The Experts Speak: Nutrition

I have nothing against a paleolithic diet, but I think its advocates, like many experts, are overconfident. It’s not easy to know which features of a diet that varies in 20 ways from modern diets are the crucial ones. I came across this while reading about paleolithic diets:

The general gist of eating like a caveman—namely, focusing on foods in their whole, natural state, is not going to get much argument. “It comes down to the advice your mother gave you,” says Leonard [William Leonard, chair of the anthropology department at Northwestern University]. “Eat a balanced diet and a diversity of foods.”

I beg to differ.

1. Whole, natural state. I find flaxseed oil very helpful. It supplies omega-3 missing from my diet, but presumably present in diets that contained lots of seafood or vegetation-fed meat. Flaxseed oil is not food in a whole and natural state.

2. Whole, natural state. I find fermented food very helpful. Bacteria break down food, making it less whole. Modern food of all sorts is unnaturally low in bacteria (due to refrigeration, food safety laws, shelf-life requirements, etc.), just as modern meat is unnaturally low in omega-3. Fermented food is unnaturally high in bacteria, correcting the deficit.

3. The advice your mother gave you. Traditional diets, yes, what your mom thinks, no. When I was growing up we ate margarine instead of butter — poor choice. We had skim milk, not whole milk — poor choice. The absence of butter and whole milk is, if Weston Price is right, why my teeth are slightly crooked. We ate almost no fermented food — very poor choice. (Which I suspect is why I had mild allergies.) We rarely ate fish — poor choice. And yet we didn’t have a TV — very good, very unusual choice. Even my mom, who thought for herself far more than most moms, had serious misconceptions about nutrition. Given the epidemic of childhood obesity, not to mention less visible increases in autism, allergies, and ADHD, I am very skeptical that the average kid’s mom knows what to eat.

4. Eat a balanced diet. Plenty of communities in excellent health eat diets that American experts would describe as not balanced at all — no fruit for example, or too much dairy. Eskimos and the Swiss in isolated villages studied by Weston Price are two examples. Price found that a wide range of diets, most violating one or more popular nutritional precepts, produced excellent health.

5. A diversity of foods. Several healthy communities studied by Price did not eat a wide range of foods. The human diet became a lot more diverse around the time of the “broad-spectrum revolution” — broad-spectrum meaning wider range of food. Around that time human height decreased. Apparently the new, more diverse diet was less healthy than the old diet. An anthropology professor might know this.

The title of this post comes from the book The Experts Speak which is full of examples of how experts were wildly wrong.

12 Replies to “The Experts Speak: Nutrition”

  1. a wide range of diets, most violating one or more popular nutritional precepts, produced excellent health.

    Humans are omnivores, after all, so it’s not too shocking to find we’re adapted to a variety of different diets.

  2. Seth,

    I find it interesting that you mention the Eskimo diet. My roommate, who is an Alaskan native (and spends 3-6 months of the year there) often brings it up when discussing food we eat. She has noted that the Alaskan Eskimo diet is similar to what we consider to be the classic “low carb/Atkins” diet, with one exception: fermented food, which American low carb diets lack. Atkins/low carb diets are infamous for causing digestive problems, foul breath, and equally bad body odor. Eskimos do not have digestive problems or foul breath. Why? We think it’s because Eskimos eat rotten fish.

    I was curious about what you might have to say about this.

  3. Bennetta, that’s fascinating. Certainly lack of fermented food can cause digestive problems, that’s very clear. I will add bad breath and body odor to the list of things possibly caused by not enough fermented food. It makes a lot of sense that eating fermented fish would improve digestion of fish thus reducing body odor caused by incomplete digestion. (I believe that Asians often think that Americans, who never eat rotten meat, smell of meat.) In an earlier post I drew attention to the rotten fish that Eskimos eat.

  4. We’re not designed to live much past 35; in fact dying around that time would historically mean more resources available for our progeny.

    A perfect paleodiet might just help us limp along to say, threescore and ten. Maybe what we actually need is a diet not found in nature at all.

  5. The quote at the top is reasonable. Of course there will be exceptions and you’ve done a good job of highlighting some of them. But these are not the norm. One of the main problems with the typical Western diet these days though is that it’s unbalanced, lacking adequate fruit and vegetables and very little food is eaten in its whole and natural state.

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