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 ;-)