When it comes to dieting and nutrition, it can be very hard to make sense of all the contradictory noise coming from all different directions. In this vital ongoing debate, two voices that are particularly loud and controversial are those advocating the Paleo Diet and those advocating The China Study. But what are these voices saying and should we listen? Let’s break it down a bit.
The paleo diet (also called the caveman diet or the stone age diet) essentially suggests that because human genetics haven’t changed much at all since the end of the Paleolithic era (when the agricultural era began), our bodies are still evolved to the specific food varieties of our ancestors from that period. Thus, in order to be as healthy as possible, and to avoid the diseases of modern times, one should stick to the foods eaten by those ancestors. This entails sticking to fish, fruits, nuts, vegetables, roots, fungi, and grass-fed meats, and avoiding all grains, dairy, potatoes, beans, processed oils, and refined salt and sugar. Sounds sensible, but where the paleo diet proponents run into trouble is the specifics. The diet is based on key assumptions about genetics, nutrition, anthropology that aren’t necessarily universally excepted, and many health and nutrition specialists take these recommendations with a grain of salt (no pun intended!)
On the other hand, The China Study is a book that was published almost ten years ago by T. Colin Campbell and his son Thomas M. Campbell II. In it, they argue that animal food products of all kinds (this includes both meat and dairy) are responsible for a whole host of diseases and disorders. In order to escape or reduce the effects of these ailments, they suggest eating a plant-based vegan diet, eschewing all poultry, pork, beef, fish, eggs, milks, and cheeses, and reducing processed foods, refined carbohydrates, and all cholesterol. The study has its own detractors, who say it too is built on faulty science, drastically underestimating the importance of animal protein.
So which way to turn? Who to trust?
Personally, I believe that taking a fundamentalist approach to any food regimen or diet is absurd, and a patently bad idea. Throughout our lifetimes, our activities change, and therefore our caloric needs change as well. Different cultures have different values, different resources, and different genetic makeup.
While I prefer the Paleo-type diet, I have experimented through the years with vegetarian and vegan diets for extended periods of time. I’ve certainly found that my food intake changed my body health and mindset, but I couldn’t necessarily say which was the “best” or the “healthiest.” When I go Paleo and eat meats, I feel stronger and more energetic. While experimenting with veganism, I felt calmer, more relaxed, more peaceful.
In the end, I think it’s up to each particular person to evaluate what his or her priorities are. What is the body you want and what is the temperament you prefer? Have you figured that out? Great, now experiment with different diets until you find the right regimen for you in each stage of your life.
Whatever diet you choose, there are a few nutritional concepts that I strongly believe are objectively true. Among them are:
Whenever possible, eat REAL food. That is, food that actually spoils, rots, ferments, or putrefies if you don’t consume it fast enough. This will always be better for you than anything heavily processed with a lot of preservatives.
Whenever possible, go for nuts, seeds, berries, fresh organic produce, and small wild animals/fish.
Even if you don’t eliminate it completely, eat less dairy. We’re just not meant to consume it as much as we do as a society.
Put a limit on your refined sugars, GMO corn and soy, gluten, and modern wheat. Modern wheat is seriously not the same as it was 60 or 70 years ago. I plan I devoting an article to this issue in the near future, so stay tuned!