Ok, that will be seen as dogmatic, but I can’t help liking my version best.
This is yet another post that started out as preamble to another topic, the defense of butter, but has become something else.
Before I defend butter, I want to address why I don’t care that butter is not “paleo” and to re-state my own dietary paleo principle. For other essays on what I mean by “paleo principle” you can read this and this.
It seems the “paleo” tag itself is becoming less and less useful (a separate blog post in that, I suppose) so I won’t waste much time arguing that butter is “paleo”.
Butter is Neolithic. Butter is one of many excellent Neolithic foods.
But isn’t Neolithic bad and Paleo good?
Such dichotomies are attractive but very misleading. When I began to seriously investigate these things years ago, one of the first books I read was a very popular diet book with word “Paleo” in the title. I was pretty disappointed.
Allow me to elaborate.
Here I had just read Gary Taubes’ magnum opus, the crux of which, it seemed to me, was that the lipid hypothesis was a failed scientific paradigm.
Alternatively, in GCBC evidence was presented that certain relatively novel foods could account for diseases of modernity, or diseases of civilization (DOCs). The DOCs, argued Gary, seemed to be related at least in part to the introduction of sugar and wheat flour into our diets. That fat and meat and in particular, saturated fat, had been parts of the human diet for hundreds of thousands of years was without question. So if saturated fat or cholesterol were not, as we had been taught, the cause of the DOCs, and these other agents, which are newer to our diets, might be the real cause of heart disease and other DOCs, then we have the beginnings of a principle, one that just seems obvious when you think about it, and for me really just came from reading GCBC.
My new principle or “paleolithic” principle, was just that if foods contribute to disease, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that the bad foods are what we have been eating a long time, and much more likely that they are something relatively new
So, the way I thought of it, a food being evolutionarily novel was a likely condition for it being an agent of disease, but that novelty was neither necessary nor sufficient for agent of disease status.
So let me explain this necessary nor sufficient thing – a common term in the hard sciences but an important concept.
To my simple mind it seemed obvious that the universe of foods that were newer or Neolithic would provide candidates for the dietary agents of disease, and that a disease-causing agent would be very likely to be a Neolithic one. Lots of foods are Neolithic. Among them we are likely to find our agents. But being a Neolithic food alone is not sufficient to make it an agent of disease.
Sidebar: I arbitrarily deem foods newer than agriculture – newer than the late Paleolithic period –neolithic foods – even though the newest, like corn oil or HFCS are really more modern or even post-industrial foods.
The idea that all Neolithic foods would be agents of disease was an idea I never really entertained.
So when I started to read some popular books and blogs, including that one with “Paleo” in the title, it occurred to me that some of the approaches were using a Paleolithic principle quite different from mine - so different that it led to a totally different diet. Some of the sources I read had an inclusive logic – they seemed to say that all Paleolithic foods were the nectar of the gods, and most Neolithic ones were poison, as if exactly what it is in the food matters less than its provenance.
That is what I call paleo-reenactment.
Of course, that there were and are “paleo” approaches that still cling to the idea that the saturated fat we store in our own bodies is poisonous didn’t help much. To me ditching the lipid hypothesis was essential to the genesis of any realistic Paleolithic principle. How could eating palmitic acid be dangerous when a fasting hunter-gatherer would have it coursing through his veins?
And frankly, coming at it from any direction, whether as a doctor or as an amateur reader in evolutionary biology, the idea that one would presume that most foods (especially the real ones!) introduced in the past 10,000 years are Neolithic agents of disease is just kind of incoherent.
Just imagine a Venn diagram. One giant circle, one medium and one small. The giant circle is food with a long evolutionary history, the Paleolithic food. The medium circle is the food with a shorter history, the Neolithic food. The small circle is “agents of disease”. The paleo and neo circles do not overlap, but the small circle overlaps both of the larger ones. The “agents of disease” overlaps the Neolithic circle by about 95% of its volume (let’s say) and only 5% overlaps the the paleo circle. But even though the overlap between the agent of disease circle and the Neolithic circle (Neolithic agents of disease) is 95% of the disease circle, the medium-sized neolithic food circle is larger – so only some fraction of the large category of neolithic foods are actually clinically significant causes of disease.
Note that, unlike the paleo-reenactors, I see no need to assume that all Paleolithic food is 100% healthy. We can account for foods with millions of years of evolutionary history wreaking havoc with our metabolism by accounting for quantity and ubiquity, and not just “did we eat it”. So there is the necessary part – it is not necessary for a food to be Neolithic to be an agent of disease.
How many of the Neolithic foods are agents of disease?
I don’t know, but I am confident that thinking they ALL are is biologically implausible and an unsophisticated oversimplification – paleo re-eanctment.
When we have medical and metabolic evidence that a Neolithic food is healthy and we find its constituents to be totally compatible with foods we consider Paleolithic, we can conclude that food is not in the agent of disease part of the Venn diagram.
Which will bring us round to butter. Next Post.
Note: A special thanks to reader Phil for making the Venn diagram!