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Nutrition Past and Future

TPNS 33: A Paleo Honor Roll

Primitive Nutrition 33:
A Paleo Honor Roll


In a sense, nutrition science gives us the closest thing we have to an accurate view of the role diet has played during our evolution.  We can observe how different foods affect the health of modern humans.  Then we can try to reverse engineer the evolutionary processes that might explain those effects.  If we miss the mark piecing that history together, at least it won't hurt anyone's health.  The Paleo diet idea doesn't work like this.  Instead, it puts the cart before the horse by starting with its premise, this seductive idea of a lost state of physical perfection we can regain today through diet, and then tries to twist and pull and jam the science so it kinda sorta looks like it supports that premise.  And that premise is built on limited data and unlimited interpretation.  I've been amazed at how many smart people have fallen for this.  Fortunately, some other smart people have heard the Paleo sales pitch but just wouldn't buy it.  In this video I'll give a few of them the credit they deserve.

One of the best critiques of the Paleo diet idea I've seen was written by biology professor Marlene Zuk in the New York Times.  I highly recommend you read this one.

Biological anthropologist Barbara King has Paleo totally pegged, from it’s design fallacy to it’s historical inaccuracies to its incompatibility with our modern world.  Dr King is too smart for Paleo.

Marion Nestle has looked at the animal-food-based Paleo diet concept and found it out of step with our contemporary nutritional needs.

Christine Knight has written a couple articles that demonstrate her intelligence and skepticism.  She understands the motivated reasoning propelling this repackaging of the old low-carb diet fad.

Dr Knight has noticed that even though this diet is rooted in a contrived nostalgia, ironically it separates people from their real culinary traditions.

Although Alexander Strohle's paper on the Paleo diet is in German, it does include an English abstract.  It is apparent to him that the Paleo diet idea is hazy and speculative.

Here is another path to doubting the Paleo premise.  This is an analysis from 2002 calling into question whether humans are all that well adapted to meat eating, concluding instead that we are essentially unspecialized frugivores.

These authors are warm to the Paleo diet idea but acknowledge its nutritional flaws.  They stay rooted in our current realities, noting the problem of environmental toxins in fish while finding exciting possibilities in plant-based functional foods.

Katharine Milton knows we hardly need encouragement to eat more animal foods.  Modifying our diets to be more like our primate ancestors so that we consume more fruits and vegetables would be the better strategy.

The great nutrition researcher, David Jenkins, put this idea to the test.

He conducted a study with an experimental diet based upon an even earlier era than the Paleolithic, the Miocene.  This diet was compared to a simple and generally healthful diet that nevertheless included animal foods.  In the end, the Miocene diet was even more effective for improving cholesterol than the first statins.

Jenkins was perceptive in noticing that eating such a nutrient-dense diet took a lot of time.  Today many of us spend hardly any time at all preparing our food, but this was not the case for our ancestors.  We should understand that the lowering of the priority we place on food today comes with a trade-off.  Preparing and eating healthy fresh food requires extra time and effort.  We shouldn't kid ourselves otherwise.

As you can see in the last paragraph, Jenkins didn't need to resort to primal fantasies to explain why the Miocene diet was so effective.  Our modern knowledge of nutrition could have predicted its success.  Take, for example, the amazing 145 grams of fiber the participants consumed per day.

We know people consume far too little fiber now.

If you like you can look to past populations and their high fiber diets and conclude we are evolved to eat this way.

Or you could look at contemporary research into fiber and see that people who eat more fiber live longer.  It doesn't really matter how you choose to think of food as long as you are doing the right things to be healthy.

And that's the end of my Paleo Honor Roll.  I am really disappointed that it isn't longer.  I hope additions can be made soon.

The Primitive Nutriton Series now shifts gears to the topic of cholesterol.  The new cavemen are doing their best to confuse us about it.  I'll try to restore some balance next.

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