THE IDEA THAT
ARE ALL OR
TO DIET, OR
mortality among young and middle-aged women. “There’s a
common process that drives all of those. You can’t have
heart disease—or cancer—without inflammation. You can’t
have autoimmunity without inflammation.”
Inflammation, he says, often starts with digestive prob-
lems. Grains and legumes, in particular, contain antinutri-
ents—chemicals that, because they’re indigestible, may lead
to inflammation that spreads from the digestive system
until it becomes systemic.
Some diseases have an obvious connection to diet. Celiac
disease, for example, is an autoimmune condition triggered
by gliadin, a protein found in gluten, a natural component of
wheat and other cereal grains. Lectins are other problematic proteins found in high concentrations in beans,
legumes, and cereal grains. But others have no known connection to diet, and that’s where I find myself wondering if
the paleo advocates are pushing their basic idea too far.
HARDWARE VS. SOFTWARE
et’s look at a few popular books.
The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain:
“DNA evidence shows that basic human
physiology has changed little in 40,000
years. Literally, we are Stone Agers
living in the Space Age; our dietary
needs are the same as theirs. . . . Nature
determined what our bodies needed thousands of years
before civilization developed, before people started farming
and raising domesticated livestock.”
The Paleo Solution, by Robb Wolf: “Our genetics are virtually identical to those of our early human ancestors from
more than 120,000 years ago.”
The Primal Blueprint, by Mark Sisson: “Evolution
ground to a halt when the major selection pressures of star-
vation and predator danger (eat or get eaten!) were elimi-
nated. Thus, we can achieve effortless weight loss, vibrant
health, and boundless energy by living according to the
Two big problems emerge here. One is logical, the other
factual. “Here is a group of people who claim to take an evo-
lutionary approach to life, yet show that they do not under-
stand evolution,” says Mathieu Lalonde, Ph. D., an organic
chemist at Harvard. “Just because we have the same genes
as our Paleolithic ancestors doesn’t mean we’re meant to eat
the same things. There have been adaptations.”
Among them are increases in enzymes that help us digest
starches and lactose (the sugar in milk). These adaptations
are unevenly distributed among various populations around
the world. What matters is whether a particular food is tol-
erated. The simplest way to figure this out, Lalonde says,
is to stop eating a food or food group for 30 to 60 days and
see what happens.
There’s also a problem with the idea that “diseases of
Western civilization” are all or mostly related to diet, or that
they’re even ne w.
Take for example Ötzi the Iceman, whose frozen (thus
preserved) 5,300-year-old corpse was discovered in the Italian Alps in 1991. Otzi was in his 40s when he was shot in the
back with an arrow, which probably killed him. But if the
arrow hadn’t done him in, his clogged arteries suggest that
he might not have lived much longer. (He also suffered from
arthritis.) According to a recent study in Nature Communications, Ötzi had several genetic markers that nearly doubled his risk of heart disease. In other words, a man who
lived thousands of years before the mythical Trojan War had
genes that strongly suggested he might eventually die of the
number one cause of death afflicting 21st-century Americans.
166 OCTOBER 2012 MEN’S HEALTH
The genes that show up on Cordain’s disease checklist
may not be exactly new either. In The Blue Zones , author
Dan Buettner’s study of the places where people live the
longest, we meet residents of an isolated, mountainous
region in Sardinia, an island off the coast of Italy. The people
who live in that area have genes with origins that date back
to Paleolithic times. The good news is that the people there
seem wired to live for a very long time. The bad news is that
they’re also at high risk for a pair of autoimmune diseases:
type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
So yet again we find “diseases of Western civilization”
encoded in ancestral genomes. Another inconvenient fact
comes to light in studies of the healthiest, longest-living
people in places like Sardinia; Okinawa; and Nicoya, Costa
Rica: They all eat cereal grains like wheat, corn, and rice—
lots of cereal grains, in fact—along with legumes. The Sardinians are also fond of their wine and dairy.
The agrarian diet is typically low in protein and fat but
high in plant-derived carbs, while the paleo diet is high in
protein and fat but relatively low in carbs. If one is “ideal,”
then the other must be completely wrong. Right?
It’s not so simple. Lalonde believes the paleo camp is winning, and he says he’s seen the studies to prove it. But plenty
of lab work needs to be done before we can point to the modern diet alone as the root of all evil, or to the paleo way of eating as a cure for metabolic syndrome and other modern ills.
WHEN LESS IS MORE
ight about the time I started working on
this story, a friend who lives “off the
grid” in an undisclosed location told me
about his most recent fitness discovery:
By doing hard physical labor and living
without central heat and air condition-
ing, he’d become leaner than he’d ever
been when he’d used conventional diet and exercise. His
story brought to mind a 2006 study in the International
Journal of Obesity, which listed a series of reasons why our
population may have gained so much weight in the past 30
years. Among them: In 1923, the “thermal standard for win-
ter comfort” in U. S. homes was a brisk 64°F. By 1986, the
average thermostat was set to a balmy 76. It’s natural for us
to “upregulate” our metabolism in winter to keep warm
while downshifting in summer, when heat slows our appe-
tite. Living in a climate-controlled world can mess with that
balance, potentially leading to weight gain over time.
So, as an experiment, I turned our thermostat down to
66 for the winter as I switched to a kinda-sorta paleo diet.
That is, I eliminated almost all grains after breakfast, which
was a lot harder than it sounds in a family of five. ( Try eating meatballs without the spaghetti.) I went from having a
nightly beer to maybe a couple of drinks on weekends. I
added a salad every evening and ate fruit throughout the
day. I also tried to take a nightly walk with my wife or one
of our kids. The rest of my life, including three gym workouts a week, stayed the same.
By mid-March I’d lost about 10 pounds. When the weather
warmed up, I noticed that shorts that had fit me the previous summer were hanging off my hips.
Since I changed three things at once—diet, exercise, and
ambient temperature—I can’t say which was most effective.
But I bet it was mostly the diet. Good things tend to happen
when you replace processed foods with fruits, vegetables,
eggs, lean cuts of meat, and the occasional baked potato.
“I disagree with how paleo is justified,” Lalonde says, “but
they get the food mostly right. They’re nutritious meals of
whole foods. ” Continued on page 175