Comment: “Neolithic Agents of Disease”: the common denominator

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“Neolithic Agents of Disease”: the common denominator

“Neolithic Agents of Disease”: the common denominator

In the spirit of emphasizing similarities, I also want to expand on something I talked about in my AHS presentation. A common anti-paleo argument from vegans and vegetarians is that plant-based diets—particularly the low-fat, starch-based ones advocated by Dean Ornish, Neal Barnard, John McDougall, and Caldwell Esselstyn—have been “proven” to prevent or reverse chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. (“So neener, neener, nah nah; we win!”) These diets eliminate animal foods, sharply limit fat, and embrace whole grains—making them the apparent antithesis to paleo eating. Ouch! Score one for the vegans, right?

Indeed, if we look at a starch-based diet and, say, a low-carb paleo diet in terms of what they both include, we won’t find much in common. Vegetables and… well, that’s about it. But if we look at them from the perspective of what both diets systematically exclude, that’s where some interesting similarities pop up. Whether you eat a nearly-carnivorous diet or a low-fat, plant-based one advocated by Dean Ornish, you’ll be avoiding:

  • All forms of processed, refined sugar, including high-fructose corn syrup
  • All industrial oils (including high-omega-6 varieties like soybean and corn oil)
  • Refined grains like white flour
  • Fruit juice and other sugary beverages
  • Industrially processed foods*

* In his book “Eat More, Weigh Less,” Ornish recommends avoiding all processed or “convenience” foods with over 2 grams of fat per serving. I can’t say that I spend a whole lot of time reading the backsides of Hungry Man dinners and Little Debbie snacks, but my limited knowledge on the subject tells me most processed foods have way more than 2 grams of fat.

Now let’s compare that “avoid” list with what Kurt Harris refers to as the three neolithic agents of disease—the modern nasties driving many of our health woes:

  • Excess fructose
  • Excess linoleic acid (typically from high-omega-6 oils like soybean oil)
  • Wheat or gluten

Ancestral or “paleo” diets specifically eliminate all three. Incidentally, the near-vegan diets with a track record for fighting disease eliminate the first two. And in many cases, they inadvertently slash wheat intake by promoting a more diverse spectrum of grains, tubers, and legumes than the average person on an industrialized diet consumes (in which grain products are overwhelmingly wheat-based).

For example, check out this McDougall Program health clinic menu and play “spot the starches.” Notice—first of all—the liberal use of potatoes, squash, and legumes rather than grains as the meal centerpiece. But even among the grain-containing items, how many use wheat? Only nine out of 26. Instead of seeing an endless stream of bread, crackers, pretzels, bakery items, cookies, and other common wheat-based foods, there’s an abundance of rice, barley, quinoa, and corn. And that accidental reduction of wheat (if it really is uniquely problematic among grains) may contribute to the success of whole-foods, plant-based diets in treating disease.