All Food is Modern II: Adapting Paleo

Our place in the food chain

Claims that our ancestors pretty much only ate meat is not true according to research of fossiled hominims.  Pre-molar teeth showed that our ancestors were consuming a lot of plants, like roots and bulbs and grinding them up to make unleavened bread. But claims that we only ate plants like vegetables and fruits is untrue as well; some ancestors obtained most of their calories from animal protein and animal fat.  Much of this is determined by climate, location, local availability and of course the skill of the hunter-gatherers and size of their tribe.

Our closest animal kin are chimpanees but we are extremely close to all primates, between 98-99% DNA similarity.  Larger primates like gorillas actually have 15% of their DNA more genetically similar to ours than other primates.  That means for gorillas, 15% of their DNA is more like ours than it is their other primate relatives.  Primates with the smallest brains consume things that are easy to forage whereas primates who consume mostly fruit (and they can eat up to 50 servings a day) have larger brains.  The largest brains are attributed to those primates who also eat meat as the higher you go on the food chain consumption, the more brain power you need to find and consume those calories. Even with that genetic similarity and the fact that primates consume plants, fruit and even meat (frogs, insects, smaller primates etc) like us, they don't consume nearly the variety.

Our innate ability to ingest and derive calories from an enormous array of foods means we are the most adaptable large organism on the planet.  You can consume milk, nuts, meat, rice, gatorade, protein powders and trans fats and still derive calorie energy.  Most other animals cannot do this. I highlight how close we are to other primates while still being light years ahead of them in terms of digestive adaptability to say maybe, just maybe, we aren't meant to eat just "one way".  We have larger brains and larger brains means smaller digestive systems.  Your brain and digestion are the two highest calorie consumers in your body and one will always take precedent.  So for us to be able to do things like build walls, invent computers, fly through space and take Instagram selfies, we need digestive systems that allow us to find calories from a wide array of foods.  There'd be no time for Snapchat or space travel if we had to consume our weight in leaves every day.

How we fit in

Christina Warriner gave a great TedTalk on the Paleo diet and many misconceptions that come along with it.  And while I don't want to support people who say the Paleo diet is wrong, stupid or erroneous (because it isn't) we also need to take ALL of the science into consideration.  Ms. Warriner explains how we fit into the food chain via nitrogen.

  1. There are two nitrogen isotopes (heavy and light) that we consume from food. Mostly from protein sources.
  2. With each step up the food chain hierarchy the amount of the heavy isotope of nitrogen increases
  3. Thus, you can measure an animal's food chain level by how much of this heavy isotope is in their bones
  4.  In general it goes plants-> herbivores-> carnivores (carnivores eat mostly meat, hence the highest nitrogen isotope)
  5. How are humans then, above an animal like a lion, when a lion ONLY eats meat and humans eat plenty of non-meat foods?
  6. This is most likely due to water availability, so the more water and richer soil, the higher nitrogen content of ALL food

What this points to is that claiming we only ate meat, or mostly meat because of the nitrogen content of our bones is not entirely factual.  Amazonians were as high on the nitrogen scale as jaguars when they consumed a diet very high in corn.  But because of soil quality and water, their nitrogen intake from plants was MUCH higher.  This information tells us that just because a human had high nitrogen isotopes in it's bones does not mean it ate a lot of meat.  It could in fact come from consuming odd things like bark and lichen.

While there is no definitive research to conclude "this is how these people ate", it is not wild to assume that our ancestors would consume things based on their region, whether it was a lot of meat or a lot of plants.  And since finding food like meat and ingesting enough calories from plants (like the tiny and almost inedible veggies I showed you), Paleolithic people might've just eaten WHATEVER they could have.  If it's meat, great.  Plants, great. Nuts, great. But if you could hand someone a domesticated banana 30,000 years ago, believe me, they'd eat it too.  

A history of non-Paleo foods

To say that eating this way is the only way to thrive is to do a disservice to all cultures and civilizations that have done amazing (and some amazing but terrible) things eating non-Paleo foods. The Great Wall of China was built on a steady diet of rice and buckwheat.  Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan's armies consumed starch-based diets. The Mayans ate a diet high in corn. Ancient Egyptians consumed a diet high in bread, legumes, beer, fruit and some fish. Even the Mediterannean diet, expoused for it's heart health wonders contains wheat, dairy and legumes.

Even Loren Cordain says in his book that "“The Agriculture Revolution changed the world and allowed civilizations—cities, culture, technological and medical achievements, and scientific knowledge—to develop. Without..starches, like wheat, rice, corn, and potatoes, the world could probably support one-tenth or less of our present population…”

It's hard to say what life would be like if we all adhered to just ONE way of eating.  If vegetarians could convert everyone to their approach, we'd be mostly farmland which presents it's own problems, veganism would not allow dairy, eggs or honey which could pose it's own issues for people accessing quality proteins.  We have the luxury in our first world country to choose what we want to eat and what rules we have to follow.  But if we push our agenda on everyone else, those who are not in the wealthiest nations of the world might still suffer.  A modern day vegan might get enough protein from a pea protein powder and combining legumes and grains. 

But what about those who can't access all of our modern sources?  Perhaps the reason we are so adaptable is so we can thrive in whatever region we live - forcing our nutrition on someone from a different environment might be in fact harmful to them. Anecdotally, I remember reading a story in which the US Army dropped powdered milk rations to a country experiencing extreme poverty.  I don't recall which country it was but they consumed almost no dairy, so when they ate the rations intended to help them, they experienced extreme diarrhea in addition to their starvation.  Something that we rely on in times of hunger might directly harm someone else. So if we air dropped dry milk to the Netherlands, everyone is happy.  To the middle of Africa, we've got problems.  Dairy consumption and tolerance, like a lot of food sources, depends on the region which includes farmland, livestock, sun exposure, temperature and many other factors. 

Consider where you live

Let's take a page from many supporters of the Kitavan diet, which is supposed to reflect our ancient Paleolithic diet.  Kitavans consume a diet that is about 70% carbohydrate, 20% fat and only 10% protein.  They eat mostly tubers, vegetables, coconut and a small amount of meat.  According to studies (mostly conducted via questionnaires) the Kitavan have a very low incidence of heart disease not to mention low LDL cholesterol, body fat and systolic blood pressure.  So....boom, that's how you should eat right?

A Kitavan's Environment

Then we have Inuits who eat a diet mostly of animal protein and animal fat, both hunted on land and the sea. They consumed almost no vegetables, fiber, fruit or grains, if any at all.  Yet, they have similar health histories to the Kitavans....almost no heart disease, diabetes or cancer.

An Inuit's Environment

But the Kitavans almost all smoke, about 80% of them.  And the Inuits eat a diet where the fat source is almost entirely from animals.  Aren't these two things we've been warned about?  

You cannot explain a culture's health by looking at just what they eat, we always have to consider genes.  If you've been raised on a diet that matches the diet your genotype has been eating for thousands of years, you probably have better health outcomes.  We could not swap the Inuit and Kitavan diet's to each other and expect them to be healthy.  Kitavans get an insane amount of sun exposure which is linked to increased carbohydate tolerance, the Inuits do not.

When we consider environment, think of it as "terroir", as we would describe where grapes are grown for wine.  It's not just the soil....terroir means the soil, the weather, the heat, the water access, the wind, literally everything that makes that place unique.  It cannot be recreated in a lab.  We need to think of our ancestors in terms of their terroir as well, what unique factors have they been exposed to or living in for centuries that make their diet healthy for them?  When you have all of those factors (including genetics) then it doesn't make scientific or logical sense to extrapolate that diet onto people from completely different regions.

Other factors

Peter Attia posits that perhaps some cultures eat a high percentage of carbohydrates but stay lean because of three factors.  One is that they consume a diet low in sugar, which means they aren't eating carb sources like candy bars, soda and pop tarts.  Second is that the absolute amount of carbs is less, so even though it is a high percentage of their diet, they are not consuming a large amount of calories (calorie control is always a factor!).  Third is inflammation which does have an effect on your ability to dispose of carbohydrates and can decrease your insulin sensitivity.

New research has also shown some correlation with your ability to make Amylase, an enzyme that breaks down starches.  Amylase genes are higher in cultures who are predominantly agricultural (think Japanese or Kitavans) and low in cultures who are not (like the Inuit's or Russia).  A general conclusion from the study was that

People who have more copies of AMY1 (the gene that makes amylase) have more salivary amylase and lower BMI.

If you have more than nine copies of AMY1 then you are eight times less likely to be obese compared to someone who has fewer than four copies of AMY1.

In other words, more amylase equals less body weight. And vice versa. (Precision Nutrition).

So clearly, region ( and your own physiological terroir) does have an impact on your ability to digest different food sources (like wheat, dairy or legumes) and the amounts of those sources.  Perhaps you CAN eat wheat because your culture and geneology has been growing and eating it for thousands of years whereas someone from another region cannot.

Lets take a shake

Lets take something most Paleo people can get behind, like a fruit smoothie with grass fed whey or even better, beef protein isolate. Banana, strawberries, almond milk, almond butter and beef protein isolate.  MMMmmm, sounds good!

  • Bananas - from West Africa
  • Blueberries - North America (New England)
  • Almonds - from China and Central Asia
  • Beef - modern cattle are descendants from Auroachs and only became domesticated 10,000 years ago....from India and Europe.  Modern beef is thanks to domestication, not hunting/gathering

So if you lived in just ONE of these areas, you probably only had access to ONE of these food sources.  Not to mention the modern day versions of all of these are much tastier than their primal counterparts.  We've seen how gnarly bananas used to be, blueberries were known to Native Americans but it wasn't until the late 1800s that Elizabeth White started cultivating them for farming. Almonds have been around for thousands of years but their wild counterparts are poisonous and some other poisonous plant species TASTE like almonds.  Cows that we know today are thanks to domestication: wild Aurochs which were 1.5-2 times the size of modern cattle were domesticated to what we know today as beef.  And oh yeah, those Aurochs have been extinct since the 1600s.

Why Paleo is great

The thing you might've noticed is that I left out any verbage saying that the Paleo diet is stupid, ineffective or misleading.  Eating in a way that focuses on lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables, choosing fibrous sources of carbohydrates and healthy fats is, quite frankly, an awesome system.  While so many other diets out there only focus on QUANTITY, the biggest benefit of Paleo in my opinion is the focus on QUALITY.

One bone I have to pick with just counting macros, eating low fat, low carb, skipping breakfast or whatever it happens to be is that it only tells you how much to eat.  Rarely is there an emphasis placed on the food sources and their quality.  So you might be able to get away with lots of lunchmeat, white bread, protein powder and pepperoni if it all fits your calories and macros.  Or like so may Atkins dieters did, eschew carbs for the most low-quality fatty meat sources possible.  In looking only at quantity we miss all the health benefits of consuming quality, nutrient dense foods.

Many people lose bodyfat following this approach too.  If you consume tons of veggies and fruit, with lean meat and some added fat in there, you'll probably consume fewer calories than the average American diet, not to mention decrease your Omega 6 fat intake, increase fiber, decrease your sugar consumption and increase your nutrient intake.  All good things.

Paleo has also helped debunk and lessen the fear many people grew up with in the 80s and 90s of fat, especially saturated fat.  We were told fat made you fat and that saturated fat clogged your arteries and gave you heart disease.  Things we know now were taken WAY out of context.  The fear of fat also led many people to consume a lot of "low-fat" packaged foods like those awful Snackwells bullshit snacks that are one step above cardboard in taste and nutrition.  So Paleo helped steer the ship around to whole foods as well.

....enter tunnel vision

With so many people experiencing weight loss, satiety and improved health with Paleo eating there was a tidal wave of anecdotal information that it was the "best" diet because it worked for each individual.  But as Crossfit became a great example, many people crashed and burned on their highly glycolytic but low-carb diets.  It also created a new wave of diet superiority where, if you didn't eat Paleo, you were basically a lesser human.  In addition, many people developed an irrational fear of not just carbohydrates but some foods they might be absolutely fine with, like oats, rice and even dairy. 

A great example of missing context is how many people suddenly "developed" gluten intolerance overnight.  Suddenly everyone and their mother was gluten intolerant (myself included) because they sometimes felt gassy after eating wheat.  Well, onions, garlic, scallions, sugar alcohols and excess fructose might have the same effect on you too!  We kind of forgot having gas sometimes is natural.  But the big kicker was that science has become much more aware of FODMAPS which are fermentable carbohydrates found in a wide variety of foods, especially in wheat.  So a little gas or bloating after a bowl of pasta for most people might be a FODMAP overload, but mistaken as a gluten intolerance.

...and maybe too much dietary fat

Likewise, eating fat burns fat became a huge idea.  Naturally, the more you eat of a macronutrient the more you will oxidize that macronutrient.  But ingesting more dietary fat means you burn more dietary fat, not necessarily stored body fat.  The difference is the calorie balance.  But eating a high carb diet, in a calorie deficit, will also result in plenty of fat loss.  We've also been told that fat is extremely satiating (and for some individuals it is of course) but science has shown that overall, it is the LEAST satiating macronutrient, not to mention the least thermogenic.  So it fills you up the least and expends the least amount of calories to digest.

Fat also makes a terrible workout fuel unless you are doing lower-intensity cardio.  Naturally we'll burn fat during rest periods and women oxidize more during weight training than men.  But glucose and glycogen, far and away, are the largest sources of energy for muscular contraction during training.  Fatty acids are too slow and protein is not a good fuel at all, we cannot even store much (aside from in the gut).

The final kicker here for fat is that it's the most easily stored macronutrient as body fat. Sorry, it just is.  If you are in a calorie deficit and protein is high, you'll burn fat no matter what.  We've got more than 30 meta-analyses showing that when ypu match protein, almost any diet works.  But carbohydrates are the preferred fuel source of the body.  So if you are in a calorie surplus, you'll burn carbs first and store dietary fat.  Whether it's high fat or high carb, you'll always burn the carbs first because they are inefficiently converted to body fat.  Dietary fat is a cinch to convert to body fat.  So if you lose weight on a high fat diet, it's because you're in a calorie deficit, not because insulin is low. carbs took a backseat

Remember the dietary breakdown I did of 1,000 calories just from fruit and veggies? Well, lets say you decided you didn't want to do a low-carb Paleo approach. So you up your intake of tropical fruit and sweet potatoes. Again, a hard-charging male athlete consuming 3500-4000 calories per day, conservatively eating 400g carbs would need to consume:

  • a po​​​​​​​und of pineapple (we're talking peeled)
  • three pounds of cooked sweet potatoes
  • nearly a pound of cooked plantains

That's almost five pounds of food JUST from carbohydrates. It's so much food volume that this guy would need to sit down in a recliner between sets and he'd be farting up a storm.

But he could get the same amount of daily carbs with about half the weight of potatoes with white rice instead, half the amount of pineapple and the same amount of plantains if he added a scoop of dextrose during training or subbed in some sweetened dried dates.

When we talk about context, remember that with the food volume, fat intake, protein intake and fiber you'd still consume from a largely Paleo diet, your insulin response and blood sugar is not wildly affected. If the system is demanding a certain amount of fuel and nutrients then it will dispose of them in a healthy manner. What isn't healthy is shortchanging your carb intake or trying to force down too many fibrous sources and feeling like garbage. 

Don't ever forget how powerful the placebo affect is.  If you truly believe something (whether it's wheat, dairy, fat or eating past 7PM) is harmful, then your psychology will negatively affect your physiology. In studies where they give men a placebo but tell them they are taking steroids, they make amazing strengh gains.  Bret Contreras has even noted that people who believe a higher power wants them to get well while battling cancer have the HIGHEST rate of survival of all cancer patients. If you think a slice of bread is going to hurt you, it can.  A lot of the times, how we are affected by food is determined by how we think about that food.

    What I propose

    In essence, adapting a really well-rounded and healthy Paleo approach to your goals is not hard.  I actually never deviate that far from it with our Strong Kitchen meals, or when I build clients a meal plan for fat loss or muscle gain.  Instead the approach is using Paleo as the backbone of their nutrition and then adding in foods they tolerate, feel good on and that fuel their training.  If a client can eat wheat and have no adverse health effects or immune issues, why eliminate it?  it won't be a focus for them but it doesn't mean some Ezekiel bread should always be out of the question.

    How about a vegetarian needing protein for their weight training sessions?  They aren't allowed dairy or a pea protein even if they tolerate and excel with them?  Simply to fit a dogmatic approach? Much like a client who needs to squat but presents with low internal hip rotation or lack of anterior core, a good coach wouldn't force a backsquat from the get-go.  You'd have them squat, but probably a goblet or maybe high box squat first. Why can't we take the same approach with nutrition?  Assess what a client needs, then move them along the continuum towards their goal.  But there's almost always exceptions we make because the person does JUST FINE with them.

    I'd recommend everyone who has relegated themselves to a very strict dietary template experiment with branching out.  Are you eliminating foods for a specific reason? Can you give a solid justification?  Or is it part of tribalism that feels good to be a part of, but might not take everyone's individual needs into account?

    Anecdote doesn't count for much BUT it does help us to start thinking about topics.  I've had many converts from strict Paleo or strict low-carb do very well with loosening up their nutritional tunnel vision.  People hit PRs eating rice and no one goes to jail when they have quinoa.  I know, hard to believe!

    Most of the nutrition information out there on carbs, inflammation, insulin, protein intake and more is flat out wrong.  Yes, even from people who have abs.  Instead lets look at the science - I like to do this because science doesn't care about your feelings or your motivations, only about the truth.  And the truth can help us all get better. I believe the true power of the Paleo diet comes from steering us back to mostly whole food sources, eating and chewing (not drinking!) most of our calories, getting a ton of fiber, ingesting adequate Omega 3s, focusing on leaner protein and overall food quality.  This does not have to be exclusive for everyone and it does not mean there isn't room for other foods in here.

    I don't want to see more modern disordered eating, an irrational fear of wheat for the sake of tribalism or disdain for those who eat it.  And when you look at the context of the fact that literally nothing we eat resembles what our Paleolithic ancestors ate in terms of the size, availability and nutrient density of foods and regional availabilitywe're still making best guesses.  Instead, like all things, lets take a personal approach.  Cheese is a gastrointestinal problem for me, but not an inflammatory one.  Wheat I am absolutely fine with.  I don't eat much wheat but I also don't fall down in shame if I consume some bread here and there.  

    In the end, with all of this science and research, I don't think we could eat like our Paleolithic ancestors if our lives depended on it.  We simply could not recreate how and what they ate.  But guess what?  I'll keep eating close to Paleo because it's a kick-ass nutrition approach, but it's a base that everyone can tailor and adapt for their specific needs. Isn't that what nutrition is supposed to be?