MY NUTRITIONAL JOURNEY
Blessed (or cursed) with a high metabolism, I got away with merely paying lip service to nutrition guidelines through most of my 20s. Then, in 2010, my food scientist girlfriend (now wife) recommended that I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, which took me down the proverbial rabbit hole. One book led to another. I wasn’t sure where to stop reading. There were so many food “experts” out there, each claiming to know more than others, that it was tempting to give up trying to figure out the ideal diet. Eventually came across Ron Schmid’s Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine: Improving Health and Longevity with Native Nutrition, and that’s when I identified a practical way to go about seeking good nutrition: turning to ancestral wisdom with a contemporary twist.
Schmid’s book is an update of Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, a book by Weston Andrew Price. Price was a Cleveland dentist who lived in the late 19th and early 20th century and wrote a book about his observations of dental degeneration in various societies in the world. Initially, Price observed a correlation between tooth abnormalities (crooked teeth, cavities, malformed jaws, etc.) and health. Price then spent a decade traveling around the world to observe people’s teeth. He observed a strong correlation between tooth abnormalities and diet. Sometimes the contrast was stark, such as when he examined an entire family’s teeth and saw that family members who grew up on processed foods had far worse teeth than family members who grew up on the traditional foods in the area. The implication is that poor diet leads to tooth abnormalities and poor health in general.
Price’s recommendations have a lot in common with Paleo diets, and both of them rely on ancestral wisdom, but the critical distinction between a Price-based diet and a “Paleo” diet is that Price didn’t try to turn the clock thousands of years in the past–a time period for which we have scant data. Price saw real-life aboriginals as well as people living in remote communities in Europe who had no choice but to eat traditional foods.
What did our ancestors eat?
There are advantages to this line of thinking: even if ancestral diets (also known as the Paleo diet on the assumption that our GI tracts haven’t changed much since the beginning of the late paleolithic era) are not the absolute best possible diets, the typical Paleo diet is still a huge step up from a typical American diet. Also, with Paleo diets, you don’t assume that you know everything there is to know about nutrients–and then leave out key nutrients. In other words, the Paleo diet is not structured around chasing after the latest and greatest fad foods. Lastly, the various flavors of Paleo diets tend to share common traits with more mainstream idealized diets, so there isn’t much risk in trying Paleo diets out. (NOTE: There is also some dispute as to whether grains, legumes, and dairy are okay. Strict Paleo dieters would say no, but others point out that there has been SOME amount of evolution since the late paleolithic era, so grains/legumes/dairy should not be written off for everybody. Fermented foods like yogurt are probably also within the scope of Paleo diets.)
Paleo means different things to different people, but some things are simply blatantly NOT Paleo diets. Paleo does not mean extremely meat-heavy diets consisting of feedlot animal products. In my opinion, that is not Paleo. I also do not think that Paleo diets were necessarily all-raw. Cooking can destroy some nutrients, sure, but some foods have more nutrients when cooked than when raw. Furthermore, humans have used fire since well before Paleolithic times, and there is some evidence that cooking foods helped shape our evolution (e.g., jaws); see Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human.
What did our more immediate ancestors eat?
Although diets from thousands of years ago may be relevant today, we do not necessarily need to go back that far, because we have more recent data from Weston Price. A typical aborigine examined by Weston Price ate ~70% raw and cooked greens/veggies, and ~30% wild animals/animal products. (These percentages are by mass, not volume, and can vary substantially from culture to culture. Also note the word “wild” which is very important, as non-wild animal meats tend to be less nutritious and fat-heavy.) Price’s data was imperfect, but I think it’s a good starting point, and I haven’t seen anything that conflicts much with his recommendations. Virtually every nutritionist will tell you that leafy greens, other vegetables, and fruits are good for you, and that lean meats and seafood are good as well. If you were to ask a nutritionist about eating a 70/30 Price diet without naming it as such, you would likely get a nod of approval.1
What are common criticisms of the Paleo or Price diets?
From what I understand, there are four main criticisms of Paleo/Weston Price/Schmid-style diets. The criticisms are in italics. My responses are in regular font:
1. It’s expensive.
It’s also not clear that we NEED to adhere strictly to Price-style diets to get a “grade A” diet. What corners can we cut in order to reduce costs without deleting nutrients? And at what point do we reach the point of diminishing returns? This is a fair point, but I’ll cover cost in other articles.
2. If a Price diet is a “grade A” diet, what’s to say that there is not a “grade A+” diet out there?
What if you could do BETTER than our ancestors? Our understanding of diets keeps changing. E.g., strict vegans don’t withstand disease as well as vegans who bend the rules to eat fish, or eggs and dairy products.
3. A paleo-style diet may be good for the paleolithic era, but it may be incompatible with 21st-century desk-jockey lifestyles.
My response to this is threefold. First, I’d recommend a Price diet over a Paleo diet in the first place as he did look at some cultures in the more-developed world back then, such as the people living in Loetschental Valley in Switzerland. True, modern Switzerland is not like Loetschental Switzerland, but the Loetschental Swiss weren’t exactly living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, either. Second, diet without exercise isn’t as effective, so one should also exercise. Lastly, hunter-gatherers spent a lot of time at rest. They did not spend as much time as one might think fishing/hunting/gathering veggies/mushrooms/eggs/etc.
4. Earth could probably not sustain 7 billion human beings if all of them went on a strict Paleo diet or even a Price diet.
The evidence is still inconclusive. There are some studies that show that organic farming is not more environmentally destructive than “conventional” farming, and I’ve seen at least one study that shows that grass fed/pastured cattle don’t hurt the environment more than feedlot cattle, either, especially when taking into account GHG emissions and other externalities. A proper rotation of grazers is actually not bad for the environment and the animals fertilize the soil and create pits for grasses (see, e.g., Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma). Fisheries are different. I suspect we can’t all just go eat wild-caught fish without destroying entire fish populations. But perhaps we could make do with cod liver oil or fish oil or something, or better yet, seaweed/kelp and other, more sustainable seafoods.
I also think it’s too simplistic to view food costs in isolation. If everyone had to pay more for food but it was better food, and we had better health, we could more than recoup the extra food cost by having lower healthcare costs. And lower healthcare costs lowers everybody’s premiums, since those without healthcare sometimes forgo medical treatment until it gets much more expensive and out of control, and everybody pays that higher bill via emergency room costs. With the savings generated by lower healthcare costs, we could devote more resources into improving farming practices, such as eliminating over-fertilization and mono-crop planting. There may be other side effects as well. The point is, it is premature to state that permaculture can’t work.
In any case, I think the ultimate solution is keeping a lid on population, rather than trying to farm more or to raise more livestock or to catch more fish. I would rather have a smaller number of well-fed, productive people, than 50 billion sickly people eating only starches for every meal because everything else is prohibitively expensive. That’s a topic for another day, though. (I will say here that women with access to education and contraceptives tend to have fewer children, so this may be a self-correcting problem if we can convince more countries to educate females.)
For those of you who want the one-page version of Schmid’s dietary recommendations, he recommends ~70% non-animal foods (mostly veggies) by weight, plus ~30% animal foods (meat, milk, etc.) by weight for European-Americans. See the one-page guide near the beginning of this page.
Human gut flora has changed over time, which impacts how we digest food. And humans themselves have evolved even since the Paleolithic era. So even if we could know for sure what people ate 10,000 years ago, we as a species have changed, and so have our guts, so it’s quite possible that we’ve adapted to eat different types or quantities of food. The concept of paleo diets is good, but treat it as a starting point and feel free to modify it to suit your body’s needs.
Human DNA itself has changed recently enough that some populations have unique adaptations for processing local foods, such as the Inuit adaptation for processing omega-3 fatty acids.
There is some evidence that a carb-heavy diet can lead to mental problems.