various lectins make their way into the bloodstream and interact with the immune system, essentially tricking your own body into attacking itself. I used to use a great deal of tomato paste in my cooking — I don’t any longer after watching the video of his lecture. I still sometimes eat fresh tomatoes though, as long as they’re ripe. (Did you know green tomatoes have a poison calls solanine in them? Yes, fried green tomatoes = poisonous snack.)
There are a number of criticisms of the Paleolithic Diet, but most of them are quite weak. The low-fat diet recommended for the past several decades by official sources in the U.S. has been largely debunked; in practice it has led to massive weight gain, greater instances of Type 2 diabetes, and no appreciable reduction in heart disease or cancer.
Sometimes the Paleo diet is lumped in with Atkins, but this doesn’t make sense; unlike Atkins the Paleo diet is rich in antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, is low in salt, and very low in processed foods of any type. It is generally low-carb, but far from zero-carb (Sisson recommends keeping carb intake between 50 and 100g/day if you want to lose body fat, up to 200g/day depending on your size and muscle mass in order to maintain).
One criticism that I consider to be at least semi-valid is the fact that humans have evolved biologically in the 10K years or so since we invented agriculture. Some of us have genetically adapted to our “new” neolithic diet, at least to some extent. I, for one, have no problem digesting lactose. I’m lactose tolerant — I inherited the “right” genes from my European ancestors who co-evolved with cattle (less than 25% of humans carry this gene, and yet we talk about “lactose intolerance” as if it were some kind of rare disorder!). People whose ancestors evolved in agrarian societies tend to have more copies of the gene that helps produce amylase, the enzyme in saliva that breaks down starch. This is one example, discussed in this NY Times article, of how culture and the human genome co-evolve.
That’s the big picture — we push against our environment, our environment pushes back, and we either adapt ourselves, or change our environment, or both, or we perish. Human beings haven’t stopped evolving genetically. In fact, we’re changing faster than ever. Still, genetic change happens slowly, over many generations, and it’s obvious that the modern industrial diet of highly processed, high-carb fake food is not the ideal fuel for the human body and mind. Paleo diet advocates (myself included) would go further and say that the relatively “new” foods like grains, legumes, dairy products, and nightshade vegetables, while they may not be harmful in small amounts, are not ideal staples (and for most people in the world they are staples).
Another possibly valid criticism is that not everyone in the world can afford to eat a diet that is high in protein and low in grain. This might be true — we know that the world’s fisheries are overburdened, and also that it takes a great deal of water, pasture and/or grain to raise a cow, but these facts must be weighed against the following counter-arguments.
- The collapse of the world’s fisheries has as much to do with poor ocean resource management (a lack of protected areas, poor enforcement of existing protections, wasteful and destructive fishing practices, etc.) as it does with how much fish we eat.
- Growing grains and beans takes up an enormous amount of land and water and fossil fuel fertilizers and pesticides; intensive polycultural farming techniques that produce meat, vegetables, and eggs might give us more food in exchange for less land and water, and improve the soil quality while we’re at it.
- The number of overweight people in the world (not just the U.S.) has reached epidemic proportions.
Some of use may be better adapted to “modern” foods, but most people would probably experience health improvements if they switched to a diet that more closely resembled what our distant ancestors ate. I think groups who would most benefit from a Paleolithic diet, in order, would include:
- Anyone with a direct intolerance of gluten, anyone with celiac disease, anyone with IBS, anyone who has noticeable trouble digesting grains and/or dairy products
- Anyone with an autoimmune disorder of any kind, including multiple sclerosis, arthritis, lupus, asthma, or allergies.
- Anyone with (or at risk for) Type 2 diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome/Syndrome X
- Anyone who wants to reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, and dementia
- Anyone who wants to gain muscle, lose body fat, have more energy, have clearer skin, not get sleepy after meals, sleep better at night, have a higher sex drive, and feel happier.
Did I leave anyone out?