2

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Falsifying the Paleo Diet

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created February 02, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Hi All,

To see the other side of the coin and develop a better side of our own, what logical & substantiated arguments can you make against the Paleo diet as you define it? Saying "there is no counter-argument" is, I feel, an intellectually cheap way out. I feel by sounding out how well we know certain parts of Paleo by, for example, noting internal inconsistencies, we can make Paleo more scientific- that is able to generate falsifiable hypotheses. By doing this we'll help ourselves & future generations understand our physiology better, perhaps giving us all better lives. Without a coherent Paleo theory, it's hard to make a case to any funding agency to research this stuff, which leaves scientists marinated in SAD conducting, publishing, reviewing, and editing most research in this area.

Eager to hear your thoughts, Mike

C45d7e96acd83d3a6f58193dbc140e86

on July 25, 2012
at 06:56 PM

I am not saying the world can't be fed a paleo diet, I am saying there would be an extensive and expensive transition period.

96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on July 25, 2012
at 06:03 PM

This is utter bull$#!+. Google Polyface Farms and read Joel Salatin's books, or listen to the interviews with him on various podcasts such as Robb Wolf's or Sean Croxton's. You can feed the whole planet with paleo, and it'll be less toxic, less damaging to the environment, will use zero oil, and far healthier for everyone, including the cows. I agree with the rest of your answer.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on February 04, 2011
at 03:31 PM

@wjones: Is something that can't be falsified or even rigorously defined a theory? Defining Paleo so narrowly helps you to understand it, particularly when it doesn't work. (It's easy and sometimes inconsequential to explain something that works.)

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on February 04, 2011
at 03:29 PM

Why is the validity of the Paleo diet tied to the validity of evolution? It seems poor argumentation especially since many justify their Paleo approach through an "ends justify the means" rationale.

Af842c68e3d07fa0e35b4274f3acaeec

on February 02, 2011
at 03:31 PM

People have made paleo very varied, but the premises of the diet(no grains, no legumes, no dairy, little sugar, little processing), can still easily tested. The effects of things like grass-fed butter, or even full fat dairy and such, can be tested seperately from paleo.

531db50c958cf4d5605ee0c5ae8a57be

(8878)

on February 02, 2011
at 03:07 PM

As stated in the question, "Without a coherent Paleo theory, it's hard to make a case to any funding agency to research this stuff..." Or for that matter, it's hard to poke holes in a theory that's not coherent. My meat only diet is quite different from a lacto-paleo or starch-heavy approach. All can be considered paleo and all may or may not have their pitfalls.

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7 Answers

4
79331a19fcab06d7183c1e564f571c8b

(223)

on February 02, 2011
at 02:41 PM

I'm all for falsification, but this presupposes a hard definition of "paleo" that doesn't exist. Any interesting experiment would need to look at a more specific dietary hypothesis.

Even among particular subcategories of Paleo (Cordain, Harris, Wolf, etc.) there are a great many free variables. It's hard for something so vague to be easily falsified.

That said, perhaps one might attempt to undermine various assumptions that are common to the paleo community. If science were to somehow prove that refined grains positively (or even neutrally) impact human health, for instance, then you might consider "paleo" in general falsified.

Alternatively, one might go after the broad tenants of specific of paleo "schools". The Cordain or Wolf version of Paleo might be undermined by evidence that full-fat dairy is of near-uniform benefit (hard in itself. what is a "benefit"). Yet this would little effect the distinct hypotheses of Harris or Guyenet.

531db50c958cf4d5605ee0c5ae8a57be

(8878)

on February 02, 2011
at 03:07 PM

As stated in the question, "Without a coherent Paleo theory, it's hard to make a case to any funding agency to research this stuff..." Or for that matter, it's hard to poke holes in a theory that's not coherent. My meat only diet is quite different from a lacto-paleo or starch-heavy approach. All can be considered paleo and all may or may not have their pitfalls.

Af842c68e3d07fa0e35b4274f3acaeec

on February 02, 2011
at 03:31 PM

People have made paleo very varied, but the premises of the diet(no grains, no legumes, no dairy, little sugar, little processing), can still easily tested. The effects of things like grass-fed butter, or even full fat dairy and such, can be tested seperately from paleo.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on February 04, 2011
at 03:31 PM

@wjones: Is something that can't be falsified or even rigorously defined a theory? Defining Paleo so narrowly helps you to understand it, particularly when it doesn't work. (It's easy and sometimes inconsequential to explain something that works.)

2
4145b36f1488224964edac6258b75aff

(7821)

on February 02, 2011
at 03:06 PM

Various flavors of Paleo can easily generate falsifiable hypotheses; the focus on wheat, for example, suggests plenty of experiments.

The part that's hard to argue against is the fundamental paleo axiom of "don't eat what you didn't evolve to eat". To falsify that, you'd have to show that humans should eat what we didn't evolve to eat while avoiding what we evolved to eat. Who would expect that to be true? I mean virtually by definition, if you can eat it without health problems, you evolved to eat it. The trick is figuring out where that line is, where the health problems start, and even that's so highly individual as to render most generalized testing moot.

2
4b97e3bb2ee4a9588783f5d56d687da1

on February 02, 2011
at 02:41 PM

Loose Paleo is easy to poke holes in...

Things like omega6 balance, fructose, lectins etc are all arguable(and argued often) But an Organic, Natural, Whole Foods diet, eating food that ate what it's supposed to eat, is hard to contest. Evolution is difficult to disprove.

Most of the counter arguments become n=1, were all different and will react even slightly different to macro intake, specific foods etc based on environment and genetics. Arguing against one thing for one person is again easy, but for most, paleo is about toxin reduction, who can argue against that?

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on February 04, 2011
at 03:29 PM

Why is the validity of the Paleo diet tied to the validity of evolution? It seems poor argumentation especially since many justify their Paleo approach through an "ends justify the means" rationale.

1
C45d7e96acd83d3a6f58193dbc140e86

on July 23, 2012
at 09:50 PM

I would say the problem with paleo is that taking out cheap grains, much of the world would be starving right now. As far as the intricacies of paleo, many people adapt quite well to a variety of whole foods diets. No one would argue that more broccoli is better than more twinkies, but would many of us here on this board do well eating like the Inuit, or Okinawans? Probably not, as we are somewhere in the middle. The same with the Masai. The beauty of paleo is that if we get rid of the psuedo-foods, much of the rest can truly come down to n=1 experimentation.

96440612cf0fcf366bf5ad8f776fca84

(19413)

on July 25, 2012
at 06:03 PM

This is utter bull$#!+. Google Polyface Farms and read Joel Salatin's books, or listen to the interviews with him on various podcasts such as Robb Wolf's or Sean Croxton's. You can feed the whole planet with paleo, and it'll be less toxic, less damaging to the environment, will use zero oil, and far healthier for everyone, including the cows. I agree with the rest of your answer.

C45d7e96acd83d3a6f58193dbc140e86

on July 25, 2012
at 06:56 PM

I am not saying the world can't be fed a paleo diet, I am saying there would be an extensive and expensive transition period.

1
D2e7e4cb2ec597242ee30fc3d81439b0

on July 23, 2012
at 09:35 PM

The concern I have about the argument that it must be good to eat like our ancestors is that for reasons having nothing to do with diet, our ancestors died at an early age. Hunter gatherers 50,000 years ago had a life expectancy of what, 25 years? My point is, they did not die of cardiovascular heart disease. They died of living in the elements, from animal attacks, from infections that are easily cured today, etc. So in general, we cannot conclude that our 70+ year lives are going to be healthiest if we eat like they did. For instance, maybe meat is bad for you because of the saturated fat, but this really only becomes a significant problem after 50 years of life.

1
154d799847153f5589f99496a9bdbb71

on February 02, 2011
at 02:41 PM

The thing that could falsify paleo for me is if someone could demonstrate that:

  1. Human adaptation to food is actually orders of magnitude faster than I currently understand (say on the order of centuries rather than tens of millennia)
  2. Selection pressure has been strong on humans even with civilization.

I tend to think that evolution is quite slow and even slower when you bring in societies that look out for the welfare of their citizens regardless of their fitness (which I'm not arguing against). It is, as you say, a bit intellectually dishonest to say there is no possible counter argument. Dairy is a perfect example of a food that some people might have adapted to just fine.

-2
Cc73a0c32175bd11929dffab8a2b0a6c

on July 23, 2012
at 10:03 PM

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