November 3, 2010

Paleo Coffee

I've alluded to something called paleo dieting here before, though only offered cursory explanation as to what it is. It is popular, first of all, with books and blogs aplenty dedicated to espousing the diet -- or rather, "lifestyle", as devotees would say.

But what is it, exactly? It is, on its face, a diet which encourages only the consumption of pre-agriculture foods. That is, anything that we speculate humans did not consume regularly as hunter-gatherers, we should not consume either. There is a lot of disagreement about the specifics, but on those points, I think most agree. Usually, the diet consists of lots of meat and vegetables, with some fruit and tubers depending on how you feel about their "high" carbohydrate content.

It stands in direct position to conventional dietary wisdom. More and more, nutrition luminaries like the Mayo Clinic and Harvard School of Health are encouraging little, if any, animal products. Paleo dieters scoff at this notion, pointing to biological and anthropological evidence which shows prolific meat consumption for all of human history. The problem, they say, is with neolithic foods, especially grains. Breads, pastas, even brown rice and oatmeal are eschewed, in favor of more nutrient rich and less starchy vegetables. And meat. Lots of it.

I've found this diet fascinating, in part because I find nutrition as a whole to be very interesting, but also because I'm a sucker for appeals to the natural. Oddly, for one who reads a number of blogs espousing this plan, I don't eat this way myself. In fact, I'm really not even close. I eat a pretty prolific amount of grain, probably less fruits and vegetables than I should, and little meat. First of all, this diet is inexpensive. A breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter can be had for a week, at less than a dollar a bowl.

There is also the fact that, whatever the fossil record may show, it's pretty clear that the healthiest human populations in the world now do eat grain as a primary staple. Low carb diets (which, however they might protest, paleo diets almost always end up being) also tend to result in substantial weight loss, and muscle wasting if you don't consume a rather massive amount of protein. I am, in short, not interested in being sickly thin. I've been there before. It's not fun. The human brain also likes sugar a lot, which is not to say that one should slam Coke all day, but rather, that a steady supply of glucose leads to steady energy levels and mood. Grains tend to provide just that, provided they aren't overly refined.

I could continue, talking about the impossibility of feeding 6 billion people 1/2 lb of grass fed beef every evening, but instead, I'll just get to coffee. This is, after all, not a nutrition blog, however much I might flirt with that topic on occasion.

Coffee has always seemed something of a paleo gray area to me, not unlike butter. Both are decidedly neolithic consumables, however, both are consumed by most paleo dieters. The justification is that, while neolithic in origin, neither doom one to the modern diseases of affluence. Dr. Harris (who I've actually linked before, in reference to saturated fat) of paleonu sums this point up by basically saying that paleo dieters aren't in to historical re-creationism, but rather, recreating what he calls the "evolutionary metabolic milieu". Coffee and butter fit in to that, while a baguette does not.

But, coffee proponent though I am, I have to question the truth of that. If the goal is to, as closely as possible, align one's eating with what is, in theory, closest to our evolutionary roots, coffee must be eschewed. Though I would never argue that caffeine is bad per se, it is certainly relatively novel to the human animal. And it has, without question, numerous effects once it enters the body. Now there is substantial debate about whether these effects are hazardous, beneficial, or maybe just benign. But there can be no argument that caffeine does affect people. Some, to an extent that is not desirable. We all know the caffeine sensitive person, for whom one cup of coffee unleashes a cascade of deleterious neurological effects, and perhaps an upset digestive system besides.

And yet for paleo dieters, this is not enough. Some are caffeine sensitive, they say, but not all. If we can tolerate it, enjoy it, and benefit from it, then why not consume it. Because, I would answer, that same argument is not applied consistently. Coffee = perfectly fine if you like it and tolerate it. Fish/eggs/nuts = lovely paleo health foods, that need only be avoided if you're allergic. Grain = the devil, to be avoided at all costs, despite the fact that a statistically insignificant portion of the population cannot tolerate them, excepting of course celiacs and those who suffer from severe diabetes.

The paleo movement thus derives its specific set of orthorexic rules from decidedly inconsistent criteria. I will continue to enjoy my oatmeal with my morning coffee, neolithic agents of the apocalypse all.

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