15

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Paleo epistemology

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created March 10, 2010 at 1:33 PM

The Eades-Colpo smackdown got me thinking about how I don't really understand much about the arguments against paleo. The arguments for it certainly seem extremely plausible to me (agricultural is only 10,000 years old, etc.), and lot's of us swear by the results: fat loss, better sleep, lower blood pressure, more energy, etc.

On the other hand, the science is a little beyond me. (I'm an intelligent guy, but I did my graduate work in political philosophy.) Dr. Eades, Kurt, Stephan, et al, seem very bright; but unless I go back to school and get a degree in biochemistry/ molecular biology, I can't really know that their interpretation of the data is the most reliable.

So while I've learned a lot from all the great paleo blogs, I think it's always a little risky to only talk to people who agree with your position, and one should never assume that everyone who disagrees with you is just an idiot.

With that said, what do people think are the strongest and most compelling arguments against recreating the paleo metabolism?

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on December 09, 2010
at 10:00 PM

Simple: because our fat stores are largely saturated fat. Most land animals are roughly equal portions MUFA/SUFA, you certainly shouldn't have large amounts of PUFA in your stored fat. Peter has talked many times about how palmitic acid evolved to be the metabolic signal for fat metabolism for this reason (http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com/search?q=palmitic+acid)

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on December 09, 2010
at 03:45 PM

Why would starvation favor "running our metabolism on saturated fat" vs. all types of fat over CHO?

4e184df9c1ed38f61febc5d6cf031921

(5005)

on September 09, 2010
at 07:39 AM

Actually, undomesticated strawberries are beautifully sweet - they grow wild in lots of parts of Europe and I've eaten them often and they are divine. Similarly, wild bilberries are sweet (they are like tiny blueberries), wild raspberries and blackberries.. Wild hazlenuts / cobnuts are delicious and were eaten in quantities by paleolithic people, as were wild chestnuts. Acorns are still not edible and have nothing to do with, say, walnuts, brazils etc.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 06, 2010
at 07:16 PM

It was certainly long enough to affect our lactose tolerance. And I'm not really talking about the SAD, but things like bread and tortillas and whatnot

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on May 05, 2010
at 11:24 PM

There is nothing more natural than killing for food. I've always thought that those opposed to eating meat on moral grounds were completely disconnected from the natural world. It's our ability to regret all the killing for food that makes us human. Just sayin'.

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 05, 2010
at 10:25 PM

10,000 years just isn't very long on evolutionary timescales, and the SAD's been around for what... a couple of decades?

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:42 PM

The fact that we can't feed everybody on Paleo does not mean that Paleo is a nutritionally bad diet; it just means that we've overshot the planet's carrying capacity.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:23 PM

Yeah, but this is a good thing. Overpopulation is a big deal in the world, and slowly reducing our population would allow us all to share the world and eat better

03aeff8d87a3b53a449b5b8e9158da98

(3268)

on March 11, 2010
at 02:43 AM

Melissa, Please don't take this the wrong way, but I've been very impressed with how "tough" your posts are. That's a compliment! I don't want to turn this into the Paleo dating site, but you remind me of this fiery redhead I knew in grad school, who was very opinionated, and the more she stood her ground, the more I liked her. Whoops... sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have that third glass of wine with dinner! LOL

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 11, 2010
at 02:32 AM

When we used to raise calves, I had to do what I called "transfer affection". I had to focus on a new bucket-fed calf before I could dismiss the feeder steer that had been my focus before. Eating meat and loving animals is a difficult mix.

Da9e3c7c4d81dd2c3d84e8b1e0e5cb10

(482)

on March 10, 2010
at 05:01 PM

I think this is a great answer: "thinking in evolutionary terms doesn't necessarily tell us very much about what's optimal." For one, it's not like there is complete consensus among all anthropologists about what the composition of the paleo diet was. For another, there is the issue about whether "survival of the fittest" is tilted towards procreation, and the conflict between what supports that versus longevity. But if the choice is between evolutionary and industrial, it's not much of a stretch to see that modern foods aren't all good or even benign.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 10, 2010
at 01:44 PM

I have no degree either and some of the intricate science stuff is out of my realm, but I have to trust my gut instincts on this one Paleo). It sounds sensible and the results prove it out.

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9 Answers

19
15d23403fb836f2b506f4f3ad2c03356

(1219)

on March 10, 2010
at 05:07 PM

The best argument against strict paleo is that it is impossible. Just about every food we have available today is the product of thousands of years of co-evolution. Let's take a good paleo food for example - say, beef. Ok, cows didn't exist thousands of years ago. They were aurochs then and probably ate differently than cows do today, produing meat with different nutritional elements. This is true for any domesticated animal. How about strawbarries? Undomesticated strawberries were small and extremely tart. You wouldn't like them. Nuts? They were mildly toxic and bitter until humans started to domesticate them. Try an acorn and you will know how nuts used to taste. Potatoes and avocados are from the new world so they're not stricly paleo either. Read Guns Germs and Steel for a decent discussion of co-evolution.

Another argument against strict paleo is that it relies on cherry picked evidence. I don't like Cordain because of this -- he identifies non-paleo foods and then finds what's wrong with them. Putting aside my point that almost all modern foods are non-paleo, this approach has a big problem: there are bad things to say about any food. Spend enough time on the AJCN archives and you will see what I mean.

I think a "modified paleo" is a better diet scheme to defend. Try to fix a few of the more fundamental features of our diet that have changed in ways that really seem (based on robust evidence) to produce disease. Examples include:

  1. The omega 3/6 imbalance. Try to balance 3 and 6 and to restrict consumption of both to under 4% of calories, in aggregate.

  2. Inadequate vit D. This isn't so much about diet as lifestyle. Thankfully, you can keep your modern indoor lifestyles and still obtain sufficient vit D by taking D3 supplements. I would avoid the excess retinol of cod liver oil, however.

  3. Mineral deficiencies. For Westeners, especially ones eating well (like paleo eaters), calcium and magnesium are the most likely deficiencies (calcium deficiency may be simply due to rampant vit D deficiencies and magnesium deficiency is due to fact that it is found in most natural water sources but not in tap or bottled water).

  4. Excess fructose. Amounts obtainable from a few pieces of fruit are fine, but eating fruit, soda, and dessert will break you liver - and then your pancreas.

  5. Gluten. I think gluten is a problem only for a minority of people. For now, though, I would avoid it on a cautionary principle. There is enough evidence that it is producing disease that it's better to avoid until you know it's not a problem for you - and knowing that isn't possible today (from a practical perspective).

4e184df9c1ed38f61febc5d6cf031921

(5005)

on September 09, 2010
at 07:39 AM

Actually, undomesticated strawberries are beautifully sweet - they grow wild in lots of parts of Europe and I've eaten them often and they are divine. Similarly, wild bilberries are sweet (they are like tiny blueberries), wild raspberries and blackberries.. Wild hazlenuts / cobnuts are delicious and were eaten in quantities by paleolithic people, as were wild chestnuts. Acorns are still not edible and have nothing to do with, say, walnuts, brazils etc.

8
E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on March 10, 2010
at 04:15 PM

I think the only unique thing to 'paleo epistemology' is the intuition that our evolutionary past is likely to provide a strong model as to what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. It's more of a useful heuristic than a theoretical position or doctrine.

Of course it's a substantive empirical question whether thinking in terms of evolution does provide useful answers to these sorts of questions. Even though everything biological obviously ultimately occurred through evolution, thinking in evolutionary terms doesn't necessarily tell us very much about what's optimal. That evolutionary reasoning does provide simple and powerful answers, is fortunately true. For example, during periods of scarcity we would obviously have to run our metabolism on saturated fat, so it's prima facie implausible that such a metabolic set up would be harmful. Similarly the limits on our evolutionary niche, e.g. omega3:6, potassium:sodium ratio, being fixed, mean that our evolutionary history offers powerful predictors.

Clearly where evolutionary reasoning is most powerful is where we see correlation between evolutionary trends and other harder factors, like limited carbohydrate->the problems of hyperinsulinemia.

Da9e3c7c4d81dd2c3d84e8b1e0e5cb10

(482)

on March 10, 2010
at 05:01 PM

I think this is a great answer: "thinking in evolutionary terms doesn't necessarily tell us very much about what's optimal." For one, it's not like there is complete consensus among all anthropologists about what the composition of the paleo diet was. For another, there is the issue about whether "survival of the fittest" is tilted towards procreation, and the conflict between what supports that versus longevity. But if the choice is between evolutionary and industrial, it's not much of a stretch to see that modern foods aren't all good or even benign.

4e40d2b9e1a762949a25b958762aa10d

(762)

on December 09, 2010
at 03:45 PM

Why would starvation favor "running our metabolism on saturated fat" vs. all types of fat over CHO?

E35e3d76547b18096a59c90029e7e107

(15613)

on December 09, 2010
at 10:00 PM

Simple: because our fat stores are largely saturated fat. Most land animals are roughly equal portions MUFA/SUFA, you certainly shouldn't have large amounts of PUFA in your stored fat. Peter has talked many times about how palmitic acid evolved to be the metabolic signal for fat metabolism for this reason (http://high-fat-nutrition.blogspot.com/search?q=palmitic+acid)

7
0d2dec01a5ed9363a9915e111ae13f7e

on March 10, 2010
at 02:56 PM

One does need to "own" the information and apply it for themselves! It can be a long view towards the truth behind any nutritional approach. You are onto the best bloggers (Eades, Stephan Guyenet, Petro Dobromylskyj, Kurt Harris, Don Matesz), read old posts, read comments, make note of your own confirmation bias and follow tangent discssions that counter what you have come to know/believe. I have read plenty of Matt Stone and Anthony Colpo's, The PCRM, Ornish, T Collin Campbell, etc, writing to see that the "better" bloggers above have a more clear and deeper analysis of the proper nutritional approach.

It took me 30+ years of being passive in regards to health/nutrition, and only 2 years to get proactive and read voraciously to get to a deeper understanding. I can't convince you, and doubtfully any single person, book or blog will. It will be the cumulative education you give yourself that will lead you.

Opposing views are not necessarily idiotic, but often are ignorant. You have to delve in to see for yourself. Other "debates" worthy of looking at are the dust up between T Collin Campbell and Loren Cordain. And Chris Masterjohn's analysis of "The China Study". No easy answer, just lots to read out there!

5
9d43f6873107e17ca4d1a5055aa7a2ad

on March 11, 2010
at 12:56 AM

I think the toughest argument to counter are the extreme animal rights arguments, which are appealing to many people. I have friends who absolutely believe slaughtering animals for food is wrong and it's hard to counter them. Even I have trouble slaughtering animals. The Vegetarian Myth argument that eating grassfed animals leads to less net death doesn't hold much water when you realize that the adorable baby male goats on your professor's farm that are so friendly are going to die. This video addresses the ambivalence even farmers hardened by rural life have about slaughter. Though personally I feel much of the problem comes because the government has regulated large animal slaughter off the farm, which is harder on both people and animals.

At this point I've done slaughter myself. It's not fun, but I was perfectly comfortable eating animals after the slaughter. However, my friend I did it with has been a vegetarian ever since.

I also read Eating Animals and The Face On Your Plate. Maybe I'm just heartless thanks to ag school...I found them unconvincing, but for many people sentiment and bonds with animals have a lot of weight.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on March 11, 2010
at 02:32 AM

When we used to raise calves, I had to do what I called "transfer affection". I had to focus on a new bucket-fed calf before I could dismiss the feeder steer that had been my focus before. Eating meat and loving animals is a difficult mix.

03aeff8d87a3b53a449b5b8e9158da98

(3268)

on March 11, 2010
at 02:43 AM

Melissa, Please don't take this the wrong way, but I've been very impressed with how "tough" your posts are. That's a compliment! I don't want to turn this into the Paleo dating site, but you remind me of this fiery redhead I knew in grad school, who was very opinionated, and the more she stood her ground, the more I liked her. Whoops... sorry. Maybe I shouldn't have that third glass of wine with dinner! LOL

6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on May 05, 2010
at 11:24 PM

There is nothing more natural than killing for food. I've always thought that those opposed to eating meat on moral grounds were completely disconnected from the natural world. It's our ability to regret all the killing for food that makes us human. Just sayin'.

2
Be1dbd31e4a3fccd4394494aa5db256d

(17969)

on September 09, 2010
at 04:16 AM

As always we need empirical demonstrability. The paleo axiom is a priori and simply won't do in and of itself to prove anything. We may use to to form a hypothesis but then we have to go out there and do what Cordain and Stephan are doing and identify the biochemical factors to good and bad health and see if paleo improves them, and which version of paleo improves them the best. That is the only epistemology that is acceptable when we're talking about health. Nuts are paleo but should I live off of them? Nah. There is too much to get wrong by just assuming that any combination of foods from the paleolithic era is the most awesome diet ever. But if you're reading Stephan, Eades and the other, you're learning that stuff.

And vegetarian arguments are stupid. Why should animals be given ethical considerations? There is no good argument to the affirmative and I do believe it is those who go against the norm that have the burden of proof. If vegetarians want to get all sad and teary-eyed at eating meat, then they shouldn't eat meat, but it doesn't follow that it is a bad thing for anyone else to do unless they themselves feel sad. Humans matter to me and are important, animals aren't. Period.

2
6fa48935d439390e223b9a053a62c981

(1676)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:07 PM

I agree with others here that the Paleo Diet concept just makes sense to me on a common sense level. If anatomically modern humans appeared about 200,000 years ago, then paleo is clearly what they were eating. The exact menu may have varied from season to season and biome to biome, but clearly they were eating foods found in their local environment. The archeological evidence is pretty compelling that paleolithic humans were hunting and fishing. Studies of contemporary hunter/gatherers show that animal protein is a prized food source. If this diet was so bad for humans to eat, how did we avoid extinction?

If this is how we've been eating for 200,000 years (and 2 million years before that as proto humans), I think the burden of proof must be borne primarily by the other side, especially after the lipid hypothesis seems to have fallen down. Moreover, we were told in 1982 to reduce saturated fats in our diets and to make up the caloric difference with "low fat healthy grains." That didn't work out either. Even as our society (in the aggregate) derives fewer of our calories from saturated fat, the incidence (again, in the aggregate) of obesity, heart disease, and metabolic symdrome generally, are up, way up.

Science is a process, and often messy. I think the truth will shake itself out eventually, but for now I'll eat paleo. There is now so much conflicting information out there about diet, even among those with the right degrees, that I don't have much choice--I gotta eat something.

1
0034e877123279fd4e16347f9829e514

on September 09, 2010
at 06:22 AM

There are deep underlying arguments that prevent many from EVER being able to accept an argument for a paleo/ evolutionary diet.

I am referring to primarily an American (North and South) audience that does not accept that natural selection is a fact nor that humans are the result of evolution through the process of natural selection. This is an a priori hurdle many can not overcome.

Further one must accept that food choice is closely tied to religion and group identity. Consider all the dietary restrictions associated with religions from Ramadan to Kosher. Even Christianity defined itself in its early days because it broke with the laws of moses regarding diet. SO in a very real way to accept that humans evolved to eat Paleo or Pa Nu or Primal is to acknowledge that there exists an answer to one of life's fundamental and measurable questions... how to be happy that is not in the realm of a holy text and in fact may be counter to dogma.

Consider trying to convince a hebrew or muslim that it is more important that the cow ate grass than how the animal is slaughtered. For Christians the allowance that eased dietary restrictions was a direct revelation from god.

Sorry but no elevator pitch is going to overcome the innate cultural resistance, we define ourselves by our food. We "evolutionary" dieters should know that better than most. Christopher

1
77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:26 PM

One of the common arguments I tend to hear against paleo is that 10,000 years IS enough time to begin evolving to support grains. Evolution is not a light-switch. Things happen gradually. We were all originally lactose intolerant, you know. We've phased that out (largely) in the same time span, so why can't we also apply that to grains?

I'm not saying I agree, but I do not believe that "grains are the devil". I think that high carbohydrates are terribad, and grains give you a big carbohydrate punch in the mouth

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 05, 2010
at 10:25 PM

10,000 years just isn't very long on evolutionary timescales, and the SAD's been around for what... a couple of decades?

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 06, 2010
at 07:16 PM

It was certainly long enough to affect our lactose tolerance. And I'm not really talking about the SAD, but things like bread and tortillas and whatnot

0
A1a4882d31414600b2cab395a5b17161

(699)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:18 PM

An argument against Paleo from a practical perspective is that 6.5 billion people are not able to be fed on such a diet, at least not if each person is eating a good amount of meat. This would be a good reason for the government to advocate a largely grain based diet. As long as most people can still live a pretty good, long life things are okay. So what if they need some modern medical interventions along the way. However, this reasoning shouldn't preclude an individual from eating Paleo if it's within their means.

77877f762c40637911396daa19b53094

(78467)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:23 PM

Yeah, but this is a good thing. Overpopulation is a big deal in the world, and slowly reducing our population would allow us all to share the world and eat better

Ce0b5fd94b1034e96cf710b6f138c29d

(4089)

on May 05, 2010
at 09:42 PM

The fact that we can't feed everybody on Paleo does not mean that Paleo is a nutritionally bad diet; it just means that we've overshot the planet's carrying capacity.

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