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Paleo vs Traditional Diets

by (15380) Updated April 05, 2014 at 6:38 PM Created October 23, 2012 at 8:00 PM

I have just listened to a lecture by Dr. Daphne Miller and now I am starting to doubt Paleo. No, not the whole foods approach. I do not doubt that it is healthy. I doubt the fact that Paleo diet is healthier than other diets. Of course, it is a healthier alternative to SAD, but it is still far from being perfect.

Why? Because Paleo's approach to food is too narrow. Dr. Miller pointed out that there are many components of traditional diets:

  1. Eating seasonal
  2. Using spices as medicine
  3. The way it is prepared
  4. The way people eat together
  5. The way people consume meat (as a spice)
  6. Eating the whole animal
  7. The way the food is viewed
  8. Whole foods for dessert
  9. Grass-fed, wild, organic
  10. Food as medicine etc.etc.etc.

She views "diet" as a holistic term that is a part of culture rather than a list of foods that you need to eat and the way to choose them.

Also, after listening to her lecture, I have finally understood the answer to my questions (that Paleohackers were not able to answer) - why Japanese, Italian and French used to be healthy (before McDonalds and Dunkin Donats arrived) despite all the carbs in their diets.

Here is the link if you are interested:

The Wisdom and Science of Traditional Diets

My a-ha moment happened around 1:15.

I also am skeptical about the Paleo gurus now. If there are so many healthy ways to eat, why demonize some foods? All those so-called Paleo gurus - I am sure that they believe in what they preach - but... they are making money out of it too. Is it a new cash cow now? And to claim that Paleo is the ONLY healthy diet is (to say the least) misleading.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not against Paleo. I just don't think this is the only way to be healthy. I know I am going to get a lot of heat for this question. But I really do not care. I am not here for the money. I am just searching for answers.

In case if my question is not obvious:

Am I the only one who thinks that traditional diets (the way people used to eat before the food industry was developed) are way healthier and tastier than Paleo?

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5917 · October 24, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Hi VB,

Interesting topic. Dr. Miller makes a lot of good points -- all 10 of those things you list are important factors in health, with the exception of eating seasonally (not much seasonality in the tropics where most human evolution occurred, and no real evidence for benefits from eating seasonally now that we can get fresh foods from all parts of the world where the seasons are different).

Re your questions: "If there are so many healthy ways to eat, why demonize some foods?... Am I the only one who thinks that traditional diets (the way people used to eat before the food industry was developed) are way healthier and tastier than Paleo?"

On the first point, there are many factors in health and many causes of ill health, including many dietary causes. We don't know which causes are salient in most diseases. So when we know that a food has the potential to cause disease, and its nutritional value is replaceable by safer/healthier foods, there's good reason to eliminate it from the diet rather than hope that you'll be one of the people for whom it doesn't cause trouble.

On the second question, first many traditional diets fit within a broad Paleo template. For instance, traditional East Asian, southeast Asian, and Pacific islander diets that use white rice, taro, yams, and sago as starches are Perfect Health Diet-compatible. Second, some Paleo-template diets like our Perfect Health Diet are designed to be tasty -- intentionally, because we believe evolution designed our food tastes to get us to eat what is healthy for us, so delicious food is healthier than non-tasty food -- and so we specifically recommend tasty food combinations like starch, fat, acid, salt, spice.

If by "Paleo" you mean a severely restricted lean-meat-and-vegetables diet, I might agree -- many traditional diets are certainly tastier and might be healthier too. But the Paleo/"ancestral" template is broader than that.

One side point: most of the things Dr Miller brings up, like the use of spices as medicines and the ways foods are prepared, were innovations developed during the Paleolithic and passed down into Neolithic and historical times. Thus, the Paleo template encompasses nearly all of the things you most respect about "traditional" diets.

Best, Paul

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100 · October 23, 2012 at 10:24 PM

Surviving does not equal thriving. Traditional diets were based on what was availble and often cheapest at the time, which is why many are based around starchy foods (rice, potatoes, corn..etc.). People didnt eat these diets to be healthy, they ate this way so that they didnt starve to death. Nutrition is a fairly new science still, hundreds of years ago people didnt scrutinize fat or carbohydrate grams. They ate what they needed to stay alive.

Be thankful that you live in a time and a place that allows you freedom and choice to what you put in your body.

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18437 · October 23, 2012 at 8:15 PM

Yes you are the only one....(that was the question right?)

I have no idea how 1-10 are not paleo, but whatever. Check out WAPF and I also the book Deep Nutrition (four traditional pillars of health) and Sally Fallons "Nurishing Traditions". Good resources. May also wanna read Steffansons (spelling?) "Fat of the Land". Good luck!

Actually old Paleo (lean) was replaced by new Paleo (dont be scurred of the fat) in large part due to considering how traditional societies actually treat the meat they eat i.e. prizing the fatty cuts and such.

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65 · October 23, 2012 at 8:39 PM

Why get caught up in the politics of paleo..?? There are so many variations within the paleo movement. Have you checked out Perfect Health Diet by Paul Jaminet? (sp) He has done alot of research on traditional diets. Just find something that works for you (paleo or not)...simple.

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340 · October 23, 2012 at 8:24 PM

Two points:

First, you might need to reconsider what Paleo is. It is difficult to accept Paleo as distinctly different than "the way people used to eat before the food industry was developed."

Second, the recommended Paleo practice is to observe and learn what works best for you. This ALL BY ITSELF will allow you to adopt a variety of dietary practices an still be Paleo and healthy. Disparate practices are not necessarily in conflict with Paleo eating.

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5323 · October 24, 2012 at 3:22 AM

I think traditional wisdom is both underrated, and overrated. Its something we dont use alot of these days, and we could stand to rely more on it. Theres some powerful medicine in herbs, plants and foods. Its a useful and productive system of knowledge, the subjective, intuitive and experential.

And yet, the body is extremely complex. Most things have both pros and cons. Whats an example...opium used to be used for poisoning (a long time ago). In fact, its not good at clearing toxins, but it does make the situation feel better. Tobacco was used by the native americans, but its a carcinogen (and so is their native sassafras). Cinnomin lowers the blood sugar, but it does so by altering the metabolism in other ways (more cellular heating, receded glut4 receptors).

Somethings are too complex, or too subtle for "wisdom" to pick up on. Many things in fact. Thats where we need medicine and science.

On the other hand of course, our modern minds tend to obfiscate the common sense, and the subjective. That way we miss things that should be self-evident, because we are waiting for 20 peer reveiwed studies to prove it.

I would not personally champion a way of eating, merely because its based on traditional practices and wisdom. That certain counts toward some intelligent practice, but it does not ensure their are no negative side effects.

I mean it goes without saying that traditional cultures are not aiming for optimal health, they are merely avoiding the more obvious harms, by their observable correlation with certain practices. A good form of intelligence, but hardly a perfect form of knowledge.

It somewhat depends on timespan, wisdom. If something has been done a certain way, for thousands of years, its probably better than something done for hundreds. But if one or two people slowly develop an illness from the practice, there is no way to make the connection, without understanding the mechanisms.

And moreso if everyone in the village or tribe, is at that point doing a range of potentially responsible behaviours. Either way people would just shrug their shoulders and put it down to bad luck, or evil spirits.

Paleo, on the other hand, tries to rely on genetics (what we are adapted to, rather than what we have experimented with in our landscape).

But paleo is also guesswork based on logic, and some evidence, just like traditional wisdom practices are guesswork based on experience and observation.

Id probably put some stock in information from both sources - the logic and science of the paleolithic (with tradition based on how many people did it, and for how many years) and science. Knowledge is elusive after all. People who beleive they have it, have not thought about the nature of knowledge.

I think you bring up an interesting issue in this idea of tradition/wisdom. For health direction: Some rely on the common sense of pre-agriculture, or pre-industrialism. Some rely on science and intellect, as well as beleif. I think its well worth considering into these other two, experience and subjective practice (tradition), and balancing them all against each other. They all have their faults and weakness, and are stronger when used together.

I actually beleive that a higher form of intelligence exists in the combination of the subjective and the logical, a form of knowledge that no society has exhibited, combined, and to its full potential, to date. But even still, you cannot have perfect knowledge.

I think the biggest problem with this presented conception of knowledge (and the one people commonly beleive in), is that its like a lost object. One day, your supposed to just find it after a long time looking.

But its more like looking for the ideal rock (you keep finding a better one, and throwing the other away), or better - trying to map out an island with flashlight in the dark. The search for knowledge is eternal, unending.

TLDR:

Basically put, to sum, subjective experience is underrated these days in terms of knowledge. We miss a whole load of things because we rely too heavily on "evidence" which is often itself biased, and not enough on what we learn, and intuit and experience.

But then again, that is all "wisdom" and tradition is, a period of collected experience and intuition. Observation cannot alone make all possible connections, it cannot fix to seeming or unseeming correlated elements into a causation. If it was a 100% superior form of knowledge to logic and science, wisdom would have discovered that tobacco was a carcinogen back in pre-colonial america etc.

Clearly both approaches have their benefits and failings.

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40652 · October 24, 2012 at 1:34 AM

I don't see paleo gurus making blanket claims that paleo is the only healthy diet. Those sorts of claims you will however find being made by PaleoHackers on a regular basis. Paleo is not traditional, it's a diet based out of science, out of optimization, out of hacking.

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7185 · October 23, 2012 at 9:55 PM

My take on paleo is that it's a starting point for people: it's sort of the baseline to follow, and then people can add things back as works for them. I probably got this perspective on it from the Robb Wolf camp, maybe?

But anyway: cut out grains, legumes, dairy, eat whole foods of the highest quality you can afford, and see how you feel (with further restrictions if you're dealing with autoimmune stuff). Then add things back if you want, and see how it makes you feel. I agree that it may leave stuff out that's important: for example, I found out that I do better if I include spinach and lentils in my diet due to some inborn errors of metabolism.

I also think of paleo as a call to eat simpler foods: to try living without eating processed foods, breads, prepared desserts, etc, and see how you feel. But then, I also see it as encouraging local, seasonal foods, too. And I'm not tied to the idea of what paleolithic peoples ate, but just the perspective of thinking about what people have adapted to eating or not.

But I definitely like to consider traditional/ancestral foods and food preparations as well.

I guess each person makes of it what they will.

EDITED TO ADD:

Watching the video, I'll offer a quick summary. The speaker, an MD, describes some cultures around the world and how they eat. She gives some studies (on bacterial populations and health markers) showing that people who eat traditional diets are healthier. She walks through some of the diets. The main aspects seem to be (1) combining foods in ways that make the most of their nutrition, (2) eatings foods that are high in micronutrition such as fresh plants, pastured animals, etc, and (3) utilizing aspects of the environment that match the genetics of that region.

She discounts/disregards genes as a factor, citing studies of brothers and similarly genetic groups who fare differently between their traditional diet and a modern one, but that only shows that there is a genetic by environment interaction. As someone with genetic mutations in my folate processing pathways, mutations very uncommon among Caucasians (which I am) but pretty common among western African populations, I was fascinated to learn in her talk that the west African diet was high in folate.

So the conclusion I'm coming to is that it's all about having high levels of nutrients, and accommodating any particular genetic peculiarities, such as high folate diets for those of us less capable of processing folate, or diets high in prickly pear cactus which acts to lower blood sugar in population prone to diabetes.

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425 · October 24, 2012 at 2:21 PM

First off, I'm a huge fan of 'traditional' diets. Sally Fallon's 'Nourishing Traditions' has pride of place on my bookshelf. I believe you can draw on both Paleo and 'traditional' sources to create a 'tasty' and 'healthy' diet, and kudos to you for investigating traditional foods.

I think you're trying to say that diet is so much more than food (and that Paleo can be a bit of a 'clinical' approach to food, right?). However, I think your question, as it stands, is impossible to answer for various reasons (so what follows are my ramblings on the subject, rather than a proper answer - apologies!).

Disclaimer: I'm using a work computer so sadly haven't been able to watch the video you linked to.

First off, the two things you're comparing are hopelessly broad and poorly defined. It's already been pointed out that 'Paleo' encompasses a huge range of diets and ideas (Cordain, Jaminet, Weston A. Price to name but a few). Similarly, there's a huge range of diets and foods out there which might be described as 'traditional' (Weston A. Price -again!, anything from the tropics to the Swiss Alps and many things in between). How do you even begin to compare these?

Secondly, you're setting up a false dichotomy between 'traditional' and 'Paleo'. There's a huge overlap between the two (Weston A. Price anyone?) and don't think it does any good to try to pit the two against each other. Paleo draws upon many aspects of traditional diets to find a way of eating that is healthy and also compatible with everyday modern life. It is a modern reinterpretation of what our Paleolithic ancestors would have eaten.

However, I also believe that the same is true of the 'traditional' diet movement. The social structures and even some of the technologies, crops and foodstuffs which supported traditional diets even a few decades ago are largely gone due to the forces of technology, globalisation and social change. In most places, attempting to eat a 'traditional' diet in a modern setting is as much an act of reconstruction and re-imagining as eating a 'Paleo' diet.

Also, it's worth bearing in mind that although 'traditional' diets are a million times better than the diets spawned by modern industry and agriculture, in many cases they were not as nourishing as the hunter-gatherer diets which preceded them. Yes, these diets can be healthy, but they're not a panacea (promoters of traditional diets can be just as guilty of this as Paleo supporters).

For example, evidence from skeletal remains shows that humans eating a true Paleolithic diet were better nourished than those who came afterwards and ate what you might describe as a 'traditional' diet. This is evidenced by their being taller than their Neolithic descendents. Even after millenia of traditional diets, neolithic humans didn't catch up to their Paleolithic ancestors until the 20th Century:

The ancestors of modern Europeans arrived in Europe at least 40,000 years before present. Pre-glacial maximum Upper Palaeolithic males (before 16,000 BC) were tall and slim (mean height 179 cm, estimated average body weight 67 kg), while the females were comparably small and robust (mean height 158 cm, estimated average body weight 54 kg). Late Upper Palaeolithic males (8000-6600 BC) were of medium stature and robusticity (mean height 166 cm, estimated average body weight 62 kg). Stature further decreased to below 165 cm with estimated average body weight of 64 kg in Neolithic males of the Linear Band Pottery Culture, and to 150 cm with estimated average body weight of 49 kg in Neolithic females. The body stature of European males remained within the range of 165 to 170 cm up to the end of the 19th century. Hormones (Athens). 2003 Jul-Sep;2(3):175-8.

Also, traditional agricultural diets promoted the spread of infectious diseases, as noted by this article in Nature:

The mystery of the origins of many [infectious] diseases has been solved by molecular biological studies of recent decades, demonstrating that they evolved from similar epidemic diseases of our herd domestic animals with which we began to come into close contact 10,000 years ago. Thus, the evolution of these diseases depended on two separate roles of domestication: in creating much denser human populations, and in permitting much more frequent transmission of animal diseases from our domesticates than from hunted wild animals. Nature, 418, 700-707 (8 August 2002)

The switch to traditional agricultral diets also had a negative impact on dental health:

(a)dental caries are much more frequent and severe in agricultural than in non-agricultural groups (Leigh 1925; Steggerda and Hill 1936; Gersohn 1947; Clement 1958; Swanson 1976); (b) caries increase in frequency from lowest among hunting peoples, to intermediate among gathering/collecting and hunting to highest among agriculturalists - fairly proportional to amounts of carbohydrate utilisation (Driak 1950; Klatsky and Klatell 1943); (c) experimental studies show caries to be strongly associated with sticky foodstuffs, especially laboratory preparations rich in cornmeal (Carr 19540; (d) studies of American Indians and Aleut-Eskimos consistently show caries to be common when agricultural products are a major nutritional resource (Leigh 1928; Rosebury and Waugh 1939; Waugh and Waugh 1940; Mayhall 1970). American Antiquity 43 4, 1978

Plus, there are many people with pre-existing health problems (myself included) who struggle even with Paleo (and traditional diets). There's no one perfect diet for everyone.

As to the 'way tastier' part - I'll leave that up to you to decide!

To sum up, I would say eat a diet based on whole foods according to what makes you most healthy and don't get to hung up on definitions and labels ('Paleo', 'traditional', whatever).

Paleo and traditional diets have so much in common and are so much healthier than most other modern diets. We should be challening SAD and the conventional dietary wisdom, not having 'angels on a pinhead' arguments about which is marginally better for health.

Good health to you - whatever you end up eating!

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831 · October 24, 2012 at 2:12 AM

So basically you need to figure out where your genetic ancestry lies and go live there and eat the foods they ate before modern foods were introduced. You do understand you can't just apply those principles to where you live and the foods available there now and poof bingo create the perfect diet right? The whole point of her talk is that people adapted to what they had available and the climate and terrain they lived in to create a food culture that kept them as healthy as possible. No such thing exists here in America for a transplanted European, Asian or African. It's lovely anthropology but you can't convert it to a modern diet.

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7362 · October 23, 2012 at 10:54 PM

I don't care about any of this. What I wanted to comment on was:

a. Seeing any of this as a strict either/or, instead of a personally adaptable eating plan. (Each of us can do what we want, no one is testing urine for membership).

and

b. That people that have an issue or any concerns keep acting like all paleos are sheep by declaring any person that espouses a paleo lifestyle a "guru". (I'm an atheist and a skeptic. Of everything. Yes, there are sites that I read because I think they are informative, encouraging, or entertaining. I in no way consider the authors wiser or more capable than myself. I also like Thomas Hardy, Don DeLillo, and Joss Whedon. It doesn't make me a slavish follower of Jude or Buffy.)

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1495 · October 23, 2012 at 9:07 PM

I eat what my CSA brings me (this is how I ate prior to Paleo and then I learned that I was basically eating Paleo). It's veggies, meat and a few grocery items (some made on their farm-like salsa, others acquired from local vendors-like coconut milk). I make the rest (I have sauerkraut going right now).

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470 · October 24, 2012 at 7:41 AM

I think the more people that are helped / saved by Paleo, the more we'll see be "preachy" about it.

Paleo is a reasonable baseline, but yeah, find your own way, and share it with us.

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3428 · October 24, 2012 at 3:44 AM

Paleo diet's value is based on scientific evidence. As you mentioned there are other healthy diets, in particular some of the traditional diets. We will need many years of data on humans following paleo, and a clear definition of what is paleo diet, in order to sort out whether or not it is better or worse than say traditional Mediterranean or Japanese diets. In the meantime, researchers can gather scientific evidence...We discussed something similar a while ago: http://paleohacks.com/questions/16264/paleo-diet-masai-diet-cretan-and-okinawa-diets#axzz2ABR0mtS0

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84 · October 23, 2012 at 8:47 PM

I agree with you. For me, paleo is to eat unprocessed food, no refined oils, no junk food, no flour and sugar. currently i don't consume grains and legumes, but i eat pretty high carb diet from white rice and starchy vegetable and eat good fats (milk fat, olive oil) and moderate amount of animal product (meat, egg, milk) . i think traditional diet are great, and modern diets/foods are bad for us.

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20 · October 23, 2012 at 8:22 PM

It seems that your grudge is with the types that are making money from paleo. Is this statement not a bit ironic when comparing it against "the way people used to eat before the FOOD INDU$TRY was DEVELOPED"

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2923 · October 25, 2012 at 11:02 AM

I like the points you've made VB.

'Paleo' for me can be very reductionist in terms of prescrbing food/(supplements!) as a cure all. There is some focus on sleep issues etc but many seem to prosecute an exlcusionary eating pattern. I'd be interested as to know how many of the people with binging issues on here had them pre- 'paleo'- I'm not saying 'paleo' is a cause but the retriction that's a big part of it can have a negative/excarbating effect for many.

More broadly, and fundamentally to the focus of the question (sorry for the tangetential first paragraph...) what've you written for me accords with what I've been thinking about how nebulous 'paleo' is. If it is not re-enacting the practices of ancesotrs through diet and more, then what is its defining factor? At the moment paleo seems to be an empty signifier that amounts to an ideology and source of identity expression, of which the boundaries are so blurred that the the 'paleo diet' seems to bevery similar to approaches to life like that which you posted in the question...

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2913 · October 24, 2012 at 1:57 AM

It sounds as if your definition of "Paleo" might be a little narrow ... everything from Cordain's Paleo Diet to Sisson's Primal Solution to Jaminets' Perfect Health Diet to Nate Miyaki's Samurai Diet to Weston A. Price's Ancestral Health falls under the "Paleo" umbrella ...

The lesson is "What can we learn from our ancestors?" What do the Inuit and Kitavans have in common? What traits do the Masai and pre-agricultural societies share?

The strictest you could get would be:
1. Eat Real Food
2. Avoid Processed Crap

If you need more definition to your life:
3. Sleep More
4. Don't Stress

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387 · October 24, 2012 at 1:28 AM

I also sometimes doubt the paleo diet as the one perfect diet. For me, it's a starting point, a template to start with, before customizing around each individual's body and ancestry.

I am not in it to lose weight, I'm just looking for a healthy mind and body.

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70 · October 23, 2012 at 11:29 PM

The Italian, French and Spanish are genetically similar group which is typically thinner during youth, but, when overconsuming grain, BALLOONS once over 40 (unless they periodically "diet"). This is something I've witnessed first-hand and you would see too, if you went to these countries: skinny teens, fat over-40s. Asian cultures eat a lot more vegetables, drink more fluid and (rice being a "safe" grain) this works well for them. When you take a Japanese family and swap rice for pasta, they get bigger too!

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0 · April 05, 2014 at 6:34 PM

As a nurse, I understand what nutrients are, and I don't see why not trust in what God made, not man. Aside from the toxin debate, how about nutrition...we have 3 energy choices, protein, carbs, or fat...so pick. Forget all the internal science for short...each digests at a different rate and has different nutrient density. We have to vary the diet, but carbs are addictive and require consistent replacement or they cause cravings. This can at the least add to lack of nutrition and over consumption in calories. Glucose transports nutrients....but the nutrients need to be there! Might as well go low carb, higher protein and fat. Satiety lasts, and if run out of fat energy, already have extra in storage. Go body go!

Satisfaction and energy allow to be active and eat more nutritious food.I feel comfortable choosing food based on need and not craving. Tastebuds are manufactured and change to like what they are trained to like. I love whole foods plain before I cook them and spice them.

Paleo isn't making money on word of mouth and sales of whole foods at local markets. Most of us cook from scratch to boot, so even healthfood stores aren't making money off me. I don't use supplements, I use food medicine! I run circles around everyone I know! 3 months paleo.

Former depressed, fatigued, and fat carb queen.

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1191 · October 24, 2012 at 2:47 PM

Interesting topic and thanks for sharing the video and your thoughts. I'm enjoying this discussion.

One thing I was wondering is if parts of a traditional diet are always the healthiest?

As an example, here's a reference I remember from the Perfect Health Diet:

Dietary Reference Intakes for Energy, Carbohydrate, Fiber, Fat, Fatty Acids, Cholesterol, Protein, and Amino Acids (Macronutrients) (2005)

Greenland Eskimos (Dyerberg and Bang, 1979; Dyerberg et al., 1978) who ingest on average 6.5 g/d (3.8 percent of energy) of EPA and DHA derived mainly from seal (Bang et al., 1980). A tendency to bleed from the nose and urinary tract was observed among the Greenland Eskimos (Bang and Dyerberg, 1980). One study comparing perirenal adipose tissue fatty acid profiles with incidence of hemorrhagic stroke in human autopsy cases from Greenland showed that the amounts of EPA and DHA in the adipose tissue of 4 hemorrhagic stroke victims was greater than in 26 control cases with no cerebral pathology (Pedersen et al., 1999). Furthermore, ecological studies have suggested an increased risk of hemorrhagic stroke among Greenland Eskimos (Kristensen, 1983; Kromann and Green, 1980).

It makes me think that it's good to pick and choose what's healthy for the individual, which I believe is part of the point of this topic that diet should be individual and not one-size-fits-all.

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5071 · October 23, 2012 at 10:22 PM

  • If you like a restrictive diet because you have issues controlling your dairy/grain intake, go Paleo.

  • If you like a restrictive diet, but can't live without dairy, go Primal.

  • IF you like a traditional diet that doesn't really exclude any food groups besides processed foods (which all healthy diets do), go WAPF.

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