Plant-Based vs. Low-Carb Paleo: In Search of the Optimal Diet

After responding to a comment left by a Crossfit-Paleo enthusiast on my critique of Crossfit, and beginning to delve into the new video series by Plant Positive, and  reading a most interesting book called Everybody Eats: Understanding Food and Culture, by E.N. Anderson, I couldn’t help but lash out a few more thoughts on the plant/starch-centric diet vs. the paleo/meat-centric diet debate.

In case anyone falls into the pit of hyper focus on the plant vs. animal debate, and foolishly thinks that humans actually evolved as herbivores or carnivores, I’ll state it here: humans evolved, most likely, as specialized omnivores.

Humans are highly adaptable creatures, and given these high levels of adaptability, it doesn’t make sense from the point of view of natural selection to be able to persist on any single foodstuff.  In other words, we are not Koalas that eat eucalyptus; we are not horses, subsisting on grass; we are not lions, eating the flesh of other animals.  We fail to synthesize many vitamins the way other animal species can; hence, we must find them through diet.  We must have a variety-rich diet.

Our nutritional requirements can be met fairly well through animal-source dominance, as well as through plant-source dominance.  The debate, however, often hinges on the question: which source causes more collateral damage?  The ridiculous long-winded arguments in favor of predominantly plant-eating diets over predominately animal-eating diets, and vice verse, are the sad result of a narrow attention span spawned by the pressures of media and marketing.  Sell an idea to the exclusion of all others!

To market an idea (from a food company, or a diet book, or a supplement center) one must first create a perceived need in the would-be consumer.  Once the consumer feels he has a need, or a problem, or even the long-term possibility of a problem (heart disease, for example) he is psychologically more prepared to accept your idea or product.  If this idea or product sells well enough, the contents of it are eventually assumed to be conventional wisdom.

Dr. Loren Cordain, for example, is one of the most widely-cited Paleo nutrition experts, and yet a casual look at his book tells us everything we need to know.  It reads like a diet book, not like a comprehensive work of nutritional science.  His words are loaded and emotional, selected in order to make his readers enthusiastic about biased ideas.  Science is not supposed to do that.

The very same can be said about T. Colin Campbell, whose China Study should not be taken as a rigorous meta-analysis of nutritional studies.  If it were, you wouldn’t see it for sale at Barnes and Noble.  It is a public health warning.  T. Colin Campbell has received an avalanch of criticism from the hugely unscientific community of Paleo pushers whose arguments generally rest on the shoulders of amateur bloggers, lobby groups, and cherry-picked studies from journalists.  Their arguments also typically stem from the nature fallacy; “natural,” a most vapid term, is clearly better than modern, in their eyes; by that logic, death at childbirth, death by infectious disease, and death by a hazardous environment are preferable to deaths from heart disease, kidney failure, and breast cancer.  But death is still death, and based on humanity’s utterly ridiculous psychology of risk assessment, and our inconsistent prioritization of some types of life over others, we glibly go with the flow of conventional wisdom as defined by good PR and marketing.

Here’s a cheerful comment recently left on my blog:

No disrespect but youre an idiot!!…And if you actually read anything and did you reaearch PALEO makes total sense. Its not supose to be an all meat diet or even a high protien diet, its supposed to be a non processed natural diet. You think nomadic herding tribes were planting farms and rows of grains??? HUNTER GATHERER is how most rolled. That didnt mean fruits and veggies, they didnt have fridges or coolers back then, veggies and fruit both rot quickly making it inpossible to maintain. But you can dry meat and fat and fish and keep it all winter. You want to find out how humans are supoosed to eat, go live in the woods for a few months, and see if you can survive on a “Vegan” or “Vegitarian” diet.

The nature fallacy reminds me of out-dated religious dogma which reminds us daily that it isn’t acceptable to be a homosexual, and yet conveniently forgets that it is also still acceptable to stone your wife if she commits adultery.  Clearly, the dogma hasn’t “evolved” with culture, and the changing priorities.

Furthermore, dropping some guy in the woods is not the same as equating him with hunter-gatherers as a group (an extremely broad one).

“Modern hunter gatherers vary enormously in their diet… There is a clear trend, long known in anthropology, from almost entirely animal foods in high latitudes down to overwhelming dependence on plant foods in low latitudes, especially in dry areas where animals are few,” (Anderson, E.N., 2005)

But the debate continues in search of the optimal diet, nonetheless.

Optimal for what?  For which circumstances?  Longevity?  Athletic performance?  Disease management?  Gene expression?  Re-production?  Environmental stewardship?

Once we define the goal, the diet becomes much hazier.

Social and environmental circumstances change.  Given the high levels of human metabolic and digestive adaptability, we should seek out dietary regimes which are not only physiologically viable, but viable in other ways.  This is T. Colin Campbell’s core message; meat-centric/low-carb/Paleo cult critics label it as vegan propaganda.

Citing the Inuit Eskimos as healthy viable examples of Paleo nutrition is just as extreme as promoting a 100% vegan diet as the future of human health.  The difference, though, is that the 100% vegan diet is possible on a global scale, now.

But no.  After all the re-packaged low-carb diet books from the paleo movement (really, just a new, healthier spin on Atkins), in steps my new favorite questionable journalist, Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories, who is nothing short of another author making a living exploiting conventional wisdom and confusing his lay-readers first into insecurity, and later into believing the low-carb gospel.

His claims are outrageous, his list of references formidably long, and his stamina for hypothesis-debunking is impressive!  By the end, the reader is dizzy and breathless from reading such an astounding body of evidence to demonstrate without a doubt that gravity has no pull on us anymore–that is to say, that everything we’ve been told is a lie propagated by a few self-serving scientists.  Oh yeah, and that processed food is bad for you, and that carbs are carbs are carbs and they’re all bad, too.

Thanks, Mr. Taubes.

And I hate myself just a little bit for buying into his crap at first–that is, until I began to question his assertion that energy balance was irrelevant to weight gain.  As I wrote out my thoughts, studied his words, they unraveled before my eyes, and I could see his convenient little omissions and understatements of things that didn’t support his agenda.  A quick Google search does not reveal hordes of dissenters like myself, but there are a few, and they say it much better than I do.  I only wish my own articles were as cogent and cleanly presented, and not the bitter mutterings of a disgruntled endurance athlete.

Yes, I can get pretty amped up over the nutrition debate.  Just remember this: anthropology has done a great job of unveiling the habits of pre-historic humans, but a lot of it is stuff guess-work, heavily influenced by the human ego which wants very much to be higher on the food chain.  What we do know, is that a lot of diets have worked for lots of people, under lots of circumstances.  Gatorade is junk food, and yet athletes find it an extremely beneficial energy source.

Never remove your diet from its context.

Leave a comment


  1. Sylvia Fuerstenberg

     /  February 6, 2013

    Wasn’t the average life expectancy of a person during Paleolithic times only about 20 years IF you did not get eaten yourself. Poor diet and nutrition I think…….. As humans evolved and settled and farmed and broadened and improved their caloric intake – we started to live longer healthier lives.. A bit compressed and simplistic but I would prefer a more varied diet with a health caloric intake… better if the food is fresh and good for the environment of course.

    • it was about 30 year and you dies of things like infection, childbirth, injury or like you said, being eaten. In general, unless there was a famine, people were getting good nutrition and their health was sound. People were not dying from “disease” they were dying from their environment. Since we no longer die from our environment (in general) we have to look at the lifespan and health markers of those who managed to avoid those types of deaths. In which case, they lived long and healthy lives

  2. Now I know why I subscribed! My biggest disagreement with what you’ve written here would be with the line: ” … and they say it much better than I do” — I think you said it quite well,

  3. Makes perfect sense. I love the post. I follow what I would call a paleo inspired diet. I think that anything too extreme is not healthy but that the core concept of “back to basics” and not eating processed or modified foods is a good one.

  4. Richard

     /  May 13, 2013

    Here is an interesting article about the flaws of the Paleo diet and the movement in general.

    • Just saw this comment. I’ve been working on a different blog lately. Thank you very much for this. I’m sure it will be a fun read for me.

  5. Your concluding words “Never remove your diet from its context.” should be required on the front page of EVERY book or website giving dietary advice. Thanks for this very sensible, balanced post.

  1. What Do I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Then? — part 1 | resolvingthecontroversies

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