The Battle of the (Mainstream) Heavyweight Diets

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”

Bertrand Russell

The following video is of a lecture given in January 2008 by Christopher Gardner, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, and focuses on the largest and longest-ever comparison (as of that time) of a selection of  four popular diets studied under real-world conditions.  The diets in question were the Ornish, Zone, LEARN (i.e., the diet recommended by most academics and the USDA — the food pyramid we all know and love), and, last but not least, the Atkins diet.  The 311 participants, (all pre-menopausal, overweight women) were divided into 4 groups, with each group having been provided 8 weeks of  “in-depth” nutritional training using the representative flagship book for each diet.  Training was led by a dietitian who preached the magnificence and utter superiority of each group’s assigned diet.  All of this makes for an interesting study because of the real-worldliness of having these participants attempt to “follow the book” for themselves (subsequent to the 8 weeks of brainwashing, that is).

An additional interesting twist here is that Professor Gardner is (was?) a twenty-five year vegetarian, who, having come into the study with a heavy, pre-conceived bias, admits (and you have to give him kudos for this), that his long-standing notions of the efficacy of a vegetarian diet may have been completely unfounded.

Of course, we in the Paleo community would’ve loved to have seen the Paleo way represented in this study — but hey, the fact that Atkins was included is a monumental step in itself.  In fact, Dr Gardner does bring up the subject of the Paleo diet toward the end of the lecture — to the hoots of snorts and laughter from what I can only assume was a very learned and open-minded audience (really, no sarcasm intended).  Whatever; I’m in the pharmaceutical business — all those snorts and all that laughter sounds like job security to me.

Anyway, I do think this lecture is well worth the time investment.  You may not learn anything new about diet, per se, but you’ll certainly pick up quit a bit in the way of diet psychology.  Keep in mind as you watch just how well a Paleo diet would have fared in this trial.  Remember, you’d have had 8 weeks to teach someone the whys and hows of the Paleo way; 8 weeks to stage for, and transition through, the carb Jones; 8 weeks of social re-conditioning and n=1 individualization tinkering.  What book would I have “preached”?  Well, personally I’d have opted for Primal Body, Primal Mind, by Nora Gedgaudas.  For homework, I’d have assigned selections from Taubes’s GCBC.

A few interesting things to keep in mind as you watch:

Dr. Gardner’s chart presentation on the spread of obesity throughout he US is powerful.  We all know these facts, yes — seeing it presented in this fashion, though, brings this static information “alive” in a profound way.

Notice as well all the maddening, tunnel-visioned viewing of the study’s statistical results data through the old “calories in, calories out” prism.  It’ll make you want to jump through the screen and remove the good doctor’s blinders.  It reminds me of the story of the two fish, wherein one fish asks the other, “what’s this stuff water I keep hearing about?”

Interesting, too, is the behind the scenes view of what it required to land a study grant, and how painfully long the wait is between grant acquisition and the release of actual study findings.  And add to this all of the Political wrangling — both in academia and in the government realm — that must be traversed.  It’s mind numbing.   If it were not for the internet allowing the immediate connection of like-minded folks, all of whom are actively engaged in n=1 studies of “Paleo science”, Paleo would yet to even have a fair hearing in the world of nutritional science.

Kudos, then, to us — for actively advancing the Paleo science.

And a big round of thanks are in order to the Balanced Existence website for having re-excavated this find.   You can read their interesting commentary on the lecture, here.

Sit back and enjoy.

In health,


Questions? Answers! Dairy, Legumes, Fruit

Reader Bryce asks the following interesting questions. A little background on Bryce will serve to put his questions, and my answers to them, in proper context.

Bryce is a service member (US Navy), currently serving a good portion of his time aboard ship. Of course, this limits his available Paleo choices, both food-wise and workout-wise. Bryce’s training background is CrossFit-oriented — his diet, Zone-oriented – so he’s got a good, solid base from which to phase, where practicable for him, into a more Paleo-like lifestyle.

As a preface to the questions, let’s all remember, as always, that in any given situation, there’s the ideal choice, and then there’s the best available option in that given circumstance. I firmly believe that one of the main pillars to success with the Paleo way is to both realize the difference between the two, followed then, by choosing the best of available options in each given circumstance. I like to envision this as an ongoing wrestling match; each offensive advance, followed by the resultant, defensive counter-move. Punch, reaction, counter-punch, if you will. The next immediate step, then, is to wash your hands of the decision/action – don’t beat yourself up for having to make a sub-par decision in the context of a bad circumstance. Learn from the situation and move on. And, as always, do yourself the favor of limiting, wherever and whenever possible, submersion into sketchy situations.

So here’s Bryce’s questions. I’ve taken the liberty to paraphrase a bit, so I hope he doesn’t mind:


I’m writing because I had some questions about the paleo diet.  I know there are other channels that I could go through, but I’ve come to trust your opinion on these things, and I wanted your advice on a few points.

First, dairy: I know we didn’t evolve to eat dairy, and I could understand about not drinking milk (though it grieves me) because of the lactose, but what about hard cheeses? I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation or why these sources of relatively sugar free animal fat and protein are bad for me. Tonight for dinner I had a .5lb 93% lean burger (no bun of course), with a good slab of feta, mustard, spinach, and a little ketchup (bad I know). If the cheese helps me cope with the paleo diet, especially when I’m onboard my ship, or in another kitchen/grocery diminished capacity, is it that bad to have it? One day I may try to go without dairy, but I’d like to think it was for a good reason first. A potential follow up question would be: is lactose inherently worse for you than fructose? Does it, by itself, induce a more potent insulin response? I know we are ok with eating fruit because the insulin response is muted by the fiber in the fruit.”

Personally, the only dairy I take in is small amounts of (mostly)hard hard cheese now and again, and an occasional bit of yogurt.  Dairy has never been one of my “things” though, so for me, limiting it is no big deal.  I think though, that for those attempting to cut body fat as low as possible — or actively dieting down — it should be treated as a once in a blue moon treat — if not completely eliminated — as it can produce (depending upon form, load, etc.) a significant insulin hike (dependent upon lactose level of the dairy consumed).  We also have the negative auto-immune issues to address, and this is the overriding, in my opinion, knock on dairy.  Overall, I consider dairy as kind of a gray Paleo issue.  My take is, if you really enjoy it, have it sparingly, get it raw (if possible), and consume it full-octane (i.e., the full fat version).  By the way, I love Feta, too.  Limited dairy will neither make nor break you.   As far as lactose being worse/better than fructose, I think that the load of the carrier, the fat and fiber content, all have to be considered.  Here’s what I mean: consider the body’s insulin response to commercial whey protein.  These products will no doubt put the (fat) pounds on you in a hurry.  Why?  Well, these products are basically no more than protein and lactose. Hello insulin response!  The same comparison can be made between whole fruit and fruit juice.  I hate to be flippant, but really the lactose/fructose question is kinda like asking, which is better: a poke in the eye, or a kick in the ribs?  To even begin to choose, we first need to know in what manner, and to what degree.  Personally, I get around this quandary by limiting my intake of both.  This is the only viable real world solution you have.

“Secondly, legumes.  I read something recently suggesting the research condemning them was inconclusive. Thoughts? Because peanut butter has been a big help as a source of monounsaturated fatty acids and protein.”

Whenever I consider what foods are acceptable for my brand — the TTP brand — of the Paleo lifestyle, my first consideration is this: how does (or will) my body respond to the consumption of that food?  Obvious, right?  Well, not so fast.  Many people, both inside and outside the Paleo community, tend to become tunnel-visioned into the exact specifics of what our Paleolithic ancestors may or may not have consumed.  This can obviously lead to confusion and arguments over those said specifics, due to the fact that early man inhabited such a wide range of environments and had access to varying foodstuffs — and, more specifically, varying amounts and types of carbohydrates.  See this post as an example.  For me, though, the question is not simply what the human body can survive on, I want to know what the human body is geared to thrive on.  And this is where science comes into play.  What is the insulin response to a certain food?  The auto-immune response?  What is the resultant C-reactive protein level in the blood system.  How does a specific diet or foodstuff affect athletic and/or cognitive performance?  These are all questions, or screens, if you will, that a foodstuff has to do well on in order to make it to my plate.   Legumes, quite simply, don’t pass that screen due to their resultant and substantial insulin response.  Now, are legumes as “bad for you” as grains?  I honestly don’t know.  My personal feeling is that, although they illicit a substantial insulin response, they probably don’t hammer the auto-immune system to the degree that grains are capable of.  My policy is simply to avoid both legumes and grains whenever possible.  By the way, I have found that fresh cashew butter, if you can get your hands on some, is a good substitute for peanut butter.

And finally, oatmeal.  I know it’s an evil grain, and I’m not married to it, but the Zone crowd seem to have great things to say about it. Are they nuts?

I guess my take on oatmeal would just be,  why even consider it when there are so many other, better, non-grain options?  I think the Zone crowd’s infatuation with oatmeal steams from the fact that most of these people have just come in out the western diet wasteland, and anything — hell, even rank vegetarianism — is an improvement over that.  The Zone diet will still not force the body to covert to being a fat burner, i.e., there will still be a heavy reliance upon glucose as a primary fuel source.  So, I guess the question then becomes “I love oatmeal relative to…?”  What, Lucky Charms?  A bagel?  Donuts?  If those are the options, then hell yeah, by all means opt for the oatmeal.  Personally, given that situation, I would simply fast.  Of course, I’m no longer at the mercy of roller-coaster blood glucose levels, so fasting is a viable option.  Not so for the Zone crowd.

“Anyway, thanks again for being a source of continual, educational, “epistemocratic,” information on diet and exercise. It’s nice to find a voice in the darkness!”

Not a problem, Bryce.  I really enjoy writing, talking and doing the Paleo way.  In fact, get me going, and I have a hard time stopping.  Feel free — and this goes for anyone and everyone — to shoot me any questions you may have to  Alternatively, you can always leave a question via a comment to a particular post.

In Health,