Defending the Paleo Diet to Mother Jones
Dear Mother Jones,
As a nutritionist who also happens to live on a working organic farm, I was upset when reading your article, “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet.” by Cynthia Graber. The article is based on an interview he did for the Inquiring Minds Podcast, where he is largely speaking about his book, “Cooked“. I read Graber’s article on your page, then actually listened to the podcast. I have to say, her takeaway is pretty far off from what he actually focused on during the interview. In fact, Pollan spends about 20 seconds talking about some issues he has with The Paleo Diet, which are largely misunderstandings on his end. What your author clearly doesn’t get, is that The Paleo Diet is actually one that is quite sustainable, supports small farms, and is anti-industrial agriculture. I would think Mother Jones, of all organizations, would embrace paleo instead of posting an article which seems to want to just grab readers based on internet search trends. Paleo is trending pretty fast, so I can see why you might want to be sure that word is included in your title, even though Pollan wasn’t explaining what is wrong with the Paleo Diet in an interview where he was promoting his book.
What Pollan did was discuss his new book, “Cooked,” which explores who is cooking our food and how we as a society are no longer cooking our food. His feeling is that many reasons our health has declined is because corporate giants are now getting in the middle of us and farm fresh food. He then launched into his thinking on gut bacteria. Very little was actually mentioned about his feelings on the paleo diet, and it was certainly not the take away from his interview.
Based on your post, I’d like to defend the Paleo diet…
Meat: It’s not always for dinner. Pollan explains how cooking meat makes it more delicious. Yes, paleo folks agree with this. Paleo is NOT a raw diet. Cooking your food helps with nutrient absorption. I even wrote a blog post on this a couple of years ago. Pollan points out that there are studies which say that red meat causes cancer, but then mentions there are confounding factors in much of the research vilifying red meat consumption. So, if this is poor research, then why are you citing it? There are major confounding factors in these studies, as Chris Kresser points out here. In addition, Harvard Chemist Dr. Mathieu Lalonde gave a presentation at Harvard where he stated that “there currently is no research that can adequately link red meat consumption and increased risks for mortality.”
Pollan mentions that the proportion of meat in the diet varied from one culture to the next. We paleo folks get this. Native diets did vary quite a bit depending on the available food. Some ate largely meat and fat, while others had a larger proportion of their diet come from roots and tubers. That’s why there is no “one” paleo diet when it comes to macronutrient ratios. It largely depends on your caloric needs, activity level, and current health condition. Pollan then jumps to the conclusion that because we don’t really know how much meat our ancestors ate, we should eat less. So, even though the studies are flawed, let’s just assume that eating less meat and focusing on more whole grains is better?
We know that our food choices were different back then, but we’re doing our best to eat what our bodies were designed to eat. Pollan says that industrially raised meat today is not what our ancestors ate. Yes, we know this. He also says that grass fed is closer but still isn’t as lean as wild. Yes, we know this too. But what he isn’t pointing out in this interview is that our ancestors ate the WHOLE animal: brains, heart, liver, fat, marrow and all. Organ meat is where most of the nutrients are. So our ancestors did eat more lean muscle tissue, but they didn’t only eat the muscle tissue – they ate everything.
Humans can live on bread alone. This is a quote from Bruce German, chemist at University of California-Davis, “You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread.” Bread alone does not have even close to the spectrum of nutrients that a human needs to survive. I don’t know any doctors or nutritionists that would ever suggest someone eat only bread. I realize that Pollan was trying to point out that properly fermented bread is more nutritious than wheat flour and water. While I do agree that properly fermented bread is superior to wheat and water, this alone doesn’t mean that it’s an optimal food to eat, or that we can survive on this as our sole nourishment.
Also, as Pollan points out, the bread available in stores today is far from the traditionally fermented kind he is talking about. In addition, even if you could get your hands on it regularly, bread is full of omega-6 fatty acids, which Pollan has told us to avoid eating to much of. These pro-inflammatory fatty acids are exactly what we’re trying to avoid when we choose grass-fed meat instead of industrially raised meat that has been feed – guess what – grains! If we are to try to get back to a better ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 in our diet, eliminating grains would greatly help.
Humans need a mixture of protein, fats and carbohydrates to live. Additionally, without enough protein, you would end up with some major nutrient deficiencies and kwashiorkor, a type of malnutrition that occurs not from starvation, but from too high a starch diet without enough protein.
Here’s a chart on the nutrient density of foods in the human diet. (7 highest; 1 lowest). The micronutrient concentrations for each food group were derived from First Data Bank. Nutritionist V nutrition software, version 2.3. San Bruno, CA: First Data Bank, 2000. RE, retinol equivalents. I’ve highlighted the two top ranking foods for each nutrient.
As you can see, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and milk rank pretty low. This data includes only lean meats which are not as nutrient dense as organ meats, but nevertheless, you can see that vegetables, seafood and meat win the numbers game by far.
Pollan also says that the growth of the gluten-free foods segment far overshoots the actual incidence of Celiac Disease and diagnosed cases of gluten intolerance. Yes, that’s because so many people feel so much better on a gluten-free diet. We still are a long way from perfecting the testing for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Most people I know who have tried going gluten free feel better.
On the environmental side, Pollan talks about how bad it is that industrially raised cows are fed grains, which he says are so terrible because of the monocropping. It’s so funny to me that he overlooks the fact that bread is made from grains – the same monocropped system that is terrible to feed to cows.
So, since there is nothing essential in gluten or whole grains that you miss if you cut it out from your diet, AND as Pollan points out grains contain lots of omega-6 fatty acids, AND grains are largely monocropped, AND unless they are properly fermented contain numerous antinutrients which block mineral absorption, then why eat them? Again, Pollan and so many other environmentalists who claim a largely plant-based diet is optimal for human health are not realizing that they are talking about environmentally detrimental monocropped farming systems.
According to the above TED talk by Allan Savory, most of the world’s land is not suitable for cropping (ie. grain production) but instead can be grazed by herbivores. If we are looking to feed more people, environmentally speaking, more grain production is definitely not the answer.
Now, gluten and grains in general, affect people differently. Some people don’t feel much of a difference when they remove it and for others, the removal of grains can be life changing.
Since grains are not nutrient dense, can actually block mineral absorption, are largely not prepared in a traditional way which allows for better absorption, contain inflammatory fatty acids, can cause inflammation and gastrointestinal distress for lots of people, and are not environmentally sustainable when monocropped, don’t you think it’s time to rethink our massive consumption of them?
Eat More Microbes. Yup, the Paleo diet highly suggests that you eat more microbes. There’s even a whole paleo book that came out this past year on fermentation. I eat fermented foods almost daily. Chris Kresser, author of Your Personal Paleo Code, has talked extensively about the benefits of microbes. Other blogs centered on studying hunter-gatherer diets also are fascinated with their microbes. Paleo people like microbes.
Raw is for the Birds. Wait, didn’t you already talk about this? In point 1, Pollan says it’s important to cook your meat. The title of your article is “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet”, not “How Raw is Wrong”. I really think you were being misleading in your title. But raw isn’t trending as well as Paleo, so maybe you were worried you’d get less eyeballs on your post if you used the word raw instead of paleo. Paleo people love to cook food.
Cook your food. Hmm, didn’t you already say that paleo isn’t raw? And the title of this article again is “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong with the Paleo Diet”. Those on a paleo diet cook a lot. We cook just about everything we eat from scratch. There aren’t large scale, industrially-processed foods that fit the paleo template.
The only difference between the Paleo diet and what Pollan is saying in his interview, is that we don’t eat grains because we don’t need them. Diets based largely on cereal grains are detrimental to human health. We cook our food, eat microbes, and largely think raw is for the birds, too. Again, paleo people love to cook food.
Just to clear up any confusion, here’s some basic background on The Paleo Diet:
The basic idea of The Paleo Diet is to focus on foods which are optimal for human health. The name “Paleo” refers to the Paleolithic era, when humans lived as hunter gatherers. I want to make it clear that today, we are not trying to reenact this lifestyle, but instead strive to consume those foods which are in their most natural state, nutrient-dense, and which cause the least amount of harm to the body.
We also realize that just because a food came about during modern times, does not necessarily mean it can’t be a good food. We can adapt to thrive on a variety of foods. Broccoli for example, was not around during the Paleolithic era but is a nutrient-dense food. It is sustainable when the broccoli did not come from a large scale industrial farm that uses pesticides and chemical fertilizers, trucks the produce across the country or overseas, and treats their workers badly.
The same thinking can be applied to most modern foods, especially when looking at the meat industry. Cows did not exist during the Paleolithic era. Grass-fed beef is a nutrient dense food. Movies like Food Inc. have done a great job of highlighting the tragedy of industrially-produced meat, but offer little alternatives for those of us looking to continue to consume meat, but in a more sustainable way. There are alternatives to industrially raised meat. You don’t have to go “plant based” just because you want your animals to be treated well and fed a species-appropriate diet. It’s called small-scale, sustainable agriculture.
Paleo is a diet focused on meat (preferably pasture raised), fish and (preferably seasonal, organic and local) vegetables, fruit, starch in the form of roots and tubers, and fats from non-industrially-processed seed oils. No refined sugars or grains. It’s a nutrient-dense way of eating and more satiating than the Mediterranean diet. People lose weight, reverse chronic health conditions, and improve their athletic performance on Paleo. It’s been shown successful in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Another study concludes, “Even short-term consumption of a paleolithic-type diet improves blood pressure and glucose tolerance, decreases insulin secretion, increases insulin sensitivity and improves lipid profiles without weight loss in healthy sedentary humans.”
How much you eat and the proportion of starch to veggies to meat on your plate largely depends on your activity level and caloric needs. Most who are on a paleo diet start with a 30-day paleo challenge where every meal is paleo, then move to a more flexible 80/20 lifestyle, where they allow for some non-paleo foods 20% of the time.
I would think that this diet would be supported by the publishers of Mother Jones, as many of us are very focused on sustainability issues. In fact, Robb Wolf and I gave a presentation last August at the Ancestral Health Symposium called, “Liberation from the Industrial Food System” and strongly support the work of The Savory Institute. I highly encourage Mother Jones to send an open-minded reporter to this year’s Ancestral Health Symposium and learn more about the health and sustainability of The Paleo Movement.