Against the grains

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Against the grains

A Kellogg's magazine advert, 1952. Image courtesy of The Advertising Archives

A carbs-rich diet has been blamed for the alarming explosion of obesity and chronic disease. What does the science show?

Melinda Wenner Moyer is a science and health journalist. She teaches at the City of New York’s graduate school of journalism, and is the parenting columnist for Slate. She lives in Cold Spring, NY.

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A decade ago, I said goodbye to wheat. I had been carrying around 15 extra pounds since high school and I was sick of it. A friend claimed that going wheat-free helped her lose weight and feel more energetic. A diet that didn’t require counting calories? Sounded good to me, so I gave it a shot. Six months later, those 15 pounds, close to seven kilos, were history.

Slowly, wheat found its way back into my world – oh how I missed bread! – and in 2009 I decided I was done. I haven’t regained much of the weight, nor do I feel different now. I can’t help but wonder, then, why my diet worked. Was it that my body truly functioned better without wheat? Was the claim true that carbohydrates, especially grains, promoted weight gain more than other types of foods?

Anti-carb rhetoric has been around for a long time, but it’s gotten fierce these past few years, and the public is lapping it up. Numerous best-sellers blame wheat, gluten and sugar for obesity, neurological disorders, and other chronic diseases. Carb critics fall into two basic camps: some make biochemical arguments, suggesting that the way our body processes carbs produces unique and harmful health effects, while others say carbs symbolise humanity’s fall from grace – that every time we stuff our faces with cookies, pasta and bagels, we are blatantly disrespecting the dietary blueprint our ancestors left in our genes. Our meat-eating hunter-gatherer forebears never ate these carbs, and we plainly lack the metabolic oomph to deal with them now. This argument implies a fixed human nature – and a prehistoric past that dictates how we should eat today. But to what extent are modern humans really Pleistocene hominins under the skin? And what can these evolutionary arguments tell us, if anything, about the Western world’s ongoing health woes?

The alarming increase in metabolic disease might be newly epic, but low-carb diets have been around for hundreds of years. The first fad took off in 1863 with William Banting’s Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public. Banting was a formerly portly London undertaker who felt compelled to write about his weight-loss success after he began avoiding foods containing ‘starch and saccharine matter’. By replacing his buttered toast with bacon and his pastries with poultry, Banting dropped 46 pounds (21kg) in a year, despite eating what some have since estimated to be 2,800 calories a day.

But even back then, the idea that carbs might be uniquely fattening wasn’t news to the medical establishment. In Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007), the US science journalist Gary Taubes explains that, at the time, the editors of the esteemed medical journal the Lancet scoffed at Banting’s diet because, they said, the medical literature ‘supplies abundant evidence that all which Mr Banting advises has been written over and over again’.

Everything changed in the early 1960s. That’s when the American Heart Association officially backed the low-fat diet, thanks largely to the tireless work of the US physiologist Ancel Keys, who studied populations around the world, reporting correlations between fat consumption and heart disease. If Keys and his low-fat diet were in, then so were carbs – they were pretty much all that remained if you cut out dietary fat. For the next 40 years, low-fat diets were touted as the preferred – if not the only – recommended approach for preventing and combating obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

But rebels have continued to speak out. The late New York cardiologist Robert Atkins developed his low-carb diet after reading a paper on the approach in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1963 and trying one himself. His plan recommended replacing carbohydrates, including grains, fruits, and legumes, with proteins and vegetables; it was based on the idea that without carbohydrates in the diet, the body would start burning its own, stored fat for fuel. In 1965, Atkins presented his program to the viewers of The Tonight Show, and millions signed on.

A decade later, another low-carb movement, one motivated by an entirely different concept in science, was born. In 1975, the US gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin self-published The Stone Age Diet, in which he argued that our genes haven’t had the time to adapt to the vast changes we made to our diet after the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago, when we began growing our own crops and dramatically increased our consumption of carbohydrates. The evolutionary mismatch between all the carbs our ancestors were suddenly eating, and the meat- and plant-rich diets their bodies had grown accustomed to, was causing ‘many of Man’s physical discomforts and health problems’ because carbs were unsuitable for our meat-conditioned digestive tracts.

Over the years, the concept was refined. By the mid-1980s, the physician Boyd Eaton and the anthropologist Melvin Konner, both of Emory University in Atlanta, were saying that our human ancestors ate mostly meat and plants and were free of modern chronic diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and certain types of cancer.

All this caught the eye of the Colorado State University exercise physiologist Loren Cordain, who, with Eaton and others, analysed the dietary patterns of 229 modern hunter-gather societies from around the world. They found that some 73 per cent of the societies derived more than half their subsistence from animal products, and surmised that Paleolithic hunter-gatherers did much the same.

Cordain gave us the most recent iteration of the concept with his book The Paleo Diet (2002). In it, he approves of lean meats and fish but rejects grains, legumes and processed foods. He allows fruits, but tells dieters to avoid fatty meats and dairy products, because they weren’t eaten by our ancestors back in the day.

Yet as an argument against carbs, the premise of the Paleo diet turns out to be difficult to prove because we can’t be sure what our distant ancestors ate: some anthropologists argue that we were mostly meat-eaters; others argue that we evolved to eat starches; most say we just don’t know.

In fact, it makes sense that ancestral populations ate all sorts of foods, depending where and when they lived. Just because early humans had the ability to eat animals doesn’t mean that they ate them all the time, says the University of Colorado anthropologist Matt Sponheimer, who has researched the issue for years. Likewise, we can’t say that grains and sugars were never consumed by early humans. The remains of many early human ancestors had teeth loaded with cavities, ‘suggesting that sugar was a big part of their diet’, notes Peter Ungar, chair of anthropology at the University of Arkansas. Sponheimer recently published evidence collected from the dental enamel of early hominins suggesting they might have eaten certain types of cereal grains, though perhaps they simply ate animals that had eaten the grains; it is impossible to know.

Of course, all this is relevant only if our ancient ancestors were much healthier than we are. Why else would we want to eat like them? While we can't be certain, the predominant evidence suggests they were. Certainly, early humans perished young in violent encounters and childbirth. But Cordain cites studies suggesting that Paleolithic humans tended to have lower blood pressure, better insulin sensitivity, and a lower body-mass index than modern humans – which translates, he says, into a lower risk of chronic disease. Kim Hill, an Arizona State University anthropologist who has spent his career studying a handful of modern hunter-gatherer societies, concurs. Many of them ‘look like competitive athletes’, he says.

Yet even if our ancestors were healthy without grains, that sheds little light on the situation today. Diet is hardly the only culprit pundits bring up to explain the health crisis in our midst. What about all the chemicals and toxins in modern society; or our lit-up nights; our sedentary ways?

Nor do Paleo diet proponents consider how well-adapted we are to grains right now. Cordain argues that only 333 generations have passed since our diets drastically changed due to the advent of agriculture – not enough time for significant genetic adaptations. But the University of Minnesota biologist Marlene Zuk, author of the book Paleofantasy, cites several very recent genetic changes that aid the digestion and metabolism of grains and dairy, suggesting that modern humans have, in fact, evolved to meet our new dietary habits, and that we are continuing to do so now.

The mere existence of genetic changes doesn’t mean we’re physiologically compatible with grains in the long-term. ‘Europeans may have adaptations for drinking milk, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for us,’ says Sponheimer. ‘It just means we’ve had to evolve a capability for it.’ We might have acquired genetic changes that influence our ability to digest grains, but that tells us nothing about whether we’ve acquired the specific set of changes needed to thrive on a grain-based diet or avoid its health consequences over the long-term.

Resolving these issues remains critical because carbs have been invoked not just as a cause of obesity but also wide-ranging chronic disease. In Wheat Belly (2011), the US cardiologist William Davis points to gluten, the protein that gives wheat its stretchiness (and is the reason bread is so deliciously spongy), as a potential cause of immune problems, including coeliac disease, which has been increasingly diagnosed in the US over the past 50 years. Davis wonders whether the genetic changes that have arisen in wheat crops during that time as a result of selective breeding could be at the root: he cites a 2010 study reporting that some modern European wheat varieties contain a higher concentration of the types of glutens known to cause coeliac disease.

Since people who suffer from coeliac disease are also at increased risk for autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and Crohn’s, Davis suggests that wheat might also increase the risk for these diverse conditions. ‘In short, the reach of gluten consumption consequences is mind-bogglingly wide,’ he writes. While it’s a thought-provoking hypothesis, it’s also possible that all of these conditions share another root cause.

Then there are the claims that grains cause neurological diseases such as anxiety, depression, epilepsy, schizophrenia, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and dementia. Grains are dangerous, says the US neurologist David Perlmutter in his highly controversial book Grain Brain (2013), in part because gluten incites inflammation throughout the body, including the brain. He argues that people with high blood sugar are more likely to experience brain shrinkage; that those with diabetes are more likely to develop dementia; and that someone with coeliac disease is at an increased risk for cognitive impairment. Yet when I asked Perlmutter why he opted to use such strong causal language when so many of his claims are based on associations, he said that, ‘In writing a book, I’m able to take a little more liberty and say, based on the best available knowledge today, here's what I as a physician would recommend’. In other words, none of this is established fact.

To prove that carbs are really behind these ills, we need careful scientific studies and plausible biological explanations for what we observe. Work along these lines over the past decade might not be conclusive, but a glimmering of insight has emerged.

In 2004, researchers at the US Veterans Affairs Medical Center and Duke University published the results of a trial in which they had assigned 120 overweight volunteers to follow either a low-fat or a low-carb diet for 24 weeks. By the end, the low-carb dieters had lost nearly twice as much weight – 12.9 per cent of their initial body weight, compared with 6.7 per cent in the low-fat dieters.

A 2010 trial compared low-carb versus low-fat diets in severely obese adolescents for 13 weeks. Teens on the low-carb regimen reduced their body-mass index 50 per cent more than the low-fat dieters; when the teens were followed up 11 weeks after the trial had ended, those on the low-carb diet had maintained their greater weight loss.

‘the Atkins Diet is the easiest to follow – you simply drive by a fast food window, order a burger, throw away the bun, and scrape off the pickles and ketchup’

A 2013 meta-analysis of 13 clinical trials concluded that, overall, people on very low-carb diets ‘achieve a greater weight loss than those assigned to a low-fat diet in the long-term,’ meaning a year or longer. And although there is evidence to suggest that low-carb diets reduce appetite, multiple studies have shown that low-carb dieters lose weight even when they consume upwards of 2,500 and even 3,000 calories a day.

A plausible, though unproven, explanation for these finds comes from David Ludwig of Boston University and Mark Friedman of the Nutrition Science Initiative. In a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and an accompanying editorial in the New York Times, they suggest that excessive consumption of carbohydrates leads the body to overproduce insulin, a hormone that converts those carbs into fat and stores them in body tissues. When food is preferentially stored instead of made available as fuel in the bloodstream, we feel hungrier. In a nutshell, we don’t get fat because we eat too much, we eat too much because we get fat – and carbs catalyse that unfortunate sequence of physiological events.

Other solid research suggests that low-carb diets might be better for the heart, too, by improving blood cholesterol levels and insulin sensitivity – an idea that directly contradicts the American Heart Association’s repeated warnings that low-carb diets, which are typically high in fat, could ‘raise the risk of coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and several types of cancer’. A 2012 meta-analysis of 23 clinical trials published between 1966 and 2011 reported that, overall, low-carb dieters experienced bigger drops in total cholesterol, ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, and blood triglycerides compared with low-fat dieters; they also had greater increases in ‘good’ HDL cholesterol.

Daily Weekly

There is, of course, some evidence that certain types of low-fat diets might be beneficial, too – but the data is difficult to interpret. For instance, the Cornell-Oxford-China Study, conducted in the 1980s by Cornell University, the University of Oxford, and Chinese research institutions, compared lifestyle and disease characteristics among 6,500 people from 65 counties in 24 provinces of rural China. It found that the more animal protein people consumed, the higher their blood cholesterol levels, and the greater the risk for ‘Western disease’ – cancer, atherosclerosis, diabetes, and stroke. The US physician Caldwell Esselstyn is famous for a small 1995 study in which he put 22 of his heart disease patients on a strict plant-based, low-fat diet. The 11 participants who stuck with it experienced a complete remission of their heart disease. And Dean Ornish, a physician at the University of California, San Francisco, has also published studies suggesting that very low-fat diets can reverse heart disease.

Cookie by cookie, we might be forging humanity into new evolutionary territory, re‑shaping our genes to handle our new dietary indulgences

Yet these dieting patients didn’t just diet – Ornish’s also exercised more, meditated, stopped smoking and attended psychosocial support groups, while Esselstyn placed his patients on cholesterol-lowering statins during their diets. And the Cornell-Oxford-China Study shows only associations: even though people in regions consuming more meat also had more cancer, we can’t necessarily blame the meat for the cancer, because these regions are different in many ways. In short, it is impossible to make conclusions about the specific impact that these low-fat diets had.

In addition, the low-fat diets recommended by these experts aren’t your typical American Heart Association-backed low-fat diets that advise limiting fat intake to 30 per cent of total calories. They are far more rigorous, allowing patients to consume only 10 per cent of their calories from fat – that means going vegan, never cooking with oil, butter or margarine, and eating ‘light’ tofu when possible. That these diets are so strict makes them very difficult to follow for long periods of time. In the only clinical trial to compare very low-fat diets (less than 10 per cent fat) with low-carb diets, Ornish dieters had an exceptional amount of trouble and managed to reduce their fat intake only to some 30 per cent on average – three times more fat than they should have been eating. John McDougall, a California-based internist and the author of The Starch Solution (2012), says ‘the Atkins Diet is the easiest to follow – you simply drive by a fast food window, order a burger, throw away the bun, and scrape off the pickles and ketchup, and you’re on the diet’. Of very low-fat diets, on the other hand, he says: ‘with such a steep learning curve, few people succeed’. Even if very low-fat diets can reverse heart disease at the extreme end of compliance, they are so difficult that only the most committed might be able to make them work.

In the midst of all the claims and counterclaims, there is a single clear piece of common ground. Experts of every stripe ask dieters to avoid refined sugars and grains. ‘Losing body weight on a plant-based diet is much less likely to occur if the diet includes too many refined carbohydrates,’ writes Cornell’s T. Colin Campbell in his book, The China Study , based in part on his Cornell-Oxford-China study research. Esselstyn instructs his dieters to consume only whole-grain products and avoid fruit juice. And McDougall urges his readers to eat complex carbohydrates instead of refined sugars and flours.

In essence, these scientists and doctors are recommending an Atkins diet that replaces the meat and fat with plants and certain complex (but never refined) carbohydrates. They attribute the success of their low-fat regimens to elimination of all animal products and fats, but can we be sure that the most important part isn’t the elimination of refined sugars and carbs instead? Many societies, including the Chinese and Japanese, have gotten sicker and fatter in recent decades as they have started eating more meat and dairy products, the low-fat proponents argue. But increases in meat and dairy consumption typically go hand in hand with increases in refined carbohydrate and sugar intake. In fact, back in 1957, British nutrition researcher John Yudkin had found that increases in sugar intake in various populations predicted their increasing heart disease death rates more strongly than did increases in fat or animal consumption.

So where does all this leave us, other than confused and wondering if we should stop eating cupcakes? On the health side, the science does collectively suggest, but not prove, that a calorie is not always just a calorie, and that carbohydrates – particularly refined ones – might have unique metabolic effects that increase risk for chronic disease. Indeed, the notion that sugar and refined carbs are dangerous seems to be the one point on which nutrition scientists at either end of the carb-fat spectrum agree. I suspect that my weight-loss success a decade ago had something to do with the fact that, by cutting out wheat, I was replacing some refined carbohydrates with other macronutrients.

It’s also safe to say that carbohydrates as we eat them today are indeed ‘unnatural’ for us. Even though our Paleolithic ancestors almost certainly enjoyed occasional treats of honey, they weren’t having Entenmann’s crumb coffee cake for breakfast; the technology to refine grains just wasn't available then. It’s likely that our bodies are not well-suited for such a regimen, either.

So Paleo dieters might be right – we could be more evolutionarily in tune with a diet like that of our ancestors, which almost certainly includes fewer refined carbs. We can’t say, based on today’s evidence, that carbs are the root cause of all our chronic ailments, but scientific evidence suggests that we might stay healthier if we take flour and added sugar off our plates. Still, human nature is a moving target. Cookie by cookie, we might be forging humanity into new evolutionary territory, re‑shaping our genes to handle our new dietary indulgences. Along the way, we will undoubtedly ease our problems with new medicines, technologies and lifestyle adaptations – the supine lifestyle depicted in the 2008 film WALL-E comes to mind. But we will undoubtedly have a smoother road ahead if we change our dietary ways, instead of letting our dietary ways change us.

Read more essays on food & drink, human evolution and nutrition & exercise


  • Susi Batstone

    Well presented article. I wonder if the changes to gut microbiota that ensue from consumption of refined carbs actually then perpetuate it? I'm sure they are able to influence our behaviour and food choices. So 'carb addiction' isn't the person, more the gut inhabitants demanding their fix. Rebooting gut flora with ones that like vegetables and unprocessed foods would be worth trying. Kimchi etc.

    • Adrian

      There is much sense in what you propose, unfortunately rebooting the gut flora is not as simple as that. The only mechanism that actually works is faecal transplant. Taking a "probiotic" pill does nothing.

      • Susi Batstone

        But without associated dietary changes, the new 'beneficial' bacteria. if given the old 'unhealthy' foodstuffs, will not thrive or remain established. The good bugs need a suitable diet - eg high in soluble fibre, low in simple sugars.

        • Adrian

          Unfortunately its not that simple. There are genetic and immunologic reasons why providing a "probiotic" pill does not work, even with a modification in diet. That is why I mentioned the only known method that can actually change our biota and may have long-term effects. If it is true that ones gut environment can influence ones dietary patterns and caloric intake, then first we need to change this microbial "tenant" and then we can change the diet.

  • beachcomber

    Well researched! Prof. Tim Noakes of marathon running fame has become a very active proponent of the Banting regime to the extent that he, an exercise professional and a health food cook have collaborated on a book "The Real Meal Revolution" with great success.
    Yep, the problems with wheat, especially refined wheat are legion but what no-one seems to have investigated, and this will only be available after a number of years of observation, will be the consequences of eating mainly animal products which are high in anti-biotic and hormonal residue. Mass animal farming is based on fast growth (quicker return on investment) with the attendant input of a vast array of chemicals. Are these all eliminated? I think not, and hormonal changes in males seem to indicate this.
    As a vegetarian and having been in the food industry, I am very cautious of GMO produced foods, brine injected poultry and the residual pesticides and fertilisers in supermarket food.

    Prof Noakes suggests wild game meat, which is possible here in South Africa, but I cannot see someone in a high density city having the same option.

    So for me, the best options are a well balanced diet of organic vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruit in season, good water, infusions like green tea, regular exercise and focused relaxation with the occasional treat of a cupcake or glass of wine/beer.

    Also... yes, Susi, the proper functioning of the gut has an enormous impact on our entire well-being and with the rampant use of antibiotics, the flora are destroyed and may not re-generate in the original balance. So the use of natural remedies is important in not upsetting this crucial balance and rebooting after antibiotics is essential.

    Finally, our metabolisms slow down with age ... in my early 20's I used to live on junk food and was very fit ... not so in my late 60's

    • Maureen Howard

      I wouldn't touch meat that wasn't either wild-caught fish, wild game from a non-farming part of the globe (corn-foraging deer don't wash their food before they eat it!), or grass-fed organic beef from a reputable source... just like I wouldn't touch 'modern' grains, GMO or non-organic produce. The saddest thing about the Paleo / Primal diets is that most folk can't afford to do it right.

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  • Anarcissie

    I would think obesity would come about as a result of taking in more calories than one burns or excretes.

    • Robert M

      The human metabolism is a massively complex system, so simplifying it to that degree is irrational in my opinion. The article also confronts the issue by pointing out a few times that low carb diets have been known to reduce weight even when the diet is high calorie.

      • Anarcissie

        Yes. And given that massive complexity, 'low fat' and 'low carb' are also rather crude. The idea that we should eat a 'paleolithic' diet when we know little about what paleolithic people ate, but do know that they lived very different lives from our own, is also pretty low-res.

        This isn't to say that extremely simple diets won't work to reduce weight, simply because they disrupt that complex metabolism. But what else do they do to the health and well-being of the dieter? Who knows?

        • Robert M

          I agree; and diet being such a hard thing to study doesn't help. The low-carb literature does go into some of the biological reasons for why it would work by exploring the role of insulin and leptin and all of that, but who knows how it all works out.

        • Bill Syrjala

          That's not the point of the paleo diet - we dont need to know a lot about what paleolithic people ate - the point of the paleo diet is to avoid "technology" foods i.e. foods that our distant ancestors couldnt have eaten (e.g. wheat, processed food, legumes that require cooking, etc), and stick to foods that can be eaten raw, for the most part. That's the starting point, then work out the nuances from there....

          • Anarcissie

            Humans have been cooking for a mighty long time -- long enough, I would say, to have affected a certain amount of evolution. Certainly several hundred generations. We might be well-adapted to eat roasted and boiled grains, especially with those big flat molars. I agree, though, that we may be less well adapted to ethylene glycol, potassium sorbate, BHT, cellulose, petroleum derivatives, and GMOs. For that we may have to wait for the next dieoff.

          • Bill Syrjala

            Yes, but being somewhat adapted to these foods is not the same as thriving. And we are, at best, somewhat adapted. I stick to the paleo diet ..... food and medical science just isnt smart enough to tell us how our genetics interact with foods that our genetics arent adapted to. They've been getting the basics wrong for so many decades, there's no way they're getting the most complex stuff correct.

        • George

          Yeah, but, we know what they didn't eat. And we know what non-techno people living in the same types of environments eat today, and what they value most.
          They didn't have bakeries and deep friers, nor factories for refining oils, nor azo dyes.
          In biology the word metabolism has a specific meaning. The whole idea of paleo and LCHF eating is to repair metabolism by resetting its default functions, not to disrupt it. That this happens is much easier to prove than weight loss. Metabolic health is a better priority than weight; if one thing leads to another, it's best to have health first.

          • Anarcissie

            The headline says, 'against the grain', and the story focuses on grains, not on recent industrial processes and additives. Humans have been eating grains, sometimes raw and sometimes roasted or baked, for thousands of years, and their metabolisms have evolved during that period. (We observe the evolution of the ability to digest raw milk in some humans during a more recent and shorter period, so it seems probable that humans also evolved in their ability to eat and digest grains during the longer period they have been using them.) Hence I have to doubt that the use of whole grains in itself presents a metabolic problem for most humans. Highly refined foods are a different matter, as is meat laced with fat and antibiotics, which is what most people get.

            My use of the term 'disrupt' was not value-loaded. If a person is overweight, their current metabolic arrangement is at least theoretically pernicious, and needs to be disrupted, as by changing their diet, amount and kind of exercise, and possibly other habits.

          • George

            The grains problem is an immunological one (which does not apply to every grain) and a question of toxicity to the gut, and competition for mineral nutrients from phytate. Adapting to starch by increasing salivary amylase (which results in a better first phase insulin response) is an adaptation that some people have, and those who don't are more prone to carbohydrate-induced metabolic disease in the modern world. But adaptation to the other effects isn't a matter of copying an existing gene, and would take much longer.
            The idea that it is unnatural to eat fatty animal food is not consistent with the hunting and eating patterns of people who have access to large animals such as marine mammals, pigs, or elephants. The record left by explorers who contacted tribes when their original hunting grounds were fully in their own possession, the extinction of megafauna following human migrations, the breaking of bones and skulls to remove marrow and brains, all tell us that fat was both prized and available in the past. Many animals fatten in the wild, and human survival in cold regions with few edible plants during the ice ages would not have been possible unless energy from fat was sufficient to supplement protein.
            The fat of animals today, while different (more monounsaturated fat, less omega 3) is closer in composition to this ancestral fat than any vegetable oil will ever be.

          • Anarcissie

            In talking about fat, I am not referring to anything that happens in the bodies of wild animals, but to the way in which contemporary industrial mass-market meat is produced, which includes both breeding and the administration of numerous antibiotics, hormones, and other dubious substances to increase gross weight (and thus revenues). The weight is mostly fat and water. People who are going to go in for a diet in which meat is a major component need to look into the situation.

          • George

            True enough. All meat, cheese too for that matter, is mostly water. Chicken is definitely inflated with water. The quality of the food supply is a concern for everyone. My interpretation of a paleo (or primal more exactly, because I use dairy fat and some protein but not milk) LCHF diet is, that I don't eat more muscle meat than I did before, and quite possibly less. I do eat more fat; this will be ghee, butter from pasture fed cows, olive oil, nuts, avocados, coconut flesh, and fat from locally grown sheep and cows, also fish.
            I'm avoiding any GMOs, pesticides, used to grow grains, soy etc, any chemicals used in processing these, any concentration of them in the making of a drop of oil from a thousand seeds, and minimising the possibility of adulteration, so any risk I'm taking is offset by a benefit. I assume that me feeling better and resolving health problems over the last 5 years means I've got something right. And no longer needing supplements to be pain-free, sleep well, and so on; that's a biggie; this diet is definitely more nourishing, and that has saved me $100 a week.

          • Donald Wallace

            Grass fed animals fat has a perfect ratio of omega 3/6 and is both paleo and Mediterranean and a great source of protein. Feed lot beef is a toxic stew of hormones, antibiotics, GMO genes incorporated into meat and bones through subsidized corn and soybeans. Since our government approved this massive experiment, we will see if our genome is able to adapt to Roundup and neonicotinoids and other exotic genes. In both the article and the comments I have seen scant mention of grass fed beef, lamb and mutton, buffalo and game animals of all kinds. I see this as an important omission. I got food religion when I was told I had cancer 10 years ago (I am 74 now). I have been studying and voraciously reading about nutrition since then. I eliminated dairy first...refined sugar...then meat...then refined carbs. I added grass fed animals back into my diet five years ago and have been very pleased with the results. My doctors are happy with my bloodwork, I am back to a 32" waist and have lots of stamina (although I have shirked my commitment to regular exercise lately) and still function as a community activist with diverse interests. Sorry, this is not about me. The article was excellent with the single niggle that grass fed animal fats are healthy and come with protein we need and evolved to eat and the article should have said so.

        • SmilingAhab

          The whole grains which have more fiber and nutrients instead of processed grains, complex carbs which burn slower and don't trigger a sudden insulin dump like simple carbs, and a decrease of both of these and an increase in fruits, vegetables, and simple fats goes miles in improving hormone regulation, nutrient uptake, reducing inflammation and improving metabolic function.

          This simple three-step diet is the common core at the heart of them. Any beginning nurse knows that we're not cars, you don't just put in calories and go.

          The article's title works with the first few paragraphs, but the conclusion drifts away from the title, that's for sure.

    • Franklin Mason

      See paragraph 25 and the reference to the work of Ludwig and Friedman.

    • elvischannel

      Digestion itself burns calories. Since protein and fat take more calories to digest, replacing 100 sugar calories with a 100 protein or fat calories gives you fewer net calories.

      • Anarcissie

        Indeed. And doing the math will burn yet further calories!

    • sabelmouse

      that has been debunked.

      • Anarcissie

        Basic physics has been debunked? That's news to me! When did that happen?

        • sabelmouse

          it's not basic physics. we're not machines.

          • Anarcissie

            Basic physics doesn't care whether you're a machine or not. A being which takes in a certain amount of energy (calories) must either burn it, radiating the energy as heat or movement; excrete it; or store it, which in the case of the human body, means accumulating fat. The principle is called the conservation of energy and was once taught in grade- or high-school level science classes. I guess not any more!

          • sabelmouse

            no it doesn't. that's one of the big mistakes western,modern, medicine makes.

          • Anarcissie

            Oh, okay. Could you let us know what universe you're writing from? In this one, matter and energy are pretty strictly conserved. It has nothing particularly to do with medicine, Western or otherwise.

          • sabelmouse

            oy and vey!

  • Renee

    I'd lay odds to a donut that paleo man ate whatever he could get his hands on to eat. A bigger difference between paleo man and modern man not covered in the article would be exercise. Modern man sits around a whole lot more than paleo man. Seems to me that might be a more important factor in their better health than what specific items were on their menus.

    • Bill Syrjala

      Yes, exercise is important. But it's still healthier to eat paleo than non-paleo.

      • Renee

        I'm not sure why folks are so convinced of this, since we don't even know what paleo man really ate. Archaeologists are still revising their theories on it as new information comes in, as the article itself mentions. At first, they thought there were no grains, but wait a minute starch grains were found on paleo teeth after all! I guess that means paleo man didn't turn up his nose at anything edible — and I bet you wouldn't either when you've got hungry children to feed and the next meal is uncertain.

        Exercise is the more salient factor in why paleo man is healthier. They got off their asses in those days, unlike today where couch potato is in the running for the next new Olympic sport. :p

        • Bill Syrjala

          That's not the point of the paleo diet - we dont need to know a lot
          about what paleolithic people ate - the point of the paleo diet is to
          avoid "technology" foods i.e. foods that our distant ancestors couldnt
          have eaten (e.g. wheat, processed food, legumes that require cooking,
          potatoes that require cooking, etc), and stick to foods that can be eaten raw, for the most part.
          That's the starting point, then work out the nuances from there....

          • EricWelch

            Let's see, Paleo man had a life span of between 30 (women) and 35 (men) years; modern man eating "technology foods" a life-span of 75+ years. So let's eat what Paleo man did. That's certainly rational. Not.

          • Bill Syrjala

            Logic fail. There are hundreds of variables that determine life-span, of which diet is only one. Paleo is healthier than non-paleo.... please tell me which non-paleo foods extend lifespan, and provide nutrition that cant be gotten from paleo foods? answer: there are none

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            #1, we actually have very little idea of the life expectancy of our paleo ancestors. We can only make guesses based on the estimated ages of the few skeletons we have.
            #2 even if life expectancy in the past was low, this was the result of high infant and childhood mortality bringing down the average expected lifespan. People who managed to survive childhood could expect to live long lives, if they did not meet a violent end.

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        • Maureen Howard

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      • Karen Ercolani

        I have one question for the Paleo advocates:

        What do you make of the fact that both small red beans and red kidney beans rated highest in antioxidant potency and the highest concentration of disease fighting compounds in a USDA study from 2004? The red beans also ranked highest in proanthocyanins (a powerful water soluble antioxidant) containing even more than blueberries, cranberries and kale. Not only this but in the study the researchers found that 3 of the foods that made the top 5 were legumes.

        You can read more here:

        So whenever I hear people say that they avoid... "technology foods like beans because they require cooking" .... I think they are very misguided. (Consider also that legumes are loaded with BOTH excellent protein and good carbs)

        I have one question for the Paleo advocates:

        What do you make of the fact that both small red beans and red kidney beans rated highest in antioxidant potency and the highest concentration of disease fighting compounds in a USDA study from 2004? The red beans also ranked highest in proanthocyanins (a powerful water soluble antioxidant) containing even more than blueberries, cranberries and kale. Not only this but in the study the researchers found that 3 of the foods that made the top 5 were legumes.

        You can read more here:

        So whenever I hear people say that they avoid... "technology foods like beans because they require cooking" .... I think they are very misguided. (Consider also that legumes are loaded with BOTH excellent protein and good carbs)

        • Bill Syrjala

          Doesnt rebut anything that i'm saying re Paleo. Just because non-Paleo
          foods have some good (or even very good) traits at times, doesnt mean
          they are healthy on an overall basis. Food and medical science just isnt
          smart enough to predict the safety of a risky endeavor such as eating
          foods that are incompatible with our genetics. You lose nothing by
          getting your proanthocyanins from paleo sources, and gain lower disease

          • Bobcat

            I'm with you Bill. And in the end, you have to go with what works. paleo works for me, it has improved my bloodwork numbers, and it is easy beyond belief.

          • Bill Syrjala

            Thanks....yes, i've even known people who have cured autoimmune diseases by going Paleo. Wheat and dairy are the 2 worst offenders.

    • Aussie Sutra

      If we look at the traditional tribal peoples of who we absolutely KNOW their habits, they spent about 8 hours a week foraging for food or hunting. Beyond that, they spent a lot of time sitting around and socialising. The issue with modern mankind is not one of lack of exercise.

    • sabelmouse

      there were a lot of things that paleo people couldn't get their hands on.

  • minx31

    I don't mean to nitpick, but the article states that gluten is a 'potential' cause of immune problems, including celiac disease. Gluten is absolutely, 100% the cause of celiac disease, which has been known for decades. I'm sure this is just a phrasing issue, but with all the push-back against gluten free diets, you might want to make that a bit clearer for those who are less familiar with the disease.

  • Marcelo Träsel

    Very elucidative article. I have been on a paleo diet for two years now, and though I have relaxed a bit in the last couple of months, I still avoid gluten and my weight has stabilized. Judgeing by my experience, I tend to agree that avoiding gluten is beneficial because most processed foods are ridden with the pesky protein, and that leads the dieter to eat better overall. It really is difficult to eat badly when you can't have gluten. One could gorge on honey, of course, but who really can stand more than 2 spoons of it? Maybe you can have ice cream, or dulce de leche, although they are harder to overeat than cookies. So, summing it all up, I'd argue that anyone who stops eating any processed foods and exercises a bit may get thinner; avoiding gluten is just an easy rule of thumb to go on with that.

    • EricWelch

      I find the interest in the Paleo Diet somewhat amusing. It's based on assuming a particular diet is good by emulating a population that probably didn't live past 25. Peculiar, indeed.

      • Marcelo Träsel

        Although some people clearly overstress about the paleo aspects, in my view it is a success because, frail science apart, it is a useful hermeneutic approach to the nutrition regime.

      • Bill Syrjala

        It's not "peculiar" to people who understand stats 101. Life-span has hundreds of variables, not just diet.

      • Aussie Sutra

        Except that you're citing an incorrect age. Our Paleo ancestors, if they lived to survive adolescence, lived long lives. They were bigger and stronger than we are. We have physically devolved from them.

        • EricWelch

          The "Paleo" diet is basically a slightly modified form of the Atkins diet which has a lot to be said for it, especially with regard to triglycerides and insulin production. I'm a bit unclear as to who these Paleo ancestors were? Cro-Magnons? Homo erectus? or just anyone before the advent of farming. There are a lot of variables that go into life expectancy including health care, life-style, exercise (I'm sure our ancestors got more of that) alcohol (probably didn't exist before the advent of grains), wealth, weather (there is evidence that warm-blooded animals exposed to cold live longer), etc. Drawing a linear relationship between one variable to an outcome may be a strong correlation but it's certainly not causation.

          • Aussie Sutra

            Just to clarify for you, the term "Paleo" is a marketing term that allows people to get a quick general impression. Only idiots think that the diet is actually, strictly trying to mimic any paelolithic group of people. It is really just a return to unprocessed foods with an emphasis on considering deleting some of the more modern foods, such as grains and highly processed foods, from the diet.

            I, however, am not a strict follower of the principles of Paleo eating, so there's no good you chewing my ear off about it.

          • EricWelch

            Apparently I was thrown off by your comment about our Paleo ancestors being "bigger and stronger than we are." My apologies for the misinterpretation.

      • TypicalMoron

        Do you think they didn't live past 35 because of their diet, or for every other reason imaginable, such as cutting their arm and dying from a simple infection.

        Peculiar "reasoning" on your part.

  • Fred Bosick

    If the Paleo Diet is such a good idea, why is civilization so predicated on when and where agriculture occurred? Why aren't the hunter/gatherers in Africa or the (former)Cromagnon's of Europe the leading cultures on Earth?

    We probably eat too much, me included. And we should fortify our refined grains with vitamins and stuff. Do note that refined grains store better, which was a big deal a couple hundred years ago.

    I don't buy Entenmann's often, but when I do, I usually eat the whole box at once. I have no qualms about that. I like my bread machine too.

    • Anarcissie

      Agriculture allowed humans to reside in one place. This habit, in turn, made accumulations of goods, fortifications, and slavery possible -- what we call 'civilization', that is, city-building. That, and cats. Without cats rodents ate all the stored grain.

    • Bobcat

      Because carb-based diets are for the masses - amber waves of grain and all that. I'm happy for most of the population to eat commie food. I'll stick with meat.

  • Dazzeetrader1980

    Carbs protein and fat<---what we eat. Carbs get stored and they crank up insulin which stores bad things. When I was in med school, I got fat from the free food in the County Hospital where I was. I focused on protein, lost the bread and the sweets, excercised twice per day. I lost 50 lbs. Adkins diet. It works. Another thing often ignored is that eating fat may make you a metabolic disaster zone but it doesn't make you far. Smaller portions help a lot. What's in those portions is key.

  • KhadijahMuhammad

    It seems to me that the unexplored variable is the simplicity of following a low carb diet vs the difficulty in following a low fat one.

    We're a society that's constantly on the "go", and for many of us, a quick "grab" of food at some point during the day is essential to getting our jobs done; add to that the fact that we don't have time (for the same reason) to prepare good meals at home, oftentimes.

    Low fat, with its emphasis on grains/fruits/vegetables, requires prep time and some forethought if you want to find a tasty meal. Canned vegetables are horrid, so fresh is necessary, and it's keep time in the fridge isn't long. So, unless you want to eat cereal for lunch and dinner.....low fat is not easy.

    Low carb, OTOH, is quite simple. So, even if a low-fat dieter succeeds in hitting a goal weight by eating in that way, it eventually wears on you and fatty proteins start to reappear into the diet.

  • Jerome Barry

    Good question. Other than it being a research report of historical fads, I still couldn't find any science. Why was I 'heaver' than my older brother by the time I was 2 and he was 4? Why have I been overweight all my life while he has been slim all his? Why are we both endowed with genetic protection against diabetes and heart disease? Oh, I know why! Daddy had a twinkle in his eye.

  • Richard McCargar

    When I go low carb for a minimum of a week, I no longer crave food. It becomes easy to only eat what I require to replace the calories expended.

    The moment I reintroduce carbs, the cravings return.

    That alone, is enough for me to stay off most carbs, most of the time.

  • Roman

    While I applaud research into health issues linked to food consumption, as an artisan baker I wished that the majority of these reports would be more discerning when it comes to "bread": there is a huge difference between sourdough breads and the garbage that is industrially produced straight yeasted bread. That goes for the gluten idiocy as well as for the wheat scare. To simply generalize and state over and over again that wheat and bread (or carbs for that matter) is leading to all sorts of health issues taints artisanal sourdough bread with a reputation it doesn't deserve.

    • Aussie Sutra

      You need to learn how to position the artisanal bread you make within the food narrative that is emerging. Understand that the new wheat introduced in the 1980s has much much more gluten in it than did the old wheat varieties. As such, it is probably true that many people who managed just fine on the old wheat have developed sensitivities due to their bread suddenly becoming excessively laden with gluten. You should be using old wheat varieties, talking about them and talking about the value of sourdough bread over and above regular bread.

  • Adrian Bank

    The change in our views on diet are well summed up in Pink Floyd's evil 1950s school master shouting "how can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat." Then the government said in 1977 that meat is bad and pudding is good (no matter how many chemicals and sugar as long as the fat is taken out.) and that is exactly when the obesity crisis began. People followed the new diet because they like sugar.
    Here's my tip on identifying junk food. On any food item, look carefully for the word "ingredients." If you can find, it's junk food.

  • orestes_shrugged

    You do realize that you're positing very recent and very substantial human evolution if you're claiming that humans have evolved to eat wheat, right?

    Not that I disagree with that conclusion. But, agreeing that there has been recent and drastic evolution tends to lend lots of credence to racist theories...

  • Jeremy Goldberg

    I think something may be getting overlooked in this discussion, which is the difference between yeasted and unyeasted bread. I don't know how common this is, but I find flatbread agrees with my digestion much, much better than yeasted bread. I think experts should probably look into this question.

  • SmilingAhab

    Just one correction - Atkins is not a high-protein diet, and it never advocated for a lot of animal-based polysaturated fat and protein. It was always supposed to be derived overwhelmingly from plant fats and proteins. Think avocadoes, not cheeseburgers.

    It is a High FAT, low carb, protein ADEQUATE diet. Its goal is to stimulate ketosis, whereby the body begins to produce ketones for energy rather than batter the body with the insulin/glycogen cycle. I have watched a close relative lose over 100 pounds in a year on a keto diet. Ketones aren't as efficient for the brain, but that makes it shore up connections more than glucose. This can be useful in dulling or eliminating the symptoms of epilepsy and other functional, and some correlations suggest, mood disorders.

    All of the diets have one thing in common that the modern neoliberal "everyone is a rational choice calculator with adequate access to correct information, so everyone should just do what they want" diet does not is that they eliminate processed foods and require much more vegetables, and exercise. Anyone following even that simple three-point diet would lose a lot of weight. But it's a marker of our society that such a stigma has surrounded chastising people for making unwise and reckless long-term habits that burden society. When was absolute 100% autonomy so fundamentally important that the sickening of the human race was worth it?

    • Bill Syrjala

      I agree. I'm a libertarian, but autonomy ends when you impose costs on other people. Which is why other peoples' diet is everyone's business, because we all have to pay for it. In a libertarian utopia, where insurance rates were priced correctly to account for individual health habits, i would say "eat yourself to death"..... but that's not how things work.

      • SmilingAhab

        I've always felt the insurance system provides somewhat of a paradox for libertarians. The crux of insurance is the risk pool, which is a decidedly collectivist way to do things. While some individual rates can be adjusted for circumstance and happenstance, the overall financial state of an insurance company depends on amassing many different classes into a single collective so that the wealthier and healthier may subsidize the poorer and sicker.

        Is there a paradox to you? While individuals are somewhat limited in choosing insurance, being that it's largely tied to one's job in the USA, it is voluntary (fun fact - in protest of the trading away of the public option in the ACA, the House liberals stripped the enforcement authorization from the IRS to punish those who refuse to pay their no insurance fine), and a whisper of competition is there.

        What are your thoughts on the subject?

        • Bill Syrjala

          You've described insurance as it's not a "real" insurance system....rates are constrained by law, so that some subsidize others.....sort of a de facto progressive tax that is a hidden tax.

          An insurance system that is allowed to charge actuarially correct rates would charge healthy people very low rates, and the sick would pay higher rates..... and then the gvt would step in and help those who couldnt afford it (as it partially does now).

          Libertarians arent against insurance. Insurance where people are charged correct rates is fine. And then people should be helped by gvt if they need it (which is where i differ from most Libertarians). e.g. a person who's been sick their whole life couldnt afford the $10k/mo premium that the "market" would charge, and that person should be helped.

          ACA fines are too low - there are still millions who wont buy insurance.

          • SmilingAhab

            Thank you for your feedback on the matter.

  • Tim Chambers

    I eat two or three bowls of rice per day, in addition to a thick slice of toast in the morning, an occasional sandwich for lunch and a muffin with coffee in mid-afternoon. I also eat a diet rich in plants and light on protein, and have the BMI of 18. What I don't consume is alcohol, soft drinks and corn or potato based snack foods. The only exercise I get is commuting to work by bicycle about 120 km per week. There is no great secret to staying healthy. It simply involves maintaining the energy one needs to get through the day and no more. I don't think it matters what you eat. Self-discipline is the key.

    • Bill Syrjala

      No....what you eat matters greatly. You are blessed to be an outlier to be able to eat like that, and have those stats at age 61. Although your diet is still raising your disease risk, sorry to say. Rice? toast? muffins? not good for you

      • Tim Chambers

        I have been overweight in the past from indisciplined eating. Mostly sweets. Years ago, I gained weight so fast my skin opened up on me in six inch long 1/8 inch wide cracks. That hurt. I got my weight down with exercise, not diet. The bread and muffins I eat are homemade. The rice is between brown and white. I have kept the weight off now for 10 years. My blood work is optimal. Right down the middle of the chart on everything. I haven't missed a day of work due to illness in 40 years. On a recent vist to the U.S. I gained 4 pounds in two weeks due to the change of diet. I promptly lost it when I returned to my normal Japanese routine.

  • johntall

    Twenty years ago I attended a series of lectures by one of our forefathers of "aerobics." The theme of the lectures was weight management.

    One night before an auditorium of many hundreds of attendees, he made the statement that people that walk eight miles per day do not tend to be over-weight.

    He went on to explain that obese patients come to him all the time, asking for a solution and promising to be willing to do anything to lose their excess weight.

    He would respond, "Walk eight miles per day," and they would almost always back track and say well just because I said "anything," I didn't mean THAT.

    The longer I live and the more that I realize just how sedentary that we have become, the more convinced I am that our "obesity/diabetes/metabolic syndrome/heart disease" explosion has got to be in large part directly related to our sedentary life style.

    The good Dr. also believed that all MEANINGFUL weight loss was the result of caloric restriction, which seems to contradict his claim about walking. But he went on to explain that movement (his term for moderate exercise) suppresses appetite and therefore leads to caloric restriction and weight loss.

    His formula is simple enough and I have not seen it refuted in anyway. It is just hard to make the time to walk for two hour per day.

    I guess we just need to mean it when we say, "I will do anything."

    • Bill Syrjala

      For those in a time crunch, this is solvable. Just stand all day - i stand 12 hours a day. And to take it a step further, walk for an hour or two via a 'treadmill desk'. There goes the time excuse - people are just lazy, and most wont do these things.

    • joshv

      Excessive exercise leads to excessive appetite. I've trained for 6 marathons, never lost much weight. Neither did any of the people I trained with. Don't take my word for it though, this is a scientifically documented fact:

      Read Taubes. Fat people are sedentary because their metabolism is trying to store every available calorie as fat. They are not fat because they don't exercise, they don't exercise because they are fat.

  • Bumpercar

    Prehistoric man was healthier than we are? What was their life span? What is ours?

    • Bobcat

      Jeez, Bump. Read at least a few of the comments before you repeat a comment that's been made a dozen times.

      • Maureen Howard

        Primitive life was far more unpredictable. You are talking averages, Bumpercar. Throw in childhood mortality, plague, war, maybe an inquisition or two... a grain based diet has been no more a guarantee than a paleolithic one. We just live in a safer world today than we did even 500 years ago. Archaeology shows, however, that those that did survive the hazards of the Paleolithic grew up stronger and taller, with less auto-immune and dental problems than their grain-eating counterparts in the Neolithic. Arguably, the sample sizes are small for both, but it is hard to refute that a diet of wild game, wild fish and wildcrafted veggies will always be more nutrient-dense than a starch-based diet. That's just nutrition 101.

  • Joe Texan

    I learned in graduate school that the Swedish have the longest life expectancy of 89 years, which means that 50% live more than 89 years. In the U.S., the life expectancy is 78 years and for the first time in history it is decreasing. So, I logged onto the Swedish governments website to check their dietary recommendations for the Swedish people. They write that they are proud to announce that they are the first government to totally reject the erroneous science that cholesterol and fat are bad and grain is good. They now recommend a high fat and very low carb diet. They said they do not expect the U.S. to follow suit because soy, corn, and wheat are the most heavily subsidized business in the U.S. and the processed food industry, combined with Big Ag and the supermarket association is 1.5 tillion dollars a year of the U.S. economy. Read the NYT's best seller, "Sugar, Fat, Salt," it is a fascinating book about the history of processed food. When the tabacco industry was hit with a 356 billion dollar law suit, the executive of the tabacco industry decided to buy the food processing companies like General Mills, Kelloggs, Nabisco, and Frito Lay, and sell a different but even more addictive substance - Sugar. There has been a 350% increase in the per capita consumption of sugar in the U.S. in the past 100 years and we are now the sickest nation or earth.

    • Agga

      As a Swede, I can confirm that the new guidelines are as you say. But they are NEW guidelines, as in, introduced in the last couple of years. So they clearly have had no effect yet on life span.

      Historically Swedish dietary guidelines are the total reverse; the government was actually infamous and ridiculed for stating that we should "Eat 6 slices of bread a day". This is the policy that you see in effect in our life span statistics.

      The low carb fad swept across Sweden just a short few years ago, before that we were the land of working hard and eating lots of dairy and bread and potatoes. Which is how my grand parents lived. You know, the generation that achieved those 89 years. My generation of mars bars, salad dressings, pizza and soda and smart phones? Time will tell, but I don't see us reaching 70.

      • Joe Texan

        Sorry to hear that this erroneous science of fat being bad and grains good has had such a negative effect on the health of Swedes.

        • Agga

          Logic is awesome. Try it sometime.

  • canbearava

    It's been well-known for decades that cutting down on bread is helpful to dieters. So I do not see what's so new about this. Covert Bailey, exercise guru of the 1990s never singled out grains as the bane of those trying to reduce. He would however definitely agree with the article with its take on refined products - the less refined and more complex the carbs were the better. His system was low-fat, higher fibre and regular exercise - a minimum of 12 minutes a day. And it works. Primarily, he was against fad dieting in general, but if pressed, tended to promote the old ho-hum balanced diet. And why not? A balanced diet is fairly easy to manage because there is less labelling you need to scrutinize. Even so, a daily caloric deficit is still required to trim the waistline. I have recently returned to the Bailey system and lost 30lbs in 3 months - with some cheating as well.

    • Maureen Howard

      As the article states, the idea of 'Paleo-diet' has been around since at least 1863. Some of the fine points are different, and the name keeps changing, but the main ideas are the same.

  • Susan Nash

    Animals eaten were much leaner then because they weren't mass fed and given no exercise like our factory farm animals.

    Genetic differences mean people can have vastly different metabolisms. Those of us with metabolic syndrome do well on a higher fat and protein diet with low processed carbs. The problem with any dietary advice is that one size doesn't fit all. We have unique requirements for nutrients based on our genetics and body composition.

    Refining of foods has caused a lot of problems because we really haven't done all our research in terms of understanding human nutrition. When you refine fats you remove vitamins E and A which are necessary to prevent oxidation. Your requirement for vitamin E goes up the more PUFA fats you eat. Thiamine is removed from food, then put back in but sulfites are also added meaning the thiamine is destroyed.

    So you need to learn what works for you and pay attention to the little signals your body gives you telling you what you need.

  • Maureen Howard

    Cordain et al makes a broad, sweeping generalization when he states that humans have 'only' been eating grains for a few hundred generations. Many cultures didn't get exposed to a "civilized" diet until contact with the west. That can be as little as 2-3 generations. Some N. American people had corn, but many did not (notably West Coast and far North / South America). In the far North, there was a well-documented rise in obesity, diabetes and oral problems/tooth loss after grains were introduced... and they had one of the most fat-rich diets on the planet until Westerners converted them.
    To me, this points to a more complicated problem. Some populations have had more time to adapt to a starch-based diet than others. With a couple centuries of heavy racial mixing, there is an element of Russian Roulette thrown in. I apparently got my mothers Native American genes, rather than my fathers English/Irish when it comes to what my body prefers. I do much better on Paleo, have seen marked improvements in my overall health when I am on it. I gain weight, get arthritis flare-ups, and my glucose levels are erratic when I eat a starch and dairy-based diet, even if I stick to a low fat/high fiber diet.
    Last observation... other omnivores up here (Far North) gain most of their weight on Fall berries and tubers, a way to store up fat for the winter. I don't think it would be too far fetched to assume Neanderhals and early modern humans developed a similar survival mechanism... so for those with more 'civilized' genes, having year-round starches and fruits (and central heating) may still be a bane.
    Just my 2 cents...

  • PatchPreset

    Good marketing has done a great job at disguising what should seriously be looked at as a major factor in the obesity issue. Over, roughly, the last 30 to 40 years the fats used in everything from packaged processed foods, fast food, and virtually all restaurants have changed over from saturated fats like butter to highly un-saturated vegetable oils. The metabolic damage done by poly-unsaturated fats is well known in the world of agriculture, as those fats are used to cheaply and quickly fatten up animals like pigs. Feeding them corn and soy fattens pigs cheaply while things like the saturated fats from coconut makes them lean and energetic.

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  • eulerandothers

    I have yet to see a study in which eating fewer calories in the form of carbs produced weight gain. The studies usually show (and I mean almost all) that people who eat low-carb consume fewer calories. I'm surprised the writer of this article missed that...

    If you see a study that differs from that, it will have the calories reported by the dieters, estimations at best. Which is always the problem with relating calories to carbs in these studies. So some researchers have done experiments in which the calorie intake was rigidly controlled, in a metabolic chamber or a metabolic ward. Calories consumed in the form of carbs? Same as calories consumed in the form of fats, protein, or alcohol.

  • eulerandothers

    carbohydrate balance predicts subsequent food intake (OK, future intake)

    High carbohydrate dietyary intake predice less hunger (OK, again... future intake)

    High carb, low fat produced more energy expenditure during sleep than a mixed diet.

    Can't find the study I'm looking for, but it would have to be a metabolic ward or metabolic chamber experiment....

  • eulerandothers

    'Adequate protein' is recommended even in the stringent first phase of the Atkins diet. I believe this is because the Atkins program has been toned down because of the dangers of protein overload (renal damage is the danger most often mentioned). But eat as much fat as you want (unrestricted) and don't eat many carbs - and that includes vegetables... limit carbs to 20 grams, but make those 20 grams count... during induction, the first phase. You WILL eat fewer calories if you stick to this. And you will lose weight, which will make you very happy.

    If you look at the Atkins website, you will find strategic mention of calories:

    Can I eat Advantage bars during the Induction phase?

    'An Advantage Bar can serve as either a snack or an occasional meal replacement. Feel free to eat them during Induction as long as you continue to lose weight. (We generally recommend no more than one bar a day during Induction.) But keep in mind that neither the Atkins shakes nor the bars were formulated to be total meal replacements. The Atkins program does not recommend the use of meal replacements; instead, it is important to eat whole, unprocessed foods to learn wholesome eating habits.

    Could eating Advantage bars be impeding my weight loss?
    This varies by individual. If you have reached a plateau and are not losing weight, try omitting the bars until weight loss resumes. Alternatively, you could exercise more to burn the extra calories or try eating only half of a bar. Remember, the bars have approximately 220 calories each and these added calories could be affecting your overall weight loss. There is an advantage to the controlled carb way of eating over low-fat diets in that you are able to take in more calories and lose more weight, but don't regard it as a license to overeat.'

    The last sentence is bunk. So they throw in the 'don't overeat' warning.

  • Jane

    The writer here initially states what is true. We have no concrete data to diffinitively support any diet theory beyond what most everyone can agree on...pop tarts and candy bars are not a healthy diet staple. She then fails by angling her argument towards propaganda. At this point no science can make anything beyond a causal connection. Eat what makes you feel good, but please stop selling dietary hypothesis as fact.

  • dwpittelli

    "several very recent genetic changes that aid the digestion and metabolism of grains and dairy [suggest] that modern humans have, in fact, evolved to meet our new dietary habits, and that we are continuing to do so now."

    This shows the opposite of what was suggested. If people are continuing to evolve to meet the demands of the modern diet, then that would necessarily mean that the modern diet is killing, and/or making less fertile, those of us who are less adapted to the modern diet.

  • OutPastPluto

    It's not so much the carbs themselves that are the problem but the lack of balance clearly inherent in a "pyramid".

    It's the pyramid that's the problem rather than any single food element. We had a perfectly sensible and serviceable model before which basically told you to eat a bit of everything in equal amounts. Fads and extremes were the enemy and there were even heroes that did battle with the forces that tried to perpetrate food fads.

    While not an optimal idea for anyone, it's probably the least destructive over all as it serves as a tolerable average.

    The message ended up effectively being "eat a lot more white bread".

  • sraw

    Science has its place as one way of knowing, a very limited one actually in spite of its current elevation to the status of a religion, and would serve us better if its methods were more often questioned as appropriate for some subjects of inquiry rather than unthinkably accepted. It is arguably inferior in many ways to indigenous knowledge and wisdom based on eons of accumulated experience and spirit guided, plant based, chemically catalyzed insight, which the very recent history of the species, only the last 500 years or so, assisted by science, has not so coincidentally attempted to eliminate, along with any natural balance our species may have ever had with our habitat, the absence of which is rapidly leading toward our demise.

    In the popular dumbed down version of the yet another "here's two bad choices - pick one" (Democrats or Republicans, Ford or Chevy, paper or plastic, ad infinitum) common perceptual reality the species has painted itself into a corner with, promulgated by divide and conquer powers that be and their media lapdogs, science looks good to people who are just smart enough to distrust fundamentalist religion. But with the direction the species is heading and the honest absence of much light or hope, it could be analogous to making a choice to die by hanging or beheading, 2 vs.1, say, on a scale of 10.

    Be that as it may, for a forum like Aeon, like many others in posing as enlightened, to rely almost exclusively on scientific evidence, and accept it as pretty much the sole lingua franca of serious inquiry and intellectual discussion, is not evidence of higher thought, and not likely to lead anywhere new, which is where we must go, or perish. It's more of what got us in a pickle, and evidence of mental slavery.