Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Holy Primal

I was watching one of the videos from the Ancestral Health Symposium a while ago, in fact, it was a video of Robb Wolf's presentation and he said something that really resonated with me. He said (to paraphrase) how we must work to avoid the Ancestral Health Movement becoming a religion because once it does we will lose much of the audience we are trying to reach. It becomes self-serving, dogmatic and essentially the same as so many other approaches to diet and lifestyle that ignore reality and cherry pick studies or conventional wisdom to support their belief system. Brilliant. It's so true and it's what drew me to Primal in the first place. I noted how what is allowed and not allowed has been changed over the years based on research and experience. In Primal, everything is viewed through the lens of evolution but that doesn't mean it's a form of tunnel vision because that evolutionary lens is just one way of filtering information or framing approaches to nutrition and lifestyle. Although dairy is clearly not a "Primal food" it's fine if you tolerate it well. It also encourages an n=1 perspective meaning it's about finding out what is right for you so it becomes more of a framework to help you discover what is your optimum milieu rather than a rigid set of rules based on a narrow view of the universe. In my opinion this is what a nutritional framework should look like.

So I become concerned when I see people say "that's not primal", or "we couldn't have eaten that prior to agriculture so I'm not going to". In my mind, that's not the point. There is nothing to say that us big-brained homo sapiens couldn't divine the perfect synthetic food although it's seems like we haven't as yet. The point is that we can use evolutionary theory, paleontology, anthropology among other disciplines to help filter and sort the massive amounts of information regarding nutrition and health. It's a tool, the primary tool it just so happens for those following a Primal lifestyle, but it's still just a tool. It's not dogma to be followed and applied at all costs. In my opinion, Primal should be about what the science tells me is optimal for me in my specific circumstance informed by and shaped by how it fits into the evolutionary history of our species. It should be based on deep science and always be open to change. That is what will really set it apart from the myriad of other diets out there.

We should also consider that the "lens" of evolution is a dirty, smudgy one, we'll never know with absolute certainty what our Paleolithic ancestors consumed (unless some older, advanced alien race built a time machine at least a few thousand hundred years ago but no more than 1-2 million years ago - but I'm being really geeky right now). Beyond that it's likely that there wasn't a single world wide Paleo diet it would have varied based on the local flora and fauna. However, we do know some things for sure, we could not have eaten twinkies and loaves of white bread every day there simply wasn't the technology necessary to create these foods. I do find it odd how many people scoff at the idea of the ancestral diet, calling it the "caveman diet" when if they were informed they would know that much of science is viewed through the lens of evolution. It's a seminal theory that has a myriad of applications and applying it to nutrition science is brilliant and long overdue. Another interesting factoid is that Cordain's work determining the hunter gather diet was used to support the lipid hypothesis back in the 70s because his original conclusion was that we ate a relatively low saturated fat diet (think he was trying to appeal to the status quo?). He later reversed that finding when they recalculated the nutritional profile based on eating the entire animal. I find it interesting that an approach to nutritional science used to justify the lipid hypothesis accepted by so many is then rejected by the same people when used to justify a Paleo diet. Taubes discusses this briefly in Why We Get Fat. Never the less, it's not easy to determine what we ate all those millenia ago, although we have some sophisticated tools at our disposal such as stable isotope studies, it's still a stab in the dark. So we always need to think critically, ask ourselves could this all be wrong and be willing to accept change.


  1. I have never found the whole caveman argument very satisfying because we really don't know what went on and can only guess or base conclusions on limited information.
    We should be able to come up with what works based on science and also listening and understanding people's anecdotes.

  2. Agreed although I think it's a useful tool, but it's one of many tools and must be used in the context of it's limitations. As you allude to, understanding the mechanism involved is what's important.