Tuesday, October 19, 2010

So what's the deal with paleo, anyway?

My buddy Jay sent along a Reuters article relevant to my paleo updates:

Starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric man may have dined on an early form of flat bread, contrary to his popular image as primarily a meat-eater...
The findings may also upset fans of the Paleolithic diet, which follows earlier research that assumes early humans ate a meat-centered diet.

This handily illustrates one of the two problems with the core paleo philosophy that prevent me from really being a cheerleader for the diet. The idea is that humans evolved to make use of a diverse diet made up primarily of animals and plants (and insects, but that's one irrational food taboo I flatly refuse to breach), and that the neolithic shift to a simple diet based on grain carbohydrates and dairy products has increased our numbers while destroying our health.

Again, these assumptions have two big issues. The first is that it's highly debatable (and possibly unknowable at present) just how much humans have biologically adapted in the intervening tens of thousands of years to take advantage of the new diet. The second, as illustrated by the article, is that it's hard to be confident in what a paleolithic diet actually looked like in the first place. Was grain consumption common, or was it an anomaly confined to a few groups? Did the grains account for a huge portion of those groups' daily calories (as they do for most modern humans), or was it one small part of a diverse hunter-gatherer menu? I don't know that we can draw reliable conclusions at the moment.

So I'm keeping an open mind about what's causing my weight loss. At one end of the spectrum, it may be that grains and dairy are poisons that rapidly destroy our bodies and chain us to lives of ill health, as a couple of the fringe paleo gurus say. It may be that grains are a non-ideal food source that we, as highly adaptable omnivores, can deal with but are a poor basis for a diet--the attitude of some of my preferred paleo authorities. It's also possible that all the benefits I've seen have been a direct result of cutting out sugar and removing my ability to just grab a fast-food burger when I'm hungry.

Whatever it is, I'm losing weight very efficiently while eating as much as I want when I want, and feel much better than I ever had before, with almost no exercise. I'm neither weighed down with excess bodyweight and post-meal heaviness nor hungry and relying on willpower to resist overeating. I'm not on a meal clock--I can get all my daily calories in one big afternoon meal, or browse throughout the day, and neither bothers me. Whatever the deal is with paleo, it seems that my body really does have a functional system for telling me how much food I need and making good use of that food, but that system only works when I'm not eating grains or sugar both. It may be impossible to draw strong conclusions about the assumptions of paleo from the results, but I intend to stick with what's working.


  1. Flawed assumption #3: that early hunter-gatherers were necessarily always lean, ripped, and riotously healthy. Wild animals aren't, and modern hunter-gatherers don't tend to be obese but aren't what we'd recognize as a physical ideal either, so why should early humans have necessarily been?

    Flawed assumption #4: Our dietary evolution produced an optimum. Evolution doesn't deal in optimums.

    As for the diet, I prefer to deal in biochemistry rather than just-so stories; in the presence of significant amounts of insulin stored fat doesn't burn, and insulin will instead store whatever energy sources are there. Paleo diets are low-carb and low on the glycemic index where carbs are allowed- insulin always remains low. Without insulin packing everything away, artificial energy "shortages" don't happen and hunger remains controlled.

    All that said, I obviously believe in the value of an evolutionary approach- I just don't believe that we evolved out of the Garden of Eden into a state of agricultural sin.

    I also wish I had your willpower. Damn do I love bread. Sugar I could give up forever, starch is another matter...

  2. Good data, thank you. This meshes with the paleo books I've been reading, which emphasize the role of insulin regulation in their programs.

    I'd point out, for the record, that the goal of paleo (for me, anyway, and the people I take seriously) is less "ideal" than "healthier and fitter than on a modern diet". Of the sources I'm reading, they seem to be keeping a healthy, self-aware distance form the noble savage thing.

    I also wish I had your willpower. Damn do I love bread. Sugar I could give up forever, starch is another matter...

    Case in point. I'm primarily following Mark Sisson, who advocates an 80-20 rule on paleo food and has a permissive opinion about what's acceptable, as far as I can tell based on biochemistry rather than just-so stories. My family's a bit stricter than 80%, but we still do a non-paleo meal each week.

    On Monday, I got a giant cheeseburger, fries, and a pint of Smithwicks for lunch. I probably couldn't do this if it meant never having Kabuli pulao again.

  3. Sisson is actually linked in my sidebar; I regard him as one of the saner representatives of the movement, but damn have I met some doozies, and some of those doozies I met through his forums. The standout example to me was the lady who wanted to know the "paleo" way to do birth control. She was not happy to hear that "paleo" birth control is sequential births with two years of lactation or more spacing them. Not at Sisson's place, but Art DeVany's reasoning that early man was unlikely to have ready access to water when exercising, therefore we shouldn't feel it necessary either struck me as flat dangerous.

    I left the forums after a few more similar such scrapes, but I still do respect Sisson. Be careful venturing out in the wider world of that community- "tinfoil hat" is era-inappropriate, but "palm-frond hat" might not be...

  4. Seems to be the big problem with forums in general. They bring out the, ah-- most _dedicated_ enthusiasts.

    As time's gone on, I've developed about as much enthusiasm for reading forums as for reading YouTube comments.