Tuesday, July 24, 2012

That ridiculous Scientific American piece on paleo eating

I *love* it when the person who doesn't agree with me explains to me all about those who *do* agree with me and why they have it all wrong. Invariably, when someone else tells you what you think about something or what you do with your life, instead of letting you explain it, especially when the goal is to criticize you, the result is sensationalized and inaccurate.

Which brings us to this.

It is a blog article, on the Scientific American site no less, about why the author believes paleo eaters have their collective carnivorous heads in their keesters because research has shown that, in fact, cavepeople ate a lot of vegetables.

I have so many negative reactions to this article that I can barely keep them organized, but let's try:

1. Who ever said cavemen didn't eat a lot of vegetables? No one as far as I can tell. Certainly no proponent of a paleo diet that I have ever run across. Moreover -- and more importantly for the purposes of anyone trying to manage one's own modern-day health, as opposed to just imitating cavepeople -- did those promoting a paleo diet say anything bad about eating vegetables in the here and now?

No, they didn't. The paleo diet is, in its most basic form, animal protein (and fat), vegetables and fruit. Yup, vegetables are on that list. In fact, I eat a hell of a lot of vegetables, at *every* meal. (Yes, I eat vegetables at breakfast). When I was nearly "vegetarian," 30-35 pounds heavier than I am now, with a fasting blood sugar of 97 and plagued by insulin spikes that had me eating meals or snacks every few hours, I was lucky to eat vegetables at two meals a day, usually ate them only at dinner, and never consumed them at all three meals like I do now. In fact, most vegetarians I know eat a ton of grains -- generally, a lot more grains than actual vegetables -- and much of the focus of the paleo diet is eliminating grains. By and large, we paleo people replace those grains with vegetables, not meat.

However, you would swear from this article that paleo = anti-vegetable. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the truth is inconvenient.

2. Who -- other than the person who wrote the headline -- said that cavepeople were vegetarians, as opposed to omnivores? The use of that word in the title seems not only designed to provoke a dumb fight, but utterly inaccurate, even according to the author, who fesses up in the final footnote that he means that cavemen were *mostly* vegetable-eating, not "vegetarian." The truth seems to be that cavepeople would eat whatever they could grab from a tree, knock off a bush or hunt. Yes, I suspect there were very lean times between big kills, but I also suspect Grok never turned down a hunk of meat, saying, "No thanks, I'm a vegetarian."

3. For the love of all that is good and right, we need to find a better word than "paleo" (says the guy whose blog title has the word in it) to describe our diets. That word just sends those who seem terribly offended with what we do (and don't) eat into a frenzy of caveman-centered talk that is just plain silly and distracting, usually with accompanying pics of Grok and family. I don't know if Liz Wolfe from Cave Girl Eats has the inside edge on the use of the term "ancestral," or whether "non-processed" is the key, but "paleo" just sends the naysayers into a caveman tizzy/discussion that gets us nowhere and distracts from the real issues. Straw men are set up and knocked down by said naysayers and, really, nothing substantive is accomplished.

4. After dazzling us with paragraphs about the alimentary canals of many creatures, the author tells us -- to no one's shock -- that we are designed to eat meat, vegetables and fruit.

You know: a "paleo" diet. Wait, what? So this hit piece on paleo ends up telling us we are designed to eat paleo? You know: paleo like "The Paleo Solution" by Robb Wolf, not "paleo" like some press-created meat orgy that doesn't exist. The article also tells us that, if we are trying to be just like Grok, we need to eat insects because Grok did.

5. But, really, who among us paleo eaters is obsessed with actually trying to eat like a caveman? I am just trying to eat the way that makes my body look, feel and perform the best. I have told you before that paleo eating has helped me lose a lot of weight, beat Raynaud's symptoms, get down to a body-fat percentage that I have not seen since my twenties, and generally look, feel and perform better than when I was a hell of a lot younger than the ripe old age of 50 that I am about to turn. It happens that much of what Grok ate fits my menu. I will pass on the gnarly bugs, though. This is not a historical reenactment.

6. The author then tells us how he doesn't eat meat, and, apparently, gets his protein from beans. We don't know why, because he doesn't tell us. He doesn't attempt to tell us that beans are a better source of protein than animal fat from properly raised animals, because, well, they aren't. They are a relatively inefficient source of protein, contain gut-permeating lectins and they spike insulin. But the word "insulin" or "hormone" does not even appear in the article. Really? A nutritional piece that doesn't mention either of those words seems a little suspect, especially a piece designed to take down a dietary model that's based on proper hormonal balance and regulation..

7. Moreover, none of that incessant blahblahblah about alimentary canals and digestive tracts says a a word about "leaky gut" (a.k.a. "gut permeability") or a word about how the human gut negatively reacts to certain substances, like grains, particularly gluten-containing grains, or the aforementioned lectins.

I try not to overreact, but this article is a disgrace, in a respected publication nonetheless.

Articles on health, particularly alleged *scientific* articles on health, should not be a simple exercise in setting up a straw man just to knock it down. Yet that is precisely what was done here: make it look like paleo is just a meat-based attempt to act like cavepeople, and then tell us why cavepeople, in fact, ate a lot of veggies. Nothing about the actual modern-day way of eating that is (unfortunately) called "paleo" is discussed. Nothing about hormones, hormonal regulation or gut permeability -- all critical aspects of the real basis for eating this way in the modern era -- is mentioned. "Let's all laugh at the silly people in their cavemen costumes with their hunks of charred meat."

Lame. Really, really lame. You can do much better, Scientific American.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


  1. I agree with you completely. It is amazing what falsehoods are accepted as true in "legitimate" publications in the name of attacking a lifestyle that people benefit from. In response to the "eat insect" comment, I guess I'd be down for a few bugs if it made me look, feel, and perform the way the *gasp* paleo diet does!

  2. Unfortunately many of these critics are influenced by people who are on the board of directors for companies that sell these harmful foods. If the world was to live a life style that benefited their own health, the economy would go to hell.

  3. Great job! I was just about to write a similar piece, that article was horrible!

  4. I was just thinking yesterday, "Damn! I wish Paleo were called something else!" It does send people into a tizzy. Just today someone said to me about Paleo, "Raw foods are good. No carbs is bad." What? No carbs? Veggies and fruits have carbs. And raw foods? Are you saying you eat all of your precious grains raw? Can fruits and veggies not be eaten raw? She actually deleted her comment after I pointed that out to her. It's like people lose their minds when you mention paleo, so I don't anymore. I only say what I do eat instead of what I don't. I eat whole foods; animal proteins, lots of veggies and some fruits. The end.

  5. I have a suggestion for renaming this type of diet...

    It was introduced to me as: "If God made it, it's good. If man made it, it's probably bad." and that describes (to me) the best way to eat in accordance with our natural design.

  6. I have nor read the article, and probably won't. I already had to listen to some 'expert' author of a book that I will not name because he doesn't deserve the publicity negative or otherwise, tell me that eating locally grown veggies and grass fed beef is going to kill the global economy and it is no healthier anyway etc etc etc. I am done with the naysayers. It is apparent to me that the addictions of wheat, corn, soy, money, fossil fuel, tv, poparrazzi and politics have polluted the minds of people to the point that they cannot be saved without the help of a divine intervention. I know it took me more than just a look at my waistline to search out a new life for myself, it was not easy kicking it all. Tobacco, alcohol, ego. Those were my barriers to success and humility was the lock that I had lost the combination to years ago. Once found, the doors to my life were opened again and I was willing to listen and learn. Paleo is so much more than a diet, it truly is a lifestyle.

  7. I love how the author keeps telling us to eat leaves, and shows pictures of monkeys eating the leaves off of trees. Has the author ever tried to eat a leaf from a tree? I have, but probably not since 2nd grade. It did not go well. Therefore our digestive system is different from that of a monkey. Seems to refute the entire premise of the article. Why is this obvious fact not obvious to the author and the editors at Scientific American?

  8. Thanks for this reply. A vegetarian / vegan friend of mine posted this online, and while she usually provides good scientific articles I just couldn't get through the weird and disturbed logic in this one.

    I think there were two things that bothered me most. The first was cherry picking the dietary stereotypes. The assumption was that a vegetarian is eating a well balanced nutrient rich diet and the paleo diet is eating nothing but chunks of meat. As you said in your blog above, I'm eating far more vegetables, nuts, fruits now that I ever ate as a vegetarian (and I'm enjoying them). Likewise I was a crappy vegetarian and maybe should more accurately have been called a pastatarian or starchatarian. Which, IMO is not an uncommon problem with many people who try vegetarianism.

    The second problem I had was the cherry picking of what species to examine. He immediately dismisses looking at homo erectus and decides we should instead explore apes... but really gives not scientific evidence for this claim. Even within the ape section he identifies apes that eat meat, and then jumping over homo erectus entirely claims that we have developed digestive systems to digest grains - but oh wait we may not have: see regional dietary problems.

    Anyways that's my rant. Thanks again.

  9. While I agree that eating veggies is a good thing I also don't think you can argue with the fact that for years the Eskimos lived a healthy life eating only meat, most of it fatty. Sorry vegetarians but that truth really says something about what humans were designed to eat.

  10. You didn't actually read the article, did you?

    At no point did he argue that *we* should be vegetarians, because our far ancestors were *mostly* vegetarian (even though he personally is). He simply points out that the particular diet usually described as "paleo" probably bears little resemblance to paleolithic or ealier diets - thus it is badly named. In short, you agree with him!

    (As I said, you didn't actually *read* the article. There's no need to pose it as a question, because you did not. You merely saw a headline containing the word vegetarian, and flew into a fit.)

    Secondly he says "paleo" is badly argued, because the argument of what we are adapted to is often used to promote paleo diets (it certainly is, no matter how much you try to deny it by ranting on about hormones and permeability!) and a) we can't be specifically adapted to a diet we didn't eat and b) we *do* have known adaptations to foods that are excluded from "paleo" diets.

    Let me quote his actual recommendations: "So, what should we eat? The past does not reveal a simple answer, ever." That is the essence of the entire piece, indeed the message that permeates every paragraph! He does not put down "paleo" diets, merely the idea that they are somehow related to real paleolithic diets (again, you agree with him! "who among us paleo eaters is obsessed with actually trying to eat like a caveman?" - but shut your eyes to all the paleo promotion that indeed makes such claims) or that we are particularly well adapted to them.

    I'd like to point out, I'm all for a meat rich diet, only use butter, never margarine - ah yes, butter is not in, or is it, oh, whatever - and generally consider animal fats to be perfectly good. But "paleo" arguments always send me into near hysterical laughter, and this overload of straw arguments you've supplied (like calling it a "nutritional piece," when it obviously is not) did nothing to make me take "paleo" proselytes more seriously than not at all.

  11. I read it, and I stand by every point that I made. That's quite an accusatory comment, though, brave anonymous person. And no, I don't agree with him, because he sets up a straw paleo diet -- one that is not rich in vegetables -- to criticize. The whole point of my piece -- but I won't accuse you of not reading it -- is that he misrepresents paleo in order to criticize it. That's all. So now you've misrepresented me in order to criticize me. Well played. My point is made.