Revisiting the Paleo Books

Starting around 2008, I read and reviewed several nutritional books on this site, most of which have some popularity in the Paleo community. Although I’ve enjoyed experimenting with a Paleo diet approach, as time goes by I find myself increasingly critical of ideas that made perfect sense to me just a few years ago.

If one goes back into the archives of this site, the reviews of certain Paleo books are a little too positive. With more experience and more knowledge, I’ve decided to revisit these books with my current thoughts.

The New Evolution Diet by Art De Vany

My original review of The New Evolution Diet was in December 2010. Without rehashing old ideas, I find De Vany’s approach far too restrictive. Carbs are bad and so is excess fat. He dislikes grains and dairy. If I followed his higher protein version of the diet, I would be hungry all the time and bored.

When I ate super clean – not even low carb – I was dropping weight too fast. My face looked gaunt. The food that successfully reversed that was ice cream. It was dairy plus sugar that worked for me.

I may have said this before, but De Vany was a professional athlete long before he discovered Paleo. How much of his current amazing health is a result of his genetics plus training and how much is a result of diet? The longer I go on my nutrition journey, the more I suspect it is the former.

Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson

My review of Primal Blueprint was from June 2009. When it comes to editing and clear writing, I still think this is a good book. Many of the ideas I still agree with, but its core message that high levels of carbohydrates lead to “insidious weight gain” no longer rings true.

I’ll quote Matt Stone:

In Mark Sisson’s book, The Primal Blueprint, he shows a little chart with carbohydrate levels ideal for weight loss, weight maintenance, and the levels of carbohydrate intake that lead to, in his words, “insidious weight gain.” Get above 150 grams of carbohydrates per day in your diet and you enter the danger zone. I have said this many times and I will say it again – in all the information I’ve ever read on nutrition and health, this could very well be the dumbest and most unsubstantiated tidbit I’ve ever come across. It is downright retarded, with 5 billion…. 5 BILLION living exceptions to the rule that a carbohydrate intake exceeding 150 grams per day triggers insidious weight gain. This is just plain stupid. I couldn’t even believe my eyes when I read it. This guy is, and should be, the laughingstock of anyone who studies obesity or nutritional science. He completely undermines his credibility as an intelligent person with this one uber-knuckleheaded and poorly-thought out conclusion.

The rest of the book is pretty good. Sisson embraces dairy and has a sane approach to exercise. I think because I liked the rest of the book so much, it provided credibility to the carbohydrate chapter that was unwarranted.

Primal Body – Primal Mind by Nora T. Gedgaudas

My review of Primal Body – Primal Mind was from July 2010, which was the first edition. I later read the second edition in December 2011. PBPM is a high-fat, anti-sugar Paleo. By the time I read the 2nd edition, I was already dismissive of the idea that carbohydrates were evil.

My journey had already moved away from Paleo and towards a more Weston A Price approach. I enjoyed my expanded diet and the fun I was having learning how to cook traditional cuisines, which were full of those evil carbohydrates.

PBPM is too restrictive for me. Plus after reading a few posts about the author on Carb Sane, I have serious doubts about what is true or isn’t true in the book. Right now I am teaching myself Malaysian cooking. Wonderful recipes that would be impossible if I followed the PBPM advice.

Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan

Although I posted my review in June 2012, I read it at least a year before then. What I liked and still like about this book is how it combined the principles of traditional food (the Weston A Price approach) and modern nutrition.

Chapter 9 demonizes sugar and carbs going as far as saying they block metabolic function. Using the same observation Matt Stone used above when critiquing Mark Sisson’s “insidious weight gain” comment, that doesn’t appear to be true. I’ve since read from others how sugar can support metabolism.

Sally Fallon posted a review of Deep Nutrition on the WAPF site with a lot of good points, If there is a 2nd edition, Dr. Cate would be wise to work with Sally and the WAPF before going to press. The WAPF needs a book like this that they can endorse. As great as the 1939 Nutrition and Physical Degeneration book is, I can tell you that only a few members of the Seattle chapter of the WAPF have read all 500 pages.

Good Calories, Bad Calories by Gary Taubes

This was the book I fawned over. I took it to Thailand with me in November 2009 and read it three times. When I returned home I told everyone it was the best book ever. In short, GCBG tells the story of how health professionals falsely concluded that cholesterol and saturated fat were the cause of obesity and health problems. Then it points the blame on carbohydrates.

Although there were critics of the carbohydrate theory, I didn’t pay much attention to it at first. I cut carbs and I lost fat effortlessly without counting calories. It had to be right. Then when I was lean, I added back carbs and stayed lean. Huh? The critics were getting louder, so I read James Krieger’s multi-part series on Insulin: An Undeserved Bad Reputation. It was his analogy that insulin is like a traffic cop that clicked with me.

Thus, insulin is like a traffic cop or a stop light at an intersection. It helps slow down and control traffic. Without a stop light or traffic cop, cars go through the intersection uncontrolled and you get traffic accidents. Likewise, without insulin in the body, gluconeogenesis, glycolysis, proteolysis, ketogenesis, and lipolysis all proceed at high rates without anything to stop them. The end result is hyperglycemia, ketoacidosis, and eventually death.

So insulin was never the bad guy, just like cholesterol was never the bad guy? I heard Taubes on a recent podcast, towards the end of the interview it sounded like he doesn’t even think his insulin theory of obesity is right anymore.

Last Words

The main reason I revisited these books is that I am no longer convinced that carbohydrates are the cause of obesity and health decline. With that said, I can no longer endorse any of these books. I’ve gotten rid of these books and replaced them with cookbooks.


Add yours

  1. Simon Melville

    Aug 7, 2013 — 2:19 pm

    Michael — as always, very honest and interesting. Refreshing to read someone who is happy to admit that they have changed their mind. Most people in the “paleosphere” don’t do so.

    I remember Kurt Harris saying that people tended to get “married” to the books they had written so they could never change their minds in the face of new evidence. So many bloggers do the same and they don’t even have book sales to defend.

  2. Dinis Correia

    Aug 7, 2013 — 3:40 pm

    Spot on, as always. Sometimes I’m even embarrassed I recommended the Taubes book to some people. Mark Sisson’s book isn’t that bad – but yes, the “insidious weight gain” thing will haunt him forever. I usually like to apply Hegel’s dialectics to everything and I think it makes perfect sense in the nutrition field (or at least in my personal journey): fat is bad (thesis), carbs are bad (antithesis), carbs and fat are both necessary (synthesis).

    It makes me sad most paleo bloggers and writers are still reluctant to eat things like rice and potatoes and to include those ingredients in their cookbooks. Most mainstream cookbooks end up having several recipes with ingredients I’d rather not eat; on the other hand, paleo cookbooks (which could be awesome), end up being low-carb recipe books. I think I’ll explode the thing time I see some paleo blogger say they eat potatoes “occasionally” or “now and then”. Just eat the damn potatoes!

  3. I used to be married to a few “bible-like books” when I was a vegan and tried justifying my lifestyle by citing these authors. Clinging to books seems to be also very popular among Paleo folks and to me often they are just as dogmatic as vegans tend to be.

    For me the key is to move on in nutrition and just enjoy some amazing meals from all kinds of cultures. Kudos to you MAS for embarking upon the Malaysian cuisine cruise.

    Keep those recipes flying in.

  4. I’m currently reading Perfect Health Diet. Their recommendation is 400-600 carb calories per day. Doesn’t this line up with Sisson’s recommendation of 100-150g carbs to maintain weight? Yeah, “insidious weight gain” may be excessive but it seems his chart is fairly correct. Below 100g you’ll probably loose weight. 100-150 you’ll maintain, above 150 you’ll probably carry more than you should.

  5. Maybe, below 100g you’ll probably loose weight, but the bad thing about that is, that your metabolism is collapsing sooner or later and you are risking a thyroid dysfunction.

  6. Matthew Cieri

    Aug 8, 2013 — 8:15 am

    I really like your stuff but I have to disagree on your your high carb view. All the research is showing the super high carb is the way to fat and weight gain in a sedentary population. If you are into fitness then carbs are vital if you sit on your but all day starchy carbs are not need much. I think you should read John Keifer, Jason Ferruggia, and Nate Miyaki. They explain this really well on how this works for athletes and the sedentary. In short low or no carb on non training days for athletics and high/higher carbs on training days or 1 day a week for the sedentary.

    I think marks numbers may not be perfect but the do give a safe range for the average population to follow.

  7. @Matthew – I’m not defending the high carb approach. I just have issues with how some are using bad science to promote low carb. I too like the cyclical approach. I posted this 2 years ago.

    I like the cyclical approach also because it assumes incomplete knowledge and allows each individual to dial up or down their carbs based upon age, training volume and just what they like to eat.

    I’ll do days or meal that are low carb and some that are high carb. I don’t see magic in either approach. They are several paths to a healthy weight. Those claiming that only their way works aren’t being truthful.

    Mark Sisson’s numbers are a fine strategy, but there are other strategies that work as well.

  8. @David S – I thought about adding a section for The Perfect Health Diet, but the post was getting long enough. What I like about PHD is it provides more context for its recommendations. Also I get the feeling Paul is approaching nutrition from a software mindset. Each version of the PHD will get progressively better as our understanding improves. PHD did make it OK for Paleo peeps to eat white rice, which pleases my inner Asian. 🙂

  9. I feel old. I haven’t read any of these books. I came to paleo via Neanderthin, which I think has been out of print for a while. And Neanderthin didn’t say anything about restricting carbs, just avoiding agricultural foods. (Essentially, eat animal protein, fruit and vegs. Although it did mention that a few people can only eat meat, which helped me a lot, since all vegetable foods give me problems of one sort or other.) The logic was off, since they said only eat food you could eat raw on the savannah, and humans have been cooking food for probably 2 million years, but it was an interesting approach.

    I’m surprised so few people have read Price all the way through. I really enjoyed the stuff added on at the end, and the photo of the cow with drooping horns (please tell me they at least skimmed through and saw that) was quite something.

    I think I went through something similar with vegetarian books, in particular Annemarie Colbin’s Food and Healing, which has a lot of good ideas, but fell short in some areas. She does acknowledge that people who eat a lot of whole grains tend to be holier than thou about grains. Then she goes ahead and does it herself. The diet she recommends would leave me in serious pain in fairly short order.

  10. @Anemone – I read Neaderthin many moons ago. I don’t recall it being as memorable as the books in this post.

    My fellow WAPF peeps do look at the pictures. They might read an article or two on the site, but not the book. A second edition of Deep Nutrition with Sally as co-author would be successful.

  11. Glenn Whitney

    Aug 8, 2013 — 10:13 am

    Great post. I can’t read those kinds of books anymore.
    It’s increasingly coming down to Just Eat Real Food, ideally food you cook (and produce) your self…

  12. On what podcast did Taubes say that? I started with Taubes, then went “paleo” and now at PHD to stay….I think.

  13. MAS,
    Great post.
    At one point, Art wrote a paper about steroids and sports. He appeared to argue that steroids played no part in home run numbers, and that the year Bonds, McGuire and Sosa hit all these home runs was just a coincidence, and had nothing to do with steroids.
    I had real doubts about that conclusion, even without understanding Art’s mathematical “proof,” and lost faith in his “guru” status ever since. Probably a good thing.

  14. @EF – It was the Fat Burning Man. I’ve been following Taubes since 2009. Got to meet him and hear him speak. I’ve heard him a number of times. Maybe it was me, but towards the end of the hour it sounded like he lacked the confidence and certainty he used to have.

    @Jim – I actually think Art was probably right about steroids having little impact in baseball. There were other changes in baseball that likely caused the increase in home runs.

  15. Ok. Sabernomics convinced me. In fact, now I don’t even think steroids affect body building competitions. Guys are probably just bigger now due to expansion of the sport. 🙂

  16. I actually think that one’s tolerance to carbs etc is an individual thing, much like our differing individual tolerances to various drugs, hence the fact that one person can have positive reactions to one drug, while someone else can have terrible side effects.
    I bought and read Sisson’s and De Vany’s books more for their theories on exercise, rather than diet ( I do quite well on high carbs )…but their exercise theories seemed to make sense to me and also gelled quite well with other authors ( non Paleo ) who I admired….Clarence Bass, Richard Winett and, more recently, you yourself MAS. But I could never get behind their dietary ideas, especially when you realise that as a species the one thing we do well is adapt. We are good at it, so good, we have been able to colonize the whole planet, where many species cannot, and thrive on numerous and varied types of diet. Like some have already said, the prescription to eat “real food” and limit the junk, while enjoying what you eat seems to be all that is required.

  17. Could you have gotten where you are without those books? I feel some of them were part of the process of figuring things out, both for authors and readers. And, in my opinion, most of us better off. Well, I am.

  18. @Txomin – That is awesome point. De Vany’s original essay, which later became his Vegas presentation which later became his book will always hold meaning for me. It was extremely valuable. I still am thankful for the work Taubes did on GCBC. The parts on cholesterol, saturated fat, salt and appetite I still consider outstanding. And I still like most of Primal Blueprint.

  19. Taubes hasn’t changed his mind but now with Peter Attia & NuSi he’s in a position to design scientific studies to explore the blind spots in the calorie supremacists’ models and the missing parts of his own alternative model of obesity. He has always been cautious and in favor of more studies. And no, S.Guyenet’s so-called refutation of Taubes’ thesis isn’t the debunking that so many people claim it is, just read Hyperlipid/Petro Dobromylskyj blog post “Should we abandon the carbohydrate hypothesis of obesity?”. Same with Krieger. I was surprised to see so many people jump on the Taubes-is-wrong! bandwagon. If the calorie model was true because of the laws of physics then I guess those who are resistant to obesity like the college students in the documentary “Why are thin people not fat?” must be mutants violating the laws of physics. Yeah that makes sense. Perhaps insulin isn’t the initial domino that falls and pushes an individual on the obesity track but it definitely plays a big role in the hunger problem that most obese people experience.

    Nowadays (wasn’t the case a couple of years ago when I was eating wheat 3 times a day) I can eat treats and deserts and bread without getting fat or hungry because I purposely eat %90+ of my daily carbs once a day at diner. For me a low frequency of carbs – as opposed to a low quantity of carbs – works better.

  20. @M – Thanks for the link to Hyperlipid. The more I dug into this, the confused I became. Eventually I just tapped out of the argument. Instead of preaching the insulin gospel, I just left the church. Krieger’s arguments make more sense to me, but you are right that there is still something missing.

    I’ll also watch the documentary.

  21. Likewise, without insulin in the body, gluconeogenesis, glycolysis, proteolysis, ketogenesis, and lipolysis all proceed at high rates without anything to stop them. The end result is hyperglycemia, ketoacidosis, and eventually death.

    This is really what convinced you that GCBG has it all wrong about insulin and obesity? I haven’t read anywhere in the book that Taubes is recommending to get a pancreatectomy in order to rid your body of the evil hormone insulin, which would result in the above mentioned straw man scenario. Rather, it is all about restoring proper insulin signaling by lowering circulating insulin concentrations resulting in increased insulin sensitivity.

    Even polar opposites like Dean Ornish and Ron Rosedale agree that lowering insulin is beneficial. They just don’t agree on what method is best accomplish it:

    As Ron indicated, and I think we agree on this, the insulin accelerates the conversion of calories into fat, into triglycerides. Over time repeated surges of insulin can cause people to become insulin resistant, which can promote diabetes. It stimulates the enzyme that any of the cholesterol lowering drugs are designed to inhibit called HMG CoA reductase…

    . In the end that’s just biochemistry textbook knowledge, but it’s nice to hear it from Dean Ornish.

    As a medical student who asks the professors a lot of questions regarding this topic I don’t think the medical community very much disagrees on that aspect of the topic. To illustrate that point, have a look at the Panel discussion from a conference called “The Cancer-Obesity Link”. They are all talking about the role of insulin in different cancers and the need to increase insulin sensitivity in patients. What they disagree about is the means to accomplish this. Whereas the medical doctors predominately call for the need to develop new drugs to increase insulin sensitivity, Gary Taubes (on the panel) and Richard Feinman (from the audience) simply ask whether limiting carbohydrates in the diet would increase insulin sensitivity, which pretty clearly it does.

    So maybe you didn’t explain your thought process sufficiently in the blog post, but they way it came across to me is that you changed your mind on the carbohydrate – insulin – obesity link because someone suggested that insulin is necessary for life, which nobody in their right mind would contest.

  22. @John – I probably shouldn’t have used that entire quote in this post. Now I read it again, it does come off as a weak straw man argument. The relevant part is the first half, which is the traffic cop analogy.

    I am not the science guy expert. All I am saying in this post is that James Krieger’s insulin series is now more persuasive to me than Gary Taubes. Gary has already admitted he was wrong about his G3P argument. That was a cornerstone to his insulin theory argument in the book.

    Once I knew enough about the inner workings of nutrition science to realize I didn’t know much is when I stepped back from the debate. I am back to observing nutrition like an investor who tries to make the best decisions with incomplete data, while hedging those decisions that I’ll get wrong.

    The idea of reducing insulin to lower cancer risk, especially with older adults, is an idea that makes sense and I will be following. But I no longer believe the insulin theory of obesity. Maybe it is wrong or just incomplete. I don’t know.

  23. That seems like a sensible approach to the whole issue. I came here primarily for your insights on exercise, which I found very compelling and implemented right away. What I still don’t understand is your change of mind with regards to GCBC about what seems to me to be a non-issue. So maybe my logic is flawed somehow.

    Gary has already admitted he was wrong about his G3P argument. That was a cornerstone to his insulin theory argument in the book.

    What I don’t understand is why you think glyceroneogenesis was the cornerstone of “his” insulin theory of obesity. As far as I understand it he’s looking for the biggest culprit that could explain the increasing prevalence of obesity. The argument does not hinge on the idea that you can only store fat with dietary carbohydrates present. Rather that dietary carbohydrates are the main driver of insulin secretion and insulin secretion drives lipogenesis and therefore that an increase primarily in sugars and refined carbohydrates may be the single best explanation for the observed increase in obesity. That glucose metabolism conveniently supplies the biggest part of G3P is still true, but in my mind isn’t really essential to the argument to begin with.

    Dietary glucose is the primary source of glycerol phosphate. The more carbohydrates consumed, the more glycerol phosphate available, and so the more fat can accumulate. For this reason alone, it may be impossible to store excess body fat without at least some carbohydrates in the diet and without the ongoing metabolism of these dietary carbohydrates to provide glucose and the necessary glycerol phosphate.

    As it is written the textbook linked below: “The vast majoriy of the glycerol 3-phosphate is derived form the glycolytic intermediate dihydroxacetone phosphate (DHAP)”. That means it is mainly produced by glycolysis, i.e. glucose metabolism.

    For what it’s worth:

    It also does not contradict any of his 10 conclusions at the end of the book or the four facts that “had been established beyond reasonable doubt” as was suggested in the blog post you referenced.:

    (1) carbohydrates are singularly responsible for prompting insulin secretion; (2) insulin is singularly responsible for inducing fat accumulation; (3) dietary carbohydrates are required for excess fat accumulation

    First he’s talking about “excess fat accumulation” and not fat storage per se and second (3) would be a logical consequence of (1) and (2).

    What do you think about NuSI then? Maybe we should just wait until 2016 and then reconsider.

  24. @John – I am aware of the Twitter battle between Carbsane and Gerard. I followed every Tweet. It was my calling out Bailor for adding the G3P point to his recent book that kicked it all off. Both Gerard and Carbsane are smarter than me on this issue, but I am more swayed by Carbsane.

    When I read GCBC, I was personally convinced by the G3P argument. So much that I would preach it to friends. Whether it was the intent of the author or not, it was a point that stuck with me and swayed me. When I found out it was misleading and incomplete at best, I felt duped. That is why I included the book on this revisiting post. I need to make amends for calling GCBC the best book ever.

    Because I am currently in the “I don’t know” camp when it comes to major cause of obesity, I must assume CICO until I know differently. I currently do not believe carbohydrates are the cause of the obesity epidemic. I think it is primarily excess calories from processed foods (some of which are carbs, many of which are PUFA).

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