Beyond Paleo

“The real problem of humanity is the following;

We have Paleolithic emotions;

Medieval institutions;

and god-like technology.”                                                                                                                                             E.O. Wilson cited in 2009 conversation,

with Rebecca Castro, p. 18, The Watchman’s Rattle.

A recent request for my thoughts on ‘the future of Paleo’ as someone dissident to the movement took me doubly aback: first, due to the question itself, and secondly due to being regarded as a ‘dissident.’

I’ll readily confess: I’ve never thought of myself as a dissident within the Paleo movement simply because I’ve never considered myself to be a card carrying member of the Paleo movement. Paleo’s rapid emergence and popularity as a grassroots nutritional movement is breath taking: however, once we move beyond the diet considerations, Paleo is merely the tip of a huge iceberg — and with that, of far greater social and scientific importance than simply a dietary movement. That iceberg is NOT Paleo — it’s the emerging new paradigm of evolutionary science. It’s time to move Beyond Paleo, just as Popular and Commercial Paleo moved out of evolutionary science forming a scientifically solid nutritional movement. The clear and present danger of Popular and Commerical Paleo lies in making non-dietary claims couched as ‘genetic’ or ‘scientific’ when, in fact, those claims are hand-me-downs in commercial garb.

Originating nearly 30 years ago, the seeds of Paleo slowly grew as academic research and publications in the newly emerging discipline of evolutionary medicine — where medicine and anthropology joined forces studying human evolution, health, and diet on a global and historical scale for the first time. In 2004, one of the researchers published a groundbreaking study entitled The Paleo Diet, catalyzing the shift from a best kept secret of academia to what became the groundswell popular Paleo movement. Blogs, websites, and social media all contributed to viral growth of popular Paleo, a movement further amplified by commoditization of Paleo with myriad commercial ventures — books, workshops, clothing and equipment, and much more.

The request to talk on the future of Paleo catalyzed thinking on the past and present stage of Paleo, including dangers it faces for some foreseeable time. From my perspective, Paleo went commercialized too fast and with too great success to now be able to renew itself; what’s more, the bigger implications of Paleo seem of little interest to contemporary Commercial Paleo. The future’s wide open — in the future I perceive, Paleo will occupy a significant role in a far greater paradigm, one concerned with whole person natural genetic expression mandating attention to far more than diet.

Dr. Lane Sebring & Evolutionary Science

Moving from Arizona to a small Texas town in 2004, word of mouth recommended a physician who seemed in league with how I feel about medicine. In short order I became a patient of Dr Sebring, enjoying our conferences with my annual physical examination. We shared many interests in common, including physical culture. In 2009 I was honored with his invitation to collaborate developing an evolutionary based clinical procedure for dealing with Metabolic Syndrome — type II diabetes, hypertension, obesity, osteoporosis, arthritis, and several other symptoms. We were just then moving back to Wimberley from Austin, within two miles of his clinic. We’d already decided the lower level of our home was to include a comprehensive gym and research office.

Sarcopenia — Initial Breakthrough

First guiding my contributions to work with Dr Sebring were deep roots in Evans and Rosenberg’s landmark research of the 1980s at Tufts. They renamed chronic strength muscle atrophy by using a new word: sarcopenia or muscular poverty. Evans & Rosenberg initially set out to explore the age old conviction that muscle wasting is a normal condition of aging. Their research revealed that muscle wasting due to inactivity is the primary cause of premature aging, along with Metabolic Syndrome. Of greater importance, they demonstrated that sarcopenia can be prevented, can be arrested, and can be reversed. Muscle fate is not cast in concrete, instead there’s a plasticity of muscle. Their 1992 book Bio-Markers tells an intriguing story.

Evolutionary Medicine

Dr Sebring should be called the Pioneering Paleo Physician. From 1998 he was a regular participant at the late Robert Crayhon’s Boulderfest, there meeting up and attending workshops with Loren Cordain. Four years before publication of Cordain’s The Paleo Diet, Lane was already engaged in clinical applications of Cordain’s principles. When CJ Hunt undertook his In Search of the Perfect Diet movie project, Cordain pointed him to Dr. Sebring. To my shameful embarrassment, Dr Sebring had pointedly urged me toward Cordain’s book as early as 2005. A casual perusal of the book suggested it was yet another Physical Culture orientation to a high protein, nutrient dense, natural whole foods diet. How entrenched can one become? Only when we began collaborating did I read the book, experiencing an epiphany of insight. But it didn’t stop there. Cordain’s website contained years of peer review publications, and their references took me back to the origins of Paleo in the work of Eaton, Shostak, and Konner, especially their 1988 The Paleolithic Prescription.

My journey turned from Paleo to Evolutionary Medicine at that point. The great lesson of evolutionary medicine isn’t restricted to discovery of the Paleo diet: of far greater importance is revelation that a pandemic of nearly 35 diseases racking havoc and ruin among Western cultures stem exclusively from living in utter contempt of our genetic nature. While successful application of Paleo on a personal basis in losing body fat and subduing type II diabetes is admirable, reducing the Paleo movement to a self-help industry undermines its potential for mitigating major social & health problems of our world.

Beyond Sarcopenia — Evolutionary Exercise Physiology

 Evolutionary sciences now include evolutionary exercise physiology. Unencumbered by the dogmatic institutionalism of medicine, exercise physiology has emerged as a truly independent science. While medical research grew over the past century due to grants and controls from the pharmaceutical monopolies, hence overtaking free investigation due to directing research to marketing agendas, medical schools were forced to eliminate dissident disciplines: energy medicine, chiropractic, nutrition, and physical culture. Up until the 1970s, physical culture reincarnate as kinesiology and exercise physiology made slow progress. From the 1970s, exercise physiology began coming of age. Hidden away from the pharmaceutical-medical monopolies in obscure colleges of education, in physical education departments — as relevant as basket weaving to most — funding from alumni aimed at fielding champion athletes and teams produced handsome budgets. Their science was in aid of peak performance, science in service of unlocking dormant genetic potentials producing world class athletes and teams.

From the 80s through the new millennium of the year 2000, the Human Genome Project produced detailed mapping of what drives and makes us up – our genome. The year 2000 stands as a decisive turning point, one in which research turned to understanding genomic expression. Incredibly important research publications of the past 12 years in evolutionary exercise physiology, if taken seriously and applied, threaten to more than dramatically resolve the gridlocked health care crisis not only in public policy, but more importantly catalyzing a new medical science. A new medical science? Yes, one beyond  treating downstream symptoms but, instead, addressing upstream causes and prevention. So dramatic are the implications that public cost savings amount to tens of trillions of dollars.

This much is known: inactivity signals DNA to sequence unhealthy proteins, while under-sequencing healthy proteins. In terms of human evolution, our genetic make up standardizes normal levels of activity resulting in biochemical production of fitness friendly proteins. In an activity deficient condition, we don’t produce what we’re supposed to be making, starting a downward spiraling deregulation of health. We sign our own death warrant. Activity rules.

Physicians are today trained in the scalpel and prescription pad triumphs of 20th century Pasteurian medicine — a medicine whose triumphs defeated communicable, infectious diseases — along with public sanitation hygiene projects. Today’s pandemic of upwards of 35 major diseases are not infectious, communicable diseases; instead, they are degenerative, based on us as a civilization doing ourselves in. In pure existential terms, diseases of civilization are masked, unconscious, unwitting versions of mass suicide — akin to lemmings running off cliffs to certain destruction due to blatant ignorance, while for humans that ignorance is managed by surrogate measures of addiction to retain us within comfort zones of detrimental addictive reliance.

Beyond Omics – The Rest of the Story

The September 15, 2011 issue of the Journal of Applied Physiology carried two articles of immense sobering influence for us. Wagner & Paterson’s “Physiology: Found in Translation” editorial was simultaneously published in 2011 in The Journal of Physiology; Physiology News; American Journal of Physiology-Renal Physiology; American Journal of Physiology-Endocrinology and Metabolism; American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology; Journal of Applied Physiology; and Physiology. David Paterson is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Physiology.

Peter Wagner is Editor-in-Chief of The Journal of Applied Physiology, an unprecedented move. They introduce Michael Joyner’s Edward F. Adolph Distinguished Lectureship address published as “Giant sucking sound: can physiology fill the intellectual void left by the reductionists”

 Both articles review thirty years of inspired work in genetic and molecular biology, with emphasis on those fields’ promise of establishing deeper knowledge resulting in new cures for diseases running ramped. To date, panaceas remain in short supply. Where traditional physiology offered tools on the macro-level of diagnosis — capable of assessing presenting symptoms to various regular and rare causes, today’s biochemical model is so far removed from gross examination and diagnosis as to be remotely useful, more likely lost in confusing the forest for the trees. The author’s of both papers call attention to reductionism and the need to re-establish sobering balance.

Reductionism is the tendency to reduce complexities to simple explanations, simplistic paradigms that don’t stack up with credibility in face of the big picture. Reductionism was a characteristic of theology, replaced in the late 19th century by materialistic reductionism. That era of reductionism removed mind/emotion/will from the picture, holding that all scientific explanation could be based on reducing phenomena to material causes. Mind was explained as epiphenomalism – the view that just as the kidneys excrete urine, the brain excretes consciousness — essentially a toxic byproduct of no great importance other than as something defecated. One wonders if the implications of that view impacted the scientists proposing it in terms of self-esteem for their profession. Caveat lector!

The authors discussed above are physiologists. Crossing over to exercise physiology, the same reductionist genetic and molecular biology also thrives. Rarely do orthodox medicine and physiology intersect with physical culture and exercise physiology, resulting in immense fragmentation of knowledge and disruption of development of whole systems understanding. Since medicine and physiology are chiefly occupied understanding pathology while physical culture and exercise physiology concern themselves with health and peak performance, their dissociation creates an unhealthy gap in pure and practical knowledge.

Worse still, a review of genetic and molecular biological literature reveals a sort of Grail Quest for primary yet nevertheless evasive, mysterious, perhaps unknowable factors. Factors? Yes, since both fields highlight varying metabolic pathways marked by considerable synergy, interactions sufficient enough to result in highly clouded explanations.

The Omics mistake in physiology simply should not occur in exercise physiology. And the best way to ensure such mindless reductionism from happening will be a new field of research pairing up subtle omic research directly to gross level physical training protocols. Most genomic exercise physiology studies measure aerobic expression, while for over all health benefit anaerobic protocols must be followed. We’ll have more to say about commercialized physical training below, while for here genomic strength development is far from a singular noun: systematic study of various training methods is mandated in order to fully understand what they stimulate and how they work.

Slower, Weaker, Smaller — Manthropology

Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister’s Manthropology is a curve ball to our Western civilization standards of normality. Based on sub-disciplines of anthropology, he offers an adjunct to early Paleo science, amplifying how diminished genomic expression has become under the reign of Western civilization. Like Jarod Diamond’s work, obvious implications of McAllister’s work should be a wake up call. What’s he got to tell us? Through his work, his reporting of physical anthropological findings undeniably conclude that contemporary zoo humans are essentially smaller, weaker, slower expressions of ancestral adaptations. Comparative study of McAllister’s findings applied to the current pandemic would explicitly reveal how rapidly we’re promoting increasingly smaller, weaker, slower, and hence sicker with chronic degenerative diseases.

From Academic Paleo to Commercial Paleo

Its roots are in academic research, in evolutionary medicine: Paleo itself was born with publication of Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet in 2004. Up until then, growing scientific news appeared in various hard to find peer review publications. As a new author with a popular book, Cordain’s publisher chose the title. And that choice of title typecast Paleo as Diet.

Several years of focused Paleo research makes it real clear how rapidly and influentially Paleo has grown in remarkably short time. Such unprecedented growth is largely due to websites, blogs, and social media. Cordain set loose profoundly revolutionary ideas, while web media transformed those ideas into a groundswell popular movement out of which a rapidly growing commercialized Paleo is erupting.

Commercial Paleo is, after all, inevitable. The most difficult challenge those of us who got into to Paleo early on faced was identification of supply and distribution channels, even in our local areas. Business opportunities abound, resulting in a more formidable, doable foundation for applying Paleo to your life.

Popular & Commercial Paleo: Where They Went Wrong

Something disruptive happened as Popular and Commercial Paleo genres became runaway successes: they ran away from their scientific roots in evolutionary science. They did so first by dumbing down formative evolutionary scientific research by focusing on diet and diet alone. Anyone familiar with American culture knows that fad diets make millions of dollars because they satisfy belief that silver bullets cure everything. Paleo does better than simple fat loss diets: reports of remediation of type II diabetes and other illnesses fuels the fire.

Symptomatic of what’s wrong about Paleo is the whole area of exercise or fitness, a dimension of academic studies at least since 1988 publication of The Paleolithic Prescription. Up until emergence of Popular Paleo, diet and activity/fitness were part and parcel of medical anthropological reporting. Popular Paleo exhibits wholesale disregard for more than a decade of evolutionary exercise physiology publications irrefutably underscoring the primacy of activity, with nutrition a close second. The result is many folks regard Paleo as a diet freeing them of any concern for fitness bestowing action.

Commercial Paleo dramatically worsens the situation, yet you don’t see any discussion of it. In essence, a sort of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ seems to be in place — promoters of various Commercial Paleo schemes, especially those including some version of “ancestral fitness”, never challenge, never criticize, and never discuss justification for their scheme. With my early readings of Paleo literature, I smelled an aged rat upon reading that Paleo based exercise should consist of “short, infrequent training of upwards of one set of eight exercises done to failure.” That motto is not science speaking: it’s the polemic of a commercial theory of exercise now forty years of age. It has no justification in evolutionary science — nor do any of the other commercial theories!

To date, the leading Commercial Paleo concepts attempting to colonize the movement have been HIT and CrossFit, both known for aggressive marketing while being short on validating science: you’ll be hard pressed to find either in the curricula of exercise physiology or in scientific studies, while both ultimately rest on systems of authoritarianism for inprisoning minds. That’s because they’re commercial theories, not scientific theories. HIT and CrossFit are by no means alone for being short of scientific validation. Other commercial training services advocate ‘real Paleo’ Tarzan and chimp approaches to training.

Review of a century of study concerning how exercise works, what exercise methods are best, what makes muscle grow and get stronger result in one answer: we don’t know yet. Science doesn’t have to be in a hurry to learn the answer, but generations of individuals frustrated by no to slow fitness results seek a winning system. Once finding a system producing long sought results, a convert is born. We know this much for sure: any training system works for some of the population some of the time. Plateaus are more inevitable than injuries. Otherwise training ideas are widely divergent. Once a solution is commercialized, however, at that time its ability to grow and change is pretty much dead: commercialization leads to branding uniqueness, rarely generality. Our best solution today are those coaches ripe with wisdom in the art and science of training.

For my interests, Paleo is a wonderful dietary movement with a broad spectrum of entertaining systems of exercise thrown in. None of those exercise systems can justify being called “Paleo” because as they aren’t rooted in evolutionary science: they are not Physical Culture 2.0. either. And the ones you’re most likely to hear about are due to marketing budgets making their existence know: as much as they’ll claim to be Paleo, what evolutionary science justifies that claim. In absence of science, a good many rely on fictional reconstructions of Paleolithic life. Some cite anthropological reporting of Paleos working hunting 2-3 days weekly, then resting a lot: use of single studies does not consider men’s and women’s work allotment among many primal peoples.

Beyond Paleo: An Emergent New Humanistic Naturalism

 Paleo increasing digs itself into a solidifying ‘caveman’ icon. That’s going to backfire since it often glorifies a fictionalized ancestral past in seeking solutions to complex problems my recourse to simplistic image, while — more importantly — it disregards 100,000 years of continuing, sustained human evolution. I’m more concerned with moving well beyond commercialized Paleo, reconnecting with original scientific roots, and incorporating other disciplines filling still more blanks showing us what our genomic potential amounts to, and how we can consciously & beneficially evolve. It seems to me reclaiming our humanism is key, and doing so in a far reaching, multidisciplinary yet integrative manner.

Humanistic Naturalism: Reshaping Medicine

 Let’s move out of the Paleo Diet paradigm in a genetic based humanistic naturalism applied to medicine. With every physical examination, your doctor keeps track of both your height and weight. Those figures can be entered into a computer program for calculating BMI or Body Mass Index. Depending on the percentage score calculated, you’re rated on a relative scale of percentage body fat — ranking you as healthy, overweight, or obese.

Evolutionary exercise physiology understands that only until very recent generations, children born into the world had to develop strength and speed to survive. Those surviving into adulthood mated, transmitting the genetic wisdom keeping them alive to subsequent generations. We’re born into the world ready to compete and win — so much so that evolutionary scientists say that most of our ancestors’ normal condition was like that of life long athletes today: today’s medical standard for ‘normal’ is genetically abnormal. Our ancestors were heavier with lean muscle mass, yet with lower body fat.

Athletes are regularly diagnosed as over weight to obese with application of BMI. Since insurance companies use BMI, athletes can expect to be offered coverage at a higher premium due to being diagnosed at greater risk for disease and death — they’re diagnosed as over weight. Body composition distinguishes between body fat and muscle, giving a more accurate report but is not admissible for insurance companies.

Your doctor doesn’t know normal is abnormal. That means average numbers are wrong yet your doctor doesn’t know so. Since we’re smaller, weaker, and slower than our ancestors — except for life long athletes — construction of diagnostic tables fixing contemporary ‘normal abnormality’ will have tremendous health ensuring benefit. So-called ‘health’ by normal is abnormal standards would be reversed as unhealthy. Adjusting recommended body weight by age group upwardly in accounting for greater muscle mass would elevate target body weight goals for maintaining a place in the evolutionary fit category.

Implications of re-visioning bodyweight to athletic body composition have to be applied throughout the life span of 90 or 100 years. And with a dramatic shift from today’s pathetic standards. Sarcopenia speeds up with aging: the average 70 year old may have wasted away as much as 33 pounds of strength muscle. If we assume healthy people grow lighter as they age since sarcopenia is not taken into consideration, then a life long athlete could expect to be as much as 33 pounds fitter than the normal is abnormal standard — maybe more.

In line with roots in evolutionary science, blood panels would undergo considerable change. Blood panels are standardized to a random, general population — control groups composed of fit persons are excluded. From the evolutionary perspective, those optimally expressing the most natural genetic potential of fitness should be the gold standard. Sedentary people deemed healthy today due to an absence of disease by contemporary standards would not and could not be deemed healthy under an evolutionary based blood panel. In other words, the standards of normal abnormality do not take into account testing for bio-markers of degeneration versus fitness: we know two very different molecular biological processes distinguish the two, and with metabolic differences.

Under evolutionary medical diagnosis, attention will shift to Fitness Deficiency Disorders now treated as stand alone diseases (e.g., type II diabetes, hypertension, and osteoporosis) will be recognized as secondary and tertiary degenerative steps.

Such a genetic science based revisioning of simple bodyweight and blood panel diagnostic tools will align medical practice with diseases emerging as consequences of living in contempt of our genomic requirements. Evolutionary fitness, not disease absent “health,” will become our highly valued standard.  Prevention will outweigh cure.

Beyond Paleo

Most likely, the Paleo movement is here to stay. After all, it’s a genetically based refinement of old time Physical Culture’s admonishment to consume nutrient dense, natural whole foods. As a subordinate yet supporting role to Physical Culture 2.0 and an emerging Naturalistic Humanism, Paleo will well nourish the work of embodied minds taking the driver’s seat in next phases of human evolution’s challenge to avoid extinction at the hands of its own ignorance. Otherwise, the forces of evolutionary science will continue to shape a larger Naturalistic Humanism in which Paleo plays an important supporting role.

©2012, Ken O’Neill. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

About Trans-Evolutionary Fitness

At age 14 I was a science geek whose life was irreversibly changed upon lifting a barbell: I became a Physical Culturist whose science roots rendered me a walking question mark, a Free Thinker. Fascinated by rumor of a mind-muscle or mind-body connection I sought in vane for answers, all but laughed out of the Western academy. Graduate work in a Japanese Buddhist university bestowed beginner's understanding of how consciousness results in mental, emotional and physical embodiment along with voluntary control of our lives. I became a Kyoshi of the Jodo Shin heritage of Japanese Buddhism in 1972, then went on earning further competencies in Western psychological and gnostic traditions. Human wisdom heritages offer a heartfelt understanding of how consciousness creatively embodies us so greatly needed for both facing the anthropocene crisis and gaining self-mastery by a quantum leap to a meta-biological orientation to life. Trans-Evolutonary Fitness, my other blogs, and podcast all stand as contributions supporting a grassroots Renaissance of well being.
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4 Responses to Beyond Paleo

  1. Brad says:

    “Paleo increasing digs itself into a solidifying ‘caveman’ icon. That’s going to backfire since it often glorifies a fictionalized ancestral past in seeking solutions to complex problems”.

    I agree. Yes, we can learn a lot by studying our cavemen brethren, but their way of life does not provide the answers to all of life’s questions. Believing that it does it a gross oversimplification. As a simple example related to diet, just because a food was not eaten by our ancestors does not mean that the food is necessarily disadvantageous for us to eat.

  2. Shama Rao says:

    That is one of the best articles i have read in the recent times. one small suggestion if i may, could you kindly keep the sentences short in the future articles as this one requires going back and forth in order to make a proper meaning. may be its the way with science but its well worth a reread. cheers, sham.

  3. Admiring the time and energy you put into your site and detailed information you offer.
    It’s great to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same
    out of date rehashed information. Wonderful read!

    I’ve bookmarked your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

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