Spring has sprung. As the weather warms and our clothes cover steadily less, many of us are trying to shed the winter poundage before it becomes too visible. With a similar thought in mind, US News and World Report recently released ratings of 32 diet plans for 2014. The ones at the top of their list all said pretty much what we are accustomed to hearing about what to eat: DASH – “fruits, veggies, whole grains, lean protein, and low-fat dairy”; Mayo – “emphasis on fruits, veggies, lean meat, and low-fat dairy”; Flexitarian – “the ‘new meat’ (tofu, beans, lentils, peas, nuts and seeds, and eggs)” plus fruits and veggies, whole grains, dairy, sugar and spice. You get idea. All of the top ten frowned on red meat and animal fat. USN&WR placed the Paleo Diet (eating like a caveman) at the very bottom of the list, yet with a curious qualifier: “‘A true Paleo diet might be a great option: very lean, pure meats, lots of wild plants,’ said one expert—quickly adding, however, that duplicating such a regimen in modern times would be difficult.”
The Paleo folk responded as you might expect. Said Dr. Loren Cordain at thepaleodiet.com, “The USN&WR ratings represent a purely subjective appraisal of 32 popular diets and accordingly has little or no objective value from a scientific perspective…” He then linked to his earlier Rebuttal of the previous year’s list (on which Paleo also finished last) including a bibliography of 25 scientific studies supporting his position. Paleo has no problem with red meat or (despite the USN&WR quote) animal fat per se, noting that hunter-gatherers generally eat more of both than modern Westerners without apparent ill effects – though most h-g’s still get the majority of their calories from plants, as do we.
Food is oddly – often fiercely – political. (See an old short story of mine Deep Fried set in a future in which donuts are illegal.) Never mind a deadlocked Congress always recycling the same incompatible arguments, try putting a vegan and an Atkins proponent in the same room. Most wellness diets since the middle of the 19th century up until today have deep roots in vegetarianism. Meats are allowed into them grudgingly and with a bad conscience. Vegetarian diets certainly can be healthy, though how healthy is surprisingly difficult to determine. Vegetarians on average have healthier lifestyles all around than the rest of the population – they smoke less, drink less, weigh less, exercise more – so it is hard to tease out the effects of diet from the effects of other choices. Nonetheless, the diet clearly does no harm, if it is properly balanced, and seems to have real benefits. Health is not the only (often not the primary) reason for choosing the diet. Vegetarians frequently (often primarily) promote their diet for ethical and ecological reasons. Whatever the merits of those arguments, however, they don’t address whether or not a high animal protein diet is beneficial to any one person. As the Atkins folk are quick to tell you, people also do well on high protein low carb diets – the remarkably healthy Inuit often are cited as an extreme case of a nearly 100% carnivorous diet. Moreover, as a practical matter, most people find an all-vegetarian (never mind vegan) diet virtually impossible; according to a recent CNN poll of 10,000 people, 60% of the self-described vegetarians admitted to having eaten meat within the previous 24 hours, so they really were self-describing an aspiration. Only a few percent of the general population truly can pull it off.
What do the Paleo folk contend? I picked up The Paleo Manifesto by John Durant in order to find out. Durant and others argue that farming, however essential for the rise of civilization, was a culinary disaster. Based on skeletal evidence, between 14,000 BC and 3000 BC, as farmers superseded hunter-gatherers, average height fell by 6 inches (15cm) and life expectancy dropped by 7 years. Humans did not evolve eating grasses (wheat, rice, maize), which are what fatten up herbivores; humans’ health suffered when they switched to cultivated forms of grasses. So they recommend backtracking. The Paleo diet eliminates not only processed industrial foods (the poor Twinkie is the perennial example) but grains – including the whole grains beloved by many mainstream nutritionists. Is a Paleo diet really difficult to duplicate? Well, mammoth meat is a little hard to come by these days, of course, but in truth any herbivore or fish is close enough, as are many fruits and vegetables.
Does it work? As an experiment, I’ve tried it for a week and dropped 5 pounds despite eating like a pig – oops, make that “like a caveman.” I made no effort whatsoever to count calories, which is an activity at which the Paleo folk snort. So, though one personal experience counts only as anecdotal evidence, I suspect as there is something to it.
Is it the “best” regimen? I doubt it. People are omnivores which means we’ll eat whatever doesn’t eat us first, whether animal, plant, or fungus. We can adapt to almost anything, though of course keeping an eye to fundamental nutrients is always basic good advice. There is likely to be a “best” out there somewhere (I wouldn’t venture to guess what), but it won’t do much good if we can’t bring ourselves to follow it. Sometimes good enough is…well, good enough. We need something we can live with. I can do this one, at least for a week.