Fat Hominid

by Daniel on June 6, 2008

There’s a paper to be written at some point on the economics of fad diets (I suspect that it already exists and that there’s a 90% chance it’s dreadful). I personally believe that they’re potentially a rich source for the self-organising systems literature and a good case study of how irrational and somewhat self-destructive beliefs spread through proselytisation (a subject which one might think of quite important general interest in these troubled times). My sketch model of something like the Atkins Diet or cabbage soup detox or whatever would go as follows, on the assumption that the spread of these trends through the population is based on about 10% fundamentals and 90% bubble.

The idea being that nearly everyone’s digestive system is different; when one stops to think about it, this is unbelievably, blindingly obvious from simple casual empiricism. Different foods agree and disagree with different people, depending on flukes of genetics, medical history, intestinal flora and whatever else. There is also a space of fad diets which can, to a first approximation, be modelled as more or less spanning the possible combinations of foods – there are literally hundreds of the bloody things out there. For this reason, every now and then, someone is going to come across a fad diet which really really really works, for them, because it happens to not include whatever food is giving them their current digestive troubles.

Someone like that is very likely to become an evangelist for their preferred fad diet; after all, they have first-hand empirical evidence that it really really really works. And sudden relief from digestive discomfort, or very rapid weight loss, is an experience the emotional impact and profundity of which should not be underestimated[1]; it’s the sort of thing which is often mistaken for a religious experience. A particularly passionate advocate for a fad diet can often persuade a couple of dozen acquaintances to try it out, with the obvious potential for a chain reaction if one of them happens to have a similar digestion. I’m sure Kieran could draw you a graph.

Of course, the vast majority of people on fad diets are getting no real benefit from them, other than from the incidental factor that most of them are basically calorie controlled (either by design or, per Atkins Diet, de facto by simply being such inconvenient and unpleasant ways to eat). Thinking about these sorts of things and their spread through the community gets you onto the subject quite quickly of Charles Mackay and Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which is why it’s a bit of a disappointment to me to see that a sharp cookie like Nassim Nicholas Taleb[2] appears to have fallen hook line and sinker for a fad diet.

But the biggest rule of all is his eccentric and punishing diet and exercise programme. He’s been on it for three months and he’s lost 20lb. He’s following the thinking of Arthur De Vany, an economist – of the acceptable type (this is true by the way – De Vany is a perfectly sound industrial org prof – DD) – turned fitness guru. The theory is that we eat and exercise according to our evolved natures. Early man did not eat carbs, so they’re out. He did not exercise regularly and he did not suffer long-term stress by having an annoying boss. Exercise must be irregular and ferocious – Taleb often does four hours in the gym or 360 press-ups and then nothing for 10 days. Jogging is useless; sprinting is good. He likes to knacker himself completely before a long flight. Stress should also be irregular and ferocious – early men did not have bad bosses, but they did occasionally run into lions.

Apparently the diet works for Taleb, so maybe he’s one of the people whose body type it works for, in which case good luck to him. But really, did you ever in your life hear such guff?

The thing is that there is at least some sort of rationale for evolutionary psychology, because our understanding of the mind is so rudimentary and unsystematic that it’s worth giving functional explanations a go, despite the fact that we more or less know that functional explanations are an absolute minefield of error-prone speculation. When it comes to biology and medicine though, it appears to me that we actually know quite a lot about good and bad nutrition and exercise, and that there is therefore no need to start basing things off what hypothetical cavemen did or didn’t do. The itemised list of objections to the African steppes as a basis for reasoning about what we should or shouldn’t eat or do just seems to grow and grow every time I write it down.

1. Have you seen a Khoi-San lately?. The fundamental premis of “Evolutionary Fitness”[3] appears to be that cavemen and hunter-gatherers are and/or were supremely fit and healthy individuals, perfectly adapted to life. A glance at the few remaining hunter-gatherer cultures (there are only a few of them, a point to which I shall return) does not really bear this out; looking at Khoi San, pygmies, etc, tends to suggest that the closer you are to a pure caveman lifestyle, the worse your life expectancy and the smaller, slighter and more vulnerable to disease you are.

2. I’m sitting down to eat a plate of rats.. There seems to be about as much theorising relative to evidence in the discussion of what cavemen ate and did, as the ev psych crowd try to get away with about their family and political arrangements. Obviously, the suggestion that cavemen “didn’t eat carbohydrates” can’t be meant literally – we would never have survived if this had been true. They ate fruit, seeds, roots and all sorts. I suspect that what’s meant here is that cavemen didn’t eat much starch because they hadn’t domesticated grains. But that’s not the same thing; they didn’t eat grains because they hadn’t got any, not because they had stomachs which couldn’t digest starch. If you time travelled back to the Pleistocene and handed cavemen some cornbread, they would have eaten it.

In any case, if we’re talking about cavemen here, nor had they domesticated animals. I am not going to pin this one on De Vany, because I don’t know if he’s guilty of this particular fallacy, but I’ve certainly met people who were on the Atkins Diet who made the claim that it was “natural” and “good for you” because “cavemen didn’t grow wheat”, and then sat down to tuck into an 18 ounce USDA Prime steak, a piece of food which could not possibly exist in a world in which there wasn’t huge amounts of wheat and soybeans being grown to make animal feed. The meat component of a caveman’s diet would have been much heavier in rabbits, small birds and rodents than it would in anything you can buy in a supermarket.

3. Ever stalked deer? The more or less complete absence of genuine evidence about the lifestyle of cavemen is a general problem in reasoning about what we ought to do today from what they did habitually. The theory of short and intermittent exercise might work or might not (or indeed, might work for some people and not others), but it’s not got much to do with real evidence about what cavemen did. For one thing, cavemen must surely have carried out a lot more low-intensity exercise than is suggested here. If you’re a hunter, you will typically find that because the animals don’t come to you, you need to go to find them, and that involves exercise. The regular necessity to get from place to place (and to do so before it got dark) would involve an awful lot of jogging. I would bet modern dollars to prehistoric doughnuts that the majority of the exercise in a caveman’s life came from chopping firewood and carrying water. Which are also two occupations that are perfect for a bit of low-level stress. NB, of course, that I’m not necessarily claiming that my picture of life among the sabre-toothed tigers is the correct one; just that nobody knows, and thus that just so stories about the veldt can’t be used to justify one fad diet over another.

4. We’re descended from who? I think the most important point here is that, as I mentioned in point 1 above is that if you actually want to find people who follow the hunter-gatherer lifestyle, you have to look pretty hard because there aren’t very many of them left. Jared Diamond’s book is pretty clear on this fact; there may or may not have been a lot of people around in the Pleistocene period who couldn’t digest grains, but we aren’t descended from them. “Evolution” didn’t stop 10,000 years ago; the near-extinction of the non-farmers is exactly the way in which evolution works. Some people can digest cows’ milk and some can’t; if you can, why would you consider it scientific or sensible to pretend that you can’t?

And so on and so forth, perhaps I will expand on this list in comments but it’s already tedious. The point is; my guess is that De Vany and his fans have come across an engaging myth about cavemen that inspires them to stick to a diet which is low in calories, and to an exercise regime. As a result of this, they lose weight and get stronger. Hurray for that, and all that, but from a scientific point of view, it’s all over the place.

And this matters because there’s a huge analogy with evolutionary psychology, except that for a lot of the EP arguments that make it into the papers, what they’re selling isn’t a relatively benign fad diet; it’s a whole political and social program, usually of a quite reactionary kind. Every political tradition has these kinds of foundational myths, but they need to be seen for what they are.

[1] “The motive appeared to be ‘Make people shit and get rich’. People who would never believe in God will swear by some blue pill that guarantees to rid them of baldness, bedwetting, distended kidneys, pox and varicose veins. Piles! A man with piles will believe anyone who promises to get rid of them.” Spike Milligan, Puckoon. Also, of course Martin Luther’s conception of the doctrine of salvation through faith alone while in cloaca, suffering from chronic constipation; a bowel movement which has been identified by Max Weber, among others, as marking the beginning of the modern world.

[2] I really ought to do, and by “do”, I mean “promise” a review of Taleb’s “The Black Swan”.

[3] Not sure if this is a trademark or not, no challenge to any protected status implied by scare quotes.



Matt McGrattan 06.06.08 at 3:47 pm

All pretty unobjectionable, and De Vany makes a lot of tenuously grounded claims on the basis of flimsy or non existent evidence [*] but I don’t think point (1) above really follows. Today’s hunter-gatherers live in the marginal land they’ve been forced onto by those other people who aren’t hunter gatherers. You can’t really use today’s hunter-gatherers as evidence for the physiques or health of late-paleolithic or early neolithic populations.

On the other hand, afaik, looking at the historical evidence, skeletons from pre-agricultural populations show signs of being healthy, well-fed, and muscular. Agriculture meant a lot more people could be fed from the same land, it didn’t make for bigger/healthier people until quite recently.

* He’s also, iirc, a global-warming denialist.


Joshua Holmes 06.06.08 at 4:12 pm

1. Khoi-San may be short, but most of our pre-aggie ancestors were not. The remains we have found were, by and large, tall with large muscles (we can tell by the bone density). Other modern hunter-gatherers, such as the Sioux or the Polynesians, were definitely not short.

2. The hunter-gatherers that have been studied ate as few small animals as possible. They don’t have enough fat. Google “rabbit starvation”. By their admission they were stronger and healthier living on big animals.

3. You’re quite right that low-intensity exercise is important for health. De Vany has mentioned this repeatedly, calling for walking and play. What he disdains is middle-intensity exercise like distance running, cycling, or bodybuilding.

4. You’re quite right that we’ve continued to evolve, but is 10,000 years fast enough to make living on starch healthy? I can’t imagine it is, and I’ve confirmed that at least with my own health. Being white, there’s a lot more starch-eating in my ancestry than in, say, your average African or Polynesian.


Mike 06.06.08 at 4:13 pm

“what they’re selling isn’t a relatively benign fad diet; it’s a whole political and social program, usually of a quite reactionary kind.”

If you’re looking for workout/diet programs which push a whole political and social program of a reactionary kind, check out crossfit at http://www.crossfit.com. They also love the ‘paleo-diet’ and sometimes ground their program in ev-psych. And they love ‘300.’


Daniel 06.06.08 at 4:18 pm

is 10,000 years fast enough to make living on starch healthy?

You ask this question as if nothing in the history of animal life has ever eaten starch except modern human beings.


Matt McGrattan 06.06.08 at 4:25 pm

is 10,000 years fast enough to make living on starch healthy?

10,000 years is certainly long enough for substantial evolutionary changes to occur.


Walt 06.06.08 at 4:29 pm

I think you were going to take this argument in a different way, that the fact that Taleb could be reasonably expected to know better, and yet he does not know better, shows just how much we are in the grips of human psychology.


Walt 06.06.08 at 4:32 pm

That should read “I thought…”. I can correctly conjugate verbs, but only under low-level stress.


fjm 06.06.08 at 4:40 pm

they didn’t eat grains because they hadn’t got any, not because they had stomachs which couldn’t digest starch.

Quite possibly not. There is a small (inconclusive) amount of evidence that celiac, which I have, is not a disease but a lack of a mutation which allows humans to eat gluten.

, I agree utterly with the general tenet of your argument.


Daniel 06.06.08 at 4:42 pm

5: it’s not even a particularly significant evolutionary change. Name me a mammal that can’t digest starch.


The Modesto Kid 06.06.08 at 4:53 pm

gluten however is not starch, nor is it a component of all or most starchy food. The non-gluten-digesting troglogytes would have been fine eating a plate of Daniel’s cornbread.


The Modesto Kid 06.06.08 at 4:53 pm



trey 06.06.08 at 5:06 pm

I too was quite disappointed to see that Taleb had decided to adopt such a faddish diet. I am always curious why so many people think that evolution is basically stalled over the last 10,000 years. There are number of species who have evolved at remarkably quick rates.


fardels bear 06.06.08 at 5:13 pm

Depends on the cornbread. Lots of cornbread is made with half cornmeal and half wheat flour. So it depends on Daniel’s recipie.


Tim Lambert 06.06.08 at 5:14 pm

De Vany banned me from commenting at his blog because I criticized John Lott.


Sebastian 06.06.08 at 5:22 pm

“Some people can digest cows’ milk and some can’t; if you can, why would you consider it scientific or sensible to pretend that you can’t?”

Heh. I’ve had two friends in the past 10 years freak out when I told them I drink about 2 gallons of milk a week. Both times I got: “Milk isn’t good for you. X really large % of people can’t tolerate milk.”

I’m clearly not in that percentage. Milk offers me a nice balance of proteins, lipids and carbs and I’m clearly not lactose intolerant.

People’s bodies are different. A lot of people (not everyone, I’m well aware that some people’s hunger set point is just off and that really sucks for them) would do best to just listen to their bodies. Experiment with lots of foods and find out which ones satisfy your hunger without requiring a huge amount of calories. For some people that means spicy foods. For others that is starchy foods. For some that is lots of meat. For many it is lots of fiber. For most people that isn’t lots of fruit, though many vegtables seem to be filling for lots of people. But you have to listen to your particular body. It isn’t your mom’s body, or your best friend’s body. Sometimes it sends tricky signals that you have to be careful about. But if you learn your body’s signals and how to interpret/control them you are better off than trying to follow a diet which was probably designed with someone else’s body’s signals in mind.


Adam 06.06.08 at 5:34 pm

The only reason why milk wouldn’t be good for you if you’re not lactose intolerant is the same reason beer or soda isn’t good for you. It’s got as many calories as food (it is food), but people sometimes treat it like water. If you treat it like a calorie source, it’s all good. If you treat it as a hydration source and disregard it’s foodness, you’re setting yourself up for dieting failure. If weight isn’t one of your problems and you’re not lactose intolerant, then cheers! Milk is tasty, drink away.

I also think that one of the above comments suggesting that whites have more starch eating in their history than Africans or Polynesians is almost certainly wrong. All hunter-gatherers both hunted and gathered. There’s a lot of starch in everything you would gather (maybe not gluten – that’s pretty much restricted to wheat – a very good reason why the genes for gluten digestion haven’t made it to near universality – wheat is new in many places in the world). Also, Africa certainly started farming in the same time frame as proto-Europeans (whatever that means). I don’t know for sure about the Polynesians, but I would highly doubt it wasn’t true for them too. The crops may have been different, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t growing crops.


Adam 06.06.08 at 5:37 pm

Also, I don’t think people realize how many calories people burn in survival situations (similar to what a hunter-gatherer might face). The challenges of finding one’s food is really quite exhausting. Look at the Amish – I know they aren’t hunter-gatherers, but they do attempt to live life with limited technology. A study was done to see how many calories the average Amish burns – I think it was somewhere around 10,000. That ten times the resting rate – which is roughly what most people using technology burn.


Seth Gordon 06.06.08 at 5:39 pm

There’s a theory that the early hominids were scavengers rather than hunters, but if my route to physical fitness is the Carcass Half Chewed By Lions Diet, I’d rather stay fat.


jlr 06.06.08 at 5:41 pm

I also think that one of the above comments suggesting that whites have more starch eating in their history than Africans or Polynesians is almost certainly wrong.

Indeed. Polynesians eat/ate a lot of taro which is absurdly starchy.


roac 06.06.08 at 5:43 pm

Being white, there’s a lot more starch-eating in my ancestry than in, say, your average African or Polynesian.

Huh? Maybe some Polynesians somewhere would have qualified as hunter-gatherers, but the ones I know anything about were agriculturalists. The staples of their diet were taro (poi), breadfruit, and coconuts — plus of course a lot of fish.


Daniel 06.06.08 at 5:45 pm

In fairness to the nutty theory, most of that would be in agricultural labour, which DeVany believes that his cavemen didn’t do, back in the days before evolution stopped.

Oh god it’s even sillier. Taleb’s diet plan:

3) FOOD INTAKE Eat no carbs that do not have a Biblical Hebrew or Doric Greek name (i.e. did not exist in the ancient Mediterranean) :

What would happen if Taleb got married to a Polynesian woman and they had a baby? Would the child be able to eat both barley and taro, or would it have to have yam-and-matzo sandwiches?

(this is another thing about argumentum ad hominid: it often really does lead you down total blind alleys like this by making you think that your own particular ancestry is incredibly important).


dr ngo 06.06.08 at 5:46 pm

Sebastian: When I was in my 20s, I too was drinking a couple of gallons of milk a week. Before I turned 50, I had developed lactose intolerance. So don’t get too cocky!

On foragers, my understanding is that in the modern world, when we’ve had the opportunity to study them, their diet actually comes more from “gathering” than from “hunting,” which means, inter alia, that the women contribute more to the nutritional survival of the group than the men do! And in Southeast Asia, with which I am most familiar, the “hunting” is almost entirely of small animals, since there are few large prey available. Nevertheless, it’s a protein-rich diet, due to all the yummy bugs and grubs that the rain forest provides the assiduous omnivore.

I’m not quite sure what Jared Diamond’s point is, but it is obvious (“any fool know,” IOW) that we are all descended from some kind of foragers in our pre-agricultural past. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that these foragers ate as well – in terms of nutrition, if not taste (cf. yummy bugs and grubs, above) – as their early agricultural counterparts. There is archeological evidence, albeit sketchy, that the size (height) of people actually declined slightly with the onset of farming.

What agriculture enabled was a denser population, not necessarily a healthier one. More people could live much closer together – foragers have to spread out widely to survive – and thus stronger tribes and, eventually, states. (Compare an average forager group of about 20-30, miles from anybody else, with even a “village” of 300, living somewhere not far from other settlements where they can be taxed and drafted – the polity-building possibilities are very different.)

Having said all this, of course I agree with the original premise: basing one’s diet and exercise on assumptions about those of our ancient ancestors is bogus.


Daniel 06.06.08 at 5:47 pm

18: that’s brilliant. I am half inclined to join this community as a troll and start saying that because prehistoric man didn’t have any refrigeration, it’s best to make sure that any meat you eat is slightly rotten.


Cala 06.06.08 at 5:50 pm

I think the explanation for the popularity of the fad diet is a lot simpler than postulating unique digestions: all of them restrict calories severely, and that will result in short-term weight loss. One of them myriad ways of restricting calories will result in a plan that plenty of people like; I’m not sure we need to go to the level of genetics to explain the various popularity of certain diets.

Almost none of them make sense from an ev-psych perspective, because one thing the human body is good at doing is sucking the nutrients out of whatever is available to eat.

My sister at one point became a huge fan of an ‘eat right for your blood type’ diet, which argued that the key to weight loss was balancing one’s diet with one’s blood type. In her case, that meant avoiding dairy and spicy foods. Interesting, to my mind, that every blood type seemed to be ‘allergic’ to one particularly high-calorie type of food…


Adam 06.06.08 at 5:51 pm

@ 21: True, I just don’t know any numbers for calorie usage of hunter-gatherers. I only know that pre-industrial life is hard, and hunting or gathering for sustenance is no walk in the park. The important thing is that if you want to not die, you must be constantly searching for food.


jlr 06.06.08 at 6:07 pm

From Richard Borshay Lee, “Kung Bushmen Subsistence: An Input-Output Analysis”, 1969.

“A woman gathers on one day enough food to feed her family for three days”

And this is on highly marginal land.


jlr 06.06.08 at 6:08 pm

Sorry, that should be “!Kung”.


matt mcgrattan 06.06.08 at 6:09 pm


I’ve not read any numbers of caloric intake, but there are numbers out there on hours spent per week in meeting basic subsistence requirements, and, compared to agriculturalists, hunter-gatherers spend less time per person per week getting enough to eat.

The converse of that is that, as mentioned several times above, the agriculturalists can support a lot more people on a given area of land.


ed_finnerty 06.06.08 at 6:10 pm

I recently met the people who invented the “Grapefruit Diet” in the 70’s. This diet took my house by storm with all my siblings gorging on grapefruits. The people who invented it – two scammers from Florida. Made $5,000,000 in the 70’s (that was a lot of money then)


Cala 06.06.08 at 6:12 pm

The yam-and-matzo point is a good one. Moreover, many of the foods we think of as belonging to one region of the world didn’t just get there 10,000 years ago: foods were introduced through trade a lot more recently (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers.)

It’s often amusing how much the Pleistocene era resembles 1950s America in some of these ideas, but it’s even more amusing that to be in touch with my true caveman ancestry, I should eat foods that were introduced into the region only 500 years ago.


lemuel pitkin 06.06.08 at 6:17 pm

the explanation for the popularity of the fad diet is a lot simpler than postulating unique digestions: all of them restrict calories severely, and that will result in short-term weight loss.

Yes, this seems sufficient. Not that the tangents aren’t plenty interesting in their own right…


lemuel pitkin 06.06.08 at 6:21 pm

I meant to add —

Dsquared’s argument depends on a sly rhetorical move where he shifts from talking about digestive discomfort, where the differences between people’s digestive systems really are important, to weight loss (the actual motivation for most modern dieting) where the basic equation of calories consumed versus calories burned operates pretty much universally.


Kieran Healy 06.06.08 at 6:24 pm

Exercise must be irregular and ferocious – Taleb often does four hours in the gym or 360 press-ups and then nothing for 10 days.

Awesome. Reading the description, I was wondering when things would get kooky.


Kieran Healy 06.06.08 at 6:25 pm

It’s often amusing how much the Pleistocene era resembles 1950s America in some of these ideas,

This is in fact the goal of most of these theories.


Cala 06.06.08 at 6:25 pm

Actually, I don’t think the overall thrust of his argument depends on it, because the overall thrust of his argument is ‘man this caveman nonsense is stupid.’ Which seems to hold up even with my nitpick.


matt 06.06.08 at 6:29 pm

23)- I’ve known some “raw foodists” who think that this is better because more “natural”. (Evolution stopped for them before we tamed fire, I guess.) The only comfort is that they are not quite as crazy as the people who eat only foods that have the seeds inside of them (fruit, I guess) so that they can “return” the seeds to the circle of life.


lemuel pitkin 06.06.08 at 6:43 pm

I don’t think the overall thrust of his argument depends on it, because the overall thrust of his argument is ‘man this caveman nonsense is stupid.’

Well, that’s half of it — the other half is the theory about how these ideas spread. Which doesnt hold up so well.

But yeah, the caveman stuff *is* stupid (and in passing it it’s both funnier and more fitting to say “caveman” rather than EEA or whatever.)


Cala 06.06.08 at 6:59 pm

I think it’s close to how the ideas spread. I don’t think it’s because we’re all that genetically unique (if we’re talking weight loss and not lactose intolerance), but if you figure you have a zillion people wanting to lose weight, and you propose a plan that works for a tiny percentage of people, you’re gonna be coining money.


The Modesto Kid 06.06.08 at 7:23 pm

because prehistoric man didn’t have any refrigeration, it’s best to make sure that any meat you eat is slightly rotten

This would make an excellent fad diet. “Warm foods” supermarkets could open catering to the seekers after rotten food.

I have been told on multiple occasions, though I have no idea where it falls along the vector from “Fact” to “Just-so story”, that cuisines which feature hot peppers (I think this has always been told me specifically about Indian cuisine) do so because the pepper was used to mask the flavor of rotten meat in the days before refrigeration.


John Emerson 06.06.08 at 7:24 pm

In what I read about the Khoisan, they routinely walked briskly, carrying loads, 30 or more miles a day. I’ve always suspected that the Kenyan steeplechasers (who dominate the event) have some khoisan ancestry; IIRC Cavalli-Sforza gives some evidence for that.


Matthew Kuzma 06.06.08 at 7:25 pm

The thing that strikes me most about fad diets is how many of them are temporary, either by design or circumstance, but are expected to have permanent effects.

Diet is not a verb.


shteve 06.06.08 at 7:28 pm

Interesting post, but you really got me with the “plate of rats” header!

The most interesting thing about these fads is the need to try something new every once in a while, stick at it imperfectly, and fail, fail again … until the next fad.

Plenty of fruit, plenty of veg, meat and dairy in moderation. Wholegrains and wholemeal. Drink water, not sugary water. Regular walks. Is that faddy?


"Q" the Enchanter 06.06.08 at 7:29 pm

I can only suppose Taleb counts dieting as being among “the small and the aesthetic.” (Thus, skepticism doesn’t apply.)


"Q" the Enchanter 06.06.08 at 7:30 pm

By the way, the title of this post really should have been “Homo corpulentus.”


SG 06.06.08 at 7:46 pm

When I was in sichuan province in China I saw a whole plate of roasted rats heads. Everyone in sichuan was thin. Therefore…

My theory on the Atkins diet is that it really does work for most fat people, because the reason most people are fat is too much sugar, and the Atkins diet by dint of its anti-carb attitude ruthlessly cuts out sugar. For people like me who have a low sugar but moderate carb diet, it’s going to have only marginal effect.

Plus of course, anyone trying to exercise without carbs in their diet is in a lot of trouble. So the Atkins diet is useless for anyone who actually wants to be fit.


Beryl 06.06.08 at 8:49 pm


When I was running marathons, ‘carbohydrate loading’ was the received wisdom. Not quite, anymore…



Anderson 06.06.08 at 8:51 pm


Everybody knows the book of the famous Cornaro in which he recommends his slender diet as a recipe for a long and happy life–a virtuous one too. Few books have been read so much; even now thousands of copies are sold in England every year. I do not doubt that scarcely any book (except the Bible, as is meet) has done as much harm, has shortened as many lives, as this well-intentioned curiosum. The reason: the mistaking of the effect for the cause. The worthy Italian thought his diet was the cause of his long life, whereas the precondition for a long life, the extraordinary slowness of his metabolism, the consumption of so little, was the cause of his slender diet. He was not free to eat little or much; his frugality was not a matter of “free will”: he became sick when he ate more. But whoever is no carp not only does well to eat properly, but needs to. A scholar in our time, with his rapid consumption of nervous energy, would simply destroy himself with Cornaro’s diet. Crede experto. (Believe him who has tried.)


lemuel pitkin 06.06.08 at 8:56 pm

Anderson, that quote is fantastic. Where’s it from?


Dave Weeden 06.06.08 at 9:02 pm

A big fat juicy post, Daniel, and I mean that in a good way. One day I’ll read it. Ev-psych (or whatever it’s called these days) speculates that fewer women are colour blind than men because selecting edible fruit was evolutionary important for women. The no-starch thing doesn’t work. The no-boss thing doesn’t work because your hypothetical caveman is being nagged by his partner, his parents, and his kids. If “I’m your son and I’m HUUUUNNNNNGRY!!!” isn’t a stressor, what is?

Now I’ll calm down and read the comments.


abb1 06.06.08 at 9:24 pm

Incidentally, the dogs (or at least most dogs) have no self-control; they’ll eat non-stop all the food in front of them (Dog jeopardises pie championships). Cats, on the other hand, won’t eat more than they need. Is it because they’re less domesticated?


Righteous Bubba 06.06.08 at 9:35 pm

Cats, on the other hand, won’t eat more than they need.

Depends on the cat.


mpowell 06.06.08 at 9:40 pm

32: This is actually probably wrong. Yeah if calories burned < calories consumed, you will gain weight. But your body makes decisions about whether to convert calories to energy or fat based on a number of poorly understood factors. The problem with sugar, for example, is that if you do not use the potential energy right away, it gets stored as fat. Or after you exercise, I have recently heard it claimed, your body is more likely to try to convert calories to fat. This also fits in with the idea that some people have a higher resting metabolism. Manipulating your metabolism is probably a lot more important in weight gain/loss than people realize.

45: If you are focusing on weightlifting, fat and protein will work. I don’t know about cardio, though.


J Thomas 06.06.08 at 9:50 pm

Let’s review the logic here. We have something like 700,000 years with fist-axes and not many other stone tools. Small populations and the common wisdom has it that lifestyles changed slowly like the axe styles did. We have over ten times as long evolving in that range of environments than we do evolving in more modern environments. It makes some sense that we might be better adapted to them. (Figuring out what they actually were like is harder.)

It isn’t true that old-time people never ate starches. They didn’t invent agriculture from first principles — the ones who lived near fields of mixed grains figured out how to harvest them and eat them. I’m guessing that wasn’t a large fraction of the population. And it took some technology to store grains. So some modern populations are resistant to wheat gluten. Some modern populations are resistant to soybean poisons. Practically everybody is resistant to onion poisons. Etc. Resistance not immunity. You might very well be healthier and live longer if you eat very little wheat or soybeans, but who can afford that? We live OK on modern cheap foods.

It makes sense that old-time people had more fiber with their grains. Our ability to remove fiber from grain has improved a lot within the last few hundred years. If we have a million years adapting to a high-fiber diet and a few hundred years adapting to a low-fiber diet, which can we handle best? It depends. Maybe high fiber is bad for you and you have a million years of imperfect adaptation to it. I dunno. The reasoning is plausible but it’s hard to be sure about the details.

When did we start eating potherbs? You boil water. You put chopped poisonous herbs in it. After awhile you throw away the water and put in new water. After a few cycles the poisons are diluted enough you can eat the herbs. Of course most of the soluble starches and sugars etc will be gone too. In places where lots of plants are poisonous it adds considerable calories, provided you can afford the fire. When did we start? Not before we had pots to boil in. Baked clay pots were late. When did we get pots the paleoanthropologists won’t find? Rawhide pots or finely-woven fiber pots? I don’t know. I’d rather carry water in a waterproof woven bag than a clay pot, but somebody has to figure out how to weave it.

Probably better generally to go to the water than bring the water elsewhere. “Don’t gut your fish where you catch it. Don’t cook it where you gut it. Don’t eat where you cook. Don’t sleep where you eat.”

It’s reasonable that we might tend to be adapted to the environments we spent the most time in. It’s hard to be sure about details, but a few details stand out. Few of our prehistoric ancestors drank much in the way of carbonated beverages. Few ate a lot of refined sugar. Few of them ate much food that was deep-fried although some meats might have been baked in their own fat, in season. Few drank much single-malt or any other distilled alcohol. They ate a big variety of vegetables, mixed. Many of them ate far more insects than we do, and knew which insects to eat which we mostly don’t.

Before the last 20,000 years or so, nobody ate corn, tomatoes, or potatoes. Are they harmless? Likely, decide for yourself how much of them you can eat.

If we’re going to guess what peppers used to be good for, I want to suggest that they helped keep off flies. Disguising the taste of meat you don’t like is OK, but keeping the flies off would help slow down the spoilage. And would help for food that wasn’t meat too. There are lots of plants with insecticides and insect repellants, and finding the ones that don’t actually damage humans too much would have been a big deal.

Again, the basic idea of wanting to avoid the things we aren’t preadapted to makes sense. The trouble is in figuring out how to do that.


Anon 06.06.08 at 10:06 pm

The description of Taleb’s program does sound odd. But the idea of basing one’s diet on veggies & fruits as the primary carb source (low glycemic index, low insulin response, nutrient dense, antioxidents, etc.), protein (maintain and promote lean muscle mass, good hormonal response, high thermic effect in digestion, satiating), nuts (healthy fats, lots of fiber), and healthy fats (monounsaturated, omega-3 & omega-6), just doesn’t strike me as stupid or insane.

Where is the discussion of the actual nutritional basis of paleo-type diets? Any knowledge of the importance of insulin and the problems of hyperinsulinism? Inflammation? What about all the data on the benefits of resistance training and high intensity cardio, such as sprints? Growth hormone? Preferentially burning fat instead of glucose?

It’s easy to “this caveman thing is stupid,” and taken literally, it is. But I haven’t seen much more that ad hominem attacks against it here. And no connection at all with the lit in fitness or nutrition.


dsquared 06.06.08 at 10:25 pm

Dsquared’s argument depends on a sly rhetorical move where he shifts from talking about digestive discomfort, where the differences between people’s digestive systems really are important, to weight loss (the actual motivation for most modern dieting) where the basic equation of calories consumed versus calories burned operates pretty much universally.

actually, this whole post is motivated by the fact that over the last six months I’ve gone from 220lbs to 190lbs and it feels really rather bloody fantastic, quite like the large bowel movements which started various religious/political tendencies in 16th century Europe. I am not posting the theories of fictitious racial biology which I made up for myself as excuses for staying on the diet out of sheer embarrassment; instead I will pass on Tommy Cooper’s diet tips. (“For the last six weeks I’ve been trying to lose weight. I’m on the Whisky Diet. So far I’ve lost three days”)


Michael H Schneider 06.06.08 at 10:51 pm

A diet fad – like other social phenemona – can fail for absolutely everyone and still become popular and widely followed. That idea that something must actually work for some subset of the population is merely a logical consequence of belief in the rational consumer.

A diet can become popular if a lot of people believe – based on other beliefs – that it should work. A lot of people in the west (or, at least, upscale urban US) believe that natural is good, and authentic is good. What could be more natural and authentic than eating what people in a state of nature (before civilization) ate? Thus, such a diet must be good.

Another example of this phenomenon is homeopathy.


bicycle Hussein paladin 06.07.08 at 12:24 am

@39, The theory that pepper hides the taste of rotten meat is almost definitely bogus. If you ever tasted (or just smelled) meat that’s turned, it’s pretty foul, pepper isn’t going to do a lot. What it might do is retard spoilage, but I doubt that is very much of the reason. I’d wager availability is a much bigger part of the reason, strong spices were much more available in India before modern times than in any other part of the world, and it would make sense that people already accustomed to strong spices like black pepper would take to hot chilis faster than people not used to them.

W African food can be intensely spicy, especially as you get closer to the coast. I don’t know about other parts of Africa. I’m not sure how much it’s the physiological effects of eating hot chilis combined with the climate, or if hot chilis are just easy to grow around there. Chili consumption is big in some hot, humid places, but that could also be the result of Early Modern trade routes and how people’s diets were evolving over the past 500 years. Koreans apparently like to eat intensely spicy food, and modern Arab cuisine has a lot of spicy condiments. Iranians, on the other hand, mostly don’t eat spicy hot food.

Maybe in places where you are already sweaty most of the year, a little more sweat from a mouthful of hot chilis is less annoying than for people who aren’t used to that?

I’ve also heard that hot chilis thin the blood and make it easy for you to keep cool. I’m curious if that has any basis in fact.


roac 06.07.08 at 12:32 am

On a map of where “hot” spices are widely used in cooking, the tropics are a solid red belt. There is a hypothesis, which I believe a lot of people give credence to, that capsacin serves as a counterirritant and makes the eater feel the heat less.


Jason McCullough 06.07.08 at 12:55 am

DSquared, I’m curious what you think of Pollan’s [url=http://www.michaelpollan.com/indefense.php]In Defense of Food[/url] stuff. It has a bit of the evolutionary psychology mess in it that you describe, but mostly it’s discussions of the chemistry factory mess of the industrial food system and (more significantly) discussions of studies on how villagers uniformly develop terrible health when they adopt the western food and lifestyle.


Maynard Handley 06.07.08 at 3:02 am

Damn, 60 comments, and not one on how high fructose corn syrup is simultaneously killing us, giving our children autism, and contributing to global warming. Bonus points for how it is “unnatural” and how we certainly did not evolve to “cope” with it.

(@59 comes close, but not quite good enough.)


Maynard Handley 06.07.08 at 3:11 am

“Dsquared’s argument depends on a sly rhetorical move where he shifts from talking about digestive discomfort, where the differences between people’s digestive systems really are important, to weight loss (the actual motivation for most modern dieting) where the basic equation of calories consumed versus calories burned operates pretty much universally.”

This is far from well established. I know Freud was all about the human mind is a steam machine, but that doesn’t mean that the human body is nothing but a heat engine.

If you want to know more than you ever imagined there was to know about the precise details of what is known regarding how the human body converts food to fat, read Gary Taubes’ book “Good calories, Bad calories” (a book about science, not dieting). Or, if you want the hour-long summary, listen to his talk given at UC Berkeley:


blah 06.07.08 at 3:21 am

Here is one thing that strikes me as odd.

I would think that early humans were much more vulnerable to periods of food scarcity. Accordingly, they would have been motivated to consume as many calories as possible to increase their chances of surviving through periods of scarcity. In other words, they would have eaten whatever was available and whatever was easiest to obtain. Moreover, their diets wouldn’t have necessarily maximized their chances of living a long life, but of surviving short term through the next period of famine.

Modern humans living in advanced economies have the opposite problem – we suffer from food abundance. The reason people try to diet is that there is too much food and they can’t stop from eating too many calories. The goal here is not to make it through the next period of food scarcity, but to maximize our chances of living for a long period of time.

If all of this true, why would it make sense to think that the caveman diet – even assuming that there was a single typical diet for all cavemen -would be the best way of maintaining a healthy lifestyle today that would give us the best chances of maximizing our lifespan?


foo 06.07.08 at 3:59 am

Being white, there’s a lot more starch-eating in my ancestry than in, say, your average African or Polynesian.
joshua holmes

I’m surprised that you consider “white” as an ancestory.

There are vast, vast differences between Indo-Europeans
(who are genetically clustered very closely) and Semites
(Arabs, Jews, North-Africans), although ALL can look “white” (or not).

Indo-Europeans, in both India (Indo) and Europe – suffer from gluten/celiac/wheat intolerance. Semites mostly don’t.

Indo-Europeans are going to have an entirely different genetic makeup and tolereance to farming/agricultural goods than other genetic groups and the same diet may/may-not work for them. Celiac has 2 hotspots, North Europe, and North-India and the guy having celiac may be called Arjen or Kiran, which are both traditional/typical North-European AND North-Indian names. (hence “Indo-European”)


Stentor 06.07.08 at 4:19 am

On foragers, my understanding is that in the modern world, when we’ve had the opportunity to study them, their diet actually comes more from “gathering” than from “hunting,” which means, inter alia, that the women contribute more to the nutritional survival of the group than the men do!

Depends on the environment. Generally speaking, tropical foragers ate mostly plants, polar ones ate mostly meat. The Selk’nam in Tierra del Fuego, for example, lived almost entirely on guanaco meat (hunted by the men). Also, contributions to “the nutritional survival of the group” can’t be measured in calorie volume alone — a small volume of meat might be critical to nutritional balance.


Roy Belmont 06.07.08 at 4:30 am

Both whiskey and chilis play havoc with intestinal bugs. One plausible reason whiskey uisce beatha itself means “water of life”.

We call them cavemen because our access to them is through preserved remnants of their lives we find in caves. This may not be general enough to extrapolate from, just that it’s all we have to name them. People-that-mostly-slept-outdoors is unwieldy and doesn’t serve the purpose of denigrating contrast “cavemen” does.

That someone as intelligent as insightful as the author of this post can’t see how marginalized and atypical contemporary hunter-gatherers are is bleak and sorrow-making. Every riverine valley in the temperate world is dominated by modern human settlement, lately much to the detriment of all concerned. Contemporary hunter-gatherers exist only where civilized humans have found no cause to usurp them.

We adapted to whatever diets we adapted to by necessity and random discovery. For now necessity’s no longer a factor except among the poorest, who mostly filter the waste of their betters and seldom have a chance to experiment with wild foodstuffs.

Once again we see the hubristic chauvinism of modern humans asserting the time for evolution has passed. The tacit assumption being we’re as perfect as evolution could makes us, and from here on out we’ll be evolving to our own template, under our own regimen. That this is primarily capitalist and collectivist, and increasingly dependent on bizarre and unnatural human-controlled environments where the traces and remains of the natural world are only exhibited held in bondage – viz. landscape architecture with its tightly clipped and controlled flora, zoos, aquaria, nature reserves etc – is also woeful and sad.

The choice is presented as binary. This way or the old way. With us or against us. But of course it isn’t like that at all. We can continue to evolve to a larger, more open, less anthropocentric template.

Or we can wank ourselves into extinction.


bad Jim 06.07.08 at 6:33 am

Byron supposedly had good results by dousing all his food in vinegar.

Oliver Sacks described the case of an artist who lost his color vision due to a stroke (or a simultaneous automobile accident). He was disgusted by food that didn’t match his color perception; in other words, he could only eat things that he knew to be black or white. This might not be the best caloric restriction program, but a variant using other colors, like blue or red, might just work.


Adam 06.07.08 at 6:50 am

Re: chilis and hot foods.

I too heard about using chilis to mask old meat. However, I think I heard it in 2nd or 3rd grade in school, so I don’t give it much credence.

I’ll shoot for an easier rational why ‘hot’ foods are more prevalent near the equator – the spices that produce them all prefer hotter temperatures: peppers (both hot and not), black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. Also, as to the usage of hot peppers: these weren’t even introduced to the old world until a few hundred years ago, so the integration into all those cuisines they seem crucial for is very recent. If Persian cooking seems to not use them while Indian does, that could have as much to do with international relations when pepper plants were first brought over as any other reason.


bad Jim 06.07.08 at 7:40 am

Just for the halibut, a palindrome:

Doc, note: I dissent. A fast never prevents a fatness. I diet on cod.


bad Jim 06.07.08 at 8:01 am

Almost everything really tasty comes from the tropics, the planetary maximum of biological diversity. Sugar? Caffeine? Chocolate?

My Swedish ancestors, apparently, used to catch fish while they were running in such quantity that they had to leave most of them to, um, ferment. It appears that a taste for such has survived into the present.

We primitive Europeans had food preservation methods involving salt and acetic acid back in the stone ages, whereas spices, at their introduction, were luxury goods. And isn’t salsa now outselling catsup?


belle le triste 06.07.08 at 8:21 am

i was wondering what the white dust all over my kitchen surfaces was — flour, presumably, but why? i hadn’t been using any recently

the mice have discovered the shelf i keep the cornflour on, and been clambering up and feasting (or possibly throwing it at each other with glee)

clearly starch is part of THEIR current diet (or it was till i threw the bag away): also chocolate and refined white sugar if and when they find those: when i left some stock cubes out they chewed through the corner of foil — tho the most mess they made with foil was some antacid tablets, so perhaps their diet as inadvertently supplied by me doesn’t entirely agree with them

they are quite small mice, but sleek and swift and they climb awesome well


SG 06.07.08 at 8:24 am

46, 52, I wasn’t suggesting you need to eat heaps of carbs or have a carb-heavy diet, or anything. Just that if you want to exercise in any way, you need available energy and fat ain’t it. When I go weightlifting (I use the term loosely in connection with myself) I need to have eaten at least a decent lunch. And when I go kickboxing I need to have eaten a fairly decent carb-heavy snack too. I don’t think there is anything worse than the feeling of trying to struggle through on an empty tank.

The Atkins diet is a really good weightloss technique for people who are already overweight due to excessive sugar intake, and plan on doing precisely nothing about their lack of exercise. But an equally good diet would be “stop drinking that crap, it’s just sugar”.

And yes, I think corn syrup is destroying our civilisation, because it is cheap bad carbs.


Tim Worstall 06.07.08 at 9:22 am

““Warm foods” supermarkets could open catering to the seekers after rotten food.”

I’ve been to kebab joints like that.

Not twice though. not twice to the same one.


abb1 06.07.08 at 9:29 am

Adam knew his wife Eve intimately, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain. She said, “I have had a male child with the Lord’s help.” Then she also gave birth to his brother Abel. Now Abel became a shepherd of a flock, but Cain cultivated the land.

After a while they both give a sample of their produce to the Lord. And the Lord – pay attention now – he takes meat and rejects starch. See, that’s a clear hint right here, for those who know how to read The Book: all that hometz stuff is not good for ya. Go Atkins, fellas.


Andrew Brown 06.07.08 at 1:05 pm

Bad Jim: I believe that the taste for fermented herring (surströmming) arose from military necessity: the Swedes needed to feed their armies in the Thirty Years’ War when the troops were wintering in devastated country, which most of Poland and Germany were.


Alex 06.07.08 at 1:37 pm

Alternatively, Dan, you could simply assume that none of the fad diets have any content whatsoever, and any success they may have is entirely due to the user’s willingness on that occasion to exercise or eat less or both.

Their common failure mode is of course that they promise you can *stop* not eating so much and/or running without regaining weight.

Assuming that one’s willingness to comply varies around a central limit, and that users are subject to the fundamental attribution error and confirmation bias, we have a workable model where users try diets and either succeed or fail at time=t, entirely randomly. We also know that, eventually, they will fail, and then try another one because they overbelieve in the importance of the diet due to FAE – however, if they succeed at time=t they will stick with that one due to confirmation.

This, I think, is sufficient to explain the existence of so many fad diets and the market structure. Note that random waves of fashion would regularly sweep through this model, just as they do in real life.


J Thomas 06.07.08 at 1:58 pm

“My Swedish ancestors, apparently, used to catch fish while they were running in such quantity that they had to leave most of them to, um, ferment. It appears that a taste for such has survived into the present.”

This is pretty common, from the roman garum to modern worcestershire sauce.

I have a bottle of asian fish sauce that I must use very sparingly because the smell reminds my family of dog food.


bicycle Hussein paladin 06.07.08 at 3:23 pm


I’ll shoot for an easier rational why ‘hot’ foods are more prevalent near the equator – the spices that produce them all prefer hotter temperatures: peppers (both hot and not), black pepper, ginger, and cinnamon.

Hot chilis will grow just about anywhere. I don’t think it’s easier to grow them in, say, Russia, relative to other vegetables (apart from the more cold-resistant food plants, like potatoes). I could see how people in hot places might have taken to chilis because they were already used to other spices. But I think there are a number of regions whose cuisines use hot chilis, but very few other spices. I don’t have good quantitative data, but it seems like the chili-only places are the ones with the greatest distance from, and least trade with, India or Mexico. W Africa and Vietnam seem to have a high chili to spice ratio, whereas Thailand and Malaysia, Yunnan, Szechuan, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia use a lot of the spices that were a big part of the Indian Ocean trade.

I wonder, do almost all hot places prefer spicy cuisine, or are there any large areas (Central Africa, perhaps?) where they don’t eat them? A lot of the Middle East is very hot and they don’t use that many chilis (Iran is actually relatively colder, at least some parts of it…) I don’t think Venezuela and neighboring areas of S America use a lot of hot chilis. You could chalk that up to Spanish influence, but African and Native American populations are quite large there, and Africans in W Africa and the Caribbean use plenty of them.


Editer 06.07.08 at 4:26 pm

I understood that the bacteria responsible for rotting meat are quite different to those responsible for food poisoning.

So I assume one can cook (or not?) and eat rotten meat with fewer problems than meat contaminated by fecal matter, for instance.

Is this right?


J Thomas 06.07.08 at 4:57 pm

“I would think that early humans were much more vulnerable to periods of food scarcity. Accordingly, they would have been motivated to consume as many calories as possible to increase their chances of surviving through periods of scarcity.”

Wouldn’t you expect a variety of strategies to fit a variety of environments?

If you occasionally have food shortages lasting a few days, then it makes sense to keep enough reserves to manage that.

But if you have to travel a lot, you want to cut down on excess weight. Likewise if you need to run fast, then why run with weight you don’t need?

If you occasionally have severe food shortages that last a month or two, then carrying fat might help you get through them — when you can’t store food well. But if you live in one place where you can keep a cache of food safe, that’s a better response.

If you get a whole lot of cold weather and not much hot weather then you might want fat for insulation. Even if you don’t hibernate, and even if you have warm clothing. If winter is your time for food scarcity then it makes even more sense.

Doesn’t all this fit for a variety of paleolithic ecological niches? Not so much when you can protect a trove of food from vermin and scavengers and, well, all comers. Not so much when you have fire and warm clothing and maybe a warm hut.

So we’re looking at caveman adaptations that we now must adapt to, and each person might have a genome that comes from a unique combination of old adaptations to a variety of ecosystems.

We haven’t had much time for selection to cull the people who eat lots of carbonated drinks full of high-fructose corn syrup etc. If you fit the new lifestyle too well then you might be one of the ones who gets culled to help the population adapt to — this.


J Thomas 06.07.08 at 5:01 pm

“This, I think, is sufficient to explain the existence of so many fad diets and the market structure. Note that random waves of fashion would regularly sweep through this model, just as they do in real life.”

Yes! Did everybody get the subtlety of that last sentence? Random waves of fashion tend to determine which topics people apply this model to.

But read a different way, it says that random waves of fashion will happen in individual runs of the model applied to a particular topic.


Alex 06.07.08 at 5:28 pm

Too many comments to read them all, but apparently nobody raises the possibility that Nassim Taleb is actually just doing an experiment with that diet, not buying the theory behind it 100%.

Indeed, if people talking about Taleb would have bothered to read his “Opacity” blog, they would have seen that he is using diets as experiments on himself, not as an endorsement of a particular theory behind the diet.


Lee A. Arnold 06.07.08 at 6:11 pm

A new fad sweeping rich west Los Angeles: ionized, alkaline water dispensers. It cleans up your “free radicals,” preventing cancer and so on. A $4000 machine (!) you stick near the kitchen faucet.

One person claimed he just got one, and it’s helping him lose weight. He’s down 20 lbs! I pointed out to him that he was down 40 lbs. a year and a half ago, then he put it all back on again.

Moral of the story? Never point this out to anyone!

Another said that this water machine cured acid reflux. “So will Rolaids, half the time.” Feeling remorse for being snotty I relented, and read the marketing materials. They are glossy and sophisticated, and cleverly gauged to suggest salutary results from simple biochemical experiments, without any outright claims.

For myself: I had to stop eating sugar.

I had a rolling series of symptoms over a two-year period, some putting me in the emergency room: headaches, sleeplessness, neck and back pain, ears ringing, numbness, heart racing, acid reflux, irritated stomach and intestines, trembling.

I was going through another attack when, on a whim, I typed all the symptoms into Google — and hit every “diabetes” website on the planet!

None of the modern doctors had said the word!

It turns out that I am what you call “pre-diabetic,” which used to be called “hypoglycemic/hyperglycemic.” Extra sugar is poison, to me.

Moral of the story? You can use Google as an expert medical system!

I found a quote from a doctor about a hundred years ago who called too much sugar “the disease that mimics all other diseases.” Believe it, if you’re 55!

On prehistoric diets: It is likely they ate very well and for the most part with wide variety. Wildlife ecosystems were highly productive. I remember reading an early 20th-century anthropological report of hunter-gatherers on a Pacific island — the men never worked, the women worked a few hours a day plucking food from the trees. Where I should have been born!

On what is really recommended now? A low calorie diet, lots of sleep and lots of exercise. If you can hold on for about twenty more years, ageing will be cured. After that, ageing will be reversed. There are some people alive now who will be alive for several hundred years. You will have the body of a teenager, and you will even like hiphop.


notsneaky 06.07.08 at 6:57 pm

“the Swedes needed to feed their armies in the Thirty Years’ War when the troops were wintering in devastated country, which most of Poland and Germany were.”

Poland didn’t really get in on the 30 Years War (aside from some action in Royal Prussia). The Wiki entry on the 30YW doesn’t even have the word “Poland” in it. You’re probably thinking of the first Northern War (the “Deluge”) or mixing up Poland with Bohemia.

Sorry to be picky. Need a break from grading.


notsneaky 06.07.08 at 7:00 pm

Might as well nit pick myself. I meant Ducal Prussia not Royal Prussia.


Adam 06.07.08 at 7:55 pm

@ 77 : Pepper seeds fail to germinate properly if the soil temperatures aren’t around 80 F. Without greenhouses, the range where they can be grown easily is much smaller. My grandfather used to grow them in New York, but it requires starting them indoors several weeks before planting. On the other hand, my parents live in Texas. They can throw tomato or pepper seeds on the ground, leave them alone and have an abundant crop in a few weeks.

Another thing to look at would be the coincidence of tomato usage and pepper usage. Tomatoes are not spicy, but their usage overlaps heavily with peppers. They both came from Central America, so where they are used is either related to where they are able to grow, or where they spread due to accidents fo trade.


bicycle Hussein paladin 06.08.08 at 12:33 am

I didn’t know that about peppers. I wonder how much of the world could grow peppers, but doesn’t use them much in the local cuisine?

The tomato-pepper coincidence is interesting. But some large regions of the world don’t fit that pattern. They use a lot of peppers in China, and of different kinds, not just hot chilis, but they use relatively little tomato.


dr ngo 06.08.08 at 6:33 am

Lest it be thought, even for an instant, that anyone here has Figured It Out with regard to the usage of chili peppers, let me refer you to the Philippines.

It is in the same climate and cultural zone as countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia, where the use of chilis is ubiquitous. I remember on my first trip to Thailand observing with amazement that every table in every tiny cafe was equipped with no less than three kinds of chilis (dry, wet, and pickled), and patrons were piling them on their food (already so hot my wife and I were extracting whatever peppers we could see) at 6 AM . . .

Yet most Filipinos rarely use chilis in their cuisine. (When we arrived, after three weeks in Thailand and Malaysia, our tastebuds were so cauterized we could scarcely taste anything for a week.)

EXCEPT – and here the mystery deepens – for the Bikol region of southeast Luzon, where they deploy chilis so assiduously that it’s claimed that in a typhoon the Bikolano peasant will save his peppers before his family.

I’ve been studying this region for 35 years or so, and have no explanation for it. Sometimes we need to bow in reverence before the enigma of life.

(Incidentally, both the Burmese and the Vietnamese use far fewer chilis than the Thai, Indonesians, and Malays, but more than the Filipinos [except the Bikolanos]. I offer these observations as imponderable data point.

(Also: why hot peppers in Szechwan and Hunan, but not farther north OR south OR east within China?)

(Whatever it is, it ain’t simple.)


bicycle Hussein paladin 06.08.08 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for the observations, dr ngo, it’s a fascinating problem and I don’t we can rule out any of the factors mentioned–trade routes, cultural exchange, older culinary habits, physiological effects of capsaicin, ease of growing peppers, etc…


Adam 06.08.08 at 6:22 pm

@ 88: I think all of the effects you’ve mentioned probably play a role. I also think that previous culinary usage of other ‘hot’ spices is probably important. For instance, Szechwan and Hunan used ginger and Szechwan peppercorns prior to the introduction of chilis to produce the hot effect. When chilis were introduced, they incorporated them easily into their cuisine. So having access to those other spices probably makes a difference. Scandinavia both probably isn’t suited for growing chilis and they hadn’t really incorporated the other hot spices into their foods, so they probably wouldn’t go out of their way to import large quantities of chilis.


Adam 06.08.08 at 6:26 pm

Also, Dr. Ngo – thanks for that information. The patterns of pepper usage. Surely somebody has done a study on this. Sounds like the type of thing some one would write a thesis on.


sara 06.08.08 at 11:59 pm

People aren’t supposed to overthink the “Paleolithic Diet.” The majority of people who adopt it probably know nothing about evo-psycho or biology. It’s intended to stop folks from buying and consuming processed foods, which solves a major part of diet problems right there, unless they eat nuts like popcorn. Most processed foods are starchy or sweet.

As good a diet would be “You must walk everywhere to buy everything you eat,” unless you live right in the city with restaurants and grocery stores every few blocks. If you live several miles from the nearest grocery store, it would work OK. If you live twenty miles from the nearest grocery store, you could leap to professional marathoning, though you might prefer actually hunting and gathering your own food from the wild.


Alex 06.09.08 at 11:29 pm

Well, that was rather Dan’s point – all these rituals only have efficacy in that they involve eating less.


J Thomas 06.10.08 at 12:25 pm

We don’t know whether eating less is all they’re good for.

That’s one thing they’re good for. There could be other benefits and disadvantages.

Eating less refined sugar and high fructose corn syrup is an obvious benefit. And less white flour. Whatever you fill in with is bound to be more expensive, though. And maybe not that much healthier, depending on what you choose.


Liz 06.10.08 at 5:53 pm

I don’t know anything about the DeVany guy, but recently I have been reading about the “paleo” diet. I don’t think that it is a realistic possibility for me, but my husband and I are normal weight, we get exercise, and I always prepare our food from scratch (we are also non-smokers who drink almost only water). But his cholesterol was recently tested as too high, and my blood pressure was on the high end of the normal range.

It is easy to be critical of fad diets, but the reality is that getting real information on what constitutes a healthy diet is very difficult. So I am trying to get more information from any source available to me. I had thought that low fat was important–now I read on the Harvard School of Public Health website that the proportion of your calories that come from fat is not important. The Paleo diet definitely has some good ideas–by eating mostly fruits and veggies, with some lean meats you get all of the vitamins and minerals that your body needs. You also have a better balance of omega 3/omega 6 acids.

I don’t know a lot about biology or evolutionary psychology. I know enough about history and the history of food systems and nutrition to know that there is a lot of variation in what people have eaten at different times and in different places. Also the food we buy at the supermarket is very different than the varieties that our paleolithic ancestors had access to.

I just think that a lot of people want to know how to be healthier, and it is not that easy to find credible information. At least on the paleo diet (although I don’t know about the DeVany version) you will have less chance to get many chronic diseases and you will get all your vitamins and minerals.

I would be interested in understanding why it is considered “reactionary” and why there seems to be so much hostility towards it. I don’t believe that the authors of this blog are doctors or nutritionists, so how can they be sure that they are right about what makes “fad diets” work?


Oskar Shapley 06.11.08 at 12:14 am

There are two levels of evolutionary adaptation that matter:

1. can you digest it
2. does it damage your other organs

For example, a diet high in cholesterol is digestible, but will cause atherosclerosis in the long term.

The EP idea is that we might have adapted to eat starch or lactose in order to survive, but our evolution has not adapted to nullify the secondary effects.

Keep in mind that the secondary effects manifest in old age and humans are not supposed to live 70 years. There is no evolutionary pressure to keep you healthy until then, because most of us have kids in the 20-30s. At least the women, which is all that matters.


J Thomas 06.11.08 at 8:36 am

Oskar, your evolutionary argument would make good sense if we were cockroaches, or komodo dragons. Komodo dragons lay their eggs and protect them some before they hatch, and then the babies hide from the children to keep from getting eaten, and the children hide from the adults to keep from getting eaten, and small adults hide from larger adults to keep from getting eaten….

But humans survive in family groups and in larger-than-family groups. Our effect on our children doesn’t end in our 20=30s. Being an orphan makes a difference.

So we may have evolved to wear out at the best rate for the survival of our families.

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