The Myth of The Natural

Hey bro, shoes aren’t natural bro, ankle mobility bro.

Hey bro, hold the whey bro, not natural bro.

Bro, hey bro, that doesn’t look functional bro, muscle insertions bro.

Bro, omega threes bro, omega threes. Robb Wolf’s fish oil calculator bro.

Vibrams bro.

Whoa, bro, keep it keto in the winter bro, leptin bro, biorhythms.

Vibrams.

In 1928, Dr Vilhjalmur Steffannson and Martin Andersen had a point to prove. They had spent nearly nine years in the arctic, living with and eating with the Inuit, and yet no one would believe their claims that they had gotten by on a diet of little else but meat. Humans, it was believed, could not survive on meat alone.1

So they did what any pissed off scientists would do in their situation. While living in New York, they acted against the advice of nearly every physician and dietician they spoke to, and ate nothing but meat for a year under medical supervision. They were fine once they figured out that they needed to eat fatty cuts2 (though they didn’t get super-powers, which is what is supposed to happen in scenarios involving maverick scientists testing stuff on themselves).

It proved to be the first study done on the effect of an all meat ketogenic diet on non-inuit peoples.3

Right around the time that Stefannson was breaking out the bacon and calf’s brain, an American named Joseph Knowles was gaining fame for having survived two months by himself in the wilderness of Maine. Knowles claimed to have been examined by the director of The Hemenway Gymnasium at Harvard University, who had found

“With his legs alone he lifted more than a thousand pounds.” Sargent also noted a remarkable improvement in Knowles’ complexion: “Subjected to the action and the stimulus of the elements, Mr. Knowles’ skin has [come to serve] him as an overcoat, because it is so healthful that its pores close and shield him from drafts and sudden chills.” Thus, Sargent declared the “experiment” a complete success. “Forced to eat roots and bark at times, and to get whatever he could eat at irregular hours, his digestion is perfect, his health superb.”4

Though Stefansson’s experiment was picked up on by doctors researching epilepsy, most who took note of him or of Knowles were among the wave of American racist-not-racist-ACTUALLY-RACIST “scientists” lamenting the decline of white virility. Ernest Seton, writing in the first edition Handbook for the Boy Scouts of America, summed up the feelings of the movement, writing that he wished to “combat a system” which “partly through the growth of large cities” had “turned such a large proportion of our robust, manly, self reliant boyhood into a lot of flat-chested cigarette smokers, with shaky nerves and doubtful vitality… Degeneracy is the word.”5

Aside from that though, they both largely faded in to obscurity.

In 1939, Weston Price, a dentist by trade, published Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, a groundbreaking study, focusing on the differences in dental and physical health between 11 geographically and genetically distinct peoples when they were either isolated or modernized. He concluded, unsurprisingly, that western diseases were largely due to a diet that stood in stark contrast to that eaten by our ancestors.

Reviews were mixed. Some hailed Price as the “Charles Darwin of Nutrition.”6 Others, including a review published in 1981, accused Price of bias and poor science.7

According to Stephen Barrett, from Quackwatch “Price made a whirlwind tour of primitive areas, examined the natives superficially, and jumped to simplistic conclusions. While extolling their health, he ignored their short life expectancy and high rates of infant mortality, endemic diseases, and malnutrition. While praising their diets for not producing cavities, he ignored the fact that malnourished people don’t usually get many cavities.”8

Tell that to Shane MacGowan.

In any case, most of mainstream science moved on. Science that doesn’t lead to more efficient ways of killing your fellow-man doesn’t sell well during world wars.

Aside from a 1985 article by Boyd Eaton that may have gotten the ball rolling for the likes of Art Devaney and Loren Cordain, little in the literature or in the popular concsiousness pre-2010 hinted that the next wave of eating a “natural” diet would be focused on the delicious flesh of animals. If anything, vegetarians were in the ascendancy, praising their version of the natural human diet. It is ironic, then, that the man who would carry the paleo flag into the mainstream was himself a vegetarian.

A biochemist, and former California state powerlifting champion, Robb Wolf was the first person to succesfully market the paleo diet to a wide audience, becoming popular first in the early crossfit crowd, before achieving recognition in the mainstream through his book the Paleo Solution, his podcast, and his work with the military. His personal conversion to paleo came after a vegetarian/vegan diet that, in the words of his mentor Loren Cordain, nearly killed him.9

In many ways, he may simply have been in the right place at the right time. Momentum to move away from a high carb diet had been brewing in the academic community for quite some time, the public had already been softened up by the success of The Atkins Diet, and people were starting to come around to the conclusions that many elite coaches had made decades ago: that protein is good for you and fat doesn’t make you fat.

Robb Wolf is, admittedly, a world away from the fringes of paleo-land. His take on paleo, again and again, that “paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.”10 What is interesting about his history though, is how similarly the paradigms of vegetarian/veganism and paleo are built.

Vegetarianism’s roots are as old as civilization itself, perhaps owing to the human urge not to kill things that look cuddly. When not busy describing the length of the hypotenuse, followers of Pythagoras abstained from eating meat on the basis that they might be killing the reincarnated soul of one of their ancestors in order to do so.11 Some went even further. Hesiod, Ovid, and Plato all recount a myth of the Golden Age; in which a non-violent humanity had no need to eat animals, as the earth produced food spontaneously, and in abundance.12 Early monastic Christians, focused as all good early monastic Christians are on enjoying life as little as possible, refrained from eating all meat but fish and sometimes fowl, though their motivation was based more in the mortification of the flesh than in ethical considerations .13

Though some quite famous people did refrain from eating meat, Leonardo and Shelley being notable examples, vegetarianism as a health movement advocating a return to a natural way of life didn’t take off in the West until the 19th century. It found a ready home in England, whose people were probably less concerned than others about the taste of their food. Members of the English temperance, food quality, and anti-vivisection movement championed vegetarianism as a part of “the natural way of life”.14 Writing before his death in 1816, Reverend William Cowherd, an early advocate of the movement, stated that “If God had meant us to eat meat then it would have come to us in edible form, as is the ripened fruit.”15

A man can dream.

It was this particular articulation of vegetarianism which, though now secular in its reasoning, began to capture the public imagination in the 20th century, and which lives on to this day. Like dental science in the build up to a war, vegetarianism for the sake of morality or temperance is a hard sell. Vegetarianism for the sake of health, or for the sake of a more “holistic” and “natural” lifestyle, on the other hand, is much easier (sidenote: I puke in my mouth a little bit when I hear those terms). Most of the pro-vegetarian literature on the internet revolves around a sort of two-pronged attack; on the one hand, convince people of their moral superiority, and on the other, convince them that what they’re doing is natural, and therefore good for them.

Thus we get idiots youtube personalities like Durian Rider, claiming that a 30 banana a day raw food vegan diet is the most natural, and most moral diet available.

To be sung to the tune of The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins by Leonard Nimoy, ad nauseam, upon meeting a raw food vegan:

Once upon a time, in the land down under,
Lived a pencil necked, fruit-eating, marathon runner,
He thinks thigh gaps are healthy,
Called a pregnant woman fat,
And he can’t squat worth a damn.
It’s Durian! Durian! Durian Rider!
He looks like he smokes meth!
It’s Durian! Durian! Durian Rider!
Not very far from death.

Despite the stark differences in their prescriptions for health and performance, both diets have more in common than just invoking the natural to justify their methodology. Vegetarianism, in its early days, was criticized for being an unbalanced diet, much as paleo is now. Vegetarianism had its watershed moment in 1994, when it was publicized that President Clinton was eating Boca Burgers in the White House.16 Though paleo hasn’t yet achieved the same success that vegetarianism has, there is every indication that it is gaining momentum, and now every one who has ever publically expressed an interest in crossfit can expect to hear from their friends that they’re “trying to cut down on gluten” while eating gluten. In either case, both have achieved every diet writer’s dream: being done half-assed by masses of people who don’t understand the literature, in order to feel better about themselves.

Boca Burgers weren’t the only thing Bill was eating at the White House…

Of course, the one, irreconcilable difference between these practices is their beliefs on what the original human diet was. It is outside the scope of this article to prove the case either way; and may even be impossible to do so without cherry picking the data. If you’d like to have a go, googling “the expensive tissue hypothesis” and “vegetarian teeth” would be a good start.

Really. It doesn’t matter. Instead of taking my word for it, let’s see how it all plays out, and look at this turd that the top minds over at Mark’s Daily Apple decided to publish.

It’s an article about a 2010 study done on the eating habits of ancient humans in East Africa. I’m not sure whether they’re deliberately dissembling, or whether they’re just getting over excited, but the study they reference makes no dietary prescriptions, nor does it claim to have discovered what the actual diets of those people were. Rather, it hoped that by reconstructing multiple possible paleolithic diets, using known foraging strategies, pathophysiological restraints (macronutrient ratios, etc), and available foodstuffs, it might be possible to model what we might have been eating during the thousands of years that early humanity lived in East Africa.17

Before I go and get carried away hating on Mark’s Daily Pseudoscience, I should note that the study referenced on the blog is actually pretty cool, makes some interesting points about evidence based medicine, and is fully aware of its own limitations. Here’s a link if you’re interested.

They argue, somewhat convincingly, that

The criteria for establishing optimum nutrient intakes via randomised controlled trials (RCT) with single nutrients at a given dose and with a single end point have serious limitations. They are usually based upon poorly researched dose – response relationships, and typically ignore many possible nutrient interactions and metabolic inter- relationships. For instance, the adequate intake of linoleic acid (LA) to prevent LA deficiency depends on the concurrent intakes of a-linolenic acid (ALA), g-LA and arachidonic acid (AA). Consequently, the nutritional balance on which our genome evolved is virtually impossible to determine using the reigning paradigm of ‘evidence-based medicine’ with RCT. Nutritional research rather needs an organisational template that focuses on the optimal homeostasis.18

Their logic is, essentially, that “disparities between Paleolithic, contemporary and recommended intakes might be important factors underlying the aetiology of common Western diseases. Data on Paleolithic diets and lifestyle, rather than the investigation of single nutrients, might be useful for the rational design of clinical trials.”19

I did some underlining and italicizing there, because that is all that this paper is trying to show, that “the present data represent[s] a unique and powerful rationale for the design of future intervention studies”.20 Much like a biologist might do an inexpensive in vitro study before committing to an in vivo study, they argue that nutritionists ought to use ancestral diets as a sandbox from which they create new hypotheses.

What they are not arguing is that everyone ought to start eating like a caveman in the absence of any evidence that it might be healthy to do so; yet this is exactly what the top minds over at Mark’s Daily Apple suggest we ought to do, since apparently they’d rather be having a paleolithic renaissance faire than doing any actual science.

He’d probably make a better vegetarian anyway.

Which is about as dumb as arguing that we ought to eat only plants because our canines, molars and incisors are shaped a certain way, which is what nearly every vegetarian blog tries to do at one point or another.

Which is about as dumb as this dietary advice, which is maybe the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.

First off, the idea that what is natural is necessarily good, and what is artificial is necessarily bad, is utterly vapid. Hemlock, anthrax, faeces, genital herpes, opium, and angry lions gnawing at your face are all natural. Reading, vaccinations, vitamin D tablets, casts for broken bones, and incubators for premature infants are all unnatural.

Cavemen, whether vegetarian or carnivorous, were not going around putting incrementally larger boulders on their backs and squatting them for reps, or throwing sabre tooth tiger carcasses above their heads in stunning displays of explosive strength and agility. None of what we do is natural, and yet logically structured strength training is undoubtedly good for anyone above the age of 4.

And I do mean anyone.

So what should the confused dieter do with no pre-lapsarian regime to turn to?

Look at the evidence.

Robb Wolf hits the nail on the head when he states that his version of paleo “is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.”21 The same should be said of vegetarianism by its proponents. The hypothesis of both diets, that the modern human is living in discordance with their genetics, is a sound one. However, not every novel or artificial thing that comes to hand or plate is necessarily bad. Sweet potatoes, cashews, and avocadoes are great for most of the population, and they’re new to everyone but native South and Central Americans.

The same logic applies to hormetic stressors; take some away from a human being, like exercise, and things go wrong. Take others away, like the presence of fecal bacteria in our food, and we do great. Though we have the genetics to expect both exercise and habitually eating with poo hands, we do much better in the absence of one and not the other.

100% organic.

At their best both diets provide a valuable framework for researching and testing hypotheses on human health and performance. At their worst they devolve into nothing more than cults whose adherents, acting on faith alone, blindly shove whatever their youtube gurus tell them to down their throats.

 

NOTE: This post has been edited to reflect corrections made by P. de Torreil, who quite rightly pointed out that an article critical of the paleo diet used in this post cited a number of professors who had absolutely no web presence other than having been quoted in that article, an extremely unlikely scenario for academics. It is more than likely that the article is a fake, so it has been removed. Apologies to all who read the original piece, and thanks to Mr. de Torreil.

Works Cited:

1: Stefansson, Vilhjalmur. “Eskimos Prove An All Meat Diet Provides Excellent Health” (Harper’s Monthly, November 1935)
2, 3: McClellan Walter S., Du Bois, Eugene F.  “Prolonged Meat Diets with a Study of Kidney Function and Ketosis” J. Biol. Chem. 87: 651-668, July 1930
4: “The Curious History of the Paleo Diet” Retrieved from: http://americanscience.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/the-curious-history-of-paleo-diet-and.html (Retrieved Feb. 22nd, 2015)
5: Seton, Ernest Thompson. “Boy Scouts of America, a Handbook of Woodcraft, Scouting, and Life-Craft” Double Day, Page & Company, New York, 1910, p. xii
6: Jones, Isaac H et al. “Nutrition and The Eye, Ear, Nose and Throat (With Excerpts from the Literature)” The Laryngoscope, 60: 1210-1226, December 1950
7: Jarvis, William T. “The Myth of the Healthy Savage” Nutrition Today, Volume 16 Issue 2, March/April 1981
8: Barrett, Stephen. “Stay Away from “Holistic” and “Biological” Dentists” http://www.quackwatch.com/01QuackeryRelatedTopics/holisticdent.html (Retrieved Feb 22nd, 2015)
9: Cordain, Loren., Schlender, Shelley. “The Paleo Diet Podcast – The History of the Paleo Movement”  http://thepaleodiet.com/paleo-diet-podcast-history-paleo-movement/ (Retrieved Feb 22nd, 2015)
10, 21: Wolf, Robb., Dees, Andy. “The Paleo Solution Podcast, Episode 52” http://robbwolf.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/the-paleo-solution-episode-52.pdf
11: Sorabji, Richard. “Animal Minds and Human Morals” London 1993, p. 172-175
12: Haussleiter, Johannes: “Der Vegetarismus in der Antike” Berlin 1935 pp 54 – 64
13: Regula Benedicti 36,9 and 39,11, ed. Rudolph Hanslik, Vienna 1975, p. 96, 100
14: Spencer, Colin. “The Heretic’s Feast. A History of Vegetarianism” London 1993, pp 285-288
15: “The History of the Vegetarian Society” https://www.vegsoc.org/history (Retrieved Feb 22nd, 2015)
16: Lunan, Charles. “President Among Diners to Jump on Boca Burger Patty Wagon” The Sun Sentinel, May 27th, 1994
17, 18, 19, 20: Kuipers, Remko S., et al. “Estimated Macronutrient and Fatty Acid Intakes from an East African Paleolithic Diet” British Journal of Nutrition, 2010 p. 1-22

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