An Outsider’s View of The Paleo Diet® Movement

Focus of this article

Agreeing on the meaning of words is very important so that we all know what we are talking about when we communicate. It seems to me that the Paleo-nutrition movement is lacking in this regard, because the “Paleo” nutrition concept has been hijacked and excessively commercialized by non-scientist marketers. This article represents an outsider’s view of Paleo-nutrition.

 

My background and view-point

I met Dr. Cordain in 2001, prior to the release of his first book, The Paleo Diet. A friend forwarded me two of his early articles:

Cordain L et al. Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. Brit J Nutr. 2000;83:207-17.

Cordain L. Cereal grains: humanity’s double-edged sword. World Rev Nutr Diet. 1999;84:19-73.

These articles intrigued me because I was studying how pain and inflammation could be impacted by nutrition. As a chiropractor, I noticed that many patients had a substantial reduction in pain when refined sugar, flour, and oil calories were replaced with vegetation. This led me to eventually write two articles, which were subsequently referenced by researchers at Harvard Medical School and many other universities in America and abroad:

Seaman DR, Cleveland C. Spinal pain syndromes: nociceptive, neuropathic, and psychologic mechanisms. J Manip Physio Ther. 1999; 22:458-72.

Seaman DR. The diet-induced pro-inflammatory state: A cause of chronic pain and other degenerative diseases. J Manip Physiol Ther. 2002;25:168-179.

I have written additional articles since that time, all of which focus on pain and inflammation (1-5). More recently, I wrote two layperson’s books, including The DeFlame Diet and Weight Loss Secrets You Need To Know. In short, I essentially view everything (lifestyle choices, pain, diseases, etc.) based on its relationship to inflammation.

In my book, The DeFlame Diet, the fundamental recommendation is to replace pro-inflammatory calories (refined sugar, flour, and oils) with vegetation, and otherwise consume a diet that is calorically appropriate to achieve a normal waist/hip ratio, which robustly correlates to other markers of inflammation that can also be easily tracked, such as blood pressure, glucose, lipids, and C-reactive protein. In other words, my perception is that ones diet should be molded so as to achieve normal markers of inflammation. The reason I have always been a fan of Dr. Cordain’s work is that his Paleo Diet recommendations are anti-inflammatory.

The primary DeFlame Diet recommendation to completely avoid sugar, flour, and refined oils (pro-inflammatory calories) and replace these calories with vegetation is 100% consistent with The Paleo Diet®. Where the DeFlame approach differs from the Paleo approach is that whole grains, legumes, and dairy are not completely excluded from The DeFlame Diet, and the reason is because these foods can be consumed and still lead to a reduction of chronic inflammation in a clinically meaningful fashion (6-8).

In The DeFlame Diet, I address whole grains, legumes, and dairy in a single chapter and argue that these calories need not be consumed at all if one chooses. However, they are not excluded so long as the markers of inflammation are appropriate. This is the reason I characterize myself as a “Paleo” outsider.

 

My recent perception of The Paleo Diet®

My first introduction to Paleolithic nutrition was Dr. S. Boyd Eaton’s seminal paper that was published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine (9). I did not think much about the topic until meeting up with Dr. Cordain years later. My perception then and now is that the Paleolithic diet is a research topic primarily that led to the development of lifestyle recommendations in Dr. Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet®.

I should say that my view of Paleo nutrition soured for a few years because of the fashion that it became commercialized. I witnessed “Paleo” books, blogs, and podcasts emerge, and my perception was that Dr. Cordain was orchestrating it to some degree, which I then found out was absolutely not the case. In 2014, I met up with Dr. Mark Smith at the World Golf Fitness Summit and was re-immersed into the “original” and “proper” Paleo diet mindset. For those who do not know, Dr. Smith was Dr. Cordain’s first “Paleo-oriented” graduate student.

With my properly oriented “Paleo” mindset, I began to look at the big names in the commercialized world of Paleo and ancestral nutrition. What I found was a sea of non research-based “Paleo” proponents;” none of whom have any significant scientific background at all.

 

What do I mean by “non research-based “Paleo” proponents”?

To me, the “non research-based “Paleo” proponents” are those who identified and resonated with Dr. Cordain’s Paleo diet book and research, and who then went out and started to use the word “Paleo” in their own books, blogs, websites, youtube channels, and podcasts. In my mind, The Paleo Diet® is Dr. Cordain’s thing, so it did not even occur to me that I would use the term “Paleo” or “ancestral health” as part of my identity.

At conferences, I typically ask the audience if they have heard of the The Paleo Diet® and if yes, what name do they associate with it? Quite often, people do not mention Dr. Cordain, which astounds me, as he is the founder and primary driver of Paleolithic nutrition research.

In my opinion, the “non research-based “Paleo” proponents” are essentially marketers, who saw an opportunity to cash in on a growing nutritional concept. It is actually quite easy to identify these individuals versus the scientists.

 

Who are the “Paleo” researchers and scientists?

The easiest way to find out if someone is a “Paleo” scientist, or any kind of scientist for that matter, is to put their name into the pubmed.gov search field. If you search for Cordain L, you get 66 papers and can track his transition from pure exercise science before the mid-1990s and thereafter into Paleolithic nutrition.

Using Dr. Cordain as the starting point on Pubmed, you can identify his co-authors. Then you can search all of their work. By doing this, one can easily identify the Paleo experts and their work.

Quite conspicuously, none of the highly commercialized Paleo advocates have ever published a legitimate scientific paper on any topic ever, and certainly nothing related to Paleo nutrition. For these people, Paleo nutrition is a business model and marketing scheme, rather than a research model, a heuristic device, and a clinical science.

Anytime you want to determine if an alleged “scientist” and self-proclaimed expert is legit, all you have to do is put the last name and initials into the pubmed.gov search field. Articles should appear that confirm they are legit. I have yet to find one of these individuals who has published a single article.

 

Foods allowed in The Paleo Diet®

Many of these self-proclaimed experts appear not to conceptualize the basic nature of The Paleo Diet®. The primary mistake is the assumption that there is only one Paleo Diet and it is a low carbohydrate, high protein diet. The point is missed that the Paleolithic diet differs dramatically depending on one’s geographical location.

The traditional Paleo diet of Arctic Eskimos consisted mostly of fat from fish, seal, walrus, and land animals (10). In contrast, the diet of the Kitavans in the Melanesian islands, as studied by the late, legit Paleo researcher, Staffan Lindeberg, consists primarily of yams, sweet potatoes, taro root, and fruit, a so-called low-fat, high-carbohydrate Paleo diet (11). Most of the fat in the Kitavan diet comes from coconut and fish, which destroys the foolish notion, promoted by some radicalized vegans, that The Paleo Diet® is a red meat or red meat-based diet.

Non-scientist “Paleo” marketers have also flooded the market with Paleo-bars, Paleo-shakes, and more shockingly, Paleo-supplements. None of these are legitimate components of The Paleo Diet®, and serve only to confuse the proper scientific and practical message, in my opinion. Pemmican would be the closest food that resembles a nutrition bar.

With the above in mind, I do recognize that many thousands of people have benefited from the recommendations of non-scientist Paleo marketers, which is certainly a good thing. The common recommendation is to avoid refined sugar, flour, and oil calories, which will be beneficial to anyone; however, such recommendations are NOT specifically “Paleo.” As a research model, The Paleo Diet® is about foods that were consumed in the upper paleolithic era, which dates from 10,000 to 40,000 BCE, before the advent of farming. In contrast, as a practical lifestyle approach, The Paleo Diet® is about consuming foods that are identical or similar to the foods that were consumed in the Paleolithic era. For example, we now farm our vegetation, whereas in the Paleolithic era, wild vegetation was consumed.

So in short, as a Paleo outsider, my suggestion is to get all of your Paleo nutrition information from the founder (Dr. Cordain) and his research colleagues, or at least make sure that any recommendation you read is backed up by peer reviewed scientific research. Getting your information from Dr. Cordain, his colleagues, and other published nutritional scientists will allow you to avoid the confusion and controversy that has been created in the Paleo movement.

 

References

  1. Seaman DR. Anti-inflammatory diet for pain patients. Pract Pain Management. 2012;12(10)36-46.
  2. Seaman DR. Body mass index and musculoskeletal pain: is there a connection? Chiropractic Man Ther. 2013;21:15.
  3. Seaman DR. Weight gain as a consequence of living a modern lifestyle: a discussion of barriers to effective weight control and how to overcome them. J Chiro Humanities. 2013;20(1):27-35.
  4. Seaman DR, Palombo AD. An overview of the identification and management of the metabolic syndrome in chiropractic practice. J Chiropr Med. 2014;13(3):210-19.
  5. Seaman DR. Toxins, toxicity, and endotoxemia: a historical and clinical perspective for chiropractors. J Chiro Human. 2016;23:68-76.
  6. Forsythe CE, Phinney SD, Fernandez ML et al. Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating fatty acid composition and markers of inflammation. Lipids. 2008;43:65-77.
  7. Perez-Guisado J, Munoz-Serrano A. A pilot study of the Spanish ketogenic Mediterranean diet: an effective therapy for the metabolic syndrome. J Med Food. 2011;14:681-87.
  8. Perez-Guisado J, Munoz-Serrano A. The effect of the Spanish ketogenic Mediterranean diet on nonalcoholic fatty liver disease: a pilot study. J Med Food. 2011;14:677-80.
  9. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and implications. N Engl J Med. 1985;312:283-89.
  10. Stefansson V. The fat of the land. New York: Macmillan Co; 1960
  11. Lindeberg S, Lundh B. Apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a traditional Melanesian island: a clinical study in Kitava. J Internal Med. 1993;233:269-75.

 

Bio of David R. Seaman, DC, MS

Dr. David Seaman has been writing about chronic inflammation for 25 years. He wrote the first published scientific article about how diet can induce inflammation and promote pain. His articles about pain, inflammation, diet, and obesity have been referenced by researchers at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Harvard Medical School and many other universities in the United States, as well as universities in Canada, Brazil, Europe, Middle East, India, Australia, Russia, and other Asian countries.

In 2016, Dr. Seaman wrote a book for the general public entitled The DeFlame Diet. The focus of this book is how to measure and reduce chronic inflammation through dietary means. It is the most detailed book on this topic that is written for the general public.

In 2018, he published Weight Loss Secrets You Need To Know, which is available as a free Kindle book for Prime members and otherwise for .99 cents, which is the lowest Kindle allows. This new book outlines the many societal, sensory, emotional, physiological, and primordial drives that promote weight gain and obesity. Without understanding the power of these non-food factors related to obesity, it is virtually impossible to management weight properly in the long term. Obesity is a health menace and this book offers a strategy for maintaining proper weight for a lifetime.

www.DeFlame.com
Youtube channel: DeFlame Nutrition
Facebook: DeFlame Nutrition

 

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“7” Comments

  1. I have a bunch of diet/nutrition books that are paleo or related views such as traditional foods, ketogenic, anti-inflammatory, etc. Some of the authors have done research, even if mostly small-scale so far (I’m thinking of those like Wahls, Bredesen, etc).

    Even among those who aren’t researchers, most of them are doctors, nurses, and nutritionists; the kind of people who have been educated in the science of the field and applied their knowledge to patients. One of the earliest writers on the ‘paleo’ diet was Weston Price, a dentist who made observations far beyond his particular field of expertise and who as far as I know never did academic research, but he nonetheless gathered important data and did so long before Cordain (no offense intended, just pointing it out).

    Besides such people, there are some who don’t have any credentials. But they don’t tend to be the more well known proponents. Still, I’m not sure what is wrong with popularizers, as long as they are helping to communicate complex knowledge.

    It’s hard for me to generalize about such a wide variety of paleo and paleo-related writers other than noting most work in healthcare, an unsurprising observation. Speaking from professional medical experience should count for as much as speaking from academic research.

  2. Thank-you for writing a new book on the topic. I’m sure it will be a welcome addition to the food world.
    I agree that there are folks out there calling certain foods or food components paleo, while they clearly are not whole foods that may have been eaten in the paleo era. But I think it doesn’t take long to discern the difference, if one is curious and logical. And those that give the ancestral health movement a second glance seem to be intellectually curious and capable, whether or not they decided to major in biology or physiology or spend many extra years in college earning a doctorate or doing research. There are also many fine folks out there encouraging the general population to go back to our respective ancestral roots, whose interpretation of Cordain’s work is well on mark. Many of them have communicated Cordain’s work to the general public much better than Cordain himself, though one has to recognize that when employed by universities and getting in deep to actual research and pub-med style publishing, it leaves one little time to practice writing and marketing skills and developing one’s thoughts into a sustainable business model, so that Cordain maybe finds himself playing catch up in the idea marketing world. The only way GOOD science (and it must be admitted that research fraud is so rampant right now that just because a paper is in PubMed doesn’t make it good science) makes it beyond academia in order to benefit the masses, is to allow the masses to discuss the ideas, even at the cost of a few people getting the main points wrong. The issue of who uses the word “paleo” next to “diet” begs many questions, which I haven’t ever asked myself, does anyone own the term “Mediterranean diet” or “vegetarian diet” or “vegan diet” or “pescatarian diet” or, for that matter, “rock and roll,” or “jazz” or “orchestra music” or “blues,” or “mid century modern” architecture or “victorian” architecture or “abstract art” or other words that have become part of our daily associations with certain observations, styles, or time periods? All descriptives have their challenges during their advent and beyond, why should the food world be any different? I would certainly hope that Cordain doesn’t intend to tie up the word “paleo” with copyrights and what not, as the healthy food world is already having enough issues to deal with. That would be like Columbus saying nobody could talk or present their version of why the earth is round and not flat – those who opted for oval were much better off than those who maintained it was flat.
    Also, despite the differences among which whole foods were eaten in whatever geographic location prior to the advent of deliberate monoculture-style grain and sugar farming, and all of the microbial changes which that unexpectedly imposed on society which have yet to be fully examined, what they all have in common is no synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, which may very well be a primary driver of the shift of modern health into a state of chronic inflammation these previously non-existent additions to our food supply certainly force a body to defend itself continually, and so ultimately the most important difference between paleolithic eating habits and that of our modern world. What our healthy food movement needs right now is time spent emphasizing our underlying commonalities as opposed to our transient differences.

    • I think you make some good points JEB.

      I do not agree with you though that Dr. Cordain’s Paleo message has been better conveyed to the general public by others. My impression is the opposite as described in my article.

      What if he called it The Cordain Diet…would it be equally appropriate for marketers to jump on that title and create their own version of The Cordain Diet? Of course not, people should come up with their own ideas.

      I came up with The DeFlame Diet concept over many years, and shortly after I wrote the book, someone quickly came up with a De-Flame cookbook. People with no original thoughts essentially copy others – kind of pathetic really. It did not remotely occur to me that I should present myself as “Paleo” nutrition guy – that is Dr. Cordain’s concept. Who am I to “advance” his concept in blog or podcast as if I am a developer of the concept? That people have done this is shameful, in my opinion.

      More importantly, in my view, is that Paleo posers as I call them, have created a perception that they are actually legit scientists who should be listened to, when in fact, none of them have published a single article reflective of original thinking on any topic. This is not surprising as none have any training in science. Kind of an unethical situation.

  3. Here are some considerations for you regarding your post.

    1. Calling someone arrogant is not an argument against a point that you may disagree with.

    2. That you think there are great paleo blogs again is your opinion and not a factual statement as there is no measurement criteria you put forth to define “great.”

    3. What about the Founder of the Paleo movement? It is Dr. Cordain’s concept. If you or anyone else wants to write or blog about nutrition, you/others should come up with your own idea and leave Paleo to Dr. Cordain and his colleagues. Why would you want to side with the paleo copycats versus the founder who is the intellectual owner of the concept?

    4. Several paleo bloggers present themselves as scientists and not a single scientific paper has been published – quit disingenuous at best. You and no one else should be fine with this.

  4. I take the point about marketers and profiteers jumping onto the band wagon and using the name paleo. For example, there are now certain products on the shelves of supermarkets labelled paleo that are obviously not. I also take the point that Dr Cordain’s work and that of the other researchers affiliated with him has provided a major push for the paleo idea to be picked up and that it also contains the sound theoretical basis for doing so. I am currently writing a book about mental stress and evolutionary health factors. It includes a chapter on diet and Dr Cordain and co-workers work is heavily relied upon. I have been interested in paleo for a long time and have a science background but n doing the reading so I could write that chapter I became aware that the breadth and depth of the work was greater that I had realised.

    The comment about Pubmed is only partly correct. Pubmed picks up the work of pure researchers but it does not pickup the work of applied research. Research can be poorly applied – like some of the bloggers and others who use the word paleo rather than correctly applying the concept. Or, it can be applied well. Applied researchers names will often not appear on Pubmed.

    I am tempted to list educational qualifications but then realise that it is not the qualifications but the use of the education that is important. In fact, even an impeccable highly published researcher is only as good as his\her last publication (a general conceptual comment only).

    I do agree that there is a need for better quality information being put out there – especially in these internet times. It has now reached the point where people copy bits of other articles that are copies of others and regurgitate low quality information as a result. People read this information from several sources and conclude it is the general view when it is incorrect. In some cases, writers employed by government departments\organisations are adding to this problem.

    The other day I was scanning a highly referenced article and on finding I could not understand some of the observations made consulted the references – provided as hyperlinks. It turned out that the author was referencing various recent newspaper articles which went back to short comments made by various “persons”.

    There needs to be some education process of the general public so there are able to better understand these things.

    Owen Bruhn

    • Thanks for you comments Owen.

      I am not following exactly what you mean by applied researchers (there is a Journal of Applied Physiology) versus pure scientists, who publish in the J of Applied Phys.

      Could elaborate on this when you get a moment?

      Thanks,

      David Seaman

  5. Sadly, the overall tone of your article is arrogant. There are many great “paleo” blogs by the “great unwashed” (self-educated persons) who have analyzed and synthesized a vast amount of health and nutrition information for the benefit of their readers.

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