A Thumbs Down Book Review
The Paleo Diet (First Edition)
By Loren Cordain, PhD
Review by Sally Fallon
Peter Paleolith goes ahunting and catches himself a plump prairie hen. Using tools of stone and bone, he removes the entrails and throws them away. Then he plucks off the feathers and peels off the skin–he’d like to eat the succulent fat underneath but he learned during his rites of passage that the fat is taboo. Next he cuts off the dark meat and discards that too. Deftly he separates the white meat from the bone. The bones go in the trash heap and Peter Paleolith is left with. . . skinless chicken breasts!
Then Peter prepares his meal. Because salt didn’t exist in those days, he bathes his chicken breasts in lemon juice and balsamic vinegar. He greases his Paleolithic pot with canola oil, the kind his elders recommend. He seasons his meal with ground black pepper or perhaps chili powder which he always carries with him in a leather pouch. And, because he doesn’t have any sugar, he washes down his Paleolithic meal with. . . a diet soda!
If this sounds absurd, it’s because absurd things happen when a professor of exercise tries to write a diet book that captures the current interest in the so-called caveman diet and adheres to political correctness at the same time. This book is as pc as pc can be–and totally ignorant of what we know about hunter-gatherer diets. Everyone who has described the diets of primitive peoples–Stefansson, Samuel Hearne, Cabeza de Vaca, Weston Price–has detailed the great emphasis these groups put on animal fat. Animal foods rich in fat were the basis of these diets. Animals were hunted selectively to procure those richest in fat. In good times, only the fattest parts were eaten, the lean meat was thrown away. In fact, the one thing Paleolithic Peter would never have eaten was a skinless chicken breast. He wanted the fat, the entrails, the bones, the contents of the stomach. . . the lean meat went to his dogs.
Cordain makes a lot of other crazy claims. He says that Paleolithic peoples had no carbohydrate foods like grains or starchy root foods–never mind reports of grains found in the fire ashes of some of the earliest human groups, or the widespread use of tubers among primitive peoples, usually fermented or slow cooked. He says that there isn’t much fat in wild animals (did he check with any hunters while writing his book?) and that what fat these animals had was highly politically correct–low in lethal” saturated fat and rich in monounsaturates and omega-3 fatty acids. Did he look up the fatty acid profile of buffalo fat while researching his book? Obviously not. If he had, it would have ruined his whole theory because buffalo fat is more saturated than beef fat. And obviously he didn’t check up on canola oil, which he recommends as a source of omega-3 fatty acids–because virtually all canola oil is deodorized, a process that gets rid of the omega-3s. (Editor’s note: This was corrected in the second edition of the book.)
Cordain says that primitive man did not eat salt. Yet we know that salt was available in many parts of the world, principally from brine on the seacoasts and salt flats in the interior. Salt-rich blood from game was collected and used in food preparation. In Africa, ashes of sodium-rich marsh grasses were added to food.
Unfortunately, Cordain’s Paleo Diet is not only absurd, but also dangerous. High levels of lean meat lead to vitamin A deficiency and a host of health problems, even heart disease, which Cordain’s high-protein diet is supposed to prevent. There’s no good source of calcium in his diet and no salt, so vital for digestion. He recommends rubbing flax oil on meat before cooking–a recipe for creating carcinogenic oxidation products. And then there are those diet sodas. . . bound to cause trouble in a diet so lacking in protective nutrients. Fortunately, Peter Paleolith never ate this way, or we would not have made it this far.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Spring 2002.