Two weeks ago, in my triumphant return to writing, as I am determined to keep calling it, I wrote a piece called Six Reasons You Shouldn’t Take Dietary Advice From Cavemen. It was on my blog and I posted it to the Facebook page, anticipating the usual 300 or so pageviews.
Then the post hit /r/paleo, “the subreddit for modern hunter-gatherers.” /r/paleo is basically two things. The first is people saying “I’m starting a paleo diet, any tips?” followed by a bazillion people giving them recipes and diet tips and telling them how good they’re going to feel now that they’ve become cave people. The second thing is food porn. People posting pictures of steaks and salads and shit to demonstrate just how goddamn cave-like they are.
As you may have deduced by now, my post was not received well there. It got 60-something comments, every single one of them negative, and I will not be addressing them here. What I am addressing is the comments left on the blog itself. All of them are anonymous.
Before I dive into the comments, I have the following clarification. I want to point it out because despite the fact that I already conceded it in the previous post, people continue to attack me on it. This will become a theme as we progress. The clarification is this:
I am not saying that the so-called “paleo” diet is unhealthy.
Ok? Are we clear on that? I agree that it’s a good idea to cut out processed meats like hot dogs and bologna. I agree that too much sugar is not good for you, and that there are probably preservatives that aren’t helping either. What I will NOT concede is that you should avoid foods that have nothing wrong with them just because our ancestors didn’t eat them, as I proved quite comprehensively in my last post. Not only is it impossible to eat the foods our ancestors ate, but on the other side of the coin, it’s stupid to avoid grains just because our ancestors allegedly did.
Think about it. Should we avoid grains because they’re inherently unhealthy? No, because they’re not (more on that later). Should we avoid them because our ancestors did? No, because as I showed in the previous post, they didn’t. And so what if they did? Should we eat like our ancestors because they were healthier than we are? No, because most of them died before the age of 40, mostly because their teeth rotted out.
That is the point that I was trying to make in my previous post. It’s not that the diet is inherently good or bad. That’s irrelevant. The point is that there is a substantial subset of people who are singing high praise of certain foods and rejecting others, not based on modern science or nutrition, but based on completely delusional ideas about the nature of the prehistoric lifestyle and its benefits or lack thereof.
And that is stupid.
And that is why I write this blog in the first place. Now, onward.
1. WHEAT IS INHERENTLY EVIL
The very first comment that was left on the post was a supporter of mine. I don’t know who she is, but I appreciate her.
Unfortunately, my blissful expectation that the post would be received mostly positively was shattered shortly thereafter by this gem.
That seemed like a bold claim, given that celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction. More specifically, “If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction produces inflammation that damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients.” That’s from the Mayo Clinic, which is considered somewhat of an authority on the goings on in the human body. Autoimmune, by definition, means that the wheat is not the problem. It means your body is attacking itself in response to an outside stimulus (wheat) that is not inherently problematic. Allergies are also autoimmune reactions, because there’s nothing wrong with cat hair or peanuts or pollen unless your body thinks there is, and then it overreacts to encountering them.
Gluten ataxia is also a very dangerous disease, but it’s also autoimmune. It’s your problem, not the wheat’s. There is a theory that there’s a form of gluten sensitivity that is attributable to neither celiac nor gluten ataxia, and which affects up to 7% of the population, but it hasn’t been clinically isolated or proven, and even if it does exist, it’s a small number of people. The takeaway is that there’s nothing inherently wrong with wheat. On the contrary, wheat contains vitamins B1, B2, B3, E, folic acid, calcium, phosphorus, zinc, copper, iron, and fiber, all of which are important to maintaining a healthy body. And a cup of wheat has five grams of protein, 151 calories, and virtually no fat. So if you don’t have celiac disease or gluten ataxia, you’re not doing yourself any favors by avoiding it.
2. I’M TOO FOCUSED ON THE TITLE
This guy is actually a friend of mine, and I’ll just paraphrase my response to him. I know you can’t eat corn on the paleo diet (although as per Sylvia’s comment, corn isn’t evil either). I chose corn as an example to show how drastically human foods have changed in the last few millennia. And yes, my beef is mainly with the name. But it’s more than that. The fact is that “paleo” people think they’ve tapped into some secret formula based on the idea that ancient people were healthier and that everyone should just eat like them. The “fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meat diet” may indeed be a viable way to maintain health, but there’s no reason to think it’s the perfect way to eat, and there’s certainly no reason to defend it on the grounds that our ancestors ate that way.
I also know that the screenshot I took is not a perfect example, but it doesn’t change the fact that “those who actually know how to eat ‘paleo'” do not exist. That’s why I used so many more examples in the post, to point out that there are NO foods available today that paleolithic man could have eaten. If the premise of the paleo diet is “I eat like this because paleolithic man ate like this” — and you’d be hard pressed to argue that such is not the premise of the diet — then it doesn’t have a leg to stand on. There simply is no way to eat the foods that paleolithic humans ate because every food we eat, along with humanity itself, has evolved enormously since then.
3. I CAN’T SAY THAT EATING PALEO IS IMPOSSIBLE BECAUSE I’M A BAD RESEARCHER
Apparently I’m not supposed to use Wikipedia because high schoolers aren’t allowed to use it, which seems like a non-sequitur. If what this person is in fact driving at is that Wikipedia is unreliable, then this person is wrong. Not only has the reliability of Wikipedia been favorably compared to that of the Encyclopedia Britannica, but everything on it is sourced. If you don’t like the fact that I quoted Wikipedia on the domestication of the chicken, how about the same exact quote from its original source, the World Poultry Journal, catalogued here by the University of Cambridge? Is the University of Cambridge an acceptable source for you?
He also says that the only reliable sources come from sites ending in .edu, .gov, and .org, and not from .com. Well listen up, jackass. I may work in advertising, but I started college in physics and I’m trained as a journalist. I know how to do my fucking research. It’s mayoclinic.com. It’s discovermagazine.com. It’s scientificamerican.com. It’s nature.com. And it’s wikipedia.org. Your argument is invalid.
His next point, I think, is that it’s impossible to know what cavemen ate because they didn’t write it down. I say “I think” because that’s possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard, to the extent that I wasn’t sure a real human being capable of putting each leg in a different side of his pants would actually say it. I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and shit a better argument than that. I guess we can’t know that some dinosaurs ate meat and some ate plants because they didn’t document it either? And we certainly can’t know that wooly mammoths once walked the earth. How could they have written “ME A WULY MAMITH WAZ HERE” on the cave walls? They didn’t even have thumbs.
The fact is that we can tell what paleolithic people ate, and much more, by using the massive and multifaceted scientific field known as archaeology. We can examine nitrogen isotopes to find out how much protein they ate, and whence that protein came. We can examine carbon isotopes to find out what kinds of plants they ate (a process I explicitly wrote about in my original post). We can examine their teeth to see if they were capable of crushing seeds and nuts, or examine their body mechanics to see if they were capable of throwing projectiles. And most tellingly, we can examine their bones. Every molecule in the body of an adult animal came from something it ate, and some of them are specific and telling enough to know what that something was.
He then volunteers that “it’s just common sense that they ate what was within reach, being fruits, veggies, and meat.” But within reach to whom? Ancient peoples living near the Mediterranean might well have had access to wild fruits and vegetables, given the warm, temperate climate, and easy access to fish in the oceans, but what about those people living in Arctic climates? The traditional Inuit diet is so scarce in carbohydrates that they’ve evolved especially large livers to turn protein to glucose for energy. They get Vitamin A, C, and D from the livers, skins, and brains of the animals they hunt, and upwards of 85% of their calories come from fat and protein. That’s more than a grizzly bear eats.
The Goitaca people of Brazil, on the other hand, subsisted mostly on fruits, roots, honey, and fish, an entirely different nutritional profile. Now, all this is sort of irrelevant because a million years ago, humans hadn’t spread to all those places, but that doesn’t mean you know what they ate by pure intuition. That’s what science is for.
This commenter’s final argument is that “wheats are only excluded because they didn’t have the technology to refine them.” This is, as I hope you’ll all realize, equally stupid. Birds eat grains, and the only technology they have to “refine” them is a beak and a digestive system. Humans are more than strong enough to crush grass seeds in their teeth, and as demonstrated by the study I quoted in the original post, their digestive systems were more than capable of handling that type of carbs as well. Check and mate.
4. IT WORKED FOR THIS PERSON
The first paragraph here is fine. The name is dumb, but the recommendations are good. I’ve conceded that that’s probably true. But just because you lost weight on it and feel great doesn’t mean it’s the best diet, or even a good one. Here’s a person who’s never felt better because of a bacon-based diet. Here’s someone on the leptin diet. Here’s someone whose diet consists of having hormones from a pregnant woman injected into them (the HcG diet), and they’ve never felt better. And here’s a nutrition professor who lost 27 pounds eating only the kinds of foods you can buy at gas stations. Losing weight and feeling good, especially anecdotally, are not useful metrics as to the healthiness of a diet.
5. I SHOULD BE NEUTERED
This one was followed by a response from another anonymous commenter inviting the original commenter to “suck your own dick, bitch.” That doesn’t really contribute to the conversation but I thought it was funny.
6-10. THIS WHOLE ESSAY
This person wrote 971 words in rebuttal to my article. Most of them very seriously missed the mark, and 15 of them are “peleo,” which is either a typo or the Spanish word for Peleus, the father of Achilles. I don’t think the author is referring to the Peleus diet when he talks, but I can’t rule anything out.
I was going to take this giant series of comments one point at a time, but this person has a serious problem with ordinal numbers and the concept of lists. He/she/it lists his/her/its points as first, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, ninth, second, and in each one is such a voluminous spray of stream-of-consciousness word excreta that to try to take it point by point, as it were, is impossible. So that’s why I’m not doing that. Also, it becomes increasingly obvious through reading the comments that this person hasn’t actually read the whole post, or possibly any of it. Anyway, you can read that whole damn thing in all its spluttering, indignant glory if you want, but if not, here’s the gist:
- I have an agenda
- Vegans are annoying too and maybe I should write about them (I did. Twice.)
- I’m too sensitive
- The photos of the naked chick and the muscly dude are not good examples (which is why I didn’t use them as examples)
- Something about chickens and eggs
- Something about how that naked picture I found on Google Images has to do with ordering deer off the internet
- Being on a paleo diet isn’t the same as being paleo (you marinate with that one)
- I should still brush my teeth
- “NO actually the diet isn’t based off of what our ancestors ate 2 million years ago, you may have found a source stating that, but again it is a bad example.”
- humans are not chimpanzees
- there IS science supporting the paleo diet , I just haven’t found it because…
- I have an agenda
- My point about the evolution of gut bacteria is wrong because if I ate the same food for a year, I would feel bad
- I have an agenda
I don’t know why this person thinks I have an agenda, or what that agenda might be, but they’re quite convinced that that’s the case. Moving on.
11. IT’S ALL ABOUT GLYCEMIC INDEX
For the uninformed (this included me — despite appearances, I don’t actually know everything and have to do quite a lot of research before writing almost anything on this blog), glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how fast the blood sugar rises in a person’s body after eating a certain food on a scale from 0 to 100. It is important to note that it is not an objective metric, but is instead expressed relative to the blood sugar increase from eating pure glucose, that being 100. Obviously the degree by which your blood sugar rises will also depend on how much of something you eat, which is why a jelly bean is not the same as a loaf of bread.
There’s another concept called glycemic load, which weighs the GI of a food against its serving size and returns another number. That’s much more telling. According to Harvard Health, a serving of Wonder bread — the villainous face of the “Standard American Diet,” or “SAD” (har har) — has a glycemic load of 10. A hamburger bun comes in at 9. A Coke is 16. Coco Pops are 20. A Fruit Roll-up, the juggernaut of American decadence and decay, weighs in at a hefty 24. But let’s compare to some paleo foods. Honey (approved, before you all jump down my throats about it) has a glycemic load of 12. A banana is 16. Dried dates are 18. Raisins are 28. Unsweetened apple juice is 30. There are plenty of low-GL “paleo” foods as well, like grapefruit at 3 and carrots at 2, but they’re balanced by low-GL foods that are decidedly not paleo, like the Super Supreme pizza from Pizza Hut (9), shortbread cookies (10), and Peanut M&Ms (6). Feel free to peruse the list if you want, but there’s not much of a correlation between “paleo” foods and low GL.
Besides, you’ll notice that he says nothing about the health of certain foods outside of their effects on your appetite. So anyone with the willpower to just, I don’t know, eat less would experience the same health benefits of the paleo diet. Like that guy a few paragraphs back who ate mainly Twinkies and lost 27 pounds. As far as this commenter’s point goes, the paleo diet is just an appetite suppressor. Which I don’t think is what they were going for.
And finally, as far as I can tell, this commenter is implying that eating foods with high GI prompts an insulin rush in response, which keeps you from feeling full and thus makes you want to eat more, so you get fat. But is that point even correct? Does insulin increase appetite? Not according to this study from the Journal of Clinical Endocrinol Metabolism. The whole text of the study is available online, but I’ll summarize. First, there are two hormones you should know about: ghrelin and leptin. Leptin makes you feel full, ghrelin makes you feel hungry. If your blood sugar is low, your body releases ghrelin to make you want to eat, and once you’ve eaten a lot, leptin is released and you stop wanting to eat. What the study says is that glucose metabolism itself, not the insulin that’s released as a response, is what prompts leptin. Insulin is unrelated to appetite, except that it’s also produced, alongside leptin, when you eat a lot of carbs.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Think about the most carb-heavy day in every American’s year: Thanksgiving. Yams, marshmallows, pie, stuffing, rolls, cranberry sauce … the traditional Thanksgiving dinner is like an orgy of carbohydrates, if they could have sex, which they can’t. And afterwards, is everyone a ravenous hunger-powered firestorm of energy? No, they are not. They are probably comatose, and will comment the next morning on how they still feel full. Next point.
12. MY STORY SUCKS AND IS BAD
13. I’M TRYING TO BE MADDOX
This comparison came up more than once. Maddox, for the uninitiated, is a guy who’s been writing “The Best Page In The Universe” since 1997. He kind of dropped off the map for a while, to the point that I assumed he had stopped writing, but I just checked and apparently he’s back with a vengeance. His page’s tagline is “This page is about me and why everything I like is great. If you disagree with anything you find on this page, you are wrong.” I can see how people who disagree with me would draw certain parallels, but there’s a key difference. I use actual facts to write about actual things. He writes about his own opinions on stuff like E3 and the phrase “pun intended” and why New York sucks. Those are subjective. His writing has always been hilarious, but it’s ranting for the sake of ranting. Not the same.
14. I MAY BE RIGHT, BUT I’M MEAN
Live and let live, right guys? If people are happy, leave them alone. Let them keep thinking that they’re making a good choice for themselves based on science and evidence and thinking, when in fact they’re not. After all, there’s only one thing worse than allowing people to keep living in a state of willful delusion, and that’s being a grumpy pants.
15. I COULDN’T BE MORE WRONG OR MORE OF A JACKASS
16. THE MAGNITUDE OF MY SELF-SATISFACTION IS ECLIPSED ONLY BY MY VENEER-THIN APPRECIATION OF BASIC PRINCIPLES OF DIET AND NUTRITION
This is by far the most articulate sentence that anyone has ever used to insult me, so I was a little taken aback by it until I realized that if my appreciation is so thin, how would it eclipse my (admittedly enormous) self-satisfaction? The metaphor doesn’t work. Oh well, better luck next time.
This comment needs some dissection, so I’ll go through it. First, he says that it’s irrelevant that the bacteria in our gut have evolved to digest our new foods because the gut is still exposed to those byproducts. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of a symbiotic relationship. If we die, the bacteria have no food source. If they die, we can’t use the food we eat. The bacteria in the human gut evolve alongside us and our changing diets, and they only stay in there because they work. If one of those species suddenly evolved to produce cyanide, it would rapidly kill its host and that’d be the end of that branch of the evolutionary tree. He also points out that just because bacteria can digest something doesn’t mean it’s harmless, which is true. And a total non-sequitur. See symbiosis above.
Then he slaps this line on the table: “Several things are certain: they did not drink milk or eat grains and beans in any significant quantities.” But that’s not true. It is true that they didn’t drink milk, that started about 7,500 years ago. But as I pointed out in that study about A. afarensis, human ancestors WERE eating grains long before the Paleolithic Era even started. You know, it’s very hard to motivate to link every goddamn source I use if people aren’t even going to read them…
17. I SHOULD SHUT UP
I’m not sure why, but I fond this comment hilarious. Perhaps because I’m imagining very long pauses between sentences. Think about it.
Anyway, this person claims to be eating paleo on advice from a doctor (who has more knowledge than me), which I find supremely unlikely. It’s possible the doctor told her to cut back on grains or processed foods, but the probability that a doctor used the phrase “paleo diet” in an official explanation is about as likely as that peanuts have discovered space travel.
Her next point is that she lost weight and feels better, which I addressed in point four.
And finally, there’s this part: “why is it that jerks like you and the media want to make fun, call us stupid, elitist, etc.” This demonstrates how truly confused this person is, since as far as I can tell the media collectively fellates the proponents of any new alternative diet. And I sure as shit am not calling you elitist. That would mean you’re entitled and feel superior (apparently true), but normally people who feel superior don’t complain so much.
18. MY SUPPORTERS
The news wasn’t all bad. One person actually wrote me an email:
So that brightened my day.
A few final points, based on the reddit comments:
I am attacking the premise of the diet, not the people on it. Sure, the people are annoying a lot of the time, as are vegans, people on the South Beach diet, Slimfast diet, Atkins a few years ago, and so on. My illustration of the number of fucks it is appropriate to give about these things still stands. That said, all the people (and they are numerous) saying that I’m attacking people over what they eat are incorrect. They may be perfectly lovely people. Statistically, some of them probably are. But they are hitching their collective wagons to a stupid horse, and if I shoot the horse, the wagon’s going to feel it. That’s the way this works.
I am not talking about the effectiveness or safety of the diet because, again, I don’t care. I apparently cannot reiterate this point enough. What I am talking about is the practice of eating by a certain set of criteria based on pure delusion. Commenters on reddit seem to be under the impression that if the diet is healthy but the name is stupid, the premise still stands. Wrong. If you said “I’m only eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables because that’s what Adam and Eve ate and Adam lived to be 930 without even putting on sunscreen [source],” you might well live an extraordinarily healthy life. But that would still be a stupendously stupid thing to say. I live a healthy life by eating fruits, nuts, meats, and vegetables, but I also eat bread and potatoes and cheese and yogurt and ice cream and jelly beans. You can eat what you want, and you don’t have to justify it to anyone. But if you do decide to justify it, it had better not be like this.
I am not basing my understanding of the diet on that one guy on Facebook. He’s not a good example, and I shouldn’t have used it, but he came up while I was writing and seemed like an entertaining extra point to add. Lots of people seem to have skimmed the article, assumed that all six points were based on the strawman that that one person didn’t eat paleo properly and so the whole thing is bunk, and then written me an email to that effect. Such is obviously not the case, which is why a few paragraphs later I used the sentence “And it’s not just this one guy’s breakfast,” followed by a long list of supposedly paleo foods and the earliest known dates of their consumption. And the other points (paleolithic people actually did eat grains, their bodies are not like ours, they weren’t that healthy anyway, etc.) still stand.
Now, let’s sum up again. I know you probably think I’m summing up too much, but people seem to be basically ignoring the points I’m making and I am sure as shit not revisiting this again.
The paleo diet claims that you will be healthier if you eat fruits, nuts, and meats and avoid grains, beans, and potatoes, because that’s how our ancient ancestors ate. What proponents of this diet fail to realize is that our ancient ancestors were no healthier or better-adapted to their foods than we are now, so there’s no point in trying to emulate their diet. Furthermore, proponents of the diet are including foods like fish, poultry, fruits, and vegetables because our ancestors supposedly ate them — despite the fact that they didn’t —and excluding grains and complex carbohydrates because our ancestors supposedly didn’t eat them — despite the fact that they did. And meanwhile, they’ll happily drink coffee, eat modern fruits and veggies, cook their food, and so on, despite the fact that our ancestors could have done no such thing. The only conclusion is that the so-called “paleo” diet has no grounding whatsoever in what paleolithic people actually ate. It’s just a set of arbitrary rules — and I say “arbitrary” because it claims to be based on the litmus test of “did paleo people eat this,” which it clearly is not — for eating a way that you think makes you healthier. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. That’s not my concern. My concern is that there is no reason to take it seriously by any rules, let alone the ones it sets for itself, because it disregards all the scientific evidence about the people it claims to emulate.
Or to sum up even further (paraphrasing redditor g33kfish, who summarized my own argument better than I did), the paleo diet is based on three premises and a conclusion:
Premise 1: paleolithic man was healthier than is modern man.
Premise 2: paleolithic man did not eat grains, starches, or beans, opting instead for meats, fruits, and nuts.
Premise 3: humankind hasn’t appreciably evolved since paleolithic man, at least in the digestive sense.
Conclusion: I should eat the way that paleolithic man ate.
Premise one is grievously flawed, as there is no reason to assume that paleolithic people were better-nourished or healthier than we are. Premise two is also flawed, as archaeological evidence has shown that paleolithic people did not, in fact, eat that way. Premise three is possibly the most flawed, as our bodies have been altered drastically in the last couple of million years. Our brains are three times larger, our entire skeletal geometry has changed (we can run and throw things now), our teeth are less pointy, we’re less hairy, we can digest lactose, we can form complex languages thanks to additional face and tongue muscles, and so on and so on. But even if all three of those premises were true, which they are decidedly not…
These people are doing a stupendously shitty job at executing the conclusion.
I’ll see you next week, minions.