Drop that spear! Some problems with the paleo diet

At time during our various yogi diet discussions, someone has mentioned — even as just a question — the paleo diet fad.

I’ll admit, it always struck me as yet another silly tweak to our basic diet that is well packaged for media re-consumption. Not that it doesn’t work. I don’t know, as nothing I read about it made me want to try it. It sounded .. well, as I said, silly.

I also tended to be turned off by the … hmmm… caveman-like attitudes of a lot of the people promoting the diet I encountered online. Anybody who doesn’t see the obvious benefits to eating like our fore-fore-fore-fore-bearers was not much better than a Neanderthal. Certainly not as smart.

But wait, you’re saying (or should be). You two are all about your raw, wheat-free diet.

True. So, so sadly true. I hope, though, that in discussing this diet we never say, “You have to eat this way.” We suggest it, yes, as something to try. (That was how it started for Bobbie.) If you get results and like those results, then you can consider continuing. But always make sure it is making you healthier and feel better.

We like the results, and so are sticking with the diet. (Doctor’s visits suggest it is healthy for us, too). I think it is fair to say we hate the diet, itself. (For me, at least, I guess our diet and our asana practices are much the same in that.) We aren’t going to lord our diet over anyone. It’s silly, too. But for us, it works.

And that brings me to the paleo diet. A new book is out, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet and How We Live, that cooks up a bunch of the paleo diet claims more tenderly than a wooly mammoth stew. The author is evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk. Salon has a nice quick piece summarizing things, including how Zuk first encountered paleo diet chief Loren Cordain four years ago. Two key errors are the book’s focus:

Although she writes, “I would not dream of denying the evolutionary heritage present in our bodies,” Zuk briskly dismisses as simply “wrong” many common notions about that heritage. These errors fall into two large categories: misunderstandings about how evolution works and unfounded assumptions about how paleolithic humans lived. The first area is her speciality, and “Paleofantasy” offers a lively, lucid illustration of the intricacies of this all-important natural process. When it comes to the latter category, the anthropological aspect of the problem, Zuk treads more gingerly. Not only is this not her own field, but, as she observes, it is “ground often marked by acrimony and rancor” among the specialists themselves.

To that first error, Zuk presents examples of how quickly evolution can work: five years in the case of one species of cricket and something along the lines of several thousand for humans, including changes in how we digest (or fail to) some foods. (Hi cow’s milk!)

As for how our ancestors lives, Salon sums of Zuk’s argument this way:

For this reason, generalizations about the typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle are spurious; it doesn’t exist. With respect to what people ate (especially how much meat), the only safe assumption was “whatever they could get,” something that to this day varies greatly depending on where they live. Recently, researchers discovered evidence that people in Europe were grinding and cooking grain (a paleo-diet bugaboo) as far back as 30,000 years ago, even if they weren’t actually cultivating it. “A strong body of evidence,” Zuk writes, “points to many changes in our genome since humans spread across the planet and developed agriculture, making it difficult at best to point to a single way of eating to which we were, and remain, best suited.”

In other words: We don’t know what they ate. So to plan out a diet in 2013 that captures it is a bit difficult. And, I think the implication is, kind of stupid.

The Salon piece then moves to a final point that, on reflection, bears some relevance to us yogis and our “5,000-year-old” tradition:

Why are we so intent on establishing how paleolithic people ate, exercised, coupled up and raised their kids? That’s a question Zuk considers only in passing, but she hits the nail pretty solidly on the head: “We have a regrettable tendency to see what we want to see and rationalize what we already want to do. That often means that if we can think of a way in which a behavior, whether it is eating junk food or having an affair, might have been beneficial in an ancestral environment, we feel vindicated, or at least justified.” Even if we wanted to live like cavemen, Zuk points out (noting that the desire to do so somehow never seems to extend to moving into mud huts), we couldn’t. In reality, we don’t have their bodies, and don’t live in their world. Even the animals and plants we eat have changed beyond recognition from their paleolithic ancestors. It turns out we’re stuck being us.

I think if you replaced “live like cavemen” with “live like ancient yogis,” you might capture a bit of the yogi spirit, as well as some fundamental problems with our attempts to grasp at whatever it was that was going on 5,000 years ago. I’ll admit it isn’t a perfect analogy: We’re trying to practice or follow activities that have been passed down through those thousands of years, at some point codified into writing, and not recapture how yoga was practice in 3,000 BCE. Or are we?

I think I’ll grab a carrot stick and chew on that some more.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

20 thoughts on “Drop that spear! Some problems with the paleo diet”

  1. We humans are highly adaptable omnivores, so the author’s thesis seems very reasonable. But I like your approach — just try it out. If it works for you, great. If not, well at least you tried and know from experience. No reason for people to get so self-righteous about food.

  2. All diets help you loose weight because they have restrictions which means you loose weight. Even Kramer’s pizza diet would work. The argument also that First Nations (Indians for you americans) were also big meat eaters which isn’t true. Before guns and the horse were brought to America by the Spanish First Nations had to run down their prey so most of their food were nuts and berries and for some of the indigenous peoples there was farming. I would think that cavemen were not unlike the indigenous peoples of our countries. Here is something I found that describes this quite well. Here is the link


    I haven’t cross referenced anything here but it makes sense.

    A diet I highly recommend is The Thrive Diet by Brendan Brazier. I’ve implemented the principles in this diet along with another diet as my daughter’s diet regime. My daughter was given 2 years max to live and she is almost 8 and completely tube fed through her stomach and thriving and growing etc.

    My yogi diet is:
    1) oatmeal every morning or a variation of or just fruit, tons of warm water
    2) green smoothy with vegan protein powder half brown rice half hemp, bee pollen, flax seed, maca, thrive diet oil blend 8 parts hemp oil/1part flax/1part pumpkin, small piece banana, half orange, kale/spinach/chard
    3) dinner stuff myself with a large salad!!!!!!
    if i’m starving at night i’ll eat some fruit or have a chai tea with almond mylk (not a spelling mistake)

    check out cafe bliss cook book!!!! http://www.cafebliss.ca/book.htm

    1. Hi Brad. You don’t “feel” the protein powder?

      We also make our own “milk” via a Vita-Mix. Another way to avoid something processed. (Although, in keeping with me theme, it sounds like it is working, so why shake things up?)


      1. if you don’t feel protein powder you can grind up chia seed in the vitamix also. What I posted isn’t written in stone for me but is the base of my diet. Sometimes i’ll grind nuts or seeds as my protein source. If I go off the wagon i’ll eat a piece of fish. Really trying not to kill anything. I’m trying to keep in line with my daughter’s diet also so she isn’t the only one in the house eating as a vegan and she has someone else to relate to. I also juice a lot! I think fat is another component not added to diets much that should be. Sometimes its a good idea to do a full analyses of your diet and your ideal weight or target weight, calculate your dietary needs to that and create a diet around that. It’s amazing how well we think we eat but when you analyze your diet ie. protein, carb, fat, calories from fat, calories from sugar etc you can really see if you are deficient in anything. I didn’t start doing this until my daughter was born and because she is tube fed through her stomach i had to create an optimal diet for her to insure she would grow for her physical makeup. The only way to truly know what you are eating is to keep a diary and after say a week calculate your actual dietary needs per day and then see how your daily diet correlates to that. That being said I do loose my mind here and there and eat a lot of sweet stuff though I am trying to make it all raw and vegan these days!

      2. By “feel” I meant more in the sense of the weight and sense of all the processed stuff.

        I think we’ve also tried to avoid getting too technical with our diet (diaries, etc.) and stick with what works more generally. Sometimes we feel we need more calories and will eat more; mostly it’s less. I tend to think that, like Claudia suggested, we eat well the vast majority of the time and have the few meals a week that are a bit more fun. But we are fortunate only to have to be an example for each other. (Trying to be an example for my parents was useless!)


      3. I’m not suggesting to keep a diary over a long period and calculate your diet often. When you’re athletic or working a physical and you’re feeling burned out sometimes its hard to adjust a diet by just consuming more calories. Looking at your diet from a more scientific observational level can sometimes lead to large gains in stamina and health. Whenever I get a physical I also ask to have my blood tested for •
        Quantitative Amino Acid Profile
        • Fatty Acid Profile
        • Magnesium
        • Phosphorous
        • CBC with Differential
        • 25 hydroxyvitamin D3
        • Basic Metabolic Panel (includes: glucose, calcium,sodium, potassium,carbon dioxide, chloride, BUN, and creatinine)
        • Carnitine, total, free, and esters
        • Zinc
        • COQ10
        I started doing this for my daughter every year first then thought if i’m getting blood tests why not have them look at me also. If your getting your blood taken anyways during your yearly physical I suggest asking to get this blood work done its often quite eye opening.

  3. I agree with you 100% of eating what works for each of us. Forcing things never works and taking the high moral ground in trying to convince anyone of anything… waste of time!

    I like what you propose on looking at what yogis ate a long time ago, but the problem is on the processing of food now-a-days… whole grains are not really that healthy as I learned reading Wheat Belly for example…

    1. Hi Claudia.

      100% agree (and we went through WB, too). From our last “food-related post”:

      “Based on absolutely zero scientific evidence, I think it is the default elimination of processed foods — because we eat mostly raw and have cut wheat and bread from the mix for more than a year — that is the “silver bullet” to our diet.”


      And my reference to the ancient yogis was more our asana/etc. practice, although maybe diet could be part of it. Our time in India suggested that in some ways the current diet among modern day yogis there isn’t what we’d all call “healthy.” I think you’re probably thinking naan, chapati, etc, right?


      1. Oh I see. Yes that is what I was refering to. I like your silver bullet. It is working for me too. Have eliminated most breaths and wheats… only do them on “cheat days” now. Complete difference, amazing how that works.

      2. In 1988 I did my first juice cleanse after returning from a trip to Indonesia sick. I cured myself with no drugs, had a vision, changed my life and thought man there is power in this. At that time I Diet For A New America and I think in that book he mentions that 75% of the population has low level wheat allergies and I cut my consumption of all animal products almost down to nil. I had a few years of being hardcore vegan and many years as an ovallacto vegetarian and everything in between. I know when i’m going to feel bad and pay for what I eat. I think until you have done a full on cleanse and then start re introducing things one by one into your diet you can’t really tell how they affect you. I agree with you about wheat it’s a killer for me and I don’t drink beer or whiskey anymore because of it so i’m just down with the bourbon! Like you for me the less wheat and dairy I eat the lighter and more efficient my body works but those 2 products are forced on us every where you turn!!!!

  4. Contrary to other food related questions we ponder about, such as raw or not, wheat or not, I believe the whole point about eating meat or not is not so much our wellbeing, but the animal’s. But then the Neanderthals didn’t have our questionable methods of intensive farming…

  5. And also respectful of the fact the paleo diet costs quite a bit more…and it takes more energy and resources to stay on it. I like to think it is a part-time job sourcing out quality paleo food and preparing it. Definitely not for everybody.

    The ahimsa point is well taken, but people usually put plants and animals on a hierarchical system of value, with animals being afforded our consideration, and plants not even making it onto the map most of the time. Why is taking a plant life for sustenance any different from taking an animal life?

  6. Desparate, perhaps for the same reason that having a dog as a pet is a slightly different experience from owning an orchid.

  7. There was a lot of longevity in the past generations of my family and pretty much everyone in my family are meat eaters. The one common thread in my family I think was the fact that almost all of the older generation really didn’t eat out that much almost never and I really don’t remember any processed foods in my grandparents home when growing up everything was always made fresh.

    1. According to Pollan’s In Defense of Foods, it’s a lot to do with processed foods. “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.”

      Having just returned from Costco, I think I can safely say that’s about 90% of what Americans eat.


      1. I agree. I really can’t stand the food at costco and these days they seem to be having a lot of problems controlling their inventory and food born diseases there are always recalls with beef products etc. I remember one day in a little mexican town in the Baha I walked around a corner to find 4 woman standing there with bowls and a goat baying at the top of its lungs. A rope was tied around all hoofs and it was hauled upside down up a pully, throat slit, gutted, all entrails shared, skinned, quartered and shared among the 4 woman in about 10 minutes now that’s shopping! I was once in Cannes in France at a market and I bought some chicken. The clerk grabbed a live chicken threw it into a funnel upside down, its head sticking out the bottom. He slit its throat and about 5 minutes later a little girl gutted it, stuffed the heart, liver back in it, plucked it and handed it to me. We are so far away from what farming and eating is as consumers here. When you see what you are eating I think you have more respect for it and for yourself.

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