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Kurt Harris MD

An Archevore is someone who eats based on essential principles, and also someone who hungers for essential principles. Take your pick.

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« Jimmy Moore inquires about "safe starches" | Main | Robb Wolf Podcast »

Stress does not imply hormesis


OC writes in the comments:

I was just reading your post on hormesis and plant toxins.  Why would wheat (1 slice of bread once or twice per week) or an ocassional teaspoon of peanut butter not also cause hormesis.  Is it absolutely determined that these substances are unhealthy, or is this also theoretical?  I ask because my mom eats pretty healthy, but it's still difficult for her to give up her toast in the morning.

It's a non sequitur to assume that every stress or toxin must have or even might have a hormetic effect.

There is not likely any hormesis to be found with cerebral concussions, skin lacerations or lead oxide ingestion.

These won't kill you in limited amounts but they have no mechanisms where the body's response leaves you physiologically "better off" than before.

I am not saying that there is anything necessarily that harmful in a non-celiac eating a little bread, or anyone smoking a cigarette now and then, or not getting enough sleep once in a while, or anything else not wise done only once in a while. I am saying that if there is any damage associated with these behaviors, you can't automatically propose they are hormetic. You need evidence based on an actual mechanism to say they might be.

If your mom is at optimal weight and has no celiac disease or auto-immune fellow travelers of celiac, and one slice does not beget another (the main issue with all flour containing "foods") then, a slice of bread a day may be no big deal.

It's not the ten commandments, here folks, it's a framework. As long as you are honoring more in the observance than in the breach, you are on the right track.


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Reader Comments (15)

I agree it's the overall framework that's important, but I think it's a small step to go from eating things like bread once a week, to before you know it, every day. With a lot of these things I think complete avoidance is the best plan for a lot of people.

KGH: I thought I just pretty much said that, so obviously I agree.

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuz


That's how I operate as well. I aim for 100% and if I don't comply I can chalk it up as an allowance (for example when I'm travelling and I have to make do with what is available).

But if I aim for 80/20 from the beginning I'll be far more likely to overestimate how well I'm doing and may well be achieving only 50/50

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNomadicNeill

Thank you for this information. It helps add to my mental list of rebuttals. I am new to this lifestyle and have embraced it for my whole family. I have a 20month old and so I am still very unsure in-regards to his carb requirements and when people question me (like family) I want to steel myself. I don't want to give a speech each time I just want to be able to look at his pediatrician or Nanna and ask them, "Why does he need to eat grains?".

You may not be comfortable addressing my question regarding pediatric carb allowances, but I would really appreciate a point in the right direction. I have looked at several Paleo Blogs with recipes for kids etc., but no one really has said how strict we should or shouldn't be with kids. I understand limiting sugar and fruit and everyone has their opinion on dairy (we allow this because his taste for foods is still not diverse enough for me to feel comfortable that he is getting all his calcium needs etc.), but fiber and starches for a toddler (coconut, flax, sweet potatoes, squash etc.) how much is enough? BTW just to praise this way of eating a moment. When we removed grains he actually started trying more things and when I hide things in our morning fritattas like; spinach, onions, mushrooms, shrimp, cream, and cheese (this mornings meal) and variations containing other veg and meats he loooves them! I can get him to eat green and red things without batting and eye. This has been making me very very happy. Thanks again for your and other blogs.

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

I had the same situation with my mom (75 y.o.)- she agreed to stop using sugar and sunflower oil, but couldn't imagine to start her day without a sandwich , also she ate too many fruits.. She is not in optimal weight and doesn't have a perfect blood pressure. That bread in the morning kept her much hungrier during the day than two eggs+cold-cuts breakfast I convinced her to try eating. She has lost 23 lb as a result of my intervention and BP is around 127/78 without a medication.
People often don't know how harmful their habits are without braking it first..

September 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGalina L.


I'm no expert, but I can share what I do. I don't worry about macro-nutrient counts for my toddler. I offer him a wide variety of healthy foods and let him eat what he likes to satiety. I don't limit fruit or starch. Some nights, all he'll want is meatballs. The next night, he may just eat a bite or two of meat, but put back nearly a cup of buttered carrots. He eats bacon and eggs nearly every morning with fruit, which is nice because I feel he starts the day on the right foot. He's happy and healthy (and adorable!!!), so I think I'm on the right track. Just wanted to share my experience. :)


I agree. Whole foods and no wheat, added sugar or caloric drinks after weaning. Starches and fruits are fine.

September 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKim C.

Glad to see you posting again Dr Harris.

As someone relatively new to the PaNu/../../../../archevore/god I hate nomenclature (9 months) I have enjoyed devouring various blogs but I have a reasonably n00b question - less about personal application and more about the nature of the paleo/primal community.

Perhaps this is a question that will step on a lot of toes in the community but as a person who is also reasonably grounded in scepticism of alternative/complementary medicine, it does cause me some moments of doubt to see advice that I do find reasonably sound is often accompanied by suggestion or directive to seek unproven treatment forms such as homeopathy (WAPF in particular advocates this), acupuncture, anti-vaccination, chiropractics, etc.

Do you not think that the tendency of some in the Paleo blog community to promote these altmed avenues is something that acts as a hindrance to promoting this approach to diet and lifestyle as the most scientifically sound nutritional philosophy? It is definitely becoming a point of debate in my extended family, many of whom see the benefits the eating has for me while arguing (quite rightly) that a lot of the big-name promoters in the community are definitely promoting some unsupported and questionably unscientific practices - and in a family full of surgeons they see the association and are hesitant merely on that basis!


Are you pulling my leg?

"homeopathy , acupuncture, anti-vaccination, chiropractics, etc."

I do not really identify as anything but me, but I have to say in defense of the paleo blogosphere I read that I've never seen any of them "promote" any of these things.

One could peruse the talks at AHS, which I would take to be pretty representative of the big-tent paleo movement, and you will not find any mention of any of these topics at all.

What the heck are you reading?

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbec

I regret not posting a caveat after that clarifying how difficult it was to find words in place of "promote". Brainlessness keeps me away from a thesaurus. "Associate?" I don't know if I'll find an adequate and precise word to come up with what I want to say. The original comment was also positively not an attempt to tie you in with that or to assert that I'd seen you make any commentary about it at all. I simply asked you by virtue of your own medical training and expertise and the likelihood that on the basis of this you'd have an opinion about it. (One of the reasons I find your blog strongly reliable as a source of information.)

As it's one of my pet topics of study there's the chance I overinflate random mentions and make the false conclusion that the practitioner/person is promoting a viewpoint. That, or because I have such a strong personal bias I notice it more and have the cognitive effect of thinking I see it more than I actually do. The more I think about it in particular though, the main blogs I go to (yours, Dr Dean's, Hyperlipid, Dr Eades') have not mentioned the subject either way either. It is reasonably common across the blogosphere and in personal testimonies (not even remotely scientific or endorsed by the blogosphere) to encounter people coming in contact with paleo by virtue of naturopaths/osteopaths.

The Weston A Price Foundation "endorses" (only used because I am at a loss to think of a more precise term) homeopathy on its website. (That's not to say WAP the man himself endorsed it. I I have no idea if he did or not. But the foundation itself promotes a homeopathic perspective amongst its health topics and I think it would be disingenuous to say that if WAPF had nothing to do with altmed it probably wouldn't promote the blog.

Where my terminology fails is with Chris Kresser, who my poor word choice has let me down on. His blog bio identifies him as a practitioner of acupuncture, though his own blog materials don't tend to promote this per se. FWIW his posts and presentation of information are generally well done and I can't fault the science nutritionally.

Have been sitting down over my work break to download as many of the AHS presentations as possible and looking forward to diversifying my own understanding of the topic. (Had no idea Tucker Max presented at it!). My original post had no purpose of being impertinent - it was simply a question that came to mind because your material is, in a number of ways, different to other parts of the community in tenor and slant.


I was honestly surprised anyone would make an association of paleo with alt/comp medicine. I simply have not seen it.

As far as WAPF, I had no idea they actually endorse homeopathy, which is of course, utter nonsense. And I would venture that WAPF does not really self-affiliate with "paleo" in any case. I don't spend much time at their site.

Chris Kresser is a good friend and highly reliable source of nutritional information. Although he believes acupuncture can be therapeutic, he is far from a promoter of acupuncture as any kind of magical woo. He does not even perform acupuncture in his practice as far as I know.

I do appreciate the compliment about tenor and slant, but honestly most of the folks I have on my blogroll are pretty scientific and level-headed. Maybe you just need to read them some more!

September 19, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterbec

it seems to me that atleast so far much of the paleo community holds what i would call a contrarian mindset.
it's atleast a plausible theory that the same creed of people attracted by a non-mainstream view on nutrition such as "paleo" would also be more likely to hold non-mainstream views in other areas of life. the danger comes when we hold a belief for other reason then its own merits, be it holding it because that what other people believe or the other way around.

KGH: Contrarianism for its own sake is just social conservatism turned on its head

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterrikard

I'll start this off by saying that I don't know if there is a hormetic effect of wheat or concussions by which the person ends up better off overall, but there is definitely some degree of adaptability that occurs in response to both that at least allows them to be better tolerated. A while back I heard a podcast with John Welborne where he talked about a time when Brock Lesner stepped on the football field opposite him and got lit up on the first play. Welborne attributed this to the fact that Lesner had not been dealing with these collisions on a daily basis since a very young age, making him ill equipped to recover from them. Apparently at that level, getting hit by an offensive tackle is equivalent to being in a 30 mph car crash every play.

I have heard anecdotes from Robb about relatives of his who are raising their children paleo from the womb, and in these anecdotes, wheat exposures cause some severe acute symptoms. I know that when I eat wheat, my symptoms are relatively minor, and I know plenty of people who are completely asymptomatic in the short term to wheat exposures, including my sister who has celiac.

I suppose both of these examples can be chalked up to "tolerance" versus "overcompensation," and this very well may be what is happening in reality. Still, I think that in the interest of skeptical science, I think it's necessary to leave open the possibility that there may be some low level of consumption for healthy individuals that has some hormetic effect. One obvious mechanism by which hormesis to wheat may occur is via the modification of glut flora.


Neither of these examples illustrates hormesis. which means better off, fitter, healthier with the noxious stress or stimulus than without.

The point is that some things that are stressful are hormetic but there is no justification for thinking any particular stress should be hormetic absent good evidence.

Hormetic does not mean simply adapted to or tolerated - there must be a salutary effect beyond just being adapted to the stressor.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeoff


"Better off" is a comparative measure, which makes it highly dependent on environmental conditions. What's to say that someone is not better off for being able to walk away from a car crash before the car blows up than the person in the passenger seat who remains unconscious, particularly if the stress that made him that way did not impact his brain functioning in any substantive way? What's to say that a person who has some minimal level of adaptation to wheat isn't better off as compared to his counterpart for whom an accidental exposure (for example as a result of a knife being reused to cut tomatoes for a salad after having been used to cut bread earlier in the day) results in 3 hours of diarrhea? What's to say that this minimal level of adaptation to wheat doesn't carry over to corn, oats, maybe legumes, etc?

Again, just playing devils advocate here, not actually evangelizing wheat consumption or getting repeatedly hit in the head. But I do find it plausible that these mechanisms could exist, and as such do not feel comfortable making such definitive statements. Still, I understand the perspective that you are coming from as well, given how easy it is for a soft statement like that to be taken out of context (and the subsequent level of annoyance that this would cause in the form of questions, emails, response blog posts, etc).


It's appropriate to be definitive sometimes, otherwise its all just fuzz.

It's theoretically possible, in the completely trivial sense, that any stress "could be" hormetic, but hormesis is an actual biological concept, not just a "who's to say" metaphor.

Hormesis is where the organism is made healthier in some physical, objective sense by exposure to a noxious or stressful stimulus. Like physical exercise. Tear the muscle a bit, and it grows bigger and stronger.

A blow to the head that results in neuronal loss or gliosis or a skin laceration that scars is not hormesis by even the wildest stretch of the definition

I am responding to the frequently stated idea that ANY stress could be hormetic by saying, no, JUST ANY STRESS cannot be, unless you actually have very good evidence that it actually is.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGeoff

It is unfortunate but true that when one starts to explain about going back to a natural way of eating, or mentioning grassfed, pasutered, farmers markets generally people will try to write you off as a "hippy". I encountered this just this weekend trying to tell my step mother-in-law how we have changed. I believe she said something like, "oh hippy food!". This was amost exactly the reaction from an casual friend the weekend prior. <sigh> I am not one to do or not do something because it would be considered hippy-ish, but that is where it seems were peoples minds go. Sorry this is off the main topic, but I thought it was relevant to one comment. Well again this is the reason I am grateful to have a science based community to draw concrete research from.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

@Sabrina, In this podcast, Robb Wolf has a pretty concise smack-down on the question of grains for babies. He refers to a study (unfortunately does not cite it) that indicated children who avoided grains for the first 5 years had a vastly reduced risk of developing diabetes later on. In looking up which episode it was on I've noticed that he's mentioned children in a few podcasts. Worth a listen.

One tactic I've had some success with is to point out that I do not digest grains or dairy, and my child inherited my gut flora, so it stands to reason that she can't digest them either. This of course has no educational value on the usefulness of paleo eating for the general population, but it satisfied my mother-in-law. I've also pointed out that a child's stomach is so tiny and their nutritional needs so huge that I can't afford to waste digestive real estate on empty food. These tend to work best as a one-two combination.

Good luck. I find that I don't mind people questioning my choices for myself, but they can be unexpectedly aggressive when it comes to food choices for children. This changes my willingness and tactics for response.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauren

Thank you for that link. I will will def check it out. I have good news! My son had a check up today and I let the doc know how we have changed our diet for the last month and she was excited and happy! I was relieved to not have that pressure. :) She said his weight was perfect and he looked great..Yeay!! I chickened out and didn't mention what we use to cook with instead of grain oils, but she didn't ask ;)
BTW sorry Dr. H for hijacking your thread.

September 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSabrina

More reasonableness from a radiologist! Radiologists could become the go-to docs for nutrition. On the other hand, I just finished my first full day at an ACRIN conference and there's no apparent indication of a trend in that direction. Maybe I'll start dropping your name here. Sort of an overall awesomeness litmus test. If you've heard of KH, then you get one point. If you've heard of KH in the context of nutrition, 10 points! Could be a paper in this.

Anyway, it's good to see things stir a little on the Archery Vole.


September 21, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterFormidable

"Contrarianism for its own sake is just social conservatism turned on its head"

Without the advantage of social conservatism: preserving reality-subjected solutions (I.e. some "social conservatism" might have been in order when implementing new dietary guidelines in the 70-ies and 80-ies...).

September 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMakro
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