Tuesday, April 5, 2011

GOOD Asks the Experts: Is The "Paleolithic Diet" Really Better?

GOOD Magazine asked four presumed experts (none of them are nutritionists or epidemiologists) about the Paleo Diet craze that seems to be sweeping gyms around the country. I'm not sure why this diet has hit the mainstream all of a sudden - Loren Cordain published his The Paleo Diet book a decade ago, and in the last two years there have been a lot of knock-offs:
  • The Evolution Diet: All-Natural and Allergy Free
  • The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us about Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging
  • Everyday Paleo
  • The Fat Caveman Dies: Fat Loss Secrets, Myths, and the Paleolithic Diet
  • NeanderThin: Eat Like a Caveman to Achieve a Lean, Strong, Healthy Body
I don't know about the rest of these books, but Cordain (Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University) was publishing peer reviewed articles (some links at the bottom of this post) in support of his nutritional approach leading up to and after the appearance of his book.

According to what reads as a balanced and well-researched Wikipedia article, the paleo diet approach actually dates back to the 1970s (Voegtlin, Walter L. [1975]: The stone age diet: Based on in-depth studies of human ecology and the diet of man. Vantage Press) - and although he is not mentioned, the late Dr. Atkins was using this basic approach in his Atkins Diet. Here is the history up to the late 1990s.

Gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin was one of the first to suggest that following a diet similar to that of the Paleolithic era would improve a person's health.[6] In 1975, he published a book[5] in which he argued that humans are carnivorous animals and that the ancestral Paleolithic diet was that of a carnivore—chiefly fats and protein, with only small amounts of carbohydrates.[26][27] His dietary prescriptions were based on his own medical treatments of various digestive problems, namely colitis, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and indigestion.[5][28]

In 1985, S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, both of Emory University, published a key paper on Paleolithic nutrition in the New England Journal of Medicine,[29] which allowed the dietary concept to gain mainstream medical recognition.[30] Three years later, S. Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostak and Melvin Konner published a book about this nutritional approach,[31] which was based on achieving the same proportions of nutrients (fat, protein, and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins and minerals) as were present in the diets of late Paleolithic people, not on excluding foods that were not available before the development of agriculture. As such, this nutritional approach included skimmed milk, whole-grain bread, brown rice, and potatoes prepared without fat, on the premise that such foods supported a diet with the same macronutrient composition as the Paleolithic diet.[26][32][33] In 1989, these authors published a second book on Paleolithic nutrition.[34][35]

Starting in 1989, Swedish medical doctor and scientist Staffan Lindeberg, now associate professor at Lund University, Sweden, led scientific surveys of the non-westernized population on Kitava, one of the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea. These surveys, collectively referred to as the Kitava Study, found that this population apparently did not suffer from stroke, ischemic heart disease, diabetes, obesity or hypertension. Starting with the first publication in 1993,[36] the Kitava Study has subsequently generated a number of scientific publications on the relationship between diet and western disease.[37] In 2003, Lindeberg published a Swedish language medical textbook on the subject.[38] In 2010, this book was wholly revised, updated and published for the first time in English. The 2010 book[39] is geared towards both professionals and interested laypeople alike, cites more than 2000 references, and provides a comprehensive resource for the scientific foundation for the Paleolithic diet and the relationship between what humans eat and western diseases.

Since the end of the 1990s, a number of medical doctors and nutritionists[40][41][42] have advocated a return to a so-called Paleolithic (preagricultural) diet.[7] Proponents of this nutritional approach have published books[28][43][44] and created websites[45][46] to promote their dietary prescriptions.[47][48][49][50][51] They have synthesized diets from modern foods that emulate nutritional characteristics of the ancient Paleolithic diet, some of which allow specific foods that would have been unavailable to pre-agricultural peoples, such as certain animal products (i.e. dairy), processed oils, and beverages.[28][52][53]

While the accuracy of the notion most of these authors hold about what paleolithic people ate (which part of the paleolithic, early? middle? late? and on which continent?) is certainly questionable, the health benefits of eliminating most of the food stuffs added to our diet over the last 10,000 (essentially refined grains and dairy) is not really questionable.

One of the arguments against a paleo approach is that there is no evidence that eating this way increased the life span of our ancestors, who tended to die much younger than we do today. But this is a red herring - they died younger because of the lack of modern medicine to fight and cure many diseases that no longer plague us. Furthermore, they did not suffer during their shorter lifespans from the diseases of affluence that afflict us now (for example, obesity, high blood pressure, nonobstructive coronary atherosclerosis, and insulin resistance/diabetes, not to mention smoking, alcohol, and motor vehicle deaths).

Anyway, I am an advocate of the diet, so I have done my research and found that I feel stronger and have more energy than when I eat grains (I do make exceptions in eating Greek yoghurt, cottage cheese, and some hard cheeses).

Here is the beginning of the GOOD article:

GOOD Asks the Experts: Is The "Paleolithic Diet" Really Better?

Peter Smith, Writer and editor
March 16, 2011


Since the beginning of civilization, humans have longed to return to a more primitive, simpler way of life. As soon as we had cities, we told stories about escaping them. The concept of the Appalachian Trail, organic agriculture, and Slow Food all arose from a dissatisfaction with technological advances. Now, as it becomes clearer and clearer that the "diseases of affluence"—obesity, diabetes, heart disease—are intrinsically linked to a modern diet and a sedentary way of life, it's time to consider a radical future for food.

What if that future involves going back in time—before the discovery of petroleum, before processed foods, and even before we cultivated starchy carbohydrates in what we now call agriculture? In the decades that followed S. Boyd Eaton's publication of "Paleolithic Nutrition" in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, the "paleo diet" has been touted as a solution to our modern ills.

Before we turn back the clock, let’s take a look at what it meant to eat like an early hominin. In the two and half million years since the dawn of the Paleolithic period, our ancestors evolved bigger brains, which required dietary changes and probably required cooking, as Richard Wrangham persuasively argues in his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Evolution shaped our digestive system: We have a voluminous small intestine and a short lower gut adapted to make better use of meats and cooked or processed grains. Mutations allow us to produce lactase so we can drink mammary fluids (and eat cheeses) beyond infancy. We're more resistant to certain damaging compounds created when food is heated and poorly equipped to resist toxins found in raw meats.

Still, questions remain: Was eating during the Paleolithic period really healthier than the modern human diet? Or is the problem with highly processed, energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods? In other words, is the “paleo diet” especially healthy, or is our current diet just especially bad? To find out, I spoke with four experts for a scholarly, historical taste test of the Paleolithic diet.

Bill Leonard is an anthropologist at Northwestern University who studies physiology and nutrition in ancient humans and traditional cultures alive today. His latest paper looks at evolutionary patterns in diet and activity to understand modern health problems.

Peter Ungar is an evolutionary biologist and paleoanthropoligist at the University of Arkansas who reconstructs ancestral diets using dental morphology and microwear. His latest book is called Mammal Teeth.

Amanda Henry is a paleobiologist studying the evolution of the human diet at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany. Her latest research examined plant microfossils in Neanderthal teeth for evidence of cooking.

Katharine Milton is a physical anthropologist who studies the dietary ecology of primates at the University of California at Berkeley. She has published numerous papers on modern and ancient human diets.

Read the whole article.

Here are a few sample articles from Loren Cordain's website - there are a huge collection available for download as PDFs for personal use (45 articles total).

No comments: