An unfortunate blog post was recently brought to our attention, which claimed that a paleo diet is not the way to a healthy future. We say “unfortunate” because the post seems somewhat inaccurate and misguided. However, this offers an opporutnity for discussion.
The post that we speak of was written by Barbara King, a biological anthropologst and Professor at the College of William and Mary. Let’s first start with a few of her suppositions in the post.
Barbara’s comments in bold. Our response in italics.
1. “Largely, but not 100 percent, a vegetarian, I don’t tell others what to eat. But the paleo-movement seems to doom (even if unintentionally) more animals to life and death in factory farms. A greater percentage of grain crops would also be diverted to rich countries’ animals and away from poor countries’ people.”
First, if you are writing for an NPR blog about the merits or limitations of a particular type of diet, you are communicating to very many people what they should eat. Second, to think that proponents of the paleo movement support factory farming is to gravely misunderstand the paleo movement. We find that paleo dieters tend to have a much better understanding (as compared to the average citizen) of the important nutritional and environmental differences between raising ruminants on grain and raising ruminants on grass. An educated paleo dieter does not support factory farms or feeding grains to animals who did not evolve to properly digest them – and that group of animals includes humans.
2. “Many nutrition scientists give the paleo-diet a thumbs-down. They worry about its dearth of carbohydrates, its cost, its impracticality, and the fact that its boasts for good health are medically unproven. For my part, I’ll focus on the paleo-anthropology.”
It is true that many nutrition scientists give the paleo diet a thumbs-down. It is also true that our nation is more obese than it has even been in its history, so I’m not quite sure how much stock we should place in our past leadership. As for dearth of carbohydrates, please bear in mind that although there are essential amino acids (building blocks of proteins) and there are essential fatty acids (building blocks of fats), there is no such thing as an essential sugar (building blocks of carbohydrates). In fact, man can live on meat and fat alone, but just because one can do something does not mean that one should. Nonetheless, perhaps one’s carbohydrate intake should more closely mirror their movement for the day or week and not simply what is available in the entire middle section of the grocery store. As for cost and impracticality, there are many ways to approach this critique. For the consumer perspective, the fact that eating paleo is a growing trend is prima facie evidence that it is practical. You might have to make some changes in your life, but eating paleo is completely do-able and delicious. As for cost, think about all the things that you will not be buying – soda pop, juices, crackers, cookies, chips, donuts, the list goes on… Wouldn’t most consumers prefer to eat fresher foods and leave the processed unhealthy stuff behind? Paleo helps guide folks in the right direction. Now, from the macro perspective, eating meat and fresh, local vegetables might be considered costly and impractical; however, grass-fed, organic, and local food are much less expensive and are much more sustainable (read: practical) in the long run. Factory farming, petrochemicals, monocultures, and shipping foods with fossil fuels might be “practical” in the short-run and while they are subsidized by the government, but there is no way that you can argue that our current mainstream food supply is sustainable for the long-term. Read Joel Salatin and the Vegetarian Myth, then we’ll talk.
3. “Here’s where science most forcefully speaks back. First, ancient hunter-gatherer groups adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable — for instance, coastal or inland, game-saturated or grain-abundant (eating grains was not necessarily incompatible with hunter-gatherer living). Second, genes were not in control. People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what.”
Now, I feel like an understanding of the paleo movement is starting to take root. I read words like “local environments” and “regionally and seasonally variable” and they feel familiar. Certainly, eating grains was not incompatible with hunter-gatherer living, but to imply that the consumption of grains in a pre-industrial agricultural time was anything light-years near the consumption of grains today is disingenuous at best. The issue of cultural traditions and the evolution of different types of cuisines is an interesting one indeed and perhaps a topic for another day. My understanding is that many of these practices serve to preserve perishable foods (smoking, curing, spicing, fermenting) or to increase the digestion and absorption of the nutrients that they contain.
4. “It’s not paleo-fantasy that’s going to help us negotiate a healthy future, the 7 billion of us together, on this environmentally-endangered planet.”
We appreciate the call to attention with regard to our food security issues. However, this post fails to offer any solutions. We are reminded of a famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic” that he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910.
“It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”
The paleo movement is in the arena striving valiantly for a worthy cause where others have failed. We have real health and environmental crises on our hands and we need solutions now. Let’s not point out how others might stumble, but rather keep moving toward sustainable health solutions. Changing the way we grow and raise all of our food (plants and animals alike) is imperative to that mission. As a result, all of our vegetables, meats, berries, nuts, and fruits will be more nutritious and available for the long-term.