I’m seeing a lot of people in the paleosphere taking pot shots at those others within the group who disagree with them. Sometimes they’re measured, evidence-based arguments between people who fundamentally respect one another, but sometimes they’re just nasty, adolescent name-calling. This gets even more complicated when you look at the overall ancestral health movement or throw the low-carbers into the mix. The awesome thing is that I’m also seeing a lot of others noticing and decrying the same issue. There’s always going to be a troll in the dungeon, as it were, and I think the majority of the paleo movement is doing a great job in just keeping the door locked and trying to ignore it. That’s probably the best way to deal with them, since engaging never benefits anyone.
So, without being a troll, how does one express disagreement? It can be difficult, for sure. I honestly haven’t heard much from the paleo sources I frequent that I don’t agree with, or in which I can’t find some morsel of truth. However, there are disagreements, and some of them even get a little heated. This can be fun, as long as everyone plays nice and stays friends. So anyway, I’m sort of taking it upon myself to absorb and synthesize a cohesive theory of everything based on my readings. A big job? You bet your sexy ass it is. And I’ll probably do a terrible job of it, too. But this is kind of my passion. I love looking at complex systems that seem to defy understanding, to read the theories, the evidence and combine it with some personal experience to see if i can’t make some sense of it.
Here’s how I break down the major theories in the movement as I see them. Some of them have much in common, others are very different.
Weston A. Price Foundation – Traditional foods, emphasis on good fats.
WholeHealthSource, Dr. Stephan Guyenet – Food reward and palatability lead to overconsumption
Gary Taubes – Carbohydrates are fattening, sort of an Atkins-style deal
Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis – Modern wheat causes a large portion of our health problems
Dr. Robert Lustig – Sugar, specifically refined fructose, is the source of our issues
Robb Wolf/Mark Sisson – I put these guys in a similar camp, because I think they are much more alike than they are different. They’re about the entire lifestyle, including sleep, sunlight, socialization, playing, etc. Food and exercise are big factors, but aren’t the be all and end all. They recognize that overconsumption can inhibit weight loss, but don’t advocate a strict “energy balance” model.
Dr. Guyenet and Taubes are the only ones in the group that have had a public kerfuffle that I’m aware of, and they’re only peripherally part of the paleo/ancestral movement anyhow. I don’t think either of them self-identifies as being paleo, though both presented at AHS last year, so I’m sure they’re at least moderately on board. ANyway, how do you make these differing theories/hypotheses work together? I will say that I vastly prefer Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson’s systemic approaches to the “niche” work that some of the others do. First, let me give am ore meaningful breakdown of my understanding of each. If I’m incomplete or inaccurate in my portrayal, please correct me. I’m just a dude who likes to read, so it’s entirely possible that some of the nuance may be lost on me.
WAPF is a traditional, ancestral diet. They’re big on good fats, raw dairy, and what grains and legumes they eat are sprouted, soaked, fermented or some combination of the three. They definitely make an emphasis on quality ingredients, whole, unprocessed foods, and lots of animal products. I like them a lot because they’re an organization, not a dude. There are WAPF chapters in most major cities, and they have a lot of resources available on their website. They’re also something of a lobbying organization, and they try to stick up for the rights of raw dairy farms and such. So that’s cool. The only thing I don’t especially get down with is the inclusion of grains in the diet. I just don’t think we need them, really. If you want to eat them, WAPF preparation methods are definitely the way to go to minimize the risk of hurting your gut, though.
Dr. Guyenet’s ideas are seriously interesting, but he still seems to put a lot of stock in obesity being caused by overconsumption of foods. He advocates for simple, quality, home-cooked foods so he definitely ends up with a pretty traditional, unprocessed diet that I think makes sense. Anyway his ideas are based on observations that people eating foods that aren’t very palatable (nutritive goo sucked from a tube) have been shown to eat less in some observations. There are some reward centers of the brain that we can watch in an MRI and you can see them light up when people eat certain foods. This definitely lends credence to the idea that certain foods are more rewarding than others and that those foods might have an addictive quality or might lend themselves to overconsumption. Potato chips are a great example. They’re salty, crispy, fatty, and they’re about as easy to find and consume as you can get. So people tend to overconsume chips, because they spin all the right dials in our heads to make us enjoy them and want to keep eating them. Some of the other articles I’ve read indicate that there’s more to obesity than simple energy balance, though, so I don’t think that Dr. Guyenet’s ideas are enough to explain all of our problems.
Taubes is one of the writers whose work I always enjoy because it’s well-researched and well-reasoned. He’s a big low-carb advocate, in the vein of Dr. Atkins. Essentially, there’s an insulin response to carbohydrate consumption, insulin is the primary fat storage hormone, therefore eating carbohydrates causes the body to store fat. It’s a simple concept, with a long history (going back to the 1700s, even) and it really seems to work well for people who are overweight and on their way to diabetes. Here’s the problem: I don’t think it’s sufficient. There is definitely an issue with refined carbohydrates in our diet, and I think cutting them down in a big way is a great first step for people looking to lose weight. However, we have those pesky Kitavans, who ate 60+% of their calories in the form of starch and were lean and healthy. What gives? They weren’t eating refined sugar, or refined white flour, but the low-carb view generally sees potatoes and other starchy veggies as being just as bad as bread and sugar. There are also plenty of healthy people in the ancestral movement who enjoy some measure of “safe starches” and stay plenty lean and healthy. So I don’t think the pure low-carb view is enough, though I do think there’s definitely something to it.
Dr. Davis is one of the most nichey of these guys, and though I do really enjoy a great deal of what he writes, I think he has taken a very narrow view of the problem. As a caveat, I am still reading his book, so most of my information about him comes from reading his blog, listening to him in interviews and watching many of the videos he’s posted. Okay, Dr. Davis’ deal is that wheat went through some intense changes over the past 50 years, many of which have produced an array of harmful proteins in the plant that humans had never encountered before. He’s also a bit in the glycemic index camp, and a bit in the insulin-driven fat storage camp. I think GI is a bit weak, so I don’t put much stock into it. Anyway, his diet recommendations are to avoid all high glycemic foods, which is why he’s not strictly advocating a wheat-free diet. He comes down hard on the use of tapioca starch and potato starch as wheat substitutes, because of their effect on blood glucose levels. In any case, I like Dr. Davis for his explanation of the history of the changes to wheat, but I think he presents an incomplete view of optimal health practices.
Dr. Lustig is a bit of a rock star these days, and has been making news by calling for the restriction of sugar sales, similar to how we restrict the sale of alcohol and tobacco. Seeing what he sees every day (he’s a pediatric endocrinologist, so it’s mostly obese children suffering from chronic disease) I can completely understand where he’s coming from. It’s not my jam, because I take a much more libertarian view of these things, but whatever. In any case, Lustig blames sugar, and specifically fructose for most of our issues. He does a great job of explaining the biochemistry of it, too, and has proposed a mechanism that I think works well with the low-carb gig. Here’s how it goes. Starch consumption alone doesn’t cause insulin and leptin resistance, and the associated obesity and heart disease and all the rest. Refined fructose starts that process, and once the system is damaged by the fructose, then the glucose isn’t handled well either. That’s why overweight people do so well on a low-carb diet. The glucose didn’t cause the problem, but it’s definitely not helping. When you cut out the carbs, including starch, you give your body a chance to right the ship, nautically speaking. Once you’ve regained leanness and insulin/leptin sensitivity, then you tolerate glucose much better. I think this can also explain those paleo folks who have gone low carb, and then added starch back into the diet with no ill effects. Lustig also proposes an evolutionary reason for having developed insulin resistance, which I find rather fascinating and compelling. He explains it in the video linked above, so I won’t belabor it here.
Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson are, I think, the two major dudes in the modern, mainstream sort of paleo/primal deal. Robb admits that he eats more primal than paleo these days anyway (includes some dairy, some dark chocolate, and some corn/rice on occasion), so I don’t think he’d mind being lumped in with Mark. They’re both great guys, with great attitudes, and have helped countless people. They also both have a very systemic approach to health, which is what I like. It’s not just “Cut the wheat and you’ll be fine,” it’s a comprehensive lifestyle adjustment. The best thing is that you can start with a minimal buy-in and then adjust as you learn more or as you decide you’re ready. For example, both of them are big on sleeping in a dark room, getting good quality social interaction, having fun, getting out into the sun, moving your body in whatever ways you enjoy, etc. So if you start out with a 21 or 30-day trial of cutting out the refined sugars, the grains, the legumes, and maybe any dairy that isn’t butter or heavy cream, you start to heal yourself and see how great you can feel. Start adding in some sunlight exposure, some fun exercise (actually fun exercise, like playing in your yard with your dog, or making sweet love to the consenting adult of your choosing, not spending hours on a treadmill and pretending you really enjoy it), and plenty opf good quality sleep. Then you see that you can feel incredible, better than you have in years, or better than you ever have. Any one of these things will improve your life, and many other people have advocated for these changes individually, but the paleo movement is the first I’ve seen that combines all of these suggestions into a total lifestyle package. The best part about these guys is that they read and listen to all the other guys I’ve mentioned as well as many others. And when someone has a good idea, they try to bring it into their paradigm. That’s awesome. So they’re doing about 90% of what I’m hoping to do here. I don’t really think they’ve missed much, though, and that’s a lot of why I like them.
Okay, so here’s my proposed process: Some people are genetically predisposed to having issues processing fructose, but just about everyone will have issues with it if it’s eaten in the sort of quantities seen in the SAD. Fructose hits the liver, forming lipid droplets, and causing insulin resistance (Explained by Lustig in his youtube smash hit). There’s also a mechanism by which intestinal permeability causes insulin resistance, seen in the SUNY talk by Robb Wolf (Starting in the 45 minute range). The insulin resistance leads to leptin resistance (also Lustig), which inhibits the proper functioning of satiety signals. This leads to overconsumption. On the back end, you also have the neurological and psychological effects of SAD foods, namely gliadin (from Davis) and refined sugars spinning the dials in the reward centers of the brain, feeding into dopamine release and addictive behavior (from Guyenet). This also contributes to overconsumption of these hyper-palatable, hyper-available, and hyper-convenient foods.
So now, the foods that are damaging your metabolism, making you fat, giving you digestive problems and all the rest are also working on your brain to make you crave them even more. And your leptin signalling is all out of whack, so you can’t even tell when you’re energy-replete now. You don’t get that signal telling you to go burn off your extra calories, so your energy expenditure goes down, and it gets tougher to be active during the day. Add in a lack of quality sleep, a severe deficiency in key nutrients (especially omega 3s and vitamin D), and you’re really hammering your body with all of the problems and then hamstringing the mechanisms it would normally use to help you solve them. Can you power through based on will alone? Yes. It’s hard, though, and will continue to get harder as you get older and the natural resilience of youth tapers off.
So what do I suggest? I think tackling the food first is probably the best way to go. Once you start getting quality fats and proteins into your diet and you reduce the refined sugars and grains, there’s a very good chance that your energy will increase and the exercise will just flow naturally. Your hormonal signalling will improve and you will want to move your body, without requiring a load of willpower to get you there. I also think that sun exposure and sleep are great things to tackle early if you can, but I know people can have a hard time prioritizing them. Take it a piece at a time and try to make an effort to get them into your schedule as you can.
Okay, so there’s my breakdown of the different mechanisms I’ve heard proposed, and my best effort at bringing them together in a way I think everyone could get on board with. Fingers crossed I haven’t completely screwed something up. Thanks for reading!