The popular story of how low-carb diets work goes something like this: Reducing your carbohydrate...
Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...Tell Me More
I’ve been asked to comment on the latest media deluge to suggest that red meat is again the primary cause of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and your impending doom. At least this time they’re targeting something other than cholesterol: this time it’s carnitine.
Carnitine is found in red meat, mostly, as well as dairy, tempeh, and some other meats, and it performs a number of important roles in the human body, foremost of which is the transportation of fatty acids into the mitochondria for breakdown into useable energy. It’s so important to basic function that we make endogenous carnitine by synthesizing it from the amino acids lysine and methionine. Vegans and vegetarians, who tend to run deficient in carnitine, benefit greatly from supplementation (or a nice steak). It’s even been used to reduce atherosclerosis (albeit in rabbits), improve arterial function, and help heart failure patients recover. Carnitine is not some evil compound.
So this is my review of the new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. It’s been making the rounds for a few weeks now, and although some other people have already weighed in, I’ll add my two cents. At the outset, I’d like to make very clear that I actually agree with a decent portion of Marlene Zuk’s individual arguments. Though it may surprise you to know that Mark Sisson agrees with the most prominent paleo debunker du jour on several topics, I’m not saying I support the overall product or her final conclusions. In fact, Paleofantasy is an odd, meandering book whose ultimate purpose I’m not really sure I truly understand.
There are two main problems with the book, as I see it. First, she’s working against a straw man. Many of the arguments she debunks, like “eyeglasses aren’t paleo” or “the paleo diet was carnivorous,” seems to have been dug up from some random Internet commenter or drawn from fringe camps. In other words, they aren’t arguments people like Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, or me (or our readers) are making. Second, many of her counterarguments or “nuanced approaches” are the very same ones we’ve been exploring at length for years! After reading the book, John Durant tweeted “Paleofantasy shouldn’t have been a book in 2013, it should have been a blog post in 2010,” and that’s as good a description as I can think of.
Earlier this week I ran across a study that demonstrated a “simple lifestyle” can decrease our contact with toxic endocrine disrupting chemicals. The researchers looked at lifestyle elements like transportation, personal care products, and homegrown versus purchased food in their participants. I was struck by the study’s suggestion itself but also by the larger metaphoric significance. A simpler code of life can spare us some of the inherent stress and damage of our modern lives. As this study showed, the principle certainly holds for physical health, and I easily venture it holds for mental well-being, too. Living simply offers a multi-layered protective benefit. That’s worth taking apart.
There’s another “meat is bad” study making the rounds, featuring such stellar prose as:
“Although causality cannot be established…”
“…further research is recommended.”
“…should still strive to reduce intake of red and processed meat, which tend to contain high amounts of saturated fat and sodium.”
And so on.
By now, we see these lines, roll our eyes, and keep on moving down the path that seems to be helping us. But that’s us, people who pay attention to nutrition news and stay abreast of the literature. We may be able to write off these breathless articles without thinking we’re going to die because we ate that bunless burger the other day, but our parents, our friends, our colleagues may not be so well-equipped. They’re worried about our health, and who can blame them? If you take mainstream health articles at face value, articles which confirm what your doctor is probably telling you, you would do the same.
It’s the month when gym memberships spike and fitness equipment flies off store shelves. I think most of us begin the year wanting to be healthier, and fitness stands as an essential element of that endeavor. Logical. Reasonable. Commendable. Yet, the common interpretation of what it will take to get there suddenly veers off in a white knuckle, nonsensical detour. Yes, let’s hear it for the chronic cardio model. As a former cardio king, I rack my brain questioning why so many people still subscribe to the “exhaustion or bust” mentality. (It’s unfortunately one of the reasons many said memberships will go unused by the middle of next month and the aforementioned equipment will begin gathering dust in a corner.) As with so many aspects of healthy living, the conventional fitness culture often misleads because it ignores what can and should be its ultimate guide – the nuanced role of physical activity in evolution and the simple but rather elegant connections that movement has to overall vitality.
Earlier this year, I explored the “evolution” of human dietary requirements in the last 10,000 years by examining some of the SNPs – single nucleotide polymorphisms, or variations in genetic sequences – that relate to diet and nutrition. I concluded that while certain genetic changes to the way we process certain foods have arisen in certain populations, for the most part we’re still best off eating from an ancestral, Primal spread of animals, sea creatures, and plant life. Nothing has changed on that front in my mind, but people are still understandably curious about their genetic predispositions toward various conditions, and, with the recent reduction in price for SNP sequencing from 23andMe (to $99 with no subscriptions required), as well as slightly more affordable full-on genome sequencing (~$1000) on the not so distant horizon, it’s easier than ever to actually do it.
But should you?
Even if you can get folks to begrudgingly admit that organic foods tends to contain fewer pesticide residues than conventional (and that this might even impact a person’s health or the way a child develops), they’ll dig in their heels when it comes to the nutritional content. And why shouldn’t they? Organic isn’t really about getting more vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients; it’s always been about getting vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients without the conventional pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides that so often accompany conventional produce. The presupposition that proponents of organic produce claim it contains more nutrients is a bit of a straw man, as that claim is rarely – if ever – made.
But what if that mythological claim actually held a kernel of truth? I mean, now that they’ve mentioned it and let that monkey out of its cage, let’s explore a bit to find out, starting with the Stanford study that sparked this whole topic.
A few weeks ago in Weekend Link Love, I mentioned the great big much-ballyhooed study that appeared to show organic produce was no more healthy than conventional produce. Many people with an axe to grind championed its findings, with some proclaiming the undeniable ringing of the final death knell of organic farming. Science Based Medicine wasted no time in weighing in on the current state of organic food, which they said “represents the triumph of marketing over scientific reality.” Strong words, words that seem to be – at first glance – supported by the study in question. But are they? Are you falling for marketing hype when you buy organic? Is it worth it?
To read The Straight Dope on Cholesterol: 10 Things You Need to Know – Part 1 click here.
To start at the beginning of Peter’s 10-part series click here.
To put this summary post and, more importantly, this 10-part series in perspective, let’s examine one of the most pervasive pieces of dietary advice given to people worldwide:
“Eating foods that contain any cholesterol above 0 mg is unhealthy.”
– T. Colin Campbell, PhD, author of The China Study.
No summary of this length can begin to fully address a topic as comprehensive as cholesterol metabolism and the pathogenesis of atherosclerosis. In fact, those of us who challenge conventional wisdom often find ourselves needing to do exactly what Frederic Bastiat suggested: