Debunking a Paleo Diet Strawman
Update: If you would like to hear / watch this article instead of reading it, you can do so here.
As the Paleo diet movement has grown, it has also become increasingly difficult to talk about, at times. This is because there is no single set of guidelines for what constitutes the Paleo diet, and as it grows in popularity, the variants continue to pile on.
This is both a strength and a weakness.
It is a strength, because like any legitimate field of study, there is always more to learn. With near-infinite variables, the unknowns always outweigh the knowns. As we learn more, we can modify basic starting point macro-guidelines and then the micro-guidelines at the individual level. It also makes the field more inclusive as far as people trying new things, researching new areas, and hopefully adding to the overall body of knowledge.
This uncertainty and malleability is also a weakness, though. For example, the media latches on to the most flamboyant imagery and ratings-grabbing sound bites when describing the Paleo diet. Attacking the Paleo approach is also easier, because with many versions to choose from, it is quite easy to cherry-pick the weakest features from the weakest (and often outdated) sources, and then to simply do battle against this hastily constructed straw man.
In Dr. Christina Warinner’s recent TEDx Talk, she did a great job of ignoring the strengths of the Paleo approach, arguing against some straw-man tenets, and then providing her own dietary advice — which happens to line up neatly with what most Paleo eaters try to practice themselves.
This is possibly nit-picky on my part, but getting a PhD from Harvard, I think Prof. Warinner picked “fad” in lieu of “trend” for a bit more…”pop.” It’s kind of a bummer, as right out of the gate one is feeling a bit set upon if you are rooting for an Evolution based dietary template to make some headway into academia.
According to Merriam-Webster
a practice or interest followed for a time with exaggerated zeal.
Nearly all approaches to health and well being can be practiced faddishly by end-users, but in the case of Paleo there is also a sizable scientific community behind the approach. The big-umbrella idea is that of Evolutionary Health, Nutrition, and Fitness.
There’s a baby in the bathwater, but Warinner seems to completely ignore it.
Well, that’s a broad list of general sources, and she doesn’t actually say whether she’s read any of the books. This potentially explains why she lays out a caricatured version of Paleo. Here’s what I mean…
Warinner starts her Paleo mythbusting by contrasting human beings to carnivores. Unlike carnivores:
- We can’t synthesize our own Vitamin C
- Our intestinal tracts are much longer
- Some of us have adapted to milk consumption, but not meat consumption
- And we have generalist teeth that aren’t specialized for shredding meat
First of all, who is arguing that human beings are carnivores? Virtually no one who is taken seriously, that’s who.
Yet, based on this presentation, one who doesn’t know otherwise might easily assume that the Paleo approach argues that human beings are, or ought to be, carnivores. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth.
Human beings are omnivores, like all primates. And heck, even deer will partake in the occasional injured bird. No arguing about the differences between deer and lion intestines will change this bird’s fate.
Humans have no teeth for shredding meat, huh?
Watch a few minutes of this video (the link should start you off at the 19:24 mark), and decide for yourself whether this issue of meat-shredding dentition is as black and white as Dr. Warinner would lead us to believe.
Dr. Alice Roberts, Anatomist (Narrating): The smaller, sharper teeth that evolved in all our mouths seem well-adapted to sheering through the tough muscle fibers of meat.
Dr. Alice Roberts: And these are the teeth of a vegetarian…by choice. [laughter]
Dr. Peter Ungar, Anthropologist: [Vegetarian] by choice. Not by evolution.
After telling us that there are no anatomical, physiological, or genetic adaptations to meat consumption, Dr. Warinner goes on to say:
- There is more evidence of meat eating in our ancient ancestors than plant eating, because bones preserve better than plants
- Organ meats would have been eaten, perhaps preferred over muscle meat
- The meat that was eaten was not from commercially-fattened cows
- More meat would have been eaten in arctic regions than in tropical regions
And this differs with the Paleo approach, exactly how? Far from being different, this is precisely what many influencers in the Paleo community have said for years. There is disagreement as too how much meat we should be eating and macronutrient ratios. Healthy disagreement. But all of these bullet points are clearly integrated into the basic framework.
Look, this is nothing new. In fact, the last time this was made into a big deal was 2010, and I talked about it on This Week in Paleo, Episode 8: Paleogate. Warinner covers old ground when she tells us there is 30,000-year old evidence of grain grinding tools. Of course, the ground-up grains could have been used for some home-brewed chicha, medicinal concoctions, or for some food.
The thing is, there is no evidence of grain being a staple food in pre-agricultural times, and it seems quite unlikely.
From this assertion, the evolutionary approach hypothesizes that vastly increased grain consumption could be problematic. Fast forward to Paleo 2013, and many of us consider non-gluten containing grains and starches excellent sources of energy — in the form of sweet potatoes, yams, rice and potatoes, anyway — unless there are underlying medical conditions that provide reasons for avoiding them.
The Paleo approach does not exclude foods grown on neolithic branches of the tree of knowledge. There is, instead a proceed-with-caution warning applied to them.
I fully understand that corn tortillas (
two three ingredients: corn & salt corn, water, and lime) might do me in, but I take that occasional risk anyway, because it’s worth having a damn fine plate of fajitas once in a while. Especially since I estimate this occasional risk to be nearly zero.
On the other hand, the keeled-over cramps I experience when eating a bit of bread or a splash of malt vinegar tells me to stay away from those all of the time. Seed oils? There is zero upside: they don’t taste good, help with body composition, or provide any psychological reward…so why bother with them?
No upside + risk is a fool’s game.
This is what I consider the applied Paleo approach at the individual level.
This reminds me of the purveyors of processed food telling us that Everything is Processed (if you haven’t read this article yet, you can click the link and it will open in a new tab — crazy stuff), so we can’t help but eat processed foods. In fact, we shouldn’t even think in terms of processed versus not-processed. According to them, it’s pointless.
Basically, with this myth, Dr. Warinner is telling us the same thing. We have no access to Paleolithic era foods, so it is impossible to eat a Paleo diet. Today, we have domesticated, neolithic foods. Game over. No white-dotted, 1-up, green mushroom for you. You’re stuck here in the neolithic milieu along with the rest of us.
Bananas can’t even breed anymore. They’re all genetic clones grown from clippings. And wild bananas are fibrous and nasty, hardly recognizable as food by modern people. Wild lettuce is full of latex and difficult to digest. We’ve bred toxins right out of many plants, like tomatoes, to make them edible.
And on top of all that…Paleolithic people could never have squeezed oil out of olives. They couldn’t have eaten anything but local foods. They couldn’t have eaten eggs every day, year-round. Broccoli didn’t exist in the Paleolithic. Oh and carrots were gross.
OK, therefore I should just eat a bowl of corn flakes, some ding dongs and a Gatorade.
Pretending this is Warinner’s conclusion is about as fair as Dr. Warinner pretending that promoters of an evolutionary approach to nutrition conclude that somehow the foods we eat today are identical to what our Paleolithic ancestors were eating. This is her straw man, not ours.
Can we all just agree that there are degrees ranging from naturally occurring foods to highly processed foods — and that judging the value of these food solely through the lens of nutritionism is the wrong way to go about it?
Lately, I’ve been eating much less muscle meat…maybe a few times a week in small portions. I also eat goat liver and fatty fish frequently. Bone broths from grass-fed cows and bug-eating chickens have long been staples for me. I do eat nutrient-rich eggs almost daily. And, I also eat more vegetables than most vegetarians.
Is this not an evolutionary approach to food choice? Does my diet really need to be debunked?
Now that she’s torn down her version of the Paleo diet, let’s see how Dr. Warinner recommends we should eat based on archaeological evidence.
Quit eating just corn, wheat and soy? No problem there for a Paleo eater.
Let’s just say we go ahead and give up the wheat and soy all together and save the corn for that occasional plate of previously mentioned low-risk fajitas? That puts my version of Paleo and Warinner’s version of the archaeological diet pretty close together, so far.
Eat a diverse diet? Okay, how about a diet that includes:
- Fresh vegetables and fruits
- Naturally raised and wild meats
- Organ meats
- Bone-based broths that include the marrow
- Some nuts and seeds
- Some tubers
- Fermented vegetables and beverages
- Low-processed fats and oils
- A rainbow of natural spices and herbs that have therapeutic effects, but can also transform food into meals, cuisine, and even art.
Simply put, I’ve never eaten such a diverse selection of foods as I have on my Paleo-inspired diet. Sure, sometimes Paleo dieters do veer off into the meat-only spectrum of real food, and I tend to shake my head a bit when I hear about it. But that’s not what defines the Paleo diet or the diets of most of us who are inspired by evolutionary health, nutrition, and fitness.
Again, how is this not Paleo?
One of the evolutionary advantages of color vision is being able to easily discern ripe and unripe foods. Is Dr. Warinner not hypothesizing here that our Paleolithic ancestors practiced this discernment and that we should, too? Welcome to the Paleo approach.
And as far as minding your microbiome, only card-holding Weston A. Price Foundation members seem to think more about their gut flora than do Paleo eaters. So, Lesson 2 amounts to more Paleo diet advice.
The Paleo diet is now perhaps the leading movement in the world advocating the consumption of whole, real foods. And it is the latest research (along with our intuitions as human animals) that tells us food is more than the sum of calories and nutrients.
This is why for 3 years, I have described the Paleo approach as being at the intersection of scientific evidence and evolutionary clues.
Dr. Warinner tells us:
- We are eating more calories in smaller packages
- Processed foods are short circuiting our ability to know when we’re full
- a 32 oz soda contains 8 feet of sugar cane, minus the fiber.
- that decoupling whole foods from nutrients tricks our bodies
Again, as someone who has talked about these issues for years, why exactly is Dr. Warinner debunking the Paleo diet and not simply promoting an evolutionary approach to food choice?
Offering three Paleo diet lessons in a presentation aimed at debunking the Paleo diet is, at the very least, bad form.
I hope it has become evident that Dr. Christina Warinner does not grasp the Paleo diet, circa 2013. Some of her so-called myths are well-known and have been discussed exensively (and synthesized) within the Paleo approach. Others, like that humans are not adapted to eat meat, are either nonsense or not the settled science that she portrays.
Dr. Warinner’s lessons for eating, on the other hand, are indeed core tenets of the Paleo approach for myself as well as most of the practitioners I have met over the years.
Something about Dr. Warinner’s presentation makes me uneasy, beyond what I’ve already talked about in this article. And it’s this: if she did the due diligence required to debunk a set of ideas on a semi-worldwide stage…how is it that she would not mention the similarities between the Paleo diet and her own recommendations?
It is my familiarity with the subject matter that leads me to say, yes, I can see how the Paleo movement can be a bit confusing and less than perfect. The marketing alliance with the low-carb community has muddied some of the waters. Some of the Paleo cookbooks and recipe sites are helping us to become a bit Too Good at Paleo. There is some in-fighting that becomes overly dramatic at times.
We’re a mix of jocks and bookworms and obese and formerly-obese and newbie zealots and old-hands passing through many phases of health and recovery that lead to new personal discoveries — so yeah, there is no one Paleo neck to choke. With near-infinite variables and billions of people, perhaps this is the best we can hope for…and I’m OK with that.
As soon as we have THE Paleo Diet ™ for Everyone, I will whole-heartedly agree that we are eyebrow deep in fad territory. As it stands, we’re perhaps only ankle deep. It slows us down a bit, but it’s still not difficult to make progress. Even if it sounds quaint, I’ll say it anyway: eating real food is helping a lot of people.
Ultimately, Dr. Warinner is telling Paleo dieters nothing new, but she does provide some fantastic advice for her TEDx audience (live and online). I hope they implement all three of her lessons. Whether or not they call it a Paleo or an evolutionary approach to making their food choices is of little consequence.
And as for us? This debunking doesn’t really matter. You can still find real food at your farmer’s market, at the grocery store, and in your backyard.
What are your thoughts? Is the Paleo Diet being unfairly targeted here, and if so why? Have I been too hard / soft on Warinner’s attempt at debunking Paleo? Are there other important facts, issues and points that I’ve left out? I hope you’ll contribute in the comments.
If you're new to the blog, have a look at what Humans Are Not Broken means. Then, you might want to take a look at The Plant Paleo Diet to see how I eat to maintain my body transformation and health. It's an omnivorous diet that is heavy on plant foods, based on scientific evidence and evolutionary clues (Part 1 and Part 2. If you're into podcasts, you'll probably really enjoy Latest in Paleo, which looks at the latest health news in an entertaining and thoughtful way.