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The Paleo Diet Manifesto
A barefoot Harvard grad's persuasive take on a popular but ill-defined new diet plan
12/30/2013By Craig Weatherby
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Image We first met John Durant in 2012, when he stopped by our booth at the Integrative Health Conference in New York City to sample our seafood and talk nutrition.

He wasn’t barefoot at the time, but he founded Barefoot Runners NYC, the largest barefoot running group in the world.

A recent profile of Durant by Sophie Brickman in The New Yorker began as she met Durant before his usual barefoot run in Central Park:
“Durant, a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who studied under the psychologist Steven Pinker, embraced the Paleolithic life style after college, when a consulting job began to run him ragged – late nights, heavy drinking, poor diet, little exercise. He learned about the Paleo movement, which encourages people to look back – way back – for guidance on how to make themselves, and also the planet, healthier.”

When we met him, Durant had begun work on an untitled book, published last fall as The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health.
He was clear about the case he wanted to make in the book, based on his research and life experience. 
 
John Durant graciously agreed to summarize his views as we filmed him, and the resulting video is posted on our Testimonials page (scroll down to the third row of videos).

The Paleo Manifesto: A welcome addition to the diet debate
For better and worse, the Paleo diet has become a pop-culture phenomenon:
  • For better, the Paleo fad has helped awaken people to the dangers of refined carbs, and the benign, basically healthful nature of dietary cholesterol and saturated animal fats.
  • For worse, the Paleo fad has sparked a flood of often-dubious food products, diet plans, books, and blogs. Many Paleo books and blogs feature fuzzy thinking or a near-religious devotion to an ill-defined diet whose actual characteristics and health benefits remain unclear.
John Durant’s book is a refreshing exception among the pile of “Paleo diet” books, marked by clear thinking, adherence to the facts, and honesty about the line between those facts and his personal beliefs.
 
(Disclosure: At his request, we provided John Durant with basic research on omega-3 fatty acids and the omega imbalance in American diets.)
About the Author
John Durant studied evolutionary psychology at Harvard prior to founding Paleo NYC and Barefoot Runners NYC, the largest Paleo and barefoot running groups in the world.

He’s been featured in The New York Times and on The Colbert Report and NPR. He blogs at HunterGatherer.com.

We’re not alone in admiring the engaging writing, careful research, and modesty evident in The Paleo Manifesto:

“Durant is original, open-minded, and the nicest and smartest caveman you’ll ever meet. The Paleo Manifesto is brimming with ideas and a fascinating read.”
– Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and New York Times bestselling author
 
“Amid the mass confusion of our diet-obsessed culture, The Paleo Manifesto stands out as fun, refreshing, and sensible.”
– Mark Sisson, author of “The Primal Blueprint” and publisher of MarksDailyApple.com

“Durant’s provocative manifesto is bound to inspire necessary discussion about the nature of our food and the role of evolution in determining a healthy diet.”
– Gary Taubes, New York Times bestselling author of Good Calories, Bad Calories and Why We Get Fat

“John Durant has a gift for relating complex and seemingly disparate ideas in an engaging and accessible way.”
– Dr. Kristen E. Lukas, Curator of Conservation & Science, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

In fact, John Durant doesn’t actually advocate for yet another version of the still-hypothetical Paleolithic diet in The Paleo Manifesto.

Instead, he draws on the best available evidence to make his own prescription, which includes elements of a hypothetical Paleo diet as well as the diverse traditional diets advocated by Dr. Weston A. Price and the Foundation named for him.

What does Durant recommend?

His prescription comes in the form of five basic recommendations … the four that begin his Chapter 8, “Food: Principles for a Healthy diet”, plus a fifth (“Lead a healthy lifestyle”) found on his blog, where he also summarizes the basics of each of recommendation.

We’ve added “VC comments” in blue after most of his recommendations:

1. What to eat: Mimic a hunter-gatherer (or herder) diet
Stop counting calories. Eat the right foods: meat, seafood, roots and tubers, leafy vegetables, eggs, fruit, and nuts. Experiment with full-fat fermented dairy. Aim for a diet where the bulk of calories comes from seafood and animals, but the physical bulk comes from plants. Don’t be afraid of fat, eat nose to tail, and eat a variety of plants.

VC COMMENT: We agree wholeheartedly. As far as seafood goes, recent archeological research shows that early humans and pre-human species relied much more heavily on fish and shellfish from rivers and oceans that once thought (Richards MP et al. 2005; Marean CW et al. 20007; Marean CW et al. 2010).
 
For our 2007 report on landmark research in this realm, see “Omega-3 Brain Evolution Theory Gets a Boost”.
 
Heavy reliance on aquatic foods, which are rich in omega-3s needed for brain cells, may help explain the sudden leap in brain size seen in pre-human species, compared with our closest relative, the great apes. 
 
As Durant said in our video interview with him, “Seafood is one of the most nutritious foods out there ... all of the good fats in our brains are made out of EPA and DHA – the types of [omega-3] fats you get in seafood – and every part of the fish is healthy, from the calcium in the bones to the nutrients in the skin [and] the actual flesh of the fish, it’s all very nutrient-dense.”
“I started to look for the kinds of foods that humans used to eat in the wild, the natural human diet, and seafood is a big part of that … my health has just improved dramatically from all of these better food choices … more energy, higher energy level, [and] my complexion improved ... I wasn’t anticipating that [skin] benefit, but I’ll take it.”

2. How to eat: Follow ancient culinary traditions
Respect ancient culinary wisdom. Follow traditional recipes. Eat fermented foods (sauerkraut, kimchi). Eat raw foods (sashimi, ceviche, tartar). Make broths and stocks. Cook at low heat, using traditional fats and oils (coconut oil, beef tallow, butter, ghee, olive oil). Eat your colors. Eat time-honored “superfoods”: liver, eggs, seaweed, cold water fish. Enjoy real butter. Salt to taste. Drink tea.

VC COMMENT: Yea to all of that.

3. What not to eat: Avoid industrial foods, sugars, and seeds
Avoid processed foods of the Industrial Age, including sugar (sweetened foods, table sugar, dried fruit, plus artificial sweeteners) and vegetable oils (canola oil, soybean oil, corn oil, peanut oil). Avoid eating large, concentrated quantities of the seed-based crops of the Agricultural Age, such as grains (wheat, corn, barley, oats) and legumes (soy, beans, peanuts). If grains are eaten, go with rice.
BEVERAGES: Drink water as thirsty. Drink traditional beverages in moderation, if desired (tea, coffee, wine, alcohol, milk). Avoid industrial beverages (soda, energy drinks, skim milk).

VC COMMENT: We don't entirely agree with Durant’s advice to avoid beans and whole grains. He points out that both foods contain natural toxins and anti-nutrients. And he notes that grains contain sugary starches and opiate-like compounds (opioid peptides) that can be addictive.
 
There's little doubt that excess intake of carbohydrates – especially the sugar-like starches in refined grains – can lead to metabolic and immune-system imbalances that promote cardiovascular disease, autoimmune disorders, overweight, and diabetes. And due to their addictive properties, it's easier for many people to forgo grains entirely than try to cut back.
 
That said, beans and whole grains also provide healthful fibers and polyphenol “antioxidants”, and have been consumed for millennia with few apparent ill effects except among the few people sensitive to grains' gluten and agglutinin, or to the gassy but highly healthful fibers in beans.
 
Beans (and grains quick-chilled after cooking) also provide “resistant” starches that stabilize blood sugar for many hours after a meal. 
 
So for most people, it seems unnecessary to avoid beans and whole grains ... even counterproductive in the case of beans. (Soybeans may be an exception among beans, due to their unusually high levels of anti-nutrients such as phytates.)
 
Overall, the evidence suggests that beans are beneficial for most people even when eaten frequently, while for many, whole grains are reasonably healthful when eaten in moderation. 
 
Durant recommends tea, and we agree, but polyphenol-rich coffee and un-Dutched, unsweetened cocoa should top any list of beneficial beverages (if caffeine bothers you, drink decaf).

4. Make it meaningful: Experiment, customize, enjoy
Use these guidelines as a starting point for your own experimentation. Modify according to your own health, goals, tastes and preferences, background, and budget. Make your diet meaningful (family recipes, ethnic cuisine). Be comfortable breaking away from it to enjoy life (celebrations, unique experiences).

VC COMMENT: Bravo for Durant’s rejection of strict adherence to any dietary regimen.
Note: If you like dark chocolate containing 70 percent or more un-Dutched cocoa solids, enjoy it in moderation. It’s an unrivaled source of healthful polyphenols and – if it matters to your personal health – chocolate’s major saturated fat (stearic acid) doesn’t raise cholesterol levels.

5. Lead a healthy lifestyle
Sleep as much as possible. Move and exercise regularly. Stay on your feet (stand, walk, run). Get regular, moderate sun. Try some intermittent fasting. Try some hot and cold exposure. Make it meaningful in order to make it an ongoing lifestyle.

VC COMMENT: Right on, dude.
 
Roots of the Paleo diet fad
The Paleolithic era or “stone age” stretched from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago The Paleo diet concept made its first appearance in Dr. Boyd Eaton’s 1985 paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, titled “Paleolithic Nutrition.”

But like most people, our first encounter with the concept was The Paleo Diet by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., professor of exercise physiology at Colorado State University.
 
Since then, advances in understanding of how foods affect our genes and health have strengthened the case for so-called “Paleo” (Paleolithic) diets allegedly eaten by stone age humans and by later hunter-gatherer peoples.

Dr. Cordain describes the concept on his website:
  • “The Paleo Diet is based upon eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on.”
  • “These foods include fresh meats (preferably grass-fed or free-ranging), fish, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed).”
  • “Hunter-gatherers typically were free from the chronic illnesses and diseases that are epidemic in Western populations.”
Although it launched the Paleo craze, nutritional biochemists see basic errors in The Paleo Diet, including Cordain’s repetition of discredited links between cardiovascular disease and moderate-to-high intakes of sodium, saturated fat, cholesterol.

Contrary to recent evidence from Paleolithic people’s coprolites (feces), remains, and dwellings, Cordain claims that our ancestors did not consume very much saturated fat.

However, like John Durant, he recognizes the dangers of the standard American diet’s extreme “omega imbalance” between omega-6 and omega-3 fats, which results in a chronic state of low grade inflammation that promotes major diseases.


Sources
  • Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med. 1985 Jan 31;312(5):283-9. Review.
  • Eaton SB, Konner MJ. Stone age nutrition: implications for today. ASDC J Dent Child. 1986 Jul-Aug;53(4):300-3. Eaton SB, Eaton SB 3rd, Konner MJ, Shostak M. An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements. J Nutr. 1996 Jun;126(6):1732-40. Review.
  • Marean CW. Pinnacle Point Cave 13B (Western Cape Province, South Africa) in context: The Cape Floral kingdom, shellfish, and modern human origins.
    J Hum Evol. 2010 Sep-Oct;59(3-4):425-43. doi: 10.1016/j.jhevol.2010.07.011.
  • Marean CW, Bar-Matthews M, Bernatchez J, Fisher E, Goldberg P, Herries AI, Jacobs Z, Jerardino A, Karkanas P, Minichillo T, Nilssen PJ, Thompson E, Watts I, Williams HM. Early human use of marine resources and pigment in South Africa during the Middle Pleistocene. Nature. 2007 Oct 18;449(7164):905-8.
  • Richards MP. A brief review of the archaeological evidence for Palaeolithic and Neolithic subsistence. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Dec;56(12):16 p following 1262.
  • Richards MP, Jacobi R, Cook J, Pettitt PB, Stringer CB. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. J Hum Evol. 2005 Sep;49(3):390-4.
  • Richards MP, Trinkaus E. Out of Africa: modern human origins special feature: isotopic evidence for the diets of European Neanderthals and early modern humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2009 Sep 22;106(38):16034-9. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0903821106. Epub 2009 Aug 11.
  • Turner BL, Thompson AL. Beyond the Paleolithic prescription: incorporating diversity and flexibility in the study of human diet evolution. Nutr Rev. 2013 Aug;71(8):501-10. doi: 10.1111/nure.12039. Epub 2013 Jun 25. Review.
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