Mentored by Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet (published in 2002), Robb Wolf’ is today’s leading spokesman for the paleo diet. His interpretation of the diet in The Paleo Solution (published 2010, eight years later) allows lean meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and “healthy fats,” namely fats rich in omega-3 and monounsaturated fatty acids. Foods to avoid include all grains and legumes, all dairy foods, processed food and sugars, starches and alcohol. (If you have autoimmune disease, you should also avoid eggs, nuts and seeds, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers, he suggests.)
This diet is low in carbs, low in saturated fat, and high in protein, with protein comprising up to 30-35 percent of calories. “Protein consumption beyond this point for extended period of time,” he says, “results in a condition called rabbit starvation,. . .. a disease characterized by muscle wasting, lethargy, diarrhea and eventually death if one relied too heavily on lean game animals such as rabbits.” But Wolf’s diet does precisely that―it leans heavily on lean animals, domestic animals, to be sure, but nevertheless lean. This book is all about lean, lean, lean―just a teaspoon or two of olive oil for cooking, no butter on the vegetables, no sauces on those large portions of lean meat.
If Wolf knows about rabbit starvation then he must know about the work of Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who described rabbit starvation and who noted that primitive peoples never ate lean meat. According to Stefansson, the diet of the Eskimo and North American Indian did not exceed 20 percent protein, with the balance, 80 percent of calories, as fat. The cure for rabbit hunger was to eat lots of animal fat. Weston Price noted that these northern diets were particularly rich in vitamin A, from organ meats, fish heads and seal oil. But apart from egg yolks, there is no source of true vitamin A in Wolf’s diet―the book includes not one recipe for liver or other organ meat.
Wolf’s paleo diet poses two major dangers. First, the high protein content, along with vitamin D supplements (recommended to provide 2-5,000 IU vitamin D per day) can rapidly deplete vitamin A. When vitamin A is depleted, we are vulnerable to all sorts of medical conditions, particularly autoimmune disease. Wolf sees autoimmune disease as a widespread problem without appreciating the irony of vitamin A deficiency brought on by a diet too high in protein and vitaimn D.
The second danger is a deficiency of saturated fat. Our bodies need saturated fat in large amounts―to build cell membranes for one thing (which need to be at least 50 percent saturated to work properly) and to support hormone formation and the immune system. The fats in Wolf’s diet are mostly monounsaturated, with saturated fats comprising a measly 18 grams (just over 1 tablespoon) per day. When we do not get enough saturated fat in the diet, the body can make these from carbohydrates―but carbs are not allowed in the diet either. The result is either severe deficiency in saturated fat (for those with will power to stay on the diet) or bingeing and splurging on refined carbs and foods rich in saturated fat, like chocolate and ice cream.
Fat does not make us fat, Wolf insists, and we should not be afraid of it. Saturated fats have gotten a bum rap, he says, but the number one message in his book is to eat lean meat―lean beef, lean hamburger, lean pork, lean seafood, and chicken meat but no skin. No added animal fat is allowed on this diet. The main fatty acid in paleolithic diets, he insists, was monounsaturated.
After raising our expectations about saturated fat, then he demonizes 14-carbon saturated palmitic acid, which he claims may cause heart disease by raising. LDL cholesterol. But, he notes, new research has shown it to be vital to forming new memories and accessing long-held memories. “A paleo diet supplies an adequate amount of palmitic acid for optimum cognitive function while limiting the intake to levels that are not harmful to the cardiovascular system.” Reference please?
Saturated fat accounted for 10-15 percent of total fat intake in most paleolithic populations, insists Wolf, with very low amounts of palmitic acid. As he is familiar with the work of Stefansson, he should know that primitive peoples hunted animals selectively, preferring the older animals, which had a buildup of hard fat along the spine. This fat buildup could weigth up to eighty pounds; along with the highly saturated kidney fat, it was rendered and saved. Lean muscle meats were often thrown away; fat and organ meats were preferred.
Eighteen-carbon stearic acid is safe, says Wolf, but then goes on to warn, “A high intake of saturated fats, in conjunction with a high intake of dietary carbohydrate, is a hell of a combo for an early grave.” The combination causes elevated insulin levels leading “to a shift in the LDL particles to a type that is small, dense and easily oxidized.” Actually, while saturated fats do not reduce our insulin response to carbohydrates, they do mitigate blood sugar swings. We couldn’t find a reference for the claim that eating carbs with fat (like, putting butter on your brown rice) causes the formation of small, dense LDL particles, which are not a surrogate for atherogenicity anyway. Carbs are also bad, says Wolf, because we turn them first into simple sugars, and then into palmitic acid, which he claims results in the formation of those small, dense, reactive LDLs. Palmitic acid makes up about one-quarter of the fatty acids in butter, chicken fat, cocoa butter, coconut oil, lard, and both conventional and grassfed beef tallow and lamb tallow (The difference in palmitic acid content between grass-fed and grain-fed is small.) Wolf’s diet allows coconut oil and cocoa butter (in the form of chocolate bars) but not chicken fat, lard or tallow. Butter is on the “occasional” list, although not in any of the recipes. The richest source of palmitic acid, of course, is palm oil, coming in at 45 percent of the total―palm oil is the olive oil of Africa and Southeast Asia, consumed my millions of people remarkably free of heart disease.
Other inconsistencies abound: Wolf says grains and legumes are bad because they contain phytate acid, lectins and enzyme inhibitors. Nuts also contain phytic acid, lectins and enzyme inhibitors, but they are allowed. He ignores all the evidence for grain consumption in primitive groups, and the widespread consumption of high-carb foods like yams, cassava, tubers and bananas. Dairy foods are dismissed in one short sidebar as a source of gut-irritating proteins (true, when they are pasteurized), antinutrients (none that we know of in dairy, at least not in raw dairy) and protease inhibitors (none in dairy foods), with no discussion of milk consumption among populations of healthy Laplanders, Mongolians, Southeast Asians, Africans and traditional European societies.
According to his website, alcohol is not allowed in the paleo diet . . . but if you do have a drinking problem, his solution is to drink “one or two” margueritas (made with tequila, lime juice and soda only) early in the evening on an empty stomach! Wolf notes that coffee, like carbs, raises insulin levels, but often mentions drinking coffee and tells you where to buy it―on one of the inner aisles of the supermarket.
Wolf discusses probiotics almost as an afterthought, but dismisses fermented foods like kimchi and sauerkraut as a source of too much salt and not worth the hassle. Instead he recommends a probiotic pill. Fermented dairy products cause elevated insulin levels and potential gut irritation, he declares. (Actually, a 2001 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that fermented dairy did not raise insulin levels.)
Speaking of salt, unlike Cordain, Wolf does not forbid it―he just never mentions it, not even in his lengthy section on digestion. Small amounts of salt appear in some of the recipes, but not enough to make all that lean meat palatable.
In fact, the diet (as described on page 218) borders on the inedible. It starts with a piece of cantaloupe and over 300 grams (picture three packs of cards) of salmon for breakfast―with no butter or other fat on the salmon; lunch is a small piece of lean pork (less than 100 grams) with a salad dressed in lemon juice and a couple of walnuts (for those omega-3s); dinner is the same kind of lemon-dressed salad with avocado, three cups (!) steamed broccoli (but no butter or other fat to moisten it) and over two hundred grams of lean beef―again with no fat, not even marinated, how can anyone eat tough lean meat like that? Dessert is some strawberries (no whipped cream allowed) and snacks to get you from one monkish meal to the next include an orange, carrot sticks and celery sticks. This dry diet plan is bound cause cravings―it’s actually hard to eat even a few bites of very lean meat, let alone over 200 grams.
Wolf describes a typical client named Charlie―who has a great job, lovely wife, is fit and attractive―he’s seen hundreds of Charlies, he says. Charlie’s diet is “good,” which must mean something along the lines described above. He gets up early every morning to go to the gym, to keep in shape. But lately, Charlie is beginning to feel tired all the time, his muscles are getting flabby in spite of the exercise, and he is losing his six-pack. He has wicked sugar cravings in the afternoons and evenings, has developed difficulty concentrating, and his interest in sex has waned. Worst of all, he has trouble sleeping at night―he wakes up wired and tired, needing large doses of coffee to get him going. At age thirty-five, Charlie feels like he is eighty.
Wolf’s suggestion: get blackout curtains so he can sleep better. This may help (although we doubt paleolithic man used blackout curtains to keep out the moonlight), but it sounds like Charlie’s real problem is that he is suffering from a form of rabbit starvation. The truth is, his diet is terrible. Desparate for fats, his body craves sugar. His paleodiet has depleted him of vitamin A, needed for mental function and the formation of stress and sex hormones. Poor Charlie needs more than blackout curtains―he needs rich, nourishing foods including butter, cream, bone broths, properly prepared grains, organ meats and cod liver oil. Raw whole milk before bedtime is a wonderful, soothing food to induce sleep. Calcium and tryptophan in milk help the body manufacture sleep-inducing melatonin―but Wolf insists we can get all the calcium we need from vegetables and fruit.
Wolf claims that his diet also provides 6386 IU RE (Retinol Equivalents) from vegetables and fruits, but how can the body convert these carotenes into true vitamin A without fat? In an blog entitled “Vitamins A, D and K: Who Cares?” he claims that we have no need to take cod liver oil and should be able to convert carotenes to vitamin A once we clear up gut inflammation. Who cares? The research of Dr. Price shows us that vitamins A, D and K are key to restoring our health, whether or not our diet contains grains, legumes, tubers or dairy foods. We need to care, we need to care very much.
More concerns: Wolf is big on fish oil, recommending up to 30 grams per day―that”s two tablespoons! All those oxidized polyunsaturates (fish oil is boiled for hours at 230 degrees) are bound to cause problems, not solve them. And then there is the very dangerous suggestion to bring total cholesterol levels down to 120-140 mg/dL―cholesterol levels this low are strongly associated with increased rates of depression, stroke, violent behavior, suicide, intestinal diseases and reduced libido (we make sex and stress hormones out of cholesterol). No wonder Charlie has lost his interest in sex.
The fact is, while The Paleo Solution diet contains plenty of meat, it is just another version of food puritanism―a diet so lean, dry and deficient that it is impossible to stay on and bound to lead to health problems. No “paleolithic” or traditional culture ever ate this way, and we shouldn’t either.