Kurt Harris MD

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Saturday
Apr092011

Jousting with the Atlantic

If you're bored and want some entertainment, there is a thread following this article on Atlantic Online.

The article, by Atlantic editor Megan McArdle, concerns whether grain consumption is responsible for Obesity. 

I was alerted to this by following a trackback, and found someone had referenced my post with the eviscerated bison as a rebuttal to these assertions by McArdle in the article:

A ribeye and an arugula salad with oilive oil and vinegar is almost as far from what our paleolithic ancestors ate as pasta primavera and an angel-food cake.  The meat our ancestors ate in the wild was not mostly fat-rich steak--game animals don't have that much body fat, and their muscles are a lot less tender. 

Yet it's only now that we're getting fat.  Which suggests to me that the cause is something other than the variation from our "natural", meat-rich diet.

 

A poster says:

Megan, 

I think you're working on old-paleo news (Cordain), not the newer stuff. Check out Kurt Harris's Archvore and his discussion of fats in wild animals.

Her response:

He acknowledges that even tucking the fat trimmings into his deerburger makes it only 25% fat by weight--or about standard for fatty chuck. The other cuts would be much leaner. Cows are bred to be basically huge sacks of fat and muscle; they would never survive in the wild because they require too much pasture, and they're super slow. I'm not making silly arguments about how game has no fat, but everyone I know who has butchered both western game (where there are no unnatural suburban gardens to live off), and even grass fed steers, has told me the same thing: the steers are clearly designed for eating, not survival.

My response:

You are perhaps missing some of the information. The point is that aboriginal peoples didn't eat supermarket cuts preferentially, so comparing the fat content of the center of a 20th or 21st century lean steak tells us nothing about how much fat aboriginal people, who could and did exploit the whole animal, ate. 

In fact, they exploited the fattiest parts of the animal preferentially, and the point of my posts is not that the steaks were fat in the center of the cut, but that that the center of a steak is not the relevant metric of what we evolved eating, any more than the fat in a skinless chicken breast would represent what hunter-gathers would get from a wild fowl.

And of course 25% fat by weight is about 60% fat by calories, due to the high energy density of long chain fatty acids. And that is wild deerburger with none of the omental or mesenteric or bone marrow or brain fat thrown in, which would elevate the fat calories in a whitetail to well over 60%.

My other examples, the hamburger made from grass fed lamb and steers, were over 30% fat by weight and therefore over 70% by calories, and this was artificially low as in the case of one steer, there was over 50lbs of suet left over, and none of the brains, marrow or mesenteric fat was counted. I know it was over 50lbs of extra fat because I had the container and I weighed it. This was a 100% grass finished organically raised steer.

The images of the bison on my website ( hardly "bred to be fat" given the recent history of domestication) and the anthropological data in "Imagining Head Smashed in" as well as other extensive data on hunting behavior before the modern fear of saturated fat, make it clear that animal fat was the most available and most exploited nutrient in game for most of hominin history.

The current preference for lean meats is a misguided cultural artifact of bad science and dietary superstition that is only about 50 years old.

McArdle:

Sort of. Without refrigeration (or in the case of plains tribes, much of any means of storage), aboriginals did not only slaughter meat when it was fattest and most succulent (and preservation techniques, for obvious reasons, frequently cut down on the fat content). We tend to confuse buying half-a-steer with what our ancestors did, but it's not true AFAIK. They ate fresh, deliciously fatty meat mostly in the fall on the farm and prairie, not all year round. 

Again, I am not arguing that our ancestors ate no fat! But that you cannot reason from what your deliciously fatty grass fed bison looks like in September, to what the Sioux ate the other 11 months out of the year. I've seen what the animals look like after a Wyoming winter, and they're pretty damn skinny unless someone's been bringing them fodder. Furry, yes, but they've used up a lot of their fat stores. In other places, it's the dry season instead of the cold season, but the effects are similar.

Harris:

Sorry, wrong again. Animals were butchered preferentially when fattest, and pemmican eaten in the depths of winter.

Pemmican is mostly fat. Here is a nutritional breakdown from US Wellness Meats, where they make it the old-fashioned way:

Est. Percent of Calories from:
Fat 78.8% Carbs 0.0%
Protein 20.0%

I know folks who make their own according to traditional recipes and the fat percentage is similar. Berries can be added for carbohydrate, but all pemmican was high in fat traditionally.

So native americans of the plains were definitely not on low fat diets for "11 months out of the year". They knew how to preserve game meat and they loaded it with fat. They were smart. You can stay alive indefinitely on 80/20 fat/protein (% by calories) but will die quickly on the reverse ratio due to protein toxicity


And even a western animal that looks skinny has plenty of fatty bits that are not steak. Like the tongue for instance. The lean meat meme is a modern cultural prejudice derived from the flawed diet/heart hypothesis. Aboriginals around the world ate as much fat as they could, and if the animals were always fat they always ate it. Think zebras in Africa.

 

McArdle:

 

Yes, of course animals were butchered preferentially when fattest, as they are in every society. And I know what's in pemmican. But they did not put up a year's supply of pemmican every September.

 

Harris:

 

They ate a lot of fat whenever they could - they certainly preserved fatty meat to eat for many months into the winter, which you initially denied. It is impossible to eat enough protein to live on without fat or carbohydrate and they certainly were not maintaining greenhouses or shopping at whole foods for carbohydrate in the winter. So they would not have survived at all without plenty of fat, unless you disagree with the metabolic fact that one cannot live on nothing but protein for months on end. Google "rabbit starvation".

McArdle:

You're refuting claims I haven't made--that people weren't eating fat. I'm saying that the idea that they had these hugely high fat diets year round isn't true. There were periods of high fat good eating, and periods of lean. But the year round, super awesome high fat meat diet is not how anyone ever lived outside of the Amazon. If you're refrigerating meat to eat later, you're already eating very different from your paleo ancestors.

 

Harris:

"The meat our ancestors ate in the wild was not mostly fat-rich steak--game animals don't have that much body fat, and their muscles are a lot less tender. We've selectively bred our domesticated animals for considerably more succulence than our ancestors enjoyed."

You made this claim implying that modern diets are richer in animal fats than what our ancestors ate when they ate animals. I am refuting it with what I have presented. You are claiming that our ancestors ate less fat when they ate animals. That is not true, no matter what you prefer to believe. 

I have no idea what a "year round super-awesome high fat diet is". I've eaten about 60% of calories as animal fats (about 25% saturated fat) and 20% as carbohydrate for the last 4 years and my BMI is 21.5 and waist is 30". Maybe that is what you mean.

I have claimed that ancestral peoples that hunted animals had access to plenty of fat and exploited it as much as they could. You've presented nothing but assertions that they could not have eaten much fat, and I have refuted them.

"game animals don't have much body fat" is factually completely incorrect, as I have shown, unless you think skeletal muscles are the only constituents of the animal's body. I think more than 60% fat by calories cannot reasonably said to be "not much fat" - 

An entire animal eaten head to tail would be at least 50% calories as fat no matter how "lean" the muscles are once you count mesentery, omentum, brains, marrow, subcutaneous fat and solid viscera. Every single cell in an animals body has fats in the cell membrane. 

Whether eating an animal killed at the end of winter, the fattest, the leanest, or the pemmican which is 80% fat, there was plenty of fat available and eaten year round. I know that is not what you want to believe because you have been taught to fear animal fats, but that is the truth.

The amazon? Not sure what that would have to do with anything.

And FWIW, I don't blame the obesity epidemic on carbohydrates in general. I blame it on wheat, sugar (including HFCS) and linoleic acid. Not potatoes..

But definitely not fat - consumption figures and the arguments I have just used all refute that animal fat or fatty steaks has anything to do with the obesity epidemic.

 

McArdle:

Sigh. No, I am not arguing that our ancestors were on the Dean Ornish diet. I claimed that people who think that they are eating a paleolithic diet by giving up bread and ordering half a steer are fooling themselves. A steer is not an animal that our ancestors would have had access to. It has been bred by us to be more tender, and to provide relatively more of desireable cuts from large muscle groups, and it is not just preferentially slaughtered when it is fattest, but only slaughtered when it is fattest. Our paleolithic ancestors did not eat as if every day were high summer. And they ate a lot more organ meat. You are "refuting" me by arguing that the hamburger in your fridge sure is high fat. I was arguing that what the "paleo" folks seem to argue is closer to nature is no more natural than a pound cake.

 

I happen to agree that the low-fat obsession seems, in retrospect, to have been fairly silly, and that sweeteners seem to be objectively worse for you. But a modern paleo, unless he's spending several months a year living entirely on beef jerky, rendered tallow, and dried berries, is not eating anything remotely close to a paleo diet. You *couldn't*--it's only legal to hunt when the animals are fattest.

 

Harris:

You're still perseverating on how much fat could or could not have been eaten. I think I've addressed that adequately and shown that you are wrong. The only reason it matters is that you claim animal fat content as being different from the ancestral on a "paleo" diet. The point is that saturated and animal fat are harmless and you can eat a lot of it or not very much and be healthy, and you cannot claim as evidence that ancestral populations could not have eaten the amount of animal fat in a modern fatty steak because it was not available to them. That I have refuted, you cannot make that argument because it is not true as indicated by all the actual evidence. 

You said:

"I was arguing that what the "paleo" folks seem to argue is closer to nature is no more natural than a pound cake."

Now that you've chosen to re-emphasize it, I will address this claim, which is even sillier than the one about fat.

A typical "paleo" meal, consisting of either a fat or lean steak, a green salad and a sweet potato, is not only healthy but is indeed closer to ancestral diets than pound cake. No because of what it contains, but because of what it does not contain. 

Processed white flour, a concentrated source of gluten and wheat germ agglutinin, sugar in the form of sucrose or high fructose corn syrup, and especially, industrial vegetable oils heavy in n-6 linoleic acid - such as corn, soy, canola, peanut, etc...

This last, linoleic acid, is required in the diet in tiny amounts, but in the modern diet is up to 15% of caloric intake, versus 3% in aboriginal diets and most human diets more than 100 years ago. And none of these agents was present in large amounts in diets 15,000 years ago. 

The paleolithic diet was not a single diet and was not constant, but it did have things that were consistently MISSING from it. 

Animal fat, whatever vegans may fantasize, is not one of the missing elements. Animal and saturated fats are not neolithic agents of disease.

And by the way, I am only bothering with this because I highly respect the Atlantic - I'm a subscriber - and I've enjoyed your own market liberal oriented writings therein. But this is a topic Iv'e been interested in as a Doctor for 4 years and I've more than a passing acquaintance with these issues.

 

read more here: 

http://www.archevore.com/

And it's too late, but you might enjoy this one in particular:

http://www.archevore.com/panu-...

There are some other good comments there by others.

But my favorites are the ones that say things like:  "A cursory review of the abstracts in Google Scholar indicates that this is an open question that is still being sorted out by the experts." How's that for an irrefutable argument? : ) 

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