Sunday, March 31, 2019

Retrospective #54: Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf and Kurt Harris


What do these three guys have in common? If you answered Paleolithic nutrition, only Kurt Harris, MD would disagree. Harris’s interest in nutrition was piqued after he read science writer Gary Taubes’s “Good Calories – Bad Calories,” (“The Diet Delusion” in the UK). At first, he called his blog PaNu for Paleolithic Nutrition. He subsequently changed the name to Archevore, deleting the reference to Paleo. Before he disappeared into the ether 5 or 6 years ago, he said his thinking continued to evolve. His website used to say that 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 liked that. I miss Kurt Harris’s presence in the blogosphere.
In 2012 other differences between Harris and the other two is that Dr. Harris hadn’t 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. Before writing this column, I had read the 2011 revised edition. I had also 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. To induce you to try it, I think, Cordain gives you a day or two “off diet” a week. 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 Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids. In the revised edition he says he has “softened his stance on the saturated fat issue,” allowing that stearic acid, from grass-fed beef, 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. 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 “fad low-carb diets,” while Wolf’s target is vegans. Being a long-term Type 2 diabetic and low-carber myself, and acutely aware of the vegan menace in public health policy making in Washington, I take Wolf’s side on this issue. It is interesting that both authors seem to need an antagonist.
Cordain’s book has an index but no footnotes. The bibliography only adds gravitas (and pages) but isn’t divided by chapter, so there is no way to dig deeper into any of the claims made. It includes brief menu and recipe sections.
Wolf’s book has no index and no footnotes, but the bibliography is divided by chapter. His menus incorporate some recipes. Both books are simply commercial tracts, with their primary purpose appearing to be sales revenue.
My favorite of these three, though, is easily the little-known Dr. Harris. His approach is so sublime. He said on his website, “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. How could a guy like this sell his soul to a book publisher?

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