Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Our Paleo Religion

I've been a faithful listener of The Fitcast since around episode 20 or 30 (they're up to 200 now).  Not always the best content, the hosts are at least sincere, and often entertaining.  This past weekend I was finally listening to episode 200, which included a long interview with guest Alan Aragon.

Alan seems like a nice enough fellow and has some interesting things to say.  Sadly, a big part of his schtick lately has been about attacking the Paleo Diet on various forums.  I guess, if you're not the glute guy like Bret Contreras, or the functional guy like Mike Boyle, you've got to find some way of distinguishing yourself from the rest of the marketplace.

Alan's attack on Paleo seems to consist of two points: first, that there aren't any isocaloric studies (studies where all the groups eat the same number of calories) showing that the Paleo diet provides better results than other diets, and two, that the Paleo diet is "like a religion" to its adherents.

Let me tear both apart.

First, there are plenty of studies (well, several) like this one showing that people who eat freely on a Paleo diet type of plan do much better than people who eat freely on, say, a Mediterranean plan, or the standard american diet.  The reason these studies don't turn out to be isocaloric is that the free eating (meaning, they eat until satisfied) Paleo group ends up eating fewer calories - Paleolithic foods are satisfying and don't lead to powerful cravings.

A schmuck looks at this data and says, "gee, the better results are obviously just a result of the reduced caloric intake, proving that Paleo eating isn't in itself better for you."  Anyone with at least half a brain says, "gee, it's completely fucking amazing that eating a certain style of food allows people to easily cut their caloric intake without starving themselves, and thereby enjoy a huge host of health benefits.  It's like magic, only better!"  I happen to believe there are plenty of  mechanistic studies showing that gluten damages the gut lining, for example, indirectly showing that a gluten-free diet will be superior for health to an isocaloric gluten-containing diet, and that the benefits of eating Paleo aren't solely because of the reduced caloric intake, but even if I'm wrong - Paleo eaters spontaneously eat fewer calories.  That's the fucking (excuse my French) holy grail of health and weight loss in the Western world.  To get an isocaloric comparison you'd have to force feed the Paleo eaters like geese.  Who's going to pay for that?  Corporate agriculture?  The pharmaceutical companies?  I don't think so.  So Alan gets to sound very self important and research driven, a guy who only cares about the science, while misleading the public.  And if you notice he never says a word about gluten and gut health or dairy and autoimmunity - he just decries the lack of isocaloric studies.

The second attack is a little more ad hominem and a little more annoying (to me).  Alan compares Paleo to a religion.  Which seems okay at first, because religions are okay, right (except if you think they aren't, but most Americans aren't reflexively against religion).  So what's the big deal?

It's a simple and common fallacy that Alan endorses - because things share one quality, they must share other unrelated qualities.  Here's how it works:  Religions have many qualities.  One is that they are based on faith, not evidence.  People believe their version of God is the correct one because they believe it, not because of any scientific evidence to that effect.  It's called faith.  Another quality of religions is that many religious people endorse their religion with a very powerful fervor - the term "religious fanatic" comes to mind.  I don't need to come up with examples of  people killing and dying in the name of religion to make this point.  People do that sort of thing in the name of religion much more than, for example, in the name of their love of Star Trek or Justin Bieber, even though people feel very strongly about those two topics as well.

Alan (and Kevin, the poor misguided host of the show) shows that Paleo is "like religion" because of how zealously Paleo adherents advocate for their lifestyle.  I'll buy that.  Even I, paragon of rationality that I am, have been known to proselytize my diet to an  unpleasant degree.  It's hard not to when I see the people around me killing themselves with plant toxins.  So there is a similarity between the zeal of Paleo adherents and the zeal of many religious fanatics.  He then concludes (erroneously) that the two systems are also similar in a separate quality - their lack of actual evidence.  Unless you can show that the only acceptable evidence is isocaloric studies (which are never going to be done), and you completely ignore the abundant anthropological evidence and population studies for some reason, this analogy is completely false.  In fact, since double blind studies on diet are impossible, I would say that research studies in this area are all patently useless.  Then you either have to say that science on nutrition can't be done at all (and knowledge in this area is impossible to attain) or accept that other models of research have to be accepted.

The only acceptable way I can see to deal with Alan for viciously and callously attacking our dietary lifestyle is for all Paleo adherents to immediately decide to, upon meeting him, kill or maim him.  One of us is bound to succeed eventually.  Like a jihad, only in English.  Or maybe a good old fashioned crucifixion.  You don't see enough of those anymore.  No, I'm kidding.  Seriously, I'm kidding.

If I seem annoyed, it's because I am.  I get annoyed at the Alan Aragons of the world because they sound smart, but because they're too narrow minded and too protective of their reputations they can't admit they're wrong and address the research on plant anti-nutrients.  I don't care if Alan eats himself to an early death, but too many people, many of whom don't have time to really think about this seriously, might listen to him and continue on a path of self destruction.  I mean, I have friends who might have listened to his drivel.  I have fond feelings towards Kevin, the host of the Fitcast, because I've listened to him talk for several hundred hours, and I think he listens to Alan and Leigh Peele (another anti-Paleo Fitcast host) and others like them.  And they're steering him wrong.  The sad fact is that neither Alan nor Leigh are going to make names for themselves endorsing Paleo, not getting on the bandwagon this late, so they have to fight against it to seem unique.  I, on the other hand, am selling nothing, so if my advice seems derivative... that's okay.  All I care about is being right, not being original.

I am zealous about this diet because it works for me, and, I strongly suspect, would work for many other people, where other diets have failed us.  I care about some of those people.  People I care about have died because they didn't get a chance to discover this lifestyle before the years of neolithic eating rotted away their health.  If that makes me a zealot, then that is what I am, but don't dare tell me my beliefs aren't based on real science just because you're too lazy to look outside a very narrow window of research.


  1. Nothing wrong with religion, per se; it's idolatry that gets you in trouble, where you ascribe semi-divine attributes to earthly things and ideas. If you excused bad behavior of other Paleo eaters, or abandoned your family because you wanted to eat Paleo, then that might be bordering on idolatry.

  2. Well, Alan Aragon definitely isn't a zealot, in fact he's changed his stance on a number of issues as research has shown him to be wrong. Examples include intermittent fasting and meal frequency, so he certainly bases his opinion on the research combined with his observations with his clients.
    In light of this, I really don't think he's adopting his position in order to simply make a name for himself, rather because he doesn't believe that there's enough evidence to support the Paleo movement.
    Perhaps you should read some of his work and be a little less hypocritical?

  3. Terry, I listened to the interview in its entirety and dissected both lines of argumentation that he used in the interview - the lack of isocaloric studies and the "like a religion" attack. One is weak and the other fallacious. How am I being hypocritical exactly? What did I miss? The fact is that there is very little good science supporting any nutritional strategy - unless somebody's figured out a way to do double blind studies on nutrition without my noticing. So Alan's position is very selective - he says there isn't enough evidence supporting Paleo - but then there isn't good evidence supporting anything else, either. Still, thanks for reading!