Saturday, May 28, 2011

Who Said Paleo Diet Was High In Fat? Part 2.1

As I noted in part 2.0 of this series, in 2000, a team including Loren Cordain, Janette Brand Miller, S Boyd Eaton, Neil Mann, Susanne HA Holt, and John D Speth published “Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets” (hereafter referred to as “the Plant-Animal Ratios paper”) in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. In their conclusions, they wrote:

“Whenever and wherever it was ecologically possible, hunter-gatherers would have consumed high amounts (45–65% of total energy) of animal food. Most (73%) hunter-gatherer societies worldwide derived >50% (≥56–65%) of their subsistence from animal foods, whereas only 13.5% of these societies derived more than half (≥56–65%) of their subsistence from gathered plant foods. In turn, this high reliance on animal-based foods coupled with the relatively low carbohydrate content of wild plant foods produces universally characteristic macronutrient consumption ratios in which protein intakes are greater at the expense of carbohydrate.”[Italics added.]

In Part 2.0, I outlined the three main propositions Cordain et al attempted to support:

1. Hunter-gatherers would have eaten more animal than plant food “wherever and whenever possible;”
2. Wild plant foods have a “relatively low carbohydrate content;” and
3. The paucity of plant foods available to hunter-gatherers made it necessary for them to focus their hunting on procuring large game supplying large amounts of fat.

In Part 2.0, I showed that anthropologist Katherine Milton provided a number of reasons to doubt that the database used by Cordain et al (Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas) provides a solid foundation for support of the first of these three propositions. Now I would like to take a closer look at the other two.

So, I think that we have three questions to explore:

1. Did wild plant foods really have a “relatively low carbohydrate content” compared to cultivated (agricultural) foods?
2. Did any or many hunter-gatherer groups have access to significant quantities of wild plant foods?
3. Did hunter-gatherers universally spurn plant foods in favor of animal foods, or did any highly value plant foods even more than animal foods?

Carbohydrate Content of Wild Plant Foods

In the Plant-Animal Ratios paper, Cordain et al wrote:

“We used the average plant macronutrient values of 62% of energy from carbohydrate, 24% from fat, and 14% from protein based on the previously analyzed database of 829 wild plant foods (17). Because of the similarity (3.5% difference) in the mean energy density of wild plant (6.99 kJ/g) and animal foods (7.24 kJ/g) in our database, we assumed that the P-A subsistence ratio based on weight in the Ethnographic Atlas would be virtually identical to the P-A subsistence ratios based on energy.”

Now, as quoted above, Cordain et al described wild plant foods as “relatively low in carbohydrate.” Whenever someone says “relatively” s/he means relative to something else. I will assume that Cordain et al meant that wild foods are low in carbohydrate relative to cultivated foods, not to processed foods, because they are making an argument in favor of mimicking a wild rather than agricultural diet.

So, do wild plant foods supply less carbohydrate than cultivated plant foods? Let’s see.

Two factors influence the carbohydrate delivery of a food: it’s energy density, and the proportion of energy delivered as carbohydrate.

Cordain et al describe their (mythical) average wild plant food as providing 62 percent of energy from carbohydrate and 6.99 kJ/g (1.7 kcal/g). Does this profile make wild plant food significantly “lower in carbohydrate” than common staple plant foods of agricultural people?

I used the USDA database to find the energy density and carbohydrate content of four higher-carbohydrate and one lower-carbohydrate cultivars, at least three of which have served as the staple food for at least one agricultural tribe: sweet potatoes, white potatoes, boiled brown rice, boiled lentils, and almonds.

I found the following: Sweet potatoes supply 0.9 kcal/g and 80 percent of energy as carbohydrate, baked white potatoes supply 0.9 kcal/g and 82 percent of energy as carbohydrate, boiled brown rice supplies 1.1 kcal/g (4.7 kJ/g) and 79 percent as carbohydrate, boiled lentils supply 1.2 kcal/g (4.9 kJ/g) and 41 percent of energy from carbohydrate, and almonds supply 5.6 kcal/g (24.1 kJ/g) and 6 percent of energy as carbohydrate. In tabular form, including the average wild plant food figures from Cordain:

Thus, the “average plant macronutrient value” used by Cordain et al indicates that the mythical average plant food used by hunter-gatherers had an energy-density almost double that of sweet potatoes or white potatoes and 50 percent greater than boiled lentils. Thus, the "average wild plant food" doesn't appear particularly low in energy (kcalories) compared to any of these cultivated foods except for the low carbohydrate almonds.

As for carbohydrate, the “average wild plant food” delivers 50 percent more carbohydrate as a proportion of energy than lentils, and ten times more carbohydrate (as a percent of energy) than almonds.  (I know, Cordain et al created an average...I'll get to that soon.)

Let’s compare Cordain et al’s “average wild plant food” with white potatoes. A 100 g serving of white potatoes would supply 90 kcal and 74 kcal as carbohydrate, or 18 g carbohydrate. A 100 g serving of the “average wild plant food” would supply 170 kcal and 105 kcal as carbohydrate, or 26 g carbohydrate.

So 100 g of the (mythical) “average wild plant food” supplies 40% more carbohydrate than white potato. Rather than being “relatively low in carbohydrate” compared to potato, the “average wild plant food turns out to relatively high in carbohydrate per 100 g serving.

Of course, the “average wild plant food macronutrient value” is derived by averaging the values of 829 wild fruits, seeds, nuts, underground storage organs (tubers, roots, etc.), leaves, dried fruit, flowers, gums, and miscellaneous plant parts. Averaging low-carbohydrate, high-energy-density plant values such as from nuts with high-carbohydrate, lower-energy-density plant values such as from tubers, and very low energy density foods like flowers will tend to bring down the “average” carbohydrate content and raise the average energy density. The same applies to cultivars.

If I average together the values above for those five cultivated plant foods, I get a mythical “average cultivated food” that supplies 1.9 kcal/g and 58 percent of energy as carbohydrate, not significantly different from the “average wild plant macronutrient value” used by Cordain et al.   See table below.

 In other words, the "average wild plant food" doesn’t appear exceptionally low in carbohydrate or energy compared to the average of these cultivated plant foods.  One more calculation for fun: 

Cordain et al's "average wild plant food" has an energy and carbohydrate density not significantly different from the average for these five cultivars.

I very much doubt that we would get significantly different results by including 829 cultivars, because we will get a mix of fruits (high-carbohydrate, low energy density), vegetables (generally moderate to high carbohydrate, low energy density), grains (moderately high in carbohydrate, energy density similar to brown rice), legumes (low to moderate carbohydrate, energy density similar to lentils), seeds and nuts (low carbohydrate, high energy density).  Edible plants simply have consistent energy density and carbohydrate ratios whether wild or cultivated.  It seems mythical that wild plant foods differ markedly from cultivars in energy density or carbohydrate content. 

Plants Used By Hunters

Cordain et al imply that nature provides relatively small quantities of carbohydrate-rich plant foods, making pursuit of animal fat the route to optimal foraging. In her editorial comments on the Plant-Animal Ratios paper, titled Hunter-Gatherer Diets—A Different Perspective, Milton disagreed, pointing to a number of examples where hunter-gatherers clearly have relied on plant foods as the basis of their diets. From her editorial:

“In the average collecting area of an Aka Pygmy group in the African rain forest, the permanent wild tuber biomass is 4545 kg (5 tons) (19).

"Australian aborigines in some locales are known to have relied seasonally on seeds of native millet (2) or a few wild fruit and seed species (20) to satisfy daily energy demands. Some hunter-gatherer societies in Papua New Guinea relied heavily on starch from wild sago palms as an important source of energy (21), whereas most hunter-gatherer societies in California depended heavily on acorn foods from wild oaks (22).”

So, starchy plants aren't necessarily scarce in hunter-gatherer environments.  Assuming that the wild tubers available to the Pygmies have an energy density of ~1.0 kcal/g, the permanent wild tuber biomass in their forest gives them continuous access to 4, 545, 000 kcal, constantly regenerated by photosynthesis.  In addition to this, consider the findings of Melissa Darby, described in my book:

“Anthropologist Melissa Darby, M.A., of Lower Columbia Research and Archaeology (Oregon) says that a woman gathering carbohydrate-rich camas could net 5,279 calories per hour. …..In 1996 Darby demonstrated that hunter-gatherers in the Northern Hemisphere had access to Sagittaria latifolia, a prolific wetlands plant that produces a tuber very similar to the white potato, which the Chinook Indians called wapatos. This plant grows in Europe as well as North America, the tuber is easy to harvest, and abundant from late fall through spring, when other high-carbohydrate plant foods may be scarce. Darby has harvested approximately 5,418 calories per hour gathering wapatos from a knee-deep pond. The tubers do not need grinding or mashing to be palatable, and can be cooked fresh, stored fresh in a cool place, or dried. They are thoroughly cooked in a bed of hot ashes in 10 minutes, and do not need stones for long oven cooking. Pollen data indicates the wapato was prolific in the last Ice Age through North America, the North American Great Basin, Siberia, and Northern Europe.(17)”

Five thousand calories per hour seems pretty productive--enough to feed two people for one day gathered in just 60 minutes.  Darby claims that it is possible to harvest up to 10, 000 calories of wapato per hour in some seasons. If so, five hours of foraging would support a family of five people for several days assuming no other food source. Considering the low hazard and energy investment involved in harvesting wapatos, this seems like some optimal foraging to me. Anyway, back to Milton:

“These and similar data indicate that hunter-gatherer societies typically did not rely on many wild plant species specifically for energy. Rather, they had one or a few dependable wild staples (some also good sources of protein) that provided much of their energy needs. In nature, any dependable source of digestible energy is generally rare and when discovered is likely to assume great importance in the diet. Animal foods typically are hard to capture but food such as tree fruits and grass seeds are relatively reliable, predictable dietary elements. …Humans are quick to appreciate the value of reliable energy-providing staples and will work hard to ensure a steady supply of them.….. Contemporary ethnographers working in Amazonia noted that even when smoke racks are filled with game, if the carbohydrate staple becomes exhausted, the inhabitants say they have no food (23).” [Italics added.]

So some hunters of wild game apparently considered their starchy staple “food” and their game not food per se. This sounds similar to the situation in agricultural societies.  In English, we call a main eating event a “meal” which is the word for a starchy food, namely ground grain, e.g. cornmeal or oatmeal. In China, the word for rice or cereals (‘fan’) is also used as the word for food in general, while vegetables, fruits, and animal items are called ‘tsai,’ or "dishes." 

Why would any animal so consistently across cultures consider some starchy plant the main food, and other plants only side dishes?  Could it have something to do with how well whole food starches satisfy human hunger and nutritional requirements?  A question to explore later.

And from her letter in reply to Cordain et al:

“Examination of the literature suggests that hunter-gatherers throughout the world took full advantage of any dependable sources of dietary energy in their environment (9–11), even devising complex technologies to secure energy from potentially toxic plant sources such as acorns and cycads (10, 11). Such dependable plant foods, in turn, tended to be relied on heavily for dietary energy. For this reason, Cordain et al's comments on the "low carbohydrate content of wild plant foods" seem largely beside the point—what is key is the steady availability of energy from 1 or 2 reliable wild-plant staples. To secure a dependable source of dietary carbohydrate, some hunter-gatherers, such as the Mbuti (Africa) and the Maku (South America), established symbiotic trade relationships with indigenous agriculturalists (12).”

So, it seems we have considerable evidence that at least some hunter-gatherers developed technology for accessing starchy foods, and some went out of their way to secure steady supplies of high carbohydrate starchy staple foods, apparently unattached to remaining "hunter-gatherers" or "paleo."  So, a question to contemplate:  If a hunter-gatherer does not cultivate foods himself, but trades some hunted or gathered wild foods for some cultivated foods, and eats the latter, does he remain a hunter-gatherer, or is he now an agriculturalist?

Milton believes that modern human neural and digestive physiology clearly suggest that human evolutionary diets probably included plenty of plant foods including high carbohydrate starchy staples.  I also have some things to say about this.  I will leave that discussion for Part 2.2.


Jim Boyle said...

"In English, we call a main eating event a “meal” which is the word for a starchy food, namely ground grain"

Not a bad guess, but the two definitions have different origins:

Stephan Guyenet said...

On Fiji, the phrase "kakana dina" means "real food" and "starchy staple". Throughout the Pacific islands, the starch was the heart of the meal and everything else (fish, coconut, taro leaves, etc.) was considered a condiment. Taro, breadfruit, yam, and sweet potatoes were quantitatively the most important food wherever it was agriculturally possible, although that may simply relate to the fact that you can get more calories per acre from them than coconut.

Ken Matesz said...

I think I have fairly faithfully followed this series. What surprises me as a relative layman in this discussion is that the theme or suggestion seems to be, in many cases, that hunter-gatherers would have depended on plant foods for a great deal of their subsistence.

Now, I am neither an anthropologist or a nutrition theorist, so pardon me for what may sound to be irrelevant input. But I took classes from renowned tracker Tom Brown, Jr. who was trained in animal tracking and nature survival by his Apache "grandfather."

In his school, he warned vegetarians in the class to beware and be ready - that if they did get into a survival situation, they had best prepare to be meat eaters. According to him, obtaining nutrient and calorie-dense animal flesh was easy relative to obtaining, in most areas, suitable quantities of plant matter on which to survive.

He seems quite proficient at wild-food (plant) identification and preparation, but assured everyone in the class that trapping and tracking and hunting were the most efficient ways to get significant quantities of food in the shortest time. Remember, people like him don't sit in a tree blind hoping some animal comes along. They know already and always where the animals are and how to get them. Bagging meat for supper is, for someone like him, nearly as easy as it is for you or me to pick up a package of ground beef at the grocery store.

That's my story, and I'm stickin' to it.

Ken Matesz said...

Meal (1) "food, time for eating," O.E. mæl "fixed time, a measure, meal," from P.Gmc. *mæla- (cf. Du. maal "time, meal," O.N. mal "measure, time, meal," Ger. Mal "time," Goth. mel "time, hour"), from PIE base *me- "to measure" (see meter (2)). Probably related to O.E. mæð "measure." Original sense of "time" is preserved in piecemeal;

They do have different origins.

Meal (2): "ground grain," O.E. melu, from W.Gmc. *melwan "grind" (cf. Ger. malen "to grind," Mehl "meal"), from PIE base *mel-/*mol-/*ml- "to grind"

Eric said...

I like the point Ken makes. It's a similar one my grandfather, of Algonquin descent, would also often make about our ancestors... But, if anything, it only brings to light a point that I believe Don is trying to make, namely, that macronutrient ratios, across time (whether unigenerational or multigenerational) and various geographical areas, most likely varied quite extensively. If there is one thing that we have come to understand, it's that the human species is highly adaptable and intelligent. This entails that, like any other species (or living organism for that matter), we would make use our greatest attributes in order to make our lives as simple and easy as possible (this is a difficult task in our modern "evolutionary milieu", rendering "optimality" a difficult-to-grasp concept...). A very simple concept, yet all too often forgotten... This might have entailed that, for a certain group of people, at a given time, survival would have been most easily ensured by hunting down large game. This situtation obviously doesn't preclude however that some other group of people, at another given time or in a different geographical area, might have subsisted better off a diet revolving mainly around starches or tropical fruits, complemented by some fish. And, any given people might have had to vary their diet according to the seasons, or the area they were forced to or had chosen to move to. Again though, the one thing that is clear is that no people ever thrived off foods with bar codes! Or off a vegan diet :)

Ken Matesz said...


I find efforts to reason out how much of each kind of foods people ate 500, 2000, or 10,000 years ago somewhat suspect. Logic and reasoning about archeological evidence doesn't always cut it, in my opinion, because there are so many factors that could have been in place at that time of which we are not and cannot ever be aware.

So, to me, the best reasoning worth considering is that which makes use of actual documented FIRST HAND knowledge of what somebody did or does.

Tom Brown makes such points about the native peoples of this continent. If I'm following a herd of buffalo around and can kill several 2,000 pound animals in one day and we can dry and preserve the meat and thus feed my family for months without additional effort, why in the world would I, having secured months of food, put any significant effort into gathering tubers, flowers, berries, and nuts?

Certainly, I might pick those things as I walked through the woods or meadows in the course of my day, but would I put any great effort into collecting large quantities? Green plants dry out quickly and become indigestible cellulose if not consumed relatively soon. Tubers require digging - hard work. Do I want to do a lot of that when I've got 1,000 pounds of dried meat back in the storeroom? Maybe I would do it if I was foreseeing a long, hard winter. But is that a significant part of my daily diet, averaged over the course of a year?

If I can catch a dozen fish out of the stream in a fish trap every day and the sum total of my effort is to literally pull the fish out of the water, would I also spend hours collecting berries and nuts?

I'm asking from the point of view of a human being who, by nature, wants to get as much as possible from the least effort. So I'm asking MYSELF these questions: If I had a dozen fish in my hand from my trap set last night, would I go out and spend ANY time harvesting vegetables?

Well, I can test this. Right now I'm staying in a rented room with a fridge and I only brought a small amount of food with me. After four days, I emptied my fridge of green vegetables last night. It's a half-hour drive into town to the grocery store for more vegetables. BUT, I have three steaks and a half-pound of hamburger in the fridge. I also have a very small quantity of fruit left. Do you think I am going to make a special trip into town to get some vegetables? Do you think, with this five pounds of meat in my hand I'm going foraging for vegetable matter? Fat chance. I'll eat the meat and forgo the veggies.

So I ask myself, "How often did that ancient hunter have meat but no veggies?" How often did he eat what's in the fridge and say, "Screw it, I'm not going into town just for some plants. I'd rather eat and sit around playing cards with my friends!"

Or did Mr. Paleo have the FDA on his back, telling him, "Oh no, Mr. Paleo, you need a certain amount of veggies and fruit every day BY LAW, so get after it!" Did his wife say, "Honey, you can't live on fish alone, you've got to have balanced diet. So get the f*** off your a** and go collect some veggies!"

Let's get real, friends. Let's look at what people do, not ponder what we think they did.

If there's no animals in an area, they ate the things that were easiest to get in the greatest quantities (things they knew satisfied their hunger). They grabbed whatever was left in the fridge. If animals were plentiful and Mr. Paleo was anywhere near as crafty as Tom Brown, Jr., he was eating lots of meat every day and little of anything else.

I have no idea how Mr. Paleo lived, but as for me, the easier, the better. How about you?

Eric said...

Ken, I totally agree with part of your argument. Which is also why I insisted in my post on the idea that any given species (human or other), would most likely not put more effort than necessary in obtaining food to ensure its survival. Alas, it would be faulty to assume that, one, all humans before us always had access to the number of large and easily huntable game or fish you talk of, or, two, the tools and knowledge of how to obtain these. How can we KNOW for certain what "easy" and "feasible" at any given time might have been? I also think that we can't neglect the fact that much traditional wisdom on obtaining proper or important foods was passed on from generation to generation, something that, either calorie-wise or nutrient-wise, we shouldn't take for granted. You mention your present situation of "steak in fridge (easy)" vs "vegetables 30 minutes away (hard)" and are comparing this to a paleo-model in which we have very little idea of what they considered important or essential. Who knows how much effort any one people might have put into obtaining certain foods they considered important, regardless of caloric density? Doesn't mean that just because we, in this day and age, no longer have a model or any intergenerational wisdom and knowledge being passed on that past generations didn't award any importance to the latter, right?

Anand Srivastava said...

Very nice article Don. Kind of like the Potato series. Very much an eye opener.

@Ken: The whole point is that what applies in the tropics does not apply in the Rockies. The other point is that human evolution for the most part happened in the tropics. I would expect we evolved with more carbs than meat. It may also be a contributory reason why Large Fauna survives in the Africa while every where else it was killed.

Don said...


There is a difference between what works best for an indvidual in a "survival" situation, and what supports a tribe over a long term, when you have multiple contributors to the food supply (e.g. men and women).

Apaches were a diverse group, many subtribes with different subsistence patterns, according to this site:

Some, particularly the Eastern Mesaleros, had a plant-based subsistence, some were farmers; and some were indirectly dependent on farmers by raiding.

"The Apache subsistence pattern was based partly on hunting and on gathering wild plant foods, partly on farming, and partly on raiding; but the proportion of each varied greatly from tribe to tribe. The Jicarilla farmed fairly extensively, growing maize and other vegetables, but also had adopted part of the Plains Indians reliance on bison hunting. The Lipan of Texas, who were probably originally a band of Jicarilla, had largely given up farming and were, therefore, more mobile than the Jicarilla. The Mescalero were influenced by the Plains Indians, but their chief food staple was the mescal plant (hence the name Mescalero). The Chiricahua were perhaps the most nomadic and aggressive of the Apache west of the Rio Grande, raiding into northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico from their strongholds in the Dragoon Mountains. The Western Apache appear to have been more settled than their Eastern relatives, with considerably more emphasis on farming, though they did raid, frequently with various Yuman tribes."

But most importantly I am looking at evolutionary nutrition, and Apaches inhabited a different ecosystem from our evolutionary ecosystem (i.e. Africa). What they found necessary in North American isn't necessarily what we evolved on.

Don said...

OK guys, so the exact etymology of the English -meal in cornmeal is not exactly the same as for meal- as in time to eat. But they are so similar that although I can't prove it to my own satisfaction at this point, I venture that these apparently different roots share a common origin. Like, a bit of time is a meal, and a bit of ground grain/starch is also meal.

Now show me that Stephan's report is wrong, and that the Chinese don't use the word 'fan' to refer to 'real food' and 'starchy staple.'

And, let's talk a little about evolutionary success via reproductive success. So far as I can tell, the most successful tribes in both population and cultural longevity all use some starch or starches as the main foods, and this includes Europe (wheat, barley, oats, potatoes). Meat-based cultures have existed, but they clearly did not have the know-how or self-defense technology to protect themselves from the advance of starch eaters.

I'm not defending genocides committed by Europeans, only pointing out that Europeans coming to America clearly won the battle of brains and brawn. And those Europeans ate starch-based diets. for example, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"Like my friend the Doctor, I have lived temperately, eating little animal food, and that not as an aliment, so much as a condiment for the vegetables, which constitute my principal diet. I double however, the Doctor's glass and a half of wine, and even treble it with a friend; but halve its effects by drinking the weak wines only. The ardent wines I cannot drink, nor do I use ardent spirits in any form. Malt liquors and cider are my table drinks, and My breakfast, like that also of my friend, is of tea and coffee."

Which raises the question: If meat-eating it the key to the best brain function, then why did the starch eaters have the superior technology?

Ken Matesz said...


"There is a difference between what works best for an indvidual in a "survival" situation, and what supports a tribe over a long term, when you have multiple contributors to the food supply (e.g. men and women)."

Would you not say that for most of human history, mankind has been in survival mode? It is my understanding that up until about 200 years ago, few people would have thought of food as a certainty - survival as a certainty. Don't you regularly talk about "subsistence farming" and "hunter-gatherers." "Subsistence" is maintaining oneself - barely. That's a survival situation.

But you make a good point. Agriculturists figured out that they could grow crops and sock it away in barns for a rainy day or a year of famine. It's not so easy to do that with meat - unless well dried or salted. These very same agriculturists are the one's who industrialized America. By God, they're so smart now that they are reinventing seeds and genetically manufacturing all kinds of food. Gosh are they brilliant!

Oops. Wait a second. Maybe that isn't so smart after all.

I think it is a mistake to equate "superior technology" with higher brain function. Technology is a small part of existence. Technology is hardness, solidity - you know, like concrete, steel, and asphalt. Modern or "advanced" technology is not a sign of greater intelligence, it is a sign of greater hardness and a loss (due to the equal and opposite reaction phenomena) in more ethereal parts of "intelligence" like intuition, dreaming, and spirituality.

I think it is a slippery slope to take to say that agriculturists and Europeans are smarter just because they are harder and are more adept at manipulating hard things.

And, indeed, these arguments go nowhere. One could just as easily argue that man, just as certainly as he has learned to live well in cold, northern cities and that man's "evolution" is vastly different than all other animals because his is an evolution of the mind - an evolution in thinking.

He has learned to manipulate his environment AND his food. Do these epidemiological studies just notice correlations or are they finding causes? Do you know? Can I find a study that shows that eating red meat in some society or group was detrimental? Can I find people who lived in perfect health though they smoked, drank, and never ate vegetables? Can I find a study that shows that one group that ate milk products was healthier than the group that did not? Then, was it the milk products themselves or the fact that they were or were not pasteurized milk products. Can I find a study that contradicts your sucrose vs. starch studies?

Is the modern American diet killing people or is it modern American's way of life? Is it stress? Is it pollution? Is it fluoridated water? Is it THEIR HARDNESS? You know, hard technology - computers, electronics, steel, concrete, plastic, hardened arteries, hardened skin, hardened relationships. Is it the food, or is is much more than that?

Ken Matesz said...


You said, "Doesn't mean that just because we, in this day and age, no longer have a model or any intergenerational wisdom and knowledge being passed on that past generations didn't award any importance to the latter, right?"

Okay. I don't know what, if any, "intergenerational wisdom" men 5,000 years ago had. But I fail to see that as much of an argument. Are you saying that, 5,000 years ago, it might have been "intergenerational wisdom" to ignore the steaks and hamburger in the fridge and drive into town a half hour away for vegetables?

Imagine yourself, 5,000 years ago. Your elders see you walk into camp with 5 pounds of fish. Do you really think they would say, "Hell, Eric, we can't eat that until you bring us some kale and rutabagas! Get out there and find us some vegetables!"

Now it is true that maybe other members of the tribe have been out collecting raspberries all morning and they bring back those and some wild mushrooms they found.

Do you suppose they failed to notice that fish filled them up faster? Or did "intergenerational wisdom" tell them that they need to eat more raspberries?

"Eric, we don't care that you caught 5 pounds of fish without really doing any work, we're not eating that. Now you go bring us more raspberries!"

Is that what they said?

I don't know what everyone ate in every area of the world 5,000 years ago. But what I am utterly certain of is that they ate the things that were most easily obtained and readily available. If it was meat, they were eating it. The other thing I'm certain of is that there is no hunter from ancient times who was uncertain as to whether he would get his prey. If he didn't get it, it was not for lack of ability; it was because of a mistake or an unfortunate event.

You know, today's hunter has to follow all the right paths to get to Wal-Mart, then follow just the right aisles to get to the meat department. But I won't make it to the meat department at Wal-Mart if I make a wrong turn or run into some other car. And I might turn down the wrong aisle at the store . . . But I end up with meat in the freezer anyway. (No, I don't really buy my meat at Wal-Mart.) Hunters of old were just as successful - unless there were no animals around.

Stan (Heretic) said...

Re: "I think it is a mistake to equate "superior technology" with higher brain function. Technology is a small part of existence."

Totally agree with Ken! It was always a very small percentage of the population who exhibited any creativity in constructing tools, technology and ultimately - the science. Who knows what was their eating pattern at the time?

The mediocre average IQ of the starch eater versus higher IQ and higher physical strength of meat eaters in the historical time frame, has probably nothing to do with building up a successful high tech society. Settled farmers' societies have crowded out and out-bred the nomads and herders, even though the latter come out consistently throughout various studies, as having superior average characteristics (better average IQ, better health and higher physical strength).

It is a very strange kind of society where most members are sycophantic collectivists of rather low intelligence and only a very small fraction are brilliant and creative. Right, let them eat more starch...

To: Stephan

I think you may be making a mistake by generalizing and averaging eating habits within each of the population you are studying. Averaging doesn't work if the society consists of widely dissimilar individuals. Existing (and known) statistical methods, do not work very well in situations with large clustering, such as for example taking place during phase transitions (in physics) or, in this case, when a society consists of clusters of dissimilar subgroups. Even within one geographical area.

Stan (Heretic)

Eric said...


By “ intergenerational wisdom”, I certainly wasn’t implying that one would have denied themselves of easily available and nutritious foods on the basis of that wisdom. Quite to the contrary, I was simply implying something along the lines of say, as recently as our grandmothers instilling in us the value of making nourishing bone stocks (takes 24-72 hours and a certain amount of “wisdom” being passed on; tedious work one would say, in the same category as “having to drive 30 minutes to get vegetables” one could say but, certainly it could be argued, a worthwhile endeavor when you consider the nutrients you might be getting out of the final product); or something akin to evidence presented by Don in a past post on the Masaï considering their gathering of bitter herbs of all kinds to supplement their otherwise “often-wrongly-believed-to-be-exclusively” animal food-based diet (again, the amount of energy and time dedicated to gathering these supplemental foods might not seem worthwhile, but who’s to say… Similar accounts have also been reported in numerous anthropological studies on Inuïts and other Native Americans, and certainly other groups as well that I am unaware of); you could also put in that same category the reported cases of different people travelling many miles to gather salt or trade for the latter with other tribes (again, here, extensive effort for basically a non-caloric food). These are just a few examples.

So, as much as my underlying principle might be similar to yours, meaning understanding that what was easily attainable would have formed the basis for any given people in a given geographical area, there certainly is no consensus as to what that might have been. And it can certainly not be assumed that taht was the ONLY criteria dictating what foods they consumed. If anything, it is quite evident that this would have varied extensively through time and place. Again, I repeat, how can you be certain of what might have been “easy” or “feasible” for a given people at any given time, assuming varying skills, knowledge, adaptability and environment? I’m not arguing that Native Americans through the Ice Age would have not relied heavily on large game, and to have the skill and had the knowledge to hunt them with ease. But this is but a small percentage of our human evolution…

Understand also that my own underlying dietary principles have been ones of paleo-ish and on the “relatively-higher-fat” of things, at least for the last few years. But, I always enjoy having my foundations “logically shaken” a bit and, I have to admit, I find Don brings many a good points and is certainly doing a good job at that.

As for your whole spiel on agriculturists, evolution/technology, “greater intelligence” and society, I couldn’t agree more. So would Cordain and one of my favorite authors, Jared Diamond. But, I won’t get into that now, lest I take the rest my allowable space on this blog ;)

Don said...

Reconstructing evolutionary diets is not just about guessing. The results of evolution are written in our present day physiology. For example, the fact that we require vitamins tells use that, definitely, our ancestral diet contained those vitamins.


Of course you wouldn't go miles for vegetables when you have meat in your possession. Over the short term, or in ecologically restricted circumstances (e.g. life in the Artic) almost anything can "work" long enough for a human to reproduce. But is it optimal? Over the long term, would the body prefer something else?

Technology is not all "hard" or ecologically destructive. Cooking is technology. The clothing you wear is technology. Your dwelling is technology, masonry heaters are technology. Combs, razors, blankets, socks, fans, flutes, guitars, books, weapons, sail boats, kayaks, canoes, jets, pillows, medicines, all are technology.

Supporting the technology, we have a conceptual framework, or knowledge system.

One measure of the success of a subsistence strategy -- and we all are using a subsistence strategy, even agriculturalists, it has nothing to to with how much we have -- and cultural development is simply the culture's ability to sustain and defend itself from intrusion. The better the knowledge base, the better the understanding of "how things work," the better your food and the better able you are to defend yourself / your tribe against intrusion.

Longevity of both people and culture is also another measure. The longer the culture survives, the better its relationship with nature, the better its subsistence strategy and the better its knowledge of 'how things work.'

Modern Western civilization is NOT healthy, I never said that it was. People are sick, the society is sick, and we are headed for ecological disaster because our way of life is destroying our resource base. But the worshipped hunters were not smarter. They hunted animals to extinction, destroying their own way of life. I would not call that high intelligence. They lived out of balance with nature and that resulted in their own downfall.

I contrast that with Chinese culture. Chinese will eat anything animal or vegetable, but as condiments to their starch base. This resulted in their being hundreds of years ahead of Europeans in knowledge of 'how things work,' it enabled them to circumnavigate the Earth long before Europeans, and many other scientific and cultural achievements, including superior medical and martial arts, and first discovery of explosives though they chose not to use them as weapons. They have the longest continuous civilization on the planet because of their knowledge.

I believe this is a result of their superior approach to nutrition.


Where is the evidence that eating a starch-based diet produces a low average IQ in an of itself, or a collectivist mentality? The top five nations for average IQ are actually Asian, starch based. And if you think hunting/meat eating makes people rugged individualists, you don't know much about hunter-gatherer societies and their rules for sharing foods. Weston Price actually had something to say about this. I leave it to you to discover it in his book, if you have it.

Jay said...

In Milton's letter:
"Examination of the literature suggests that hunter-gatherers throughout the world took full advantage of any dependable sources of dietary energy in their environment (9–11), even devising complex technologies to secure energy from potentially toxic plant sources such as acorns and cycads (10, 11)."
Such technology, as far as I know from various ethnographic TV programs seen and articles I have read, may range from simple cooking, to soaking the things in running water for days on end and then cooking (some tuber that some Australian aborigines eat) and so on.
So evolutionarily how did we get to the point where we could devise and implement such technology? I know chimps use tools (e.g. to extract termites) but I'm not aware that anyone's spotted them processing tubers yet - if they eat plant matter, their guts still do the processing for them. How did we get to the point (intelligence) - making tools as well as just picking up a right-sized stick - so that we could eat these starchy foods without them killing us?
The answer from the paleontologists seems to be by eating meat and fat, scavenging kills or whatever. That is why we developed the first stone tools.

Eric said...

"Over the short term or in ecologically restricted circumstances (e.g. life in the Artic) almost anything can "work" long enough for a human to reproduce. But is it optimal? Over the long term, would the body prefer something else?"

We should always be reminded that this, ultimately, is the only real question i.e., is it optimal? Anything "can" work, for a while (look at the bulk of our current society, from all angles, for a perfect example), and sometimes even a long, long while but, indeed, is it optimal, and not strictly from an anthropocentric point of view, but from the point of view of the entire biomass which, whether we like to think or not, we are entirely dependent on...

HOWEVER, and this is where it gets less clear, what are we implying by optimality? Within the realm of all foods that we as humans have ever relied/subsisted on, it would appear as if finding what is optimal becomes a bit tricky. If we all dropped like flies the moment we ingested the wrong foods (i.e., if only we weren't so "adaptable"), optimality would be quite an easy concept to grasp. And, regardless, as much as we scrape at the facts and try to figure out some general guidelines, the fact will always remain, I believe, that this "optimality" will probably be quite variable, and individual, a topic Richard at Free the Animal broached not long ago (see: "Optimality: A Fool’s Errand?").

Eric said...

Now, not to go off on a tangent too much, but I couldn't resist...

"Technology is not all "hard" or ecologically destructive. Cooking is technology. The clothing you wear is technology. Your dwelling is technology, masonry heaters are technology. Combs, razors, blankets, socks, fans, flutes, guitars, books, weapons, sail boats, kayaks, canoes, jets, pillows, medicines, all are technology".

The thing that jumps at me in this list is that, quite unfortunately, the larger percentage of every single one of those items produced is done with profit in mind. OK, maybe "performance" in some instances, although I think even that is probably not maximized every time, just to leave some room to wiggle for further advancements and enticement of for ever more consumers... Not to say anything of “durability” too… Technology could be perfectly in tune with our environment but, for the most part, even when claims are made for a "greener" product, it's really all just a farce.

I do agree that we aren't necessarily "more destructive" than past civilizations. Or, for that matter, more greedy, or more evil. But, I think there are two very important distinctions to make between our modern society and past ones... The first is the scale of the stage on which this game is being played. Even if half a million HGs in one part of the world had decided to hunt down game to extinction, the effect (even if the cause is the same, i.e. greed or evil, or whatever you care to call it) would of course be quite different from the effect of 6 billion people all wanting two cars, TVs, heated/air-conditioned homes, etc.

The second important distinction is the level of consciousness with regards to these issues. You don't even have to go very far back in time to realize how much we never even considered for a second that our resources were finite. There are numerous accounts of the first lumberjacks to come to Canada and believing that, with the immensity of our forests, there would always be enough to sustain everyone. Now, imagine then how the first people migrating to the Great Plains of North America might have felt when coming face to face with large herds of completely unphased bison to subsist on. Do you think they even considered for a second that they could bring them to extinction? Or, for that matter, what the effect of such an extinction would be? Maybe... But, in looking at historical records, probably not.

In this day and age of information however, it is simply inexcusable that we continue on the same path of destructive behavior. We know too much, and that draws up a very different scenario from what we might have faced in the past. The crazy thing is though, our planet doesn't really give a damn whether we go extinct or not. It's just going to go on as if nothing happened. How much do we give a damn though????

STG said...


Insightful comment! People in different environments will adapt accordingly. There was no one paleo diet.

Ken Matesz said...


You said, "Technology is not all "hard" or ecologically destructive. Cooking is technology. The clothing you wear is technology. Your dwelling is technology, masonry heaters are technology. . . ."

I never said anywhere at any time that all technology is ecologically destructive. However, I do stand by my assertion that all technology - including everything you mentioned - is hard. By that I mean that technology and science all have to do with the manipulation of solidity, of solid things. They arise from the use of thinking to solidify our world. For example, we are not content with our natural skin, so we devised ways to manipulate plants and minerals to get fabric to put on our bodies. And we are not content with living in warm climates, so we manipulate minerals and fibers to make insulated homes and furnaces to live in cold climates.

Science and technology are not the epitome of human intelligence. If it were, we would not devise hard items that will kill us like atomic bombs. We would not convert perfectly good sustainable grassland into eroded, diminished soil.

Thus, technology alone is not a measure of intelligence. Some technology is very intelligent. Some is just further manipulation; it is cleverness, but not intelligence. For example, it is very clever to figure out how to manipulate the genetic structure of corn. But is there anything intelligent about it?

"Subsistence" is defined as, "The action or fact of maintaining or supporting oneself at a minimum level."

You said, "we all are using a subsistence strategy, even agriculturalists, it has nothing to to with how much we have." This is a different definition of "subsistence" with which I am not familiar. How can subsistence have "nothing to do with how much we have" when that is the very definition of the word?

Now, you did say, "The better the knowledge base, the better the understanding of "how things work," the better your food and the better able you are to defend yourself / your tribe against intrusion." This is getting closer to a true definition of intelligence. Knowing "how things work" and having more technology are not the same thing. Knowing how things work means one understands the impacts something has and can foresee or predict its effects without having to implement that thing. For example, being able to see that mono-cropping thousands of acres of once-great soil will lead to tremendous water and wind erosion and therefore NOT doing it is intelligence. Deeing these vast expanses of land and saying, "Hey, let's build 60-foot wide combines and planters so we can plant and harvest these vast expanses of land year after year and leave them to erode in the off-season" is the manipulation of minerals and fibers to accomplish ONE goal while failing to see dozens of unsustainable effects. The latter is not greater intelligence. In the short term, it produces vast quantities of food. In the long term, it starves the land and the people too.

Ken Matesz said...


You said, "The thing that jumps at me in this list is that, quite unfortunately, the larger percentage of every single one of those items produced is done with profit in mind."

Your choice of the word "unfortunately" leads me to believe that you find profit objectionable. Maybe I'm wrong in that assumption.

Profit, however, is the engine of human action. And I am not speaking just of monetary or business profit, although those are included. There is nothing you do in your life that is not done for the sake of profit. For example, when you're sitting at your computer and your mouth turns cotton-dry, you choose to act - to rise from your chair and get a glass of water - with the belief that you will profit by that action; you believe that by drinking water, your life will be improved. To make a profit means nothing more than to make your life better than it was previously.

In business, I invest capital (time, effort, energy, and materials) because I believe that my life will be improved by the effort. Why would I bother otherwise? If I don't expect my life to be improved, I might as well sit at home on my couch!

Businesses aiming for profit are the only businesses that stand a chance of pulling people out of misery and poverty. And a business that consistently fails to make a profit is a failed business that helps few people, if any.

Profit is not a dirty word. Profit is what makes you do whatever it is you do.

Eric said...

Ken, yes, by "profit", I did imply 'monetary profit' and yes, I did imply that, for the most part, this was the main driving engine for the majority of items produced through available modern technologies. I don't necessarily attach a negative connotation to 'profit' nor do I think that in the larger sense of the word, it is an objectionable goal...

There is also absolutely nothing wrong per say with investing "time, effort, energy, and materials" for the sake of one's betterment but, I do question the futility of many people's and corporation's investment in those aforementioned qualities, for the sole sake of financial profit at the detriment of every thing else... But, like I said, I don't want to go off on a tangent more than warranted... Sorry Don!

Anonymous said...

Don. I enjoy this kind of intellectual debate that you are bringing up, but I have to disagree with you on some of the conclusions.

I agree that "starch people" have produced more advanced civilizations than hunter peoples. But what implication does this have for modern people?

Starch civilizations were more advanced because they needed to use their brain more to survive. The option of killing an animal and feeding off of it for a week was not available to them because of the scarcity that cold weather produced. So they had to better develop their brain as well as their culture to adapt to this environment. This included the greater use of more advanced tools.

While this was going on, their bodies were not necessarily in better health than their hunter brothers. Asians are on average shorter than other nationalities. I have read reports on how tall Native Americans were when the Europeans came to the New World. Yet what happened when these people switched from a meat based diet to a starch based diet? They lost a lot of height and became much worse off health wise.

The greater intelligence and cultural accomplishments had more to do with natural selection, than a nutrition advantage. Over time, only the smarter people could survive in such harsh environments. These people passed on their smart genes to the next generation.

I have heard a lot about the Japanese with greater access to meat from their economic boom seeing a boost in height. You used to never see anyone over 6 feet tall there, but now there are lots of them. The same is true in Korea. Yet these people have held on to their high IQ's.

The question is what this has to do with modern societies. I have access to both meat and starch.

Anonymous said...

I wanted to edit my post on how Native Americans lost some height when they switched to a more starch based diet because I wasn't thinking right.

Now that I thought about it it wasn't starch that caused this loss of height, it was probably European type carbs such as wheat that led to this. Not healthy carbs like potatoes.

I still think that "starch" civilizations were physically less healthy than their hunter brothers though.

jcgeesling said...


I don't know what you are up to, but I like it. I tried going low carb and just didn't feel right (sluggish and occasional chest pains).

I couldn't help but think back to Weston Price's book and how he mentioned no healthy tribe was without animal food, but that it wasn't the emphasis. It was the non-processed nature and the nutrition content that seemed to matter to him. He even said the protein in one egg is all that is needed for a growing child a day.

I also couldn't match up what I was reading in Taubes with what I was seeing on the Bunlap tribe series on the Travel channel. They were clearly eating predominantly tubers and they had no cancer, no diabetes, no heart disease, perfect teeth and perfect physiques. Yes, they are short, but perhaps a little more protein when growing might have solved that problem.

Then, I kept thinking about how the Eskimo don't live as long as other indigenous tribes.

Anyway, keep up the good skeptical work. This movement needs this badly right now.


John G.

Bill said...


So do you eat a higher carbohydrate diet now? I recall that when you tried the Perfect Health Diet that you had some gut issues with the higher carb intake... Has this improved on a higher carb, lower fat ratio?