Monday, January 11, 2010

New York Times on Paleo Diets and Intermittent Fasting

For some paleo folks, tomatoes are the devil's fruit.
For some paleo folks, tomatoes are the devil's fruit. (Photo by LensENVY)

I usually only mention newspaper articles that have to do with anti-aging, but I thought this recent piece in The New York Times was interesting enough to write a quick post on (thanks to Stephan at Whole Health Source for the tip).

Calorie restriction has been in the news quite a few times in the past few years, but it seems the media is only now picking up on paleolithic diets. For some reason the term "caveman diet" is mentioned throughout the article, even though I don't see anyone in the paleo community using the c-word these days. Despite finding myself in disagreement over some of the details, I thought the whole thing was a fairly good representation of what the paleolithic way is about:

The caveman lifestyle, in Mr. Durant’s interpretation, involves eating large quantities of meat and then fasting between meals to approximate the lean times that his distant ancestors faced between hunts. Vegetables and fruit are fine, but he avoids foods like bread that were unavailable before the invention of agriculture.

Of course, not everyone who follows a paleo diet does intermittent fasting at the same time, but it does seem to be fairly common. The evolutionary reasoning behind regular (or irregular) fasting seems sound enough to me, but apparently some people disagree:

Experts in early humans dispute some of the tenets of latter-day paleos, including the belief that fasting is beneficial and that the body is unequipped to handle an agriculture-based diet.

Just who these experts are is unknown. Hopefully not the government officials that guard the sacred food pyramid with their lives. As far as I know, we don't have much reliable evidence of how long our caveman ancestors really went between meals, and I have seen some arguments that perhaps food shortages weren't all that common after all. Maybe so. But I would like to know what exactly these experts mean by our bodies being equipped to handle a diet based on agriculture.

No paleo lifestyle would be complete without some caveman exercises, of which the article (or rather, the people mentioned in the article) seem to give an overly optimistic view. I've no doubt that stone age people were strong, but to say that their amazing feats would awe the modern man may be a bit of a stretch. Still, that hasn't stopped people from swearing in the name of CrossFit:

Another source of paleo converts is CrossFit, a fitness program known for grueling workouts combining weightlifting and gymnastics. CrossFit trainers, who teach at more than 1,200 gyms and other affiliates across the country, generally encourage clients to follow either a caveman diet or the Zone diet, which requires tracking calories. “Some of the gyms have hardcore paleo folks, and if you’re a member of that gym then you’re paleo, while other gyms are hardcore Zone,” said Anthony Budding, who manages the content on

How the Zone diet is compatible with paleolithic nutrition is beyond me, but as Kurt Harris writes on the PaNu blog, it may just be taking over the CrossFit gyms as the "official diet" this year.

So we have caveman foods, caveman fasting, and caveman exercise, all done in a fashionable New York style. But let's not forget that life in those days was nasty, brutish, and short. And full of dangers:

Another caveman trick involves donating blood frequently. The idea is that various hardships might have occasionally left ancient humans a pint short.

I've heard this theory before, but I'm still not convinced it's accurate. Don't get me wrong, I think donating blood may indeed be useful, for example to get rid of excess iron. If the mineral theory of aging has any merit, this may be even more important. But since average lifespan was very short in those days, alleviating the accumulation of minerals through bloodletting doesn't seem like an important evolutionary mechanism from a paleolithic perspective.

Some funny puritanism apparently going on among the paleo crowd, too:

“Cavemen don’t eat nightshades,” Mr. Averbukh, 29, said. He explained that tomatoes are part of the nightshade family, arguing that they are native to the New World and could not have been part of humanity’s earliest diet. Mr. Averbukh is a pre-Promethean sort of caveman. Much of his nourishment comes from grass-fed ground beef, which he eats raw. In a bow to the times, he sometimes uses a fork.

This is precisely the gripe I have with some paleo people. What does it matter if our ancestors ate tomatoes or not? Just because we didn't eat something in the past doesn't necessarily mean it's not healthy for us, and vice versa. They didn't drink green tea either, but does that mean it can't be healthy for us? Of course not. And health is really the only interesting goal here, not trying to actually live the life of a cavemen in every possible way.

Besides, there's no way to completely emulate a stone age diet anyway. Or does Mr. Averbukh think cavemen ate grass-fed ground beef? Does he ever eat fruit or vegetables? Because the cows and the oranges we have today aren't like they used to be back in the day. I wonder if he ever buys clothes from a store "in a bow to the times".

I'm glad most people in the paleo circles have more sense than that. I quite like Mr. Durant's idea for a paleo restaurant:

With this view of humanity’s past, what does Mr. Durant see in his future? One idea is a restaurant called B.C. or Wild. Just in case he develops the right business model, Mr. Durant has bought the domain name

Seeing how low-carb diets are already pretty popular, and paleolithic diets are often low in carbohydrates, I don't see why such an idea might not work. Yes, vegan restaurants are probably still the fashionable thing in New York, but that may just change in the future.

For more information on diets and fasting, see these posts:

How to Deal With the 5 Most Common Difficulties of Fasting
Alternate-Day Feeding and Weight Loss: Is It the Calories Or the Fasting?
A Typical Paleolithic High-Fat, Low-Carb Meal of an Intermittent Faster
Blood Test Analysis: The Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Issue Revisited

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