Paleo is all the rage.
Should you join the bandwagon?
But most cardiologists think it is nuts to warm up to eggs, butter or lard.
Most people have several incorrect assumptions about the Paleo diet. It is almost always misinterpreted.
Paleo should be an inspiration to eat and live in a simpler, cleaner, ancestral way. A rough guide. A template. That’s it.
It is not a low-carb carnivorous diet. It’s not Atkins with a spit shine. Technically, even vegans could be Paleo if they ate just fruits, vegetables and nuts.
True Paleolithic diets are almost never replicated because it would require eating bugs, grubs, reptiles and the like. But that’s not the point.
The point I’m trying to make is that you don’t have to go that far back in human history to find the ideal nutritional template. Eating the way people did even 100 years ago will have tremendous positive effects on your health.
My 30 Year Study
I’ve been quietly conducting an informal study/survey for the past 30+ years.
It involves talking to two groups of people about diet.
The first group: elderly people from remote and rural parts of the world
I asked them these questions:
- What did you eat as a child?
- What do you recall your grandparents or great-grandparents eating?
- Do your grandchildren still eat the same foods? If not, how is their diet different today?
Second group: cardiologists from all over the world
These are interventional cardiologists – the people trained to do bypass surgeries and put in stents. Cardio plumbers. To this group, I asked the following question: what dietary advice do you give your patients?
This survey wasn’t meant to be a secret. Initially, it was mostly to satisfy my curiosity. It’s where my love for off-the-beaten-path travel and interests in nutrition, anthropology and geopolitics met.
I traveled a lot as a child – with and without my parents. I spent 1980 in Nigeria and that was a springboard to my globetrotting. It seemed quite normal that I, a mere teenager, found myself traveling alone in Spain or Ghana. (Yes, my parents were concerned and no, they weren’t hippies.)
Everywhere I went, I noticed that the illnesses that people complained about were different.
My neighbors in Chicago seemed to be dealing with completely different health issues than the people I met in the Niger river delta of West Africa. The issues were chronic diseases in modern societies and infectious diseases in rural and forest societies. I just assumed that was a cultural and genetic difference.
The older I got, the more I started to suspect that diet had something to do with this.
As the 80s and 90s rolled on by, America was gripped in fat-phobia. By the time I graduated from Purdue Univ. (Indiana) in 1990, I was eating fat-free everything. So were most of my peers. Yet the student body was literally getting bigger.
Why were we getting fatter? Why wasn’t heart disease over?
Strangely, people I met in rural parts of the world – Chiang Mai (Thailand), Zaragoza (Spain), and Beni (Bolivia), who weren’t on fat-free diets – were all thin and relatively healthy.
I found the diet in Basque and Catalonia regions of Spain to be particularly high in fat, with their cheeses, hams, cream, rabbit, and octopus specialties. Yet nobody in the rural areas was fat.
The city folk in Barcelona and Madrid were, however, starting to look soft and unhealthy like my neighbors in America.
The same for the gauchos in rural Artigas (Uruguay) versus the office workers in capital city, Montevideo.
Urban teenagers in Brazilian shopping malls were almost always heavier and had more acne than the indigenous rural tribes kids in the Amazon. The teenagers growing up deep in the Amazon jungle had insect bites but never any acne.
Apparently acne doesn’t have to be a rite of passage. I’d like to have known that at fifteen.
This got me thinking. Rural, working class, or forest-dwelling, hunter-gatherer people seem to eat a more conservative or ancestral diet than their city brethren.
Was there something in the way rural people ate that made them healthier?
My gut said ‘yes.’ So I kept asking questions till I felt I had some answers.
And I have some answers.
I hope to keep expanding this blog over the years. But I’ll share the punch line with you here.
Here is what all cardiologists the world over said:
‘Eat a low-fat diet.’
That’s it. Simple.
Every single cardiologist said the same thing. They all wanted me to avoid fat like it was poison. Many of them expanded on it and said that I’d be better off avoiding meat as well.
I met with cardiologists in Brazil, Nigeria, Spain, USA, Uruguay, Singapore, Korea, and India.
Universal egg avoidance
We usually met over breakfast and you’d be surprised how many of them left the eggs on their plates untouched. Many of them ate the egg white and left the yolk alone.
This often led to my eating their yolks (if I knew them well enough) and them thinking I was crazy. They all had the same puzzled, patronizing look when I ate their yolks or poured a generous amount of cream into my coffee. One advised me to stop embracing American counter-culture. And another said, ‘But…you’re a scientist! Why would you eat the yolks?’
But that’s exactly my point. I am a scientist. If the evidence against egg yolks was convincing (or even present), I’d eliminate it from my diet right now.
But there hasn’t been a single published scientific paper that conclusively proves eating egg yolks causes any disease. Yet there are dozens upon dozens of papers proving egg yolks are one of the richest and densest source of nutrients available to humans. It contains essential nutrients that most city dwellers are deficient in – choline, Vitamins A, and K2 come to mind.
But that’s just pesky science.
My goal wasn’t to change the minds of a few cardiologists – the point of this decades-long survey was to hear confirmation of what they thought. And now I know.
It’s as if cardiologists the world over were reading from the same notes. Notes disseminated by the US government and American Heart Association back in the 1970s.
‘Animal fat contains cholesterol and cholesterol is involved in atherosclerosis,’ summed up their collective view on butter, red meat, cream, lard, and certainly egg yolks. Egg whites got a reluctant approval. Some of them avoided egg whites too.
These foods rest on the Paleo altar thanks to their nutrient density and millennia of use. But it’s easy to see how the Paleo diet can be viewed as part of counter-culture. Sure, there are folks who’ve had enough of ‘low-fat’ and choose to defiantly wrap their middle fingers with bacon.
A New Breed of Cardiologists
There is something else you need to know: these opinions are from interventional cardiologists. They receive virtually no training in nutrition or food biochemistry. Everything they know about nutrition is from what they’ve heard from TV, news, pharmaceutical reps, and reading.
Interventional cardiologists are not paid for preventing heart disease. They’re paid for roto-rootering you. They send you back out into the world, nutritionally naked and with a zipper on your chest. That’s what they do. And they do it well.
Preventive cardiology is different. It is an emerging field. So is functional cardiology. Cardiologists in this new branch of science are cut from a different cloth. And you will often hear them discussing healthy fats, refined grain and sugar avoidance, inflammation, etc.
Outside wealthy, westernized nations, preventive cardiology is almost unheard of. I’ve only spoken to a couple of preventive cardiologists and don’t yet have a grasp on how they collectively feel about diet. But so far, they seem more informed and fat-friendly.
This brings me to the diets of rural, ancestral, or forest-dwelling peoples. What can these people teach us? More in Part 2 of this series.