Paleo v. Neo ~ Some Thoughts

Some thoughts on the best human diet ...


Paleolithic Diet:  The basic precept of this diet is that humans have not evolved as a species since this era so therefore genetically we thrive on a diet similar to what these ancient predecessors ate.  

Bottom line, who can really argue with a real whole foods approach to diet?  Eliminating all grains, industrial seed oils and dairy is rather austere for many, but that still leaves for a wide variety of foods.  

But now the controversy and the biggest problem with this approach:  What the heck DID our paleolithic ancestors actually eat?  The debate is raging right now over at Primal Wisdom raising the same question I pondered over a year ago.  Specifically:  Was our ancestral diet REALLY VLC and high fat?

I've mentioned this many times, but I find it particularly curious that proponents of low carb diets frequently refer to that Eaton article that was the subject of my post.  Eaton's estimates are for an almost isocaloric distribution of macronutrients:  30% protein / 35% each carb and fat.  Almost Zone like .....

Is the Paleo diet better for modern day humans?  Well, it seems so in Lindeberg's studies.  But here's the kicker.  Lindeberg's version of Paleo (additional paper) is Eatonesque, and not at all resembling the high fat starch-shunning variety touted by "primal" voices and most paleo-inspired bloggers.   In that "additional paper", the paleo group's sat fat intake was lower than the "diabetes diet" group.  

So, it seems we have only guesses, however scientific or educated they may be, as to how our paleo ancestors ate.   In this regard, the wide disparity in such "guesses" raises a lot of doubt.

Now, even if we could all agree on the composition of the diet ... and stipulate it would be the best for us to eat ... how would one go about replicating that in modern times?  Let alone the whole of the lifestyle.

Even wild game is influenced by how close it exists to human developed lands.  And even more naturally raised cattle (and other livestock) is still of a strain that has been bred for decades to produce fattier meat or milk or whatever.  We all know about cultivated fruits and veggies compared to what one might have found in the wild.

So in addition to the HF/LC v LF/HC split we also have the split in ideology w.r.t. whether we (a) try to mimic paleo foods themselves using modern equivalents, or (b) try to mimic paleo macro/micro intake using modern foods that may or may not have been available in paleolithic times.  The (a)-team says eat all meats and olives, nuts and some leafy greens and you're good.  The (b)-team, that includes Cordain near as I can figure, says it's impossible to mimic the macro/micro content with modern foods so eat things like low fat chicken breast and supplement with canola oil that has a favorable O6:O3 ratio.  

Lastly, even IF we can mimic perfectly what the paleolithic diet really was, there are still two factors remaining:
  • Was this a diet of necessity in the end, rather than an optimal diet?
  • Does this diet have meaning in the context of modern civilization, whereby even IF'ers and other fasting practitioners cannot seek to mimic food availability/shortages, having to kill and prep food, etc.  And I'm not talking sprinkling a little sea salt and pepper on a steak ...

Neolithic Diets:  These are generally agriculture-based diets.  The main ingredients absent from PD being grains and dairy products.   But technically this would include the hunter-gatherer cultures as well.  

One thing about neolithic diets is that quite often it seems that modern industrial "CAF" or "SAD" diets get lumped into this category - especially with the ag wing.

So again we have controversy over what exactly these more modern diets comprise and what the health implications are or have been.  Judging from human population growth, it's hard from a species survival POV to argue that humans don't thrive on these diets.  

It is impossible to ignore the genetic adaptations of humans to dairy and grain.  And indeed, it seems that the more isolated the culture, the more "unique" their native diet, the more susceptible they seem to be to the ravages of the SAD.  

Controversy abounds more over HG societies, the proportion of their diet originating from animal v. plant, fat v. carb, than it does over the very high carb cultures.  Those VHC cultures - relatively free of obesity, diabetes and disease - pose a problem for the carbs are killers warriors.  Generally they'll fall back on there being less starch, more fiber, etc. etc., and the lack of wheat or other grains.  

The evil is "processing and refining".  Sounds great until anyone makes an argument about doing the same to isolate fats....

The pros of studying such diets and looking to them for clues to an optimal human diet are:
  • We can actually know with relative certainty what they were composed of
  • We can probably mimic their content better with modern foods
  • We can perhaps look to our personal lineage/ancestors for answers
  • Isolated cultures have clearly adapted since paleo times ... this would seem to make a neo-centered diet more justifiable/applicable.
The cons are obviously the introduction to the food supply of certain things associated with disease:  wheat, other grains, legumes, refined sugar, seed oils, etc.   Dairy seems to be more immune to scrutiny.  Perhaps because it's so darned good (mmmmmmmm cheese), or perhaps it's because it comes from an animal so it's inherently healthier?  Or what could be better for you than milk?   But a Neo-style diet need not contain these, though surely many did/do.  Then on top of that we now have modern frankenfoods thrown in the mix.

My gut tells me that it is less the macro/micro of the diet that is the problem but the processing.  If O6's in seed oils are so bad, why are walnuts associated with lower CVD risk, for example.  

So ... where does that leave us?

I'm not going to give out dietary advice here other than to say that we all need to be our own best teachers and advocates.  I don't care if Mark Sisson eats like he does and has those abs.  That means nothing about whether you should eat the same way or if it will get you those same abs.  Read, listen, think critically about what people are saying and question why.  If they're selling something that's not necessarily a negative but should be taken into consideration - not to pick too much on Sisson - but especially if the person is selling supplements!  

Me?  If anyone cares, I'm leaning more towards Neo lately, and not just because Keanu Reeves looks cool in that coat ;-)  but because, as Matt Stone is fond of reminding us, we have literally billions of living humans consuming such diets in good health.  

Keep it whole.  Keep it real.  Avoid the extremes.  (And have the occasional guilt free treat)  Peace out ;-)


Sanjeev said…
do you remember the old science fiction riddle, "what's the most successful[1] species on earth - the one that consumes the most air and water, and occupies the most land?"

the answer, of course, is wheat (in the running with corn & rice)[0], which uses mankind to further its own resource consumption.

The evolutionary aspect of the science fiction angle would read so much better if wheat was also poisoning humans at the same time.

Too bad the evidence is not solid for toxicity for the non-celiac.

> billions of living humans consuming such diets in good health

and setting new records for longevity

[0] and probably wrong - some water based plant or bacterium probably accounts for more biomass

[1] for some definition or other ...
foodteacher said…
really enjoyed reading this post. And brilliant summary. Going to use it in my next lesson!
Anonymous said…
I read the Eric Westman article, 'Low-carbohydrate nutrition and metabolism,' that you cited in your previous blog post.

There is a section there entitled, 'Ancestral Nutrition.' In it, there is reference to a study of Aboriginal men sent from their city lifestyles back to their traditional 'hunter-gatherer' lifestyles ('hunter-gatherer' is not found in the abstract).

They all lost weight, and had other improvements in health. Eating around 1200 calories/day! I think there's a market for this diet. It's not Atkins. It's low-fat, in fact (as well as low-calorie).

Meat in wild Austrlia is low-fat.
Colby said…
Nice post

Speaking of selling supplements-

His trial is unpublished and he won't give out any real details about it (sample size etc). What rubbish!
Anonymous said…
The pool of people eating badly-neolithically is not the same pool 'setting records in life expectancy' or in good health. It's as misleading as the people you critique to state things that way, because it isn't true.

In some ways the paleo/neo division is artificial and fruitless, whether you're nipping at heels (your post) or proclaiming One True Ways (a number of folks in the paleosphere).

Real food is important, not macronutrient wars.
Sanjeev said…
I wasn't providing any answers or diet suggestions, just pointing out one correlation/association

I've seen the population wide associations, but no studies (yet) separating out the populations. Please point me to those if you've got them.

> Real food is important, not macronutrient wars.

That may be the way I'm eating, but I don't know that it's the right answer. Won't know until the controlled trials are done and replicated.

real, well controlled trials and experiments, with results repeated many times are important. Result by opinion and fiat, stated with certainty ... somewhat less so

What is a real food, by the way? Boiling in a factory is bad but the same thing at home is good?
Dawn said…
Anyone here have pics of their grandparents lying around? I don't know about yours, but mine were all skinny as rails (young adults in the 1940s). And none of them were eating special diets; just the standard American diet of that time. Even my grandmothers, both of whom baked (and consumed) desserts nearly daily, only gained relatively small amounts of weight as they aged. Both grandfathers remained slim throughout life.

Fast-forward to my generation: at least half of my cousins have weight problems and even the "slim" ones are probably 20% heavier than our grandparents were at similar ages.

I think my family is entirely typical, and we all agree that evolution doesn't move that quickly! So obviously the "neolithic" diet of "the modern age" isn't the only thing at play here. I believe there is something fundamentally different about our lifestyle compared to our grandparents' and I also believe that modern foodways have something to do with it (hyperprocessed food, fast food, etc.). But paleo/neo doesn't shed much light on this.
CarbSane said…
@Sanjeev: Yeah, that longevity thing is so annoying ;)

@foodteacher: Thanks!

@euler: The list of examples used to advocate LC that really show otherwise is getting rather long. Taubes' use of the Pima is only the start!

@Colby: I was always suspicious of them b/c of the supplement stuff. I also find it telling that he invested in a Mexican fast food chain after they were already LC advocates ...

@HD: Not sure if your post was directed at me or Sanjeev. Oddly a lot of people eating badly are still thriving.

@Dawn: Yeah, this obesity stuff is very new. Why do we need to go sooooooooooo far back to solve it? I look back to my own childhood to see the obvious solution - don't eat crap.

I believe our sensitivities to grains and such are probably more do to antibiotic overuse and/or NSAIDS than the grains themselves.

The overeating is more cultural than physiological. Stephan's setpoint theory makes a lot of sense, but I do believe our bodies fight to defend against weight loss more than gain.
Tonus said…
One benefit from reading so much information and opinion from various sites, especially if they disagree on some points, is that it can help us to figure out a diet and lifestyle that is best for us as individuals. Yes, there are disagreements and differences, but that also helps us to recognize the areas that are not in dispute, which can be used as the foundation of a proper diet and exercise regimen.

From there, we should read, learn, and experiment. Incorporate what works, discard what doesn't. Keep reading, keep learning, keep making adjustments as needed. Avoid quick fixes and miracle foods/cures. Seek out information for your own sake, and don't fall into the "he has all the answers" trap.

Especially when it comes to our health and well-being, we really want for someone to provide us with a simple set of instructions that we can follow and that will solve everything. And there will always be people trying to take advantage of that desire. But in the end, there's no substitute for knowing what you're doing.
Anonymous said…
People were waaaay more active. The NEAT was off the chain compared to now. Plus, even a lot of processed food was not processed to the same levels as now. Real food was much easier to come by and people were quite active across the economic spectrum. Thus relatively little obesity possible.

It's also an open question whether the longevity thing will persist, or if it's just an artifact of the cohorts that grew up on real food and high NEATs additionally benefiting from technological advancements. If inner-city black teenagers weighing 300 pounds at age 11 live to be 140, then I'd give the longevity angle more weight, heh.
Sanjeev said…
exercise helps but is NOT needed to remain skinny

> If inner-city black teenagers weighing
> 300 pounds at age 11 live to be 140

are the ONLY ones who never eat "real food".

millions of French people eating highly processed food (cheese & wine) their whole lives don't count?

Inner city black teenagers eating the same way, who never get heavy don't count in your "analysis"?

Billions of asians eating highly processed rice and soy for their entire lives don't count in your "analysis"?

> heh
uh-huh, heh heh heh.