Tag Archives: pseudoscience

Are you there, Caitlin? It’s me, Questions.

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One day I was at work, working on this very post (it was a slow day in science), and a friend asked what I was doing. I said I was answering questions that people had for me, and she replied with initial excitement that waned into reality: “Oooh you’re like Carrie Bradshaw! Except instead of writing about sex, you’re writing about science and nutrition.  That’s not really as exciting.” No, it’s not.  But here it goes – my attempt at being a columnist.

Q: What do you know of this Garcinia Cambogia and body cleanse diet. Dr. Oz has talked about it. Have you heard anything on it?

 A: Like usual, when I saw “Dr. Oz” in the question, I cringed.  I typically consider Dr. Oz to be a bit of an extremely charming snake oil salesman.  But I decided to look it up because when the people have questions, I give them answers. First, I went to Dr. Oz’s website to see what him and his people had to say about it.  Then I searched on PubMed to find out what the science says.

What Dr. Oz’s website says: Garcinia Cambogia is a fruit native to Indonesia and supplements are made from the rind of the fruit, which is high in a compound called hydroxycitric acid (HCA).  The claim is that HCA prevents fat synthesis by blocking an enzyme (citrate lyase) that converts carbohydrates to fat.  HCA also reduces appetite by increasing serotonin production in the brain.  In effect, this improves mood and reduces the drive for emotional eating (though it is unclear if people with normal or high serotonin levels and who don’t resort to food to for emotional reasons would benefit from HCA).

What the science says: 43 Brazilian women who were overweight/obese were randomized to receive either a placebo or 2.4 g/day of G. Cambogia (separated into 800 mg consumed before each meal) in addition to an energy restricted diet (~1500 kcal/day) for 8 weeks.  There were no differences pre- to post-treatment or between randomization groups following the study in terms of weight loss (or any other anthropometrics), or any marker of the lipid profile with the exception of triglycerides, which were lower after 8 weeks in the women consuming the supplement compared to those on the placebo.  This study indicates no real benefit of using G. Cambogia.  That’s just one example of a research study on G. Cambogia, but there are many more that show similar results.  A recent review article by Astell et al. evaluated the data on a variety of plant extracts (including G. Cambogia) that have been explored in randomized controlled trials (the gold standard of human research) with regards to weight loss, and concluded that there is not sufficient data to suggest that any plant extract will significantly aid in weight loss above standard dietary and physical activity practices.  One study did show that HCA taken in combination with Gymnema sylvestre extract resulted in a 5-6% reduction in body weight after 8 weeks.

The Bottom Line: There aren’t enough well designed research studies for this herbal supplement (or any) to get my stamp of approval.  First, there isn’t enough information to suggest that they are effective, but more importantly, there is a question of safety here.  People often use the logic that herbal supplements are “natural,” and therefore safe.  But there is nothing “natural” about taking a supplement that provides you with 10 fold or more of a compound than what you would get from just eating food.  Remember, hemlock is also “natural,” but it still very effectively killed Socrates.

Q: I have a friend who is using a mobile app to track his caloric intake and lose weight.  He has lost weight, but I’ve noticed that he still eats pretty unhealthy food, drinks beer, and doesn’t seem like he’s getting any healthier, though he is still losing weight.  Is he actually getting healthier?

This approach is similar to that of many fad diets, and it relies on the simple principles of “calories in, calories out.”  Yes, if you ingest fewer calories than you expend, you will lose weight.  This friend may actually be getting healthier because weight loss of as little as 5% of initial body weight has been proven to confer health benefits like improvement in blood lipids and glucose, blood pressure, sleep apnea, joint pain, depression, Type 2 diabetes, and you’re bound to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.  Only 5%.  That means that if you weigh 200 lbs and you lose 10 pounds, your health will most assuredly improve.  Lose more weight, see more benefit.  So the fact of the matter is, yes, health does improve when you lose weight (if you need to lose weight. This doesn’t hold true if you’re already a healthy weight).  But this is not an approach I would ever recommend for anybody.  While you will get healthier simply by losing weight but still eating whatever you want, it’s only a fraction of how healthy you could be if you started eating healthy foods.  Matching the caloric content of two patterns, eating a whole foods diet that focuses on whole grains, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats will win out every single time over a diet high in refined carbohydrates, processed foods, and fatty protein sources.

There was a “case study” that a brave soul performed on himself to prove a point to his students.  Professor of Human Nutrition at Kansas State University, Mark Haub, decided to go on a junk food diet for 10 weeks to prove the premise of “calories in, calories out.” He ate Hostess cakes, Doritos, Oreos, etc and consumed 1,800 calories/day (he should consume about 2,600 to maintain weight).  While he did take a multivitamin and eat a couple of servings of vegetables everyday, his diet was mostly shit and he lost 27 lbs.  A number of outcomes improved for him over the course of 10 weeks: his body fat percentage dropped, his blood lipids improved. (Read more about it here: http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/11/08/twinkie.diet.professor/).

The Bottom Line: So should you try to lose weight by simply focusing on calories?  Like I said, not my recommendation.  Haub’s data are interesting, sure, but we don’t know the long-term consequences of eating like that.  I would speculate that the risk for cancer would increase, and inflammation and oxidative stress would be huge issues for Haub.  Inflammation and oxidative stress are known to exacerbate chronic disease risk for diseases like cancer, Type 2 Diabetes, CVD, Alzheimer’s, etc.  The outcomes that he measured are validated markers for disease risk, but they don’t tell the whole story.  While obtaining/maintaining a healthy weight is extremely important for long-term health, there’s a lot more to it than just the number on the scale.  Eat your damn produce.

Q: Is there any science to back up Ayurvedic eating practices?

A: Ayurveda is an ancient Indian approach to medicine, and Ayurvedic eating is a therapeutic approach to eating that is often practiced by yogis and others with goals of inner peace.

The focus of Ayurvedic eating is to find joy, balance, and an appreciation of food via eating.  Most of Ayurvedic eating uses the same principles of mindful eating – being present, cooking your food, eating food that tastes good, paying attention to hunger cues, and not eating distractedly.  In addition to mindful eating techniques, the practice considers three different body types and personalities (called “doshas”) – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.  Once you determine which dosha is predominant for you, you can start eating to complement it. I’ll go through everything for myself, but use this link to find out about yours, if you’re interested.

I determined that my primary dosha is Vata, which is fairly spot on with my body type and personality.  The primary qualities of a Vata individual are that they thrive on movement and change. Vata individuals are typically tall and slender with narrow hips and shoulders and are generally energetic and enthusiastic, unless they are out of balance.  Signs of being out of balance are skipping meals (something I try to avoid because I actually do notice how much it throws things out of whack for me – I don’t know if this actually has anything to do with being Vata or if that’s just my personality) and snacking constantly (my worst dietary habit!).

One of the predominant issues with Vata is digestion.  To stay in balance, it’s recommended that Vata cook their food to ease digestive issues instead of eating foods (like vegetables) raw and heavier, oily, or warm foods are preferred.  Vata should avoid red meat and many types of beans, but sweet, ripe fruits and many cooked vegetables are supported.

An interesting thing about Ayurvedic eating is that it focuses on eating a balanced diet, not only by balancing carbohydrates, protein, fats, vitamins, and minerals, but also taste.  There are said to be six tastes – sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent.  Each meal should contain all six tastes in order to be balanced, though each dosha should focus on some more than others.  For example, the Vata dosha should minimize bitter, pungent, and astringent flavors because these are said to lead to imbalance.

What the Science Says:  I did look for some actual science to support this, but I didn’t find anything.  This would be a pretty difficult thing to test, in general.  First, I’m not sure what the outcome would be, other than quality of life.  Ayurvedic eating is a healthy approach to eating, both due of the mindful eating approach as well as the focus on whole foods.  This means that if you put the average person on an Ayurvedic diet, they would feel better because their diet in general has improved. You could probably put anyone one on any of the specific dosha diets and see improvements in health.  In order to test it properly, you’d need to find people that already eat healthy, but perhaps don’t eat mindfully and don’t follow the recommendations of their particular dosha.  It’s pretty difficult to properly measure a health outcome on people who are already healthy because the scale by which they can improve is drastically reduced.

The Bottom Line: While I couldn’t find any data to support Ayurvedic eating, that doesn’t mean it’s not a healthy approach to living.  It just means that no one has tried to and/or effectively tested it yet.  As I mentioned above, you’re likely to see benefit because of the mindful eating techniques as well as eating whole foods.  As far as eating for your body type and personality – I don’t know.  I can’t pinpoint a specific mechanism that would suggest that that’s necessary.  But if you’re interested in it, give it a shot.  It certainly won’t hurt you, and it looks like you may learn some interesting cooking techniques as it will force you to pay more attention to flavor pairing.

Hope that answers some burning questions that a few of you had and maybe the rest of you learned a thing or two along the way. I’ll post my final blog post within the next few days!

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Dr. Oz’s “Three” Day Smoothie “Detox”

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As part of my Month O’ Smoothies Challenge, I decided to do one day of nothin but smoothies.  (As a reminder, my “diet” for this month is replacing my breakfast with a delicious, produce packed smoothie. Just one a day, nothing too crazy.)

There is a definite craze going on these days that supports the notion that we need to “detox” our bodies.  It’s hard to make a list of my least favorite  words that arise whenever people want to talk about health and nutrition because there are so many of them, but “detox” definitely makes the top 10…along with “anti-nutrient” (see my original post on Paleo for more information on that).  “Detox” is one of those very vague terms that floats around the media.  No one really knows what it means, but it sounds important, so people keep saying it.  Here are some important questions that you should chew over when considering a “detox.”
Q: What are the toxins of which you’re ridding your body when you go on a “detox”?
A: Pesticides? Inflammatory molecules? Antinutrients? Cancer? The boogey man?
I use question marks in my answer because I don’t know what the answer is.
Q: How, exactly, are drinking a bunch of fruits and vegetables going to rid your body of these toxins?
A: I’m not knocking fruits and veggies here.  If you’ve been paying attention this year, I’ve got nothing bad to say about them. But, unless you’re eating organic, you’re actually going to introduce pesticides (and who knows if that’s even a bad thing? I’ll go into detail on that when I do my Sustainability Month). Eating fruits and veggies that are packed with anti-inflammatory agents will promote health and reduce the production of pro-inflammatory molecules, but they aren’t going to get rid of the ones you have.  You can actually just eat lots of fruits and veggies on the reg — there isn’t some transformative value of putting them in a blender that gives them miniature superhero capes. And doing it for a day only isn’t really going to do anything at all.
Q: Does the body lack the ability to get rid of “toxins” (put simply, things that are bad for us)?
A: No, it doesn’t.  It actually has some really incredible organs called the small intestine, liver, and kidneys whose jobs are to prevent bad stuff from getting in / getting rid of The Badness when it does get in.  These organs stop working properly when they aren’t treated properly (i.e. binge drinking, doing drugs, eating an unhealthy diet).  The body is composed of a pretty incredible set of systems, and a single “detox” isn’t going to do much for them.  In fact, a detox could actually hurt those organs, because they require a proper balance of nutrients to work, and most “detox” programs are deficient in nearly every nutrient. A better program is to just eat a healthy diet full of foods that are packed with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory rich components pretty much all the time.  But that just doesn’t have that glamorous ring to it, does it?
Q: What about cleanses? Aren’t those good? Don’t I need to cleanse my body? (This is sort of a tangential thought, but it seemed like the right time to answer this question).
A: No.  See above answer about the organs that get rid of bad crap — same thing.  Also, anything that involves a “colon cleanse” is a bad idea.  There are lots of really beneficial bacteria that have formed a symbiotic relationship with your gut – they live off what you eat and they help to promote a healthy immune system and overall keep your insides happy.  Don’t get rid of them. YOUR COLON SHOULD NEVER BE CLEAN (unless you’re getting a colonoscopy. Have fun with that).

The Detox
I decided to follow Dr. Oz’s three day smoothie detox because 1) I saw it on Pinterest, so I figured lots of other people had too; 2) I didn’t look for any others. This doesn’t mean that I support anything Dr. Oz says or does.  I don’t know everything he says because it makes me too angry to listen to him, but I do know that he’s a really important contributor to the propagation of whack ass health information out there. He’s making my life harder than it needs to be. Anyways, back to my smoothie challenge.  I decided ahead of time that I was only going to follow this thing for a day because it’s so low in calories, and I’m not trying to lose weight.  Also, I didn’t want to become a huge bitch due to not eating for a few days.  I was really just thinking about everyone else. You’re welcome, loved ones.

Here’s how it goes:

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I did take a fish oil supplement because I had one.  I didn’t take a multivitamin or a probiotic supplement because I didn’t have those, and I wasn’t going to spend money on them.  I also decided to do a nutrient analysis to see what my intake was for that day:

Nutrients Target Average Eaten Status
Total Calories 2000 Calories 1047 Calories Under
Protein (g)*** 46 g 21 g Under
Protein (% Calories)*** 10 – 35% Calories 8% Calories Under
Carbohydrate (g)*** 130 g 170 g OK
Carbohydrate (% Calories)*** 45 – 65% Calories 65% Calories OK
Dietary Fiber 25 g 37 g OK
Total Fat 20 – 35% Calories 36% Calories Over
Saturated Fat < 10% Calories 13% Calories Over
Monounsaturated Fat No Daily Target or Limit 11% Calories No Daily Target or Limit
Polyunsaturated Fat No Daily Target or Limit 8% Calories No Daily Target or Limit
Cholesterol < 300 mg 0 mg OK
Minerals Target Average Eaten Status
Calcium 1000 mg 658 mg Under
Potassium 4700 mg 3485 mg Under
Sodium** < 2300 mg 610 mg OK
Copper 900 µg 2840 µg OK
Iron 18 mg 8 mg Under
Magnesium 310 mg 405 mg OK
Phosphorus 700 mg 595 mg Under
Selenium 55 µg 13 µg Under
Zinc 8 mg 4 mg Under
Vitamins Target Average Eaten Status
Vitamin A 700 µg RAE 698 µg RAE Under
Vitamin B6 1.3 mg 1.6 mg OK
Vitamin B12 2.4 µg 0.0 µg Under
Vitamin C 75 mg 295 mg OK
Vitamin D 15 µg 1 µg Under
Vitamin E 15 mg AT 16 mg AT OK
Vitamin K 90 µg 833 µg OK
Folate 400 µg DFE 263 µg DFE Under
Thiamin 1.1 mg 0.9 mg Under
Riboflavin 1.1 mg 1.2 mg OK
Niacin 14 mg 7 mg Under

Clearly, I was deficient in nearly every nutrient, which is to be expected when there is absolutely no variety in the types of foods you’re eating. Some whole grains and a couple of lean protein sources could have done this body some good.  I was kind of surprised that this day didn’t provide more fiber (37 g is still pretty substantial, but that’s the goal for the average man, so it’s really not that much).  What’s most interesting to me is that a standard low calorie diet that is prescribed to someone trying to lose weight is 1200 calories.  This was only 150 shy of that, and I can think of a lot of lean, satiating foods that I could have eaten with the same number of calories and felt a lot better.  But pain is health, right? …Wrong.

My Experience

This day was pretty hard for me.  I tried to drink the smoothies slowly so that there wouldn’t be much time in between meals for me to get hungry.  It worked between breakfast and lunch, and I wasn’t too terribly hungry.  But the lunch smoothie was pretty weird.  The consistency was more like apple sauce than a smoothie, and I ended up eating it with a spoon.  It was also the only time that I did any chewing throughout the day, and it was pretty unsatisfying.  Which brings me to things that I couldn’t stop thinking about throughout the day: chewing, food, food, chewing, food, food, I hate vegetables, chewing, I hate fruit, food, food, food.  I also had some interesting cravings for things I really never crave including BBQ chips, fried chicken, orange chicken, fettucine alfredo, and Olive Garden breadsticks. Now that I’m not hungry, those things sound gross to me, but that’s what a day of low calories, low fat, low protein, and no salt will do to you. I’m pretty sure my attempt to detoxify my system only made me want to re-toxify by the end. Not really much of a homerun on the health front.
However, the smoothies were actually really good (minus lunch, whose flavor was nice, but was too weird of a texture to want to enjoy again), and I have since made them for breakfast. As you may have guessed, I noticed no positive changes in how I felt.  No little health cherubs descended from the heavens and kissed my forehead and eradicated all my ailments.  I ended the day disappointed and hungry and then went back to my normal, overall healthy eating pattern the next day.  What a sad, boring story.

Hoppin’ On That Smoothie Bandwagon

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I don’t know if I’m just noticing it because I’m in the field, but people seem pretty nuts about smoothies and juicing over the last few years.  As a nutritionist and a cynic, I always thought the whole thing was pretty stupid.  And by whole thing, I mean just the juicing part of the thing.

The Smoothie vs. Juice Debacle

To be clear, the difference between a smoothie and a juice really lies in the type of machinery that you use to make each.  A lot of people will use the term “juice” when they’re really talking about a smoothie, but make no mistake: they are not the same thing. A smoothie is made in a blender-like contraption in which you put whole fruits, vegetables, nut butters, milk, seeds, water — really whatever you want, and hit frappe.  Smoothies are actually a great way to pack in lots of fruits and vegetables in their whole from to make for a very healthy treat.  Of course, you can make these unhealthy by adding sugary yogurts, not including a variety of fruits and vegetables, and not taking the macronutrient content of your smoothie into consideration with what you eat for the rest of the day.  It’s so easy to ruin a good thing.

Juices, on the other hand, are made when you extract the juice of a fruit/vegetable from the fibrous part of the plant.  And therein lies the problem: you’re removing the fiber.  In my experience as a nutritionist, fiber seems to be one of the most forgotten components of the diet.  People seem to wave off recommendations to eat more fiber like they’re trying to shoo away an annoying fly.  But it’s just so important.
Fiber does wonderful things for your digestive tract.  You can’t absorb fiber (if you could, our food supply would be a lot more calorically dense), but all the healthy little bacteria in your intestines love it, and when they digest it, they produce short chain fatty acids that are involved in protecting the colon from cancer.  And who doesn’t love cancer protection? Fiber also helps to reduce cholesterol and lower your risk for heart disease (which is why you’ll see that packages for foods like oats have the American Heart Association seal of approval for Heart Health).  It also helps to reduce belly bloat and increase feelings of satiety (fullness).  Bottom line, eat lots of fiber.
So back to my original point: juices extract the fiber.  In doing so, this creates a lot of waste, which is sad to see because all of that “waste” could be improving your GI and heart health. Additionally, because juices are devoid of fiber, people tend to over-drink them as well.  As I said, fiber helps you to feel full, and without that fiber, many of the body’s normal cues that tell it to stop eating don’t exist.  While juices are packed with vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals, they can also be pretty high in calories.
I’ve seen this happen numerous times: people start juicing as an addition to their regular diet.  They make no other changes, and they assume that they are doing something super healthy by juicing, but for some reason, they slowly start to put on weight. I think juices cause people to forget the basics of nutrition.  Fruits and vegetables DO have calories (I know, WHAT?!), and a serving of a whole fruit or vegetable is typically fairly low in calories because fiber and water make up the majority of the volume.  When you juice, though, you’re probably using 5-6 servings of fruits and vegetables to make one juice.  Taken together, that adds up to a lot of extra calories.  Tack on all those extra calories to your normal diet, and you’ll start gaining weight.  So, this isn’t to say that juices in and of themselves are evil, because they are actually a really great way to get in A LOT of nutrients, but it’s all in how you use them.  And most people use them incorrectly.  The calorie issue is also present in a smoothie — however, because the smoothies have fiber, you typically can’t drink as much of a smoothie as a juice.  Plus, because they are thick (unlike a juice), it takes more time to drink one, so your stomach and brain have time to realize that you’re eating and send the signal to stop once you’re full.  Lastly, because of the fiber and anything you add to the smoothie (yogurt, nut butters, etc.), the smoothie can be hearty enough to replace a meal, so that you’re not actually adding calories to your day.
Here is a really amazing blog post from a Registered Dietitian about some of the problems with juice fasts/cleanses.  This lady totally speaks my language and she hits on a lot of the issues with the pseudo-science that abounds in popular culture and all over the internet.

30 Day Smoothie Challenge

What I’ve decided to do for May is simply to replace my breakfast with a smoothie everyday.  “How is this a diet?” you ask. It really isn’t, but it is a pretty big trend right now, particularly green smoothies.  With one of these breakfast smoothies, I average 4 servings of fruits/vegetables in a very portable, easy to consume “meal.” I really just want to see if I feel any different by adding this many servings of fruits and vegetables to my diet.

I’m 15 days in to the challenge, and I’ve started to get pretty creative with my smoothie skills.  Here are some of my criteria for this challenge:
-Every smoothie has to have at least one serving of vegetables
-Throughout the week, I have to drink smoothies that contain produce from a variety of different colors. Sometimes this means that all those colors go into one smoothie (i.e. mango, kale, and blueberries all in one). Other times it means that I’ll have a purple smoothie one day, an orange one the next, green on another day…etc. Eat the rainbow!
-Any “base” has to be unsweetened (i.e. unsweetened almond milk, plain coconut water, plain yogurt).  The fruits already have enough fructose to make the smoothies sweet. No need to add more.
-Every smoothie has to have a protein and/or a fat source.  Fat is necessary for the absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (Vitamins A, D, E, K, and carotenoids).  Protein just makes it more well rounded, though I’m not too worried about the protein bit because I get enough protein in the rest of my diet. This typically means that I add some kind of nut butter, avocado, plain Greek yogurt, or a little olive oil to each smoothie.

At the end of the month, I’ll share some recipes of my favorite smoothies! And probably some of the failures too…

Extreme Diets: Paleo Edition

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I’ve been dreading writing this post since I came up with the idea for this whole year long experiment.  I have so much to say. Once upon a time, a friend asked me my opinion, and I said, in a tone dripping with condescension, “I’m about as on board with Paleo as I am with being vegan.”  ….oh, snap. Who knows.  Maybe February 2013 will show me the error of my ways, and my comment, originally designed with sarcasm, will actually ring true, and I’ll be way into Paleo. I doubt it, but weirder things have happened.

First, some background on Paleo.  The Paleo Diet was created by Loren Cordain, PhD, and the premise of it is to revert back to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors (from 2.3 million to 10,000 years ago), before agrarian societies were developed.

The Paleo Diet focuses on eating the following foods:

  • lean, naturally raised meats (i.e. grass fed beef, free range poultry, wild fish)
  • fresh fruits (not dried) and vegetables
  • nuts (not peanuts, which are actually legumes) and seeds
  • and minimally processed oils (namely, extra virgin olive, avocado, walnut, macadamia nut, flaxseed, and almond oils)

One great thing about Paleo is the “85/15” rule, which means that 85% of the time you follow the diet, and 15% of the time you get to cheat.  I actually think this is something that should be practiced with all diets as it reduces psychological burnout and allows you to have those little splurges without feeling like you’ve totally fallen off the diet wagon.

But back to the rules.  When I first visited ThePaleoDiet.com, my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be ****ing kidding me.”  But the more I started looking at Paleo blogs and recipes, I opened up to it a bit more.  Then, my brother gave me The Paleo Diet Cookbook, and I went back to my original mindset because I realized that nearly all the recipes I was seeing aren’t truly “Paleo,” according to the way Cordain has defined it.
Here’s a sampling of things you can’t eat if you were going to do all-out Paleo:

  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, butter
  • Cereal grains: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley, oats
  • Cereal-grainlike seeds: amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, all beans, peanuts, soy products (edamame, miso, tofu, etc)
  • Starchy tubers: Potatoes and all potato products
  • Vinegar and all vinegar containing products
  • Salt: essentially everything processed including most condiments, salad dressings, deli meats, bacon, pickles, virtually all canned meat/fish, and no adding salt to any foods
  • Fatty meats: pork ribs, bacon, sausage, beef ribs, poultry legs, T-bone steaks, etc.
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Sweets: candy, sugar, honey, maple syrup

Cordain states that the pattern of Western eating, characterized by refined carbohydrates, fats, and sugars; high in salt; and high in fatty meats and processed foods has led to the epidemics of obesity and metabolic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Yes. Absolutely.  There is no denying that.  However, these are diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the last 10,000 years, and are really a result of our current highly-palatable, nutrient depleted food landscape compounded by a marked reduction in physical activity.

Now, I’ll go into my issues with Paleo.  I’m a hyper-analytical person, often to a fault.  This makes it borderline exhausting to be inside my brain (and I would know. I’m there most of the time).  On the plus side, it makes a life in the sciences extremely appealing.  Some may say that I’m missing the point of Paleo and I’m being too nit-picky.  That may be true, but I believe that if people are going to follow a diet, there should be evidence to back up said diet.

  • Cordain claims that if we follow Paleo, we will be eating the way Mother Nature intended us to eat.  This is a HUGE issue for me because we just simply do not have sound evidence that everything Paleo eliminates is bad for us.  Yes, our processed food intake is way too high in this country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that foods like whole grains and lentils are going to hurt you, provided you don’t have an allergy/sensitivity/intolerance to them.
  • My approach to science and nutrition is that you need both epidemiological AND mechanistic evidence to back up any theory.  If legumes, whole grains, potatoes, etc. were so “poisonous” (as many blogs claim they are), how has mankind survived this long? Shouldn’t we have died off thousands of years ago if all these foods were causing such irreparable harm?
  • Also, mankind began to thrive with the advent of agriculture.  Agriculture allows us to get lots of calories and nutrients by growing our own food without expending so many calories on searching for food.  (We have since abused that skill, but that’s not the point of this discussion.
  • Paleolithic people were eating for survival, not for proper nutrition or joy, which is why I eat food.
  • We do not know exactly what the Paleolithic peoples were eating.  This is a huge point of contention for evolutionary biologists and archaeologists.  My friend Matt, an archaeologist, gets pretty heated when we talk about Paleo.  He was telling me that Paleolithic people living in the Andes mountains were eating all types of potatoes, while there is evidence that an important staple in the Middle Eastern Paleolithic people’s diets were chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans).  I haven’t cross-referenced his information, but I really haven’t had time because I’ve been busy looking up too many other Paleo claims.  And, you know, writing a dissertation.
  • Why sweet potatoes, but not white potatoes? Cordain justifies this by saying that white potatoes have a high glycemic index, and thus aren’t allowed.  Two things:
    1) This seems completely arbitrary as to what we are allowing and not allowing. Are we eating like Paleolithic man? Then we should be able to eat potatoes, particularly because very few other starches are allowed.
    2) Gram for gram, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are extremely similar, regarding macronutrient content. Here is a breakdown of the differences (I didn’t double check this, but I’m pretty sure it’s reasonably close.  However, “inflammatory factor” isn’t a scientific term.  You’ll find lots of info on the inflammatory factor index on Google, but plug that search term into PubMed, and you won’t find any peer-reviewed science to support it. Pseudoscience!)
  • I wanted to know more about why legumes and potatoes aren’t allowed in Paleo.  I wish I had just accepted this fact, but instead, I went on a wild goose chase.  I have yet to find anything that says that Paleolithic man wasn’t eating these foods, but instead that these foods contain “anti-nutrients.” I had to look up what anti-nutrients are, because despite being 3.5 years into a PhD in Nutritional Science, I had never heard the term.  Apparently anti-nutrients include compounds such as lectins and saponins.

    –> Lectins are glucose-binding proteins that are in essentially every plant and animal but particularly high in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers).  They can bind to any sugar moiety (pattern) they recognize, and cause agglutination (clumping) of proteins.  In fact, one of the most important immune responses we have, the complement system, utilizes lectins produced by our own bodies.  The theory behind avoiding foods high in lectin content is that lectins bind to the lining of our intestines, resulting in leaky gut syndrome, which would allow a whole host of foreign matter into our bodies to wreak havoc. I did search for some data to support this theory in humans, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t exist.  Leaky gut syndrome is also more of a hypothesis than a true pathological disorder, and is not well recognized in either the medical or scientific communities.  Of course, it takes time to conduct good science and develop legitimate evidence to support or refute an idea.  So, I’m not saying that this isn’t true.  Perhaps we just haven’t found the link yet… though a person stating that these compounds are deleterious to our health is an issue since the science doesn’t exist to support it.  If you are concerned about lectins, soaking or cooking the food (as most of us do with grains, legumes, and potatoes), and/or allowing the products to sprout will reduce the lectin content.–> Saponins are also found in many plants, particularly desert plants, legumes, potatoes, and quinoa, and they act as antimicrobial agents to fend off disease.  Cordain and other Paleo-goers state that saponins are also anti-nutrients and impair digestion of food.  Once again, I did another search to see if and what the evidence was.  I found lots of really good things. The The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states that saponins have a role in reducing cholesterol and secondary bile acid formation (bile acids are linked to colon cancer development) and are considered a natural remedy for hypercholesterolemia.  There is some evidence from animal sciences that saponins could be toxic if ingested in large enough amounts, but I really couldn’t find anything in human research. So, I’m not sure what the problem is with these things, but I think I’ll keep eating them.

I’m sorry for the rant.  And I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my rant because I certainly don’t think that people who follow Paleo are fools.  I hope no one thinks that.  I think that Paleo is one of many healthy diet options simply because it greatly reduces processed food intake and focuses on eating whole foods.  However, I want answers to my questions, and I think what bothers me most is that I haven’t found a good, reputable, scientific source with these answers.  That’s a red flag for me.  Maybe I’m using the wrong search terms.  I certainly haven’t read all the information out there, but it just seems like I shouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to find the evidence behind these claims.  I’m willing to take the time to look all this up, but I imagine that not everyone is willing or able to invest this much thought/time.  If anyone can provide me with SOUND evidence to answer my questions, I would be grateful, and more than willing to read it.

But for now, I will step off my soapbox, move past my scientific issues with Paleo, and follow the diet for the rest of February (it’s not an accident that I chose the shortest month to practice Paleo-ism).