Saturday, December 10, 2011

Primitive Nutrition Critique of Paleo Diet Conceptual Framework, Part 2

Paleo diet proponents promote their viewpoint as a scientific revolution akin to the Copernican revolution.
In his contribution to The Protein Debate , Loren Cordain claims that “The study of human nutrition remains an immature science because it lacks a universally acknowledged unifying paradigm." Apparently he thinks other sciences are "mature," i.e. virtually completed, which would be news to physicists, astrophysicists, chemists, and biologists, most of whom know that we have only scratched the surface of the world we study.

He goes on to claim that “nothing in nutrition seems to make sense because most nutritionists have little or no formal training in evolutionary theory, much less human evolution. Nutritionists face the same problem as anyone who is not using an evolutionary model to evaluate biology: fragmented information and no coherent way to interpret the data.”

I don’t know why he thinks nothing in nutrition seems to make sense.  Does he really think that if you open a textbook of nutrition, nothing in that book makes sense?  Are those chapters telling us about the scientifically established nutrient requirements of humans just gibberish to him?

Perhaps he thinks this because there seems to be a general scientific consensus that we can improve our health prospects by reducing animal food consumption, but he prefers to eat a lot of meat.  The American Heart Association, the American Institute for Cancer Research, and numerous other scientific medical organizations recommend eating more plant-based diets rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds, while reducing intake of animal products. Naturally, for someone who fervently believes in a low carbohydrate, high meat diet, the recommendations of the American Heart Association and the American Institute for Cancer Research don’t make sense.

Cordain sees his mission as providing a “universally acknowledged unifying paradigm”  through his paleo diet hypothesis.   According to him, we can ‘make sense’ of all the ‘confusing’ information he sees “By carefully examining the ancient environment under which our genome arose.”  Here's a snapshot of his claim in The Protein Debate
Certainly, nothing can be easier to do than examine the ancient environment under which our genome arose. We'll just get into our handy time machine that will take us back 200 million years to the emergence of the first mammals (a large part of the human genome emerged that long ago; we are a variation on a biological theme, not a totally unique entity) so we can “carefully examine” that environment first hand, rather than examine imaginary reconstructions offered by various creative minds.   

Similarly Rob Wolf refers to non-believers in the paleo diet paradigm as similar to members of the “flat-earth society,” implying that paleo believers are akin to Copernicus, while non-believers are akin to those who still believe that the earth is ‘flat.’

Paleo advocates also claim to be bucking ‘conventional wisdom,’ again implying that they have the advance take on diet and everyone else is in the dark ages believing in the nutritional equivalent of a ‘flat earth.’

So let’s see, which of these two statements is more aligned with ‘conventional wisdom’ and which is more ‘revolutionary’ in the context of historical and recent beliefs about human nutrition, biology, and medicine?

Loren Cordain’s Paleo Belief:  Humans must eat meat to obtain adequate protein and other nutrients, to build muscle mass and excel athletically, to maintain intelligence, and to maintain health.  People can reverse disease by eating more animal products and less plant foods.

T. Colin Campbell’s Vegan Belief: Humans do not need to eat any animal products to obtain adequate protein and other nutrients, to build muscle mass, to excel athletically, to maintain intelligence, or to maintain health.  We can reverse diseases by eating more plant foods and avoiding animal foods.

Given that approximately 98 percent of people in the U.S.A. eats meat on a daily basis, and many (including many paleo diet adherents) will immediately ask a vegan advocate “But where do you get your protein?”  I submit that the paleo diet belief is far from revolutionary, indeed I might consider it reactionary. 

Let me put it this way.  At this present time, very few people accept the idea that a vegan diet can adequately provide protein and general nutrition to the average human, which explains why very few people eat vegan diets.   Most people ‘believe’ that we need to eat meat, the way that, at the time of Copernicus, most people believed in a flat earth at the center of the sun’s orbit. 

This belief in the importance of meat to human nutrition has a long history.  I know of no time in Euro-American history when Campbell’s vegan belief was as widely accepted as the belief in a geocentric universe was at the time of Copernicus. On the contrary, the vegetarian perspective has been accepted by only a minority of people, mostly philosophers (e.g. Plato, Pythagorus) and medical doctors (e.g. Christoph Hufeland), throughout the history of Western civilization since the time of the Greeks.

In fact, T. Colin Campbell himself was initially indoctrinated to believe in meat and animal protein as critical to human health.  It was only through research that he came to reject this widely accepted belief.  That makes him more like Copernicus, challenging the widely held assumptions of his generation, whereas Cordain is simply agreeing with the long widely held belief that we have to eat meat to be healthy, smart, strong, and human.

Further, the idea that a vegan diet can reverse degenerative diseases contradicts the long-held belief of Western medical scientists that diet alone is inadequate for treatment of disease.  The orthodoxy believes in eating meat and using drugs and surgery to treat disease.  The revolutionary believes in avoiding meat and using a vegan diet as the primary tool in treatment of disease.

It seems to me that Cordain's paleo diet view aligns more with conventional wisdom and has more in common with the 'flat earth society,' and Campbell's vegan view bucks conventional wisdom and has more in common with Copernicus.

That’s my introduction to these two videos from PrimitiveNutrition which explore in greater depth the poor reasoning behind the paleo 'paradigm' starting with the fallacious appeal to nature (i.e. Eating meat is natural, therefore eating meat is optimal) which itself is based on a short-range view of 'natural' behaviors and their consequences (homicide is also natural, but if we all acted homicidal, we would be suicidal).


Erik Istre said...

Again, yet to watch the videos. Will do when I have time.

You contend that veganism is not the accepted belief...though I don't know a single person who wouldn't automatically say veganism is healtier, as if they distill this wisdom from the societal unconscious. They just often follow that with, I can't give up my meat. But it definitely seems in the general public, outside of health/athletic conceptions, that veganism is seen as the healthier option. People just don't think they can do it.

Christopher said...

Most non-Paleo indoctrinated embrace a vegan diet, but who cares. What's right has nothing to do with what many think is right.

"People can reverse disease by eating more animal products and less plant foods."

I don't know why Cordain is presented as the voice of paleo here ( he's not for me), but I think that we all agree the key to reversing modern disease is not adding animal products. It's subtracting junk food products.

You seem like a really nice guy. Why are you playing a smoke screen game?

Don said...

Erik and Christopher,

You will have a hard time convincing me that "most non-Paleo indoctrinated embrace a vegan diet." My parents do not embrace a vegan diet and thought I was going to die without meat when (30 years ago) I first gave it up.

Erik, you have quite a limited social experience if everyone you know would "automatically say veganism is healthier." I deal regularly with ordinary people who don't even know what veganism is, let alone believe it is healthier after it is described to them. Most worry about protein and various other deficiencies they imagine will occur if they don't eat meat and drink milk.

If vegan is the dominant paradigm and the only obstacle is people think they can't do it, then there is one huge market for vegan restaurants and vegan options on fast food menus. I wonder why McD, BK, KFC, et al don't capitalize on this market with vegan options on their menus? Why don't I see vegan restaurants in equal numbers to meat-based? Why is it so hard to find vegan options in the typical non-Asian restaurant?


Why is Cordain the voice of Paleo Diet? Are you serious?

In case you didn't notice, he called his book The Paleo Diet, he owns, and he trademarked the phrase "The Paleo Diet". See the TM on the title of this page:

When people refer to The Paleo Diet, they refer to Cordain, and his 'research' and 'reasoning' is used to support paleo dieting by every 'paleo diet' guru who has published a book or website (Wolf, DeVany, et al).

As for "we all agree the key to reversing modern disease is not adding animal products," Cordain clearly believes that the key to optimal nutrition is increasing your consumption of animal products to at least 50% of your energy intake, and that this is key to reversing obesity and metabolic syndrome. At the same time he believes that we should stop eating grains, beans, and potatoes, all plant products. This is clearly an Rx to eat more animal foods and less plant foods to reverse disease.

What smoke screen? I am trying to clear the smoke, not blow more of it. It is the paleo gurus who have created imaginary ancestral people (e.g. Grok) and diets to replicate and advocate. Do you believe in Grok?

The Humane Hominid said...

I'm glad to see someone else stumbled on this gem of a series. I am impressed by his grasp of evolutionary biology, and by the fact that he doesn't seek to argue that veganism is man's natural diet. Opting instead for the more reasonable skeptical position that the notion of an optimal diet dictated by the genome is at best questionable. I haven't gotten through the whole series yet, but the first 14 videos are pretty devastating to the paleo diet's just-so story, IMO.

Thanks for sharing this with your readers, Mr. Matesz.

Christopher said...


While I am certainly glad that Cordain got us rolling, I hardly think that he is where most well-informed dieters look for advice.

Veganism is more widely accepted than paleo. Around the world and in the USA. That's a fact I doubt you'd dispute.

Of course, it doesn't matter. The number of believers does not affect the credibility of a system.

What I meant with the "smoke screen" comment is that you paint paleos as a bunch of meat-hungry, salivating cavemen when you know that's not the case.

We, as a group, are intelligent, well-reasoned, and driven by a pursuit for optimal health. Many of us spoke highly of you after AHS, and I assume you were impressed with them as well.

You were one of us not too long ago, and you're still not very different. We certainly have more in common than not.

More on topic - I've yet to see anything from you convincing enough to get me to put down the steak and pick up some tofu. I have been thoroughly convinced by the paleosphere to skip wheat, vegetable oil, and soy.

Of course, I keep your blog on rss in case you can convince me.

Peter said...

Brilliant Don,

this video-serie is pretty amazing and I highly recommended for everyone interested in nutrition, particularly in the realm of fad diets. I guess the "paleo" has stick around with us more than needed because of its theoretical postulations sound so appealing to many, "back to nature" has always had its appeal.

I am only one who think it's ironic that an exercise professor who tells that animal protein keeps you lean and strong is quite at the chubby end himself these days. That's what comes my mind when I think about Loren Cordain. The inconsistency, that is. Kind a like Bob Atkins, cardiologist who ate as he preached as was diagnosed with atherosclerosis (and no, it's not a myth coined by the PETA)

This video-serie pretty much destroys the whole paleo-diet as conceived by Boyed, Cordain, Lindeberg, etc. My favourite parts were the segment on Inuit health 27-28, and the best of low-carb science 52-53. Great segments on the cholesterol deniers as well, the LDL is achilles knee of the paleo-low-carbers.

Peter said...


howabout putting up a book refuting the paleo-idea ala Cordain, that could be kind a like Lierra Keiths "vegeterian myth", just don't recite wikipedia and the proteinpower in it....:)

You have all the background necessary.

Amy said...

I was accidently vegan for the first 4 weeks of my pregnancy with my daughter. I didn't ferment, any of the foods I ate. At 4 weeks, all my vitamin, mineral and protein counts came back great. 8 months later, after I'd been eating meat, my protein counts came in low on a unreliable urine tests. The doctor accused me of not eating meat. He even told me that my daughter would be growing better if I'd eat meat. He thought she was to small. I finally made him believe that I was eating meat, but I had to give him a lot of details on my diet. It helped that the actual blood test on my protein count came back normal. Despite 4 weeks of veganism in the first 4 weeks of pregnancy my daughter at 5 is very healthy and smart.

People think Paleo is new or veganism is new. But, it's more like politics. I still think both major parties are in bed together and our responsible for our failing economy. Neither Paleo or Veganism is really thinking outside of the box. Both sides are obsessed with food as the answer to a variety of issues ranging from blood sugar to skin issues. Really outside the box thinking could possibly focus on health being related to standing more during the day, mental health or some other known factor. I'm still searching for some true outside of the box thinking.

Renaud said...

Very interesting. I watched the video to #21... and since english is not my language it took me some time! I don't buy the whole thing, but the author certainly make very valid points.

On the other hand, we also have some bias and "bad science reporting" in the saying of Campbell/Esselstyn&Co, as exposed on Denise Minger blog about "Fork over knives" and the China study.

There seems to be a problem with people excessively bound to simplistic over-simplifications. That's why i love to read your blog, as well as those of PHD, Chris, and Denise (among others). Thanks.

Emerson said...

I enjoyed the 71 part video series. However, I think the series should have included a mention of Dr. Walter Kempner's Rice and Fruit diet, perhaps during the part where he discussed the Paleo fear of grains.

If grains are so bad for us, as the Paleo crowd suggests, how do we explain Dr Walter Kempner's great results with a diet primarily consisting of white rice and fruit.

Going against the conventional wisdom with respect to protein, te Rice diet was designed to lower protein, as well as sodium (and fat).

Excerpts from “Walter Kempner and the Rice Diet” book

"Kempner found that, in his experimental animals, he could produce very low blood sugar through fasting, in the absence of insulin and without causing convulsions. Relevant to the future development of the rice diet, he also found he could raise blood sugar levels with injections of adrenaline. Because the adrenal gland responds to sodium, its activity is decreased by the removal of sodium. These observations on sodium later bore fruit when they helped lead Dr. Kempner to the idea that sodium might play a role in both diabetes and hypertension via the adrenal glands and, more important, that maximum restriction of sodium could contribute to the treatment of these and other symptoms." (p. 44)

"As Dr. Kempner had pointed out to the medical students, his research had strongly indicated that a radical reduction of sodium, protein, and fat could halt or at least slow the disease process in patients with damaged kidneys. He had not imagined that, also in hypertensive patients with no evidence of kidney disease, the rice diet could actually reduce blood pressure, reverse heart failure, heal retinopathy, and, most astonishingly, significantly shrink disease-enlarged hearts." (p. 129)

A few years ago a criticism of Dr. Esselstyn was lodged in a medical journal under the title "Of rice, grain, and zeal: lessons from Drs. Kempner and Esselstyn." The thrust behind the article (according to Dr. T. Colin Campbell's book "The China Study") was that Kempner and Esselstyn both succeeded due to "zealous belief."

Jack Christopher said...

To clarify, Don:

Are you saying there's no value in animal food, now? And that plant food only diets are above criticism; they're optimal?

Or just that a plant food only diet can be healthly, context dependent?

Jack Christopher said...

I watched the 2 out of 3 videos, Don posted. The first didn't work. I'll try later though.

Anyway, my impression was that he strawmans Paleo and Cordain at points. He's either feigning ignorance to do that, or via overgeneralizing, creating *a* paleo position so he can strawman it. I can go into specific examples.

'til I watch the rest, I'll take your word (The Human Hominid) that the video poster doesn't believe in an optimal diet.

But his language in the videos makes me skeptical of him. He namecalls, uses a condescending tone, and the overall "energy" or consciousness level he's communicating in, connected weakly with me. Sorry if that's too New Agey sounding. :)

Sue said...

Campbell didn't do well in that protein debate.

Gert said...

Vitamin B-12 anyone?

Renaud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Emerson said...


What is your opinion of the controversy between Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Denise Minger and the data accumulated via the Cornell-China-Oxford project?

Do you think that Dr. Campbell's interpretation of that data is more accurate? Or do you think that Denise Minger's analysis is mostly correct?

It seems Campbell saw the data and concluded that human beings are more suited to a plant based diet. Minger, on the other hand, took from the data that while human beings need to stay away from wheat, they should view animal based foods as healthy.

Your views on this?

Peter said...


The video serie includes a chapter about the analyst skills of the bloggers in regards to epidemiologic data. China Project and the "New China Study" ís covered in the videos 62-65.

In regards to wheat consumption I wonder howcome the US paleo scene has completely overlooked the fact that Italians make up the most trimmest and healthiest population of the EU, yet showing staggering high wheat-consumption rates. We have countries with same level of healthcare, if not even better, lagging much behind Italy.....well okay,I forgot the mantra "correlation does not equal causation"....:)

There's even own chapter for grains, including glutein in the serie.

Susan Schenck said...

I was a strict vegan for 6 years, 99% raw and 99% vegan. I even wrote a book about it: The Live Food Factor, which contains 66 studies proving the superiority of a RAW diet (not vegan). Well, all I can say is that I got so many deficiencies that took YEARS to manifest as symptoms (because the body can store up nutrients like B12) that I had to go back to eating some animal foods to get my health back. This led to my doing some pretty deep research, which led to my book Beyond Broccoli. I now advocate a high raw (at least 80% of the calories), high plant diet with SOME animal foods, but not as much as what the Paleo diet books suggest.

Chase said...

Hi Susan, thanks for your input, but it's clearly not applicable as there are many different vegan diets. Vegan just means not eating meat and animal products.

For people curious about what Susan actually did eat:

Her diet was oil and nut based.
Her meals looked like:
cacao and cayenne drink for breakfast

salad for lunch with fat

dinner with nuts, oil, avocado

Extremely low in carbohydrate, volume, and calories. Any wonder there were cravings?

There are intelligent and less obsessive ways to eat, vegan or omnivorous. Many people simply eat their meals and move on with their day. It's possible when the meal is satiating with ample calories, vegan or not.

Unknown said...

If the post comes as a post for unknown, this is also bpatocchi.

Thanks for your remarks. I have cut out grains and sugars from my diet. This has raised the fat in my diet and my diet is low carb. This seems to work for me. I have been training hard for masters swimming. I been doing weights running and swimming. I am do HIIT and speed work along with low intensity long swims and run/walk hikes. But because of the high fat content of my diet I sometimes wory about sudden cardiac death. I mean if Taubes is wrong about saturated fat I realy want to know. swimmins

hellojtm said...

I think you have made an inadvertent bait and switch here Don. I'm not going to speak for Cordain and Wolf but I will speak to my understanding since I have read their books. They are simply saying that looking at nutrition explicitly from an evolutionary perspective is, in their minds, going to be the way of the future. A method that will eventually over-take other methods due to it's coherence. Disagree with that as you may. They are in no way saying that the Paleo diet is "more different than a standard american diet than veganism is" which is what you imply they are saying.

We should get past the ad hominem stuff and just discuss the facts as we have them as well as what works, what doesn't etc... I like reading your blog these days, it's interesting, but I see too much "Cordain says this" etc... who cares what Cordain said. Nobody elected Cordain as their leader, he is just a source of information. Even if someone says they eat a paleo diet it doesn't mean they even know who cordain is. I have a friend that has had amazing results getting more omega-3 and eliminating grains and vegetable oils as well as a bunch of sugar. He's never heard of Cordain so your blog posts would be useless for him if he was seeking information. He might be looking in the "blogosphere" for some clues to healthful ways to approach a vegan diet and if he came here he'd discover some regurgitating of Cordain, Harris, Wolf etc... which wouldn't inform him at all.

Granted, this seems to be your current chosen path, as evidenced by the title of these posts. Perhaps you should change the title to "Critique of Loren Cordain's interpretation of a Paleo diet". Loren Cordain has no doubt done the yeoman's job of collecting data, we don't all have to agree with his interpretation of it any more than we have to agree with T. Campbell's interpretation of the China Study. The data is there, come up with your own interpretation if you can, otherwise you have to find people you trust.