Monday, August 02, 2010

The Paleo Diet

I've been trying a new diet. I hesitate to post on it, because its hard to explain it without sounding like some kind of nut. Here's my best shot.

During my travels last summer, I listened to an excellent audio course from the learning company on neolithic Europe. I was very impressed by Prof. Adams' account of the transition from the paleolithic to the neolithic. It prompted me to write this rather bitter post about how this transition made human beings to be morally worse than they were before.

Another thing that struck me at the time was the extreme dietary change involved in this transition. The agricultural revolution, which marked the end of the paleolithic, took humans off the diet they had been on for about 2 1/2 million years -- lean meat, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, and nuts -- and put them on a completely different type of diet, one based on some starchy staple such as barley, wheat, rice, potatoes, yams, etc. There was apparently a period of time in which Europeans stopped thinking of vegetables as food for humans. The human race forgot about its original diet, and we are still basically eating neolithically today. The Neo diet is enshrined in the carb-heavy, fat-phobic "food pyramid," which is the basis of Michelle Obama's campaign to "reform" government school cafeterias.

How did this extreme change work out for humanity? In one way, it was a spectacular success. These starchy staples were cheap to produce, and switching to them sparked a population explosion that is still going on today. Now, there are six billion humans on Planet Earth, and many of them would surely die if these low cost, starchy foods were to disappear overnight. The neolithic diet enabled billions of people to experience the great gift of life who would never have existed otherwise.

But low cost generally means lower quality as well. Could it be that the diet that we ate for our first 2 1/2 million years is higher quality, in the sense of being more oppropriate to our genetic makeup, than the one we ate for the next 10,000? As Prof. Adams tells it, neolithic Europeans were markedly less healthy than paleolithics. In fact, they lost stature - literally. Archeological evidence indicates that with the new protein-poor diet, human beings lost five or six inches of height.

So at the time I thought to myself, maybe somebody should come up with a sort of "hunter-gatherer's diet," based on humanity's original dietary regime.

Recently I found that there actually is such a thing, and I'm trying it out. It's explained very well in this book.

If you follow it rigorously, it's a remarkable weight-loss program, which at the moment is actually why I am doing it. So far, it's working: I've lost four pounds in a week, and I have had no cravings for any of the things that are not on the diet. This is remarkable, because there are a lot of things that are off-limits: grains, legumes, dairy -- even fruit juice (the only paleo beverage is water).

The theory is that there are no cravings because I am eating the diet that I was genetically designed to eat. The cravings you experience on other weight-loss regimes are your body's way of saying I'm not supposed to do this! This is so wrong! I hate you!!


Dave Lull said...

For smart commentary on this diet see fellow Wisconsinite and physician Kurt Harris's blog here:

Matthew Allen said...

I've been doing this for a few months now, and so long as I'm sticking to it relatively strictly, I feel great. And it's more than just a diet, it's a lifestyle that includes other nutty things like barefoot running and being that guy at Starbucks doing work while standing at a high table (we didn't evolve to case our feet in padding and sit for hours on end). And as I'm sure you've noticed, it's all very libertarian in spirit.

Here are a couple of great resources worth checking daily:

Lester Hunt said...

Thanks guys, those links sound interesting. I'll be sure to check them out.

Yes, I've noticed the libertarian element too. It's the only effective dietary regime I know of where (except for contraband items) you eat pretty much whatever you want, whenever you want, and as much as you want. You eat when you're hungry and stop when you are full. There are rules, of course, but they are simple and not onerous.

The Uncredible Hallq said...

I'm all for eating a diet high in protein, fruits, and vegetables, but specific diets for weight loss are overrated. I have friends who've lost significant amounts of weight, and know from talking to them that the consensus among experts is that the main thing for losing weight is counting calories, keeping a food journal. I challenge you to limit yourself to 1800 calories a day, and see if taking those calories in meet and nuts prevents you from feeling like it's too little at first.

Andrew Schwartz said...

I have been on a paleo diet for the last few months as well. I've never had weight issues (I'm an "ectomorph" and it's harder for me to gain than to loose weight), but what I am finding is that I am more relaxed on this diet.

Lester Hunt said...


Oh boy, don't get me started on counting calories, ie., restricting food intake as your sole weight-control method. One of the reasons I don't care for that approach is this:

Unless you are going to be a contestant at the Academy Awards in two weeks and can't get into the outfit you paid $5,000 for when you were nominated (or are in a similar sort of situation), what you want is lifelong health, and restricting food intake is not really a means to that end. What you need to do is get off the diet that made you fat and stay on one that doesn't -- and that generally has to mean changing the types of foods you get your calories from. Not all calories are created equal.

Dave Lull said...

For one conjecture about what's happening in a "paleo" diet see KGH, i.e. Kurt Harris, responding to comments by Mike, a commenter on a blog posting of KGH's:

[Scroll down to the January 13 comment on this page to find this exchange: ]

Overall, calories still do count. One just cant get around it.

KGH: They count but not in simple minded the calories in calories out sense.

If I eat 300 g of fat in a meal, the fat has to go somewhere. Is it not the fat cells?

KGH: If net fat storage occurs as disequilibrium between hormones and the hormones differ based on equicaloric meals with different content, then you have to have the possibility that consumed fat is not always stored at the same rate.

So there must be something else regulating fat cells to take up fat other than insulin. Also, then there is the fact that Colpo in his book the fat loss bible has listed more than two dozens of tightly controlled metabolic ward studies showing that calories count under various macronutrient ratios, basically there is no metabolic advantage. I mean, you eat carbs, insulin goes up, glucose gets converted to fat and then you can use that fat. Eat it directly or get it converted, whats the big difference?

KGH: All the difference in the world, unless you don't care what happens to your liver or glycating proteins along the way. Macro effects on the hormones mediate fat storage - fat storage drive hunger. Colpo is wrong that there is no metabolic advantage - those who quote laws of thermodynamics show they understand neither physics not biology.

But I do admit low carb diet can be effective by allowing your natural systems to control your hunger based on fat mass, eg making you eat less to get full.

KGH: And how do you suppose it does that - perhaps through an effect on hormones? So hormones are driving both fat storage and hunger.

The Uncredible Hallq said...


I don't think calorie counting alone is a good way to lose weight or be healthy. Yes, you need various nutrients to be healthy, and I know some foods just aren't that filling and will make it very hard to stick to your diet.

But, in the OP, the only reason you had for expecting you'd lose weight on this diet is that it would help you control cravings. If that's your only reason period, you have no reason to expect to lose weight with it unless you also start taking in fewer calories. What am I missing?

Lester Hunt said...


I'm no longer sure we are disagreeing about anything. I mainly meant the "no cravings" point as evidence that this dietary regime is "natural," ie., suited to our genetic makeup.

However, I suppose it is relevant to whether it works as a weight-loss diet because it is an indicator that one can stick with it in the long run. That's no small matter, but of course it is far from decisive by itself.

Ann Houston said...

Interesting post. I've not tried paleo diet, but my husband and I for the past 12 months have adhered to a calorie restriction diet called The Alternate Day Diet (book by same name). Its goals may be a little different than paleo, but the central idea is that our ancestors' normal condition was to not always have a full stomach, and that some components of our genome only express themselves (produce proteins and enzymes) when a hunger signal is triggered. Among these is the SIRT1 gene that produces sirtuin, an enzyme that counters inflammation and is implicated in anti-aging factors. Ongoing restricted calorie diets lend support to this theory, but the twist in the one above is that you can reap a good amount of the same benefits (maybe all of them) by intermittent fasting on alternate days. On 'down days' you eat about 500 calories (we do three small meals of lean protein, veggies and low-sugar fruit) and you need to weigh and measure things to stay on course - then on 'up days' you can eat whatever you want. Surprisingly, I eat a normal amount, I don't want to eat twice as much as normal those days. We were both reasonably fit adults not trying to lose weight (not more than 10 pounds), but in a year we are now both quite fit and lean (I lost 20 pounds and Paul lost 30, and we are now stabilizing at the new weights of 120 for me 5'8" and 145 for Paul 5' 10". However, the real reason we started this diet was for the following benefits -which have borne out:

Paul's early arthritis in finger joints has gone away
Paul's and Ann's chronic sinus allergies are basically gone.

The first week of the diet was hard - I felt pretty hungry with only 500 calories throughout the day, but then I started to realize after two weeks that I wasn't using my kleenex box much any more. This benefit and the joint issue are really what drives us to continue, plus I have a lot of energy on 'down days', the mind seems especially clear and focused. I don't experience low blood sugar headaches, either. I don't feel deprivation because alternate days I can eat or drink anything, and unlike the continual restricted calorie diet, your metabolism doesn't slow down, since you are eating bigger portions half the time. Anyway, the book is a pretty fast read and lays out the science and the studies behind it and is pretty open and honest - with some great 'down day recipes' thrown in.

Dave Lull said...

There are those who follow a "paleo" diet who also fast. For example, see here:

"6) Intermittent fasting and infrequent meals (2 meals a day)"

Lester Hunt said...

Hm. I hadn't heard of the alternate day diet, but it did occur to me that periodic fasting is another conclusion you could reach via the sort of reasoning that the paleo diet is based on. I should check that one out.