Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Nutrition Debate #54: Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf and Kurt Harris

What do these three guys have in common? If you said Paleolithic nutrition, you would only get an argument from Kurt Harris. Although he started out with a huge bow to Gary Taubes, and then called his blog PaNu for Paleolithic Nutrition, he subsequently changed the name to Archevore. His thinking continues to evolve, and he no longer uses the word Paleo. His website says his thinking “is not derived from a single science or field of inquiry, but draws first on medical sciences like biochemistry and endocrinology, and only then looks back with history and paleoanthropology.” I like that.
Other differences between Harris and the other two is that Harris is an MD and has not (yet) written a book. Cordain has a PhD in exercise physiology, and Wolf has a BS in Biochemistry, a popular podcast on Paleolithic nutrition and exercise, and is a power lifting champ and weightlifting coach. He worked with Cordain in his biochemistry lab and describes Cordain as his mentor. Cordain’s book, “The Paleo Diet” (2002) was a best seller and has now come out in a revised edition (2011), which I have just read. I have also just read Wolf’s book, “The Paleo Solution,” published in 2010.
Both books preach essentially the basic Paleo prescription: no grains, no dairy, no added sugars, no legumes and very little salt. Eat only lean meat, non-starchy fruits and vegetables (for vitamins, phytochemicals and fiber) and mostly monounsaturated and some polyunsaturated fats.  Both diets cut you some slack in different ways. Cordain gives you a day or two “off diet” a week, to induce you to try it. Wolf says “just try it for a month” to see and feel the difference. Cordain allows a little honey; Wolf says, barring autoimmune problems, “it’s tough to build much of a case against grass-fed butter.” Both authors advocate lots of exercise.
Cordain’s “The Paleo Diet” is a useful introduction to the paleo way of eating, as are many online sources. It is designed for someone who doesn’t want to get “into the weeds” of the science, and asks the reader to trust in the author’s academic research credentials and lab staff. He assumes you won’t eat much organ meat, so he substitutes plant protein for the nutrients you would otherwise miss. He advises that you only eat “lean meat” and fats mostly from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated sources, the latter for the essential fatty acids (EFAs), n6 and n3, in the right balance. In the revised edition he says he has “softened his stance on the saturated fat issue,” allowing that stearic acid is “healthful,” unlike palmitic acid “which dominates the fat of feedlot cattle.”
Wolf’s book, “The Paleo Solution,” starts off with a primer in Paleo biochemistry for the non-geek. He works hard, and mostly succeeds, at making it “accessible.” His book also has a lot more energy and is more fun to read. It seems to be geared to a younger demographic. Interestingly, Cordain’s book makes many references to the bogey man of a decade ago (“fad low-carb diets”), while Wolf’s target is vegans. Personally, being a (Type 2 diabetic) low-carber myself, and acutely aware of the vegan menace in public health policymaking in Washington, I side with Wolf. It is interesting that both authors seem to need an antagonist.
Cordain’s book has an index but no footnotes and the bibliography adds only gravitas (and pages) – it isn’t divided by chapter – so there is no easy way to dig deeper into any of the claims made. It does include brief menu and recipe sections. Wolf’s book has no index or footnotes either, but the bibliography is divided by chapter. His menus incorporate some recipes. Both books are commercial in that their primary purpose appears to be pecuniary, although much of Wolf’s material is available online, gratis.
My favorite of these three, though, is Dr. Harris. His approach is so sublime. He says at his website, for example, “An Archevore is someone who eats based on essential principles, and also someone who hungers for essential principles. Take your pick.” And, “After hearing Gary Taubes on the radio, I had an epiphany and ever since I've been exploring the field of nutrition through the lenses of medicine and evolutionary biology.” And, “I have had a lifelong interest in science and medicine as culture, and believe all claims to scientific authority should be subject to thoughtful skepticism.” How can you not like this guy? His intellectual curiosity is the driver; the scientific method his “mechanism”; his vision pure. Unfortunately, in recent months he hasn’t posted on his blog, but his website Archevore is still ‘up.’ Take a look at it.
© Dan Brown 5/27/12


  1. If you've read Cordain's updated book you should know he's changed his view on saturated fat. Wolf is pro saturated fat as well. Chris Kresser has a lot of good info on why saturated fat is not such a big deal, and cholesterol may be overrated (though he is middle of the road on this).

    1. Thanks, George, for bring this to my attention. As you can see, I wrote this column 18 months ago, and this field is changing quickly. I try to cover WAP and Paleo on the fringes, but if you follow my column regularly, I am basicly a VLC advocate, for blood glucose control, weight loss without hunger, and vastly improved blood lipids, especially HDL and triglycerides. But to the extent eating real, whole foods is incorporated in all of these Ways of Eating, I support them all. I think there is too much dissension among us who "eat clean." I think we have much more in common that we have to disagree about.
      PS: I like what Chris Kresser has to say; I just can't stand the podcast format!