Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet?!

A recent article on Mother Jones made the rounds: "Michael Pollan explains what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." The article is, itself, based on almost an hour of podcast interview. I haven't listened to the interview, which I suppose makes me about as guilty of ignorant pontificating as Michael Pollan and Mother Jones's Cynthia Graber are when it comes to Paleo. But what the heck--they started it, so I'll offer a first reaction, which is that this article says almost nothing important about Paleo, because neither Pollan nor Graber seem to understand Paleo in any detail. Unfortunately, getting only the basic gist of something really only qualifies you to tell us what's wrong with the strawman you've created for the purpose of criticism.

First, I think it's important to note that most of the most prominent proponents of Paleo have some reservations about the term "Paleo Diet." Partially, the term is problematic because it puts too great an emphasis on Paleo as a list of rules: eat this, not that, period. And to be fair, a lot of people who are practicing Paleo do view Paleo that way. That's why we have recipes for "Paleo" foods that aren't particularly healthy but that adhere to the letter of the "law" of "The Paleo Diet." But the people who are propagating Paleo at the highest levels (by which I mean the people who have done the most to define and refine it in the years when it's become popular) view it more as a set of principles for figuring out what a person should eat for optimal health. Listen to what Robb Wolf has to say about Paleo--he's about as far from dogmatic as you can be, and he's widely considered to be one of the most prominent proponents of "Paleo." Chris Kresser's ultra-recent Your Personal Paleo Code makes this explicit, the idea that it's less a one-size-fits-all dietary prescription and more a framework for figuring out what's best for any particular person (while I'm linking to books, I would say that Jason Seib's The Paleo Coach also does a great job of laying out the principles rather than prescribing rules). Although early on in the Paleo movement, there were a lot more absolute statements along the lines of "this is what ancient hunter-gatherers ate" or cut-and-dried food prohibitions, this just isn't true of the current versions of Paleo that are central to the movement.

So, with that out of the way, let's see "what's wrong with the Paleo Diet." After talking about how much humans love meat, and basically saying that early humans probably would have eaten as much meat as they could get, we get the "criticism" of Paleo:
In any case, says Pollan, today's meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.
One problem with the paleo diet is that "they're assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there," he argues. But "unless you're willing to hunt your food, they're not." 
As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.
First, is there any Paleo advocate who isn't aware that factory farmed animals are terrible for our health? Is there any Paleo advocate who isn't favoring pastured animals? Second: really? They're "nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate"? Really? Sure, they're not mastodons, and cattle have certainly evolved through human selection over the centuries and millennia, but just as Paleo practitioners are looking for the diet that's healthiest for human beings, pasturing ruminants like cows is giving them the diet that's healthiest for them, which makes the meat of those animals the healthiest it can be for us. And, I should add, more like what our ancestors would have eaten.

Oh, and let's add one more caveat to the whole Paleo thing: as several Paleo proponents have noted, "Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment." To say "we don't really know what Paleolithic people ate," or "Paleolithic people ate different things in different places," or "the foods that Paleolithic people ate have changed so much that they don't really exist any more" all miss the point. They're all true, but so what? The answer isn't "I might as well have bagels and doughnuts for breakfast."

Which kind of leads to the second point in the article: "Humans can live on bread alone." Well, okay, you can "survive" on bread alone. But you're not going to be all that healthy. And if you're going to eat bread, you're definitely better off eating sourdough bread, because the fermentation process breaks down quite a few of the problematic constituents of bread. But the fact is that gluten is still problematic to a lot of people, even beyond the portion of the population that has celiac disease. Some of us tolerate it better than others, but there's still a legitimate critique of grains coming from the Paleo folks. And most people who are still eating bread and grains are not eating sourdough anyway.

"3. Eat more microbes." There is absolutely nothing in here that most Paleo advocates would argue against. Sort of. I mean, Paleo generally advocates fermented foods like sauerkraut and kimchi, as well as pickles, for the same reason: beneficial microbes for our gut health. Although Paleo starts from a position of skepticism about dairy, proponents often suggest adding in dairy if you tolerate it and seeing how you look, feel and perform when consuming it--and when they do, they generally recommend starting with fermented dairy like yogurt and cheese (preferably from grass-fed animals).

"4. Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway)." Okay, this point really has nothing to do with Paleo. Paleo is certainly distinct from raw-food vegan as a dietary strategy, and Paleo advocates have nothing against cooking food. In fact, a good understanding of Paleo principles (which derive from an understanding of evolution) actually feeds into the importance of cooking certain vegetables that can cause problems if they're not cooked. And why do they cause problems? Because those veggies have evolved defense mechanisms that make them hard on the digestive system, particularly when consumed raw. So yeah, this point has nothing to do with Paleo (and everything to do with Pollan selling his book on cooking). Which is also true of his fifth point.

So, in the end, here's what this article looks like to me: Pollan gives an interview to push his latest book. He makes a few under-informed comments about Paleo, and because Paleo is very popular now, Cynthia Graber cobbles together an article that pits Michael Pollan against the Paleo diet, to drive traffic. And I suppose it worked, but as a critique of Paleo, it's critically flawed.

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