Which is more… ridiculous? I thought the Paleo Diet was only of any utility when playing Logical Fallacy Bingo and so bereft of any basic scientific plausibility no wonder the Daily Mail loved it. Then someone told me about the Werewolf Diet. Working in a busy office everyone seems to be on one sort of diet or another – I don’t get it; working with me would piss anybody off, why add to it by restricting one’s intake of tasty stuff? Let’s look at the allegedly Palaeolithic and Lycanthropic Diets….
The Paleo Diet
According to Wikipedia:
…based on the presumed diet of Paleolithic humans… the premise that human genetics have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture… and that modern humans are adapted to the diet of the Paleolithic period. Consists mainly of fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats, eggs, vegetables, fruit, fungi, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, and processed oils. Certain portions should be established for balance of nutrients to maintain homeostasis.
Proponents argue that modern human populations subsisting on traditional diets, allegedly similar to those of Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, are largely free of diseases of affluence and that Paleolithic diets in humans have shown improved health outcomes relative to other widely-recommended diets.
As you might imagine, the sites recommending this diet are rather stretchier in their claims. So, the idea is the development of agriculture ~10,000 years ago (that led to a radical change in our diet) has left our poor little genome with no time to catch up. We are but cave men and women with only a gossamer-thin veneer of Armani and Prada separating us from our inner hunter-gatherer. [microbiologist mode]: we’re actually all covered in a veneer of stool bacteria as is everything else [/microbiologist mode]
So, eat like a caveman. Natural, innit.
Not it’s not, it’s Utter, Utter Bollocks (µ²B). This is a diet based on multiple fantasies. The first is that in Palaeolithic times we lived in some sort of Nirvana at balance with nature and everything was lovely. It was probably better than Neolithic times, I’ll give you that, but there was still a lot of plague and pestilence around. And cancer – but not so much because with a lifespan of ~30 years most likely something else would kill you first. And their arteries hardened up just like ours. Admittedly that study looked at mummies and so far as I know only the rich got mummified – but I’m just a simple microbiologist. Anyway, shitty, hard, short life no matter how you look at it. Loads better than now, eh? Wanna swap?
Also it wasn’t one diet. Yes, I’m sure the Eskimos ate lots of fish but people in sunnier climes most likely ate a lot more fruit. And animals migrate. Fish spawn. People’s diets – despite the rise of agriculturalism – would have varied dramatically dependent on both their location and the season. And no grains? Rather inconveniently there is plenty of evidence that 30,000 years ago our ancestors were grinding seeds and grains and were certainly foraging for them >100,000 years ago. We can go back further and show with radiocarbon trickery that our long-distant ancestors made the switch from leaves to grasses and seeds 2-3m years ago.
So, wrong diet, wrong assumptions, multiple logical fallacies; I think the final nail (not that it needs it) is that many of the foods that the Paleo Woo Warriors recommend – broccoli, carrots and bananas – are modern inventions unknown to yer average caveman. Incidentally, if you’re interested you can pick wild carrots: nasty, fibrous coves with zero nutritional value; it wasn’t until the 18th century that we saw the modern, orange β-carotene-laden cultivars over here.
So what about evolution and our Paleo genome getting confused by modern, processed foods?
This is based on the notion that our genome hasn’t caught up. But the idea that we’ve stopped evolving is also µ²B. There are plenty of examples that we continue to evolve; blue eyes, very recently the CCR5-D gene and HIV resistance (one for fellow genetics geeks!) and lactase persistence are the most often cited.
Let’s look at the last one. Lactase is an enzyme that digests milk. Mammals usually produce it until they are weaned then stop – organisms are generally quite good at not producing stuff if it’s no longer needed. But about 8-10,000 years ago humans started showing signs of lactase persistence – that is, continuing to produce it after weaning. And the spread of lactase persistence geographically mirrors the spread of the domestication of cattle. Spooky! Can you say e – v – o – l – u – t – i – o – n ?
The Not Really Paleo Diet seems to have many elements of the Raw Food diet. This is the notion that cooking destroys the nutritional value of foods. Yes, cooking can deplete some vitamins and other stuff – especially if you boil the hell out of things – but not significantly. And you generally make up such cooking losses elsewhere in a balanced diet anyway.
Most of the sites plugging this idea also claim that the process of cooking stops enzymes in food working (true) and thus take the ‘life’ out of food. Yes, you may well denature the enzymes. But here’s why that’s UIµ²B (Utterly Irrelevant Utter, Utter Bollocks):
For a start for the most part we’re talking about plant enzymes which are of limited utility to us (as enzymes at least) because we’re not plants. Moreover enzymes are proteins and when you eat any protein it will be broken down into its constituent amino acids so the body can absorb them. This is the fate of all proteins. It’s called digestion.
So far as carbs go, when you cook starch you increase the macronutrient availability by 2-12 times. Cooking makes many foods easier to digest and there is research suggestive that the increase in the hominid brain size was very much fuelled by the change to cooked rather than solely raw foodstuffs. Cooking stuff enabled us to get far greater calorific and nutritional value from foods which enabled us to grow the energy-hungry frontal cortex that fools us into thinking we aren’t just semi-sentient social services for out Microbial Overlords. Had the chimps or bonobos (with whom we share a common ancestor) sussed out how to cook things who knows what might have happened?
I’ve seen stuff claiming a raw food diet can ‘cure’ Type 2 diabetes. Of course diet can often control Type 2 diabetes – that’s the first line of treatment and is usually successful. This is standard practice – it’s the dietary control that’s doing the trick, not the Raw Poo Woo in and of itself.
So, a diet based on fantasy and nostalgia for something that never was. Oh dear. So how about lycanthropy, then?
The Werewolf Diet
It’s stuff like this that makes my day. It makes posts like these write themselves. You couldn’t make this up. Admittedly, when you read that those notorious Witches of Woo Madonna and Demi Moore are allegedly supporting something you know the bar isn’t set too high. The Daily Fail breathlessly reports:
[su_quote]Fans of the diet claim the moon exerts the same gravitational pull on the water in our bodies as it does on the world’s oceans. They claim this pull is biggest during a full and new moon, and undergoing a liquid fast during this time will enable the moon to flush toxins out of the body aiding weight-loss[/su_quote]
Yes, the moon does exert the same gravitational pull on our bodies as it does the world’s oceans. Fact.
Physical bodies attract each other “reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centres about which they revolve: and thereby compared the force requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth; and found them answer pretty nearly.”
Newton’s ‘pretty nearly’ is close enough for rock ‘n’ roll and the maths of general relativity make my brain hurt. So, the moon exerts a gravitational pull on the Earth’s oceans. But that pull drops rapidly (inverse square) with distance so the pull on the water on the side of the earth nearest the moon is far,far greater than the other – hence tides.
The moon is 250,000 miles away. The Earth is 8,000 miles across. That’s why we see an effect – it’s the diameter of the Earth that makes the difference. Yes, the moon does exert a tidal effect on our bodies but across six feet that effect is – to all intents and purposes – nothing.
Some people also claim the moon can affect your mood and that fasting during these points in the lunar calendar will reduce cravings.
Yes, the moon does have an effect on many animals – reproductive cycles etc – but this will be down to nocturnal illumination rather than gravitation. But when humans talk about the effect of a full moon on behaviour it’s superstition and confirmation bias. But that’s not the only Premium µ²B in the article:
[su_quote]Consuming more fluids will call on the power of the moon, stimulate renal activity, and allow your body to lose its excess water. This flushes out the toxins that accumulate in the body due to unhealthy foods, bad digestion, and stress, and provides a detoxifying effect that will strengthen your immune system.[/su_quote]
The Toxins!!!! I can see a whole future post looming regarding ‘toxins’. Until then, (i) toxins don’t accumulate in your body due to the process above, your liver takes care of that; (ii) drinking will cause you to pee more (due to homeostasis and the body is very good at it, thank you); and (iii) if ever anyone tries to sell you anything they claim ‘strengthens’ or ‘boosts’ your immune system just punch them. You can’t ‘boost’ your immune system. There are things that will decrease its ability to fight stuff off but you can’t ‘boost’ it unless you give yourself an infection. (That’s probably another post too.)
The Secret of Sustainable Weight Loss
The ‘average’ male burns about 2,500 Calories (or kcal) per day, women about 2,000. If you burn more than you take on you lose weight, eat more than you burn and you gain weight. Seeemples.
Fats contain about 9 kcal/gram, carbohydrates (starches, sugars) and proteins (meat, nuts) about 4 kcal/gram and alcohol about 7. Each pound of body weight represents about 3,500 kcal so to lose a pound a week you need to eat 500 kcal per day less than you burn and no µ²B diet will change that. And one extra slice of bread per day equates to about 5lb per year weight gain.
Incidentally, if you want to lose over 1,000 Calories a month you just need to drink a litre of iced water per day. You burn that amount energy just raising the water to body temperature. 1 cal raises 1g of water by 1°C. So, 1,000g x 37° x 30.4 days = 1,124,800 calories or 1,124kcal (or Calories). This is equivalent to two 100g bars of Dairy Milk.
[Also one food (big C) Calorie is 1,000 of the physicists’ (small c) calories. That’s why food is labelled in Calories or kcal.]
Exercise is great for muscle tone, CV health etc but the mythical 75kg male jogging for 30mins will burn 250kcal. So you don’t burn as much as you might think. The pain might distract you from how hungry you are but any calories you burn will be offset by the couple of pints you have afterwards.
Any successful diet works by the above maths. That’s biology. There is no alternative, no shortcuts. An aggressive regime (say, 1,000kcal less per day) will lose 2lbs per week. Many diets involving fasting are just calorie limitation with some marketing bullshit flecked liberally about them. But the risk of fasting for weight loss is that your body thinks ‘Shit! I’m starving!‘ – principally because you are – and so may well lower your basal metabolic rate to compensate.
So, both these diets have little to recommend them in terms of science but – while not a nutritionist – I’d say anything that limits calorific intake is generally a good thing. But it’s the lack of balance that’s my issue here. For example excluding dietary calcium and a whole bunch of STGFU (Shit That’s Good For You) cannot be healthful. And in terms of calorie limitation even if you starve yourself on 1,000kcal a day that 2lbs per week for ladies, 3 for gentlemen, max. Any more than that is water loss or other non-sustainable effects.
So next time you order a diet drink with the Mega Triple Grot Burger (with XL fries and mayo, natch) thinking that compensates and keeps you ahead of the game, forget it. Just look at the third of Americans who are obese (or the other third who are just overweight) if you don’t believe me…