Thursday, July 14, 2011

Is Paleo/LC/Primal a Fad Diet?

Over at Free the Animal, Rosemary made this comment which I strongly disagree with:
Good to see you ever-so-slowly moving away from the whole paleo thing. At least you’re doing it with far more grace than some (Girl Gone Primal, anyone?). I’ve seen this coming on for a while; the typical lifespan of any fad diet – and LC/paleo is no different – is limited by design. People discover it; get passionate about it (and start blogs); and then – eventually – crash and burn (out). Just peruse any of the LC forums out there. It was pretty clear something was happening when Kurt Harris began to equivocate – if not outright reverse himself – on a number of things – “no such thing as macronutrient”, his posts on “orthorexia” and eating Rice Krispies, etc. Hooray for intellectual honesty… The only exception to this rule seems to be people like Jimmy Moore and Dana Carpender and Charles Washington – True Believers who are so invested in their dietary worldview (financially and otherwise) that any deviation or questioning would simply be unthinkable. But I do applaud your evolution; people who complain simply don’t get it – and need to get a life, in point of fact.
I don't think paleo, low-carb (LC) or primal (which I see as a Sissonesque rebranding and rejigging of paleo) is some sort of fad diet. Subsisting on lemon juice, that's a fad diet. Cutting out frankenoils, sugar and glutens is simply a step in the right direction.

While I've tended to avoid the term paleo diet for quite a while (in favor of the term real food), this is because paleo has gotten a bit trendy and somewhat stylized, along with the annoying self-appointed paleo police puritans and maybe my innately contrarian nature. I don't think there's anything wrong with the basic principles of a paleo diet: that we are genetically optimized for hunter-gatherer type food, that neolithic foods such as grains are bad and uber-neolithic foods such as frankenoils, processed sugar (and most likely sugar substitutes) are really, really bad.

To get a perspective on the history of low-carb diets and the demonization of animal fats one really has to read Good Calories, Bad Calories. Long before the role of insulin was known and insulin itself was isolated (the first diabetic was given an insulin injection in 1922, thanks in large part to a guy named, coincidentally, Banting), the fattening effect of carbs was common knowledge among doctors and medical researchers of the 19th century, although there was certainly no consensus on the matter.

I see the revival of the LC paradigm to be somewhat like the Copernican "revolution". The heliocentric model wasn't invented by Copernicus (Philolaus might've had that honor back in 400 BC) but Copernicus was important in shattering the Ptolemaic system that had held sway in Europe, thanks to the Catholic and Orthodox Church, since the collapse of Rome.

Neither did Atkins invent the LC diet. What he did was bring it into the mainstream and in so doing he took a hell of a lot of flack and made a hell of a lot of money. The Atkins Diet is flawed, of course, but the general principles, to lose weight avoid carbs and especially simple carbs like processed sugar are sound.
It is incredible that in twentieth-century America a conscientious physician should have his hard-won professional reputation placed on the line for daring to suggest that an obesity victim might achieve some relief by cutting out sugars and starches.
-ROBERT ATKINS, author of Dr. Atkins’ Diet Revolution, testifying before Congress, April 12, 1973 (GCBC, pp. 404)
Next we come to the paleo or evolutionary diet. This I would liken to the framework of Newtonian gravity. Newton did not discover gravity, he was simply the first person to write a pretty accurate equation to describe the force of gravity (along with co-inventing calculus and other such minutiae):

Newton didn't know how gravity worked, he was famously perturbed by the notion of action-at-a-distance. We still don't know how gravity works, but we've gotten closer with General Relativity. Just as Newtonian mechanics laid out a framework for, and extended, the ideas of Copernicus and Kepler (and that towering genius Galileo), proponents of a paleo, or evolutionary diet, created a framework to explain why a LC diet was so succesful at restoring health.

Long before evolution was accepted or even well-known, doctors had observed that neolithic foods like processed sugar and bread made people fat. Long before there was a comprehensive theory about gravity people had observed there were some pretty glaring problems with the Ptolemaic model.

Are there faddish aspect to the paleo diet? Yes of course. There were faddish aspects to Relativity. Think of all those posters of Einstein adorning dorm rooms and offices.

This image was really popular, therefore Relativity is faddish bullshit

Until we have a working biochemical model for the human body it's all guesswork. I think human biochemistry is in more or less in the same position physics was when Copernicus and Galileo dared to challenge the Catholic church. Except that instead of challenging the idea that the Earth is the center of the Universe, the heretics must challenge the doctrine of the Food Pyramid.

Human biochemistry is a knowable thing just as the nature of gravity is a knowable thing. We are (seemingly) much closer to understanding the latter. The low-carb paradigm and its successor, the evolutionary diet paradigm (paleo) go a long way towards getting us started on the road to understanding human biochemistry and leaving the dark ages of lipophobia, statins and idiotic food pyramids. The China Study and other such papal decrees by the Church of Heart Healthy Whole Grains can elect all the Grand Inquisitors they want, but they are the last gasp of a tale told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

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