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Do you really believe in evolution?

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Our family has been on a diet for the past three months.

It's not the ordinary kind of diet, the kind one is on to try to lose weight. Rather, it resulted from our attempts to eat healthy during Elizabeth's pregnancy and lactation period, because we were kind of single minded in trying to give Margaret the best possible start on life. It's "our" attempts because, although we were specifically interested in the nutrients passing through Elizabeth, I do the cooking and thus most of the dietary planning.

It started with thinking about what nutrients we'd need to build a new human baby while preserving Elizabeth's health. Her doctor noted a need for iron for the baby's blood and marrow; given our tastes in food, we were happy to eat more beef, and even occasional liver. Calcium for Margaret's bones we knew about and felt we could get from pills. Protein was not going to be a problem if we were getting iron from meat. Where it started getting interesting was when we looked at fats.

I'd already cut trans fats out of my diet; once Elizabeth's maternity leave started and she was eating only what I made for her, she had cut them too. For Margaret's cell membranes, though, we'd need a certain amount of saturated fat; getting saturated fats without trans fats meant using animal fats. And for Margaret's brain, we'd need not only a lot of fat - brains are about 60% fat - but also specific kinds of fat. In particular, there's evidence that omega 3 fats are particularly important for brain structure and function.

The current thinking seems to be that fat balance is kind of like amino acid balance: you need a certain amount of each kind of essential fat, but excesses of certain types will also reduce the efficiency with which other types are used. In the case of omega 3 fats, the issue is balance with omega 6 fats. The ideal omega 3 : omega 6 ratio is about 1:2, as is the ratio in wild fish, wild ungulates, and wild eggs. In corn, and corn oil, it is about 1:40. Since most of our agriculture is based on corn, that affects the ratio throughout the food chain: standard grocery store eggs are around 1:20, and typical grocery store beef is 1:4 or higher. Vegetable oils other than corn oil are mostly in the range of 1:10 or so.

Clearly we'd have to do some work here. We switched to omega 3 eggs, which typically come from free range chickens that are fed a diet of flax seed rather than corn. We also started eating some grass fed beef - which we've stuck with, despite the expense, because it tastes better - as well as adding sardines and, once it came into season, wild Alaska salmon, since we both like those two fish types and they are low in mercury.

In the course of this research, I ran into an interesting diet idea. The idea is this: we should eat what our ancestors ate during the paleolithic period, from roughly 5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. Why? Because a significant amount of human evolution, including the parts that differentiated us from the apes - and also, presumably, including evolution involving our diets - happened during those millions of years of hunting and gathering. In contrast, the 10,000 years of neolithic herding and agriculture have not been long enough for us to evolve new genes for that even newer diet; it's barely enough time for us to have had a few gross point mutations.

For someone who believes in evolution, this is a compelling theory. It also dovetails nicely with the healthiness of foods coming from animals whose life styles are closest to what's seen in the wild - free range chickens, grass fed beef, wild fish. Once one thinks of it from an evolutionary perspective, one realizes that of course the best foods are those closest to wild foods, because those are closest to the foods we're evolved to eat.

So I started using other aspects of the "paleo diet". It's a fairly simple diet: eat as much meat, vegetables, and fruit as you want. Don't eat grains - they're agricultural, and thus neolithic - or dairy - pastoral, and again neolithic - or beans - again agricultural - or refined sugars, which only became widespread after the industrial revolution. Eggs and fish count as meat, and it's preferable to use something approximating wild types, such as the omega 3 eggs and grass fed beef mentioned before. Soda counts as refined sugar, but if you need caffeine, tea leaves are vegetables. Don't add milk or sugar.

Once we fully shifted to this diet, we noticed some changes beyond a healthy baby. The frequent bouts of painful gas that we'd both been having cleared up, as did Elizabeth's constipation. I felt clearer headed; it seemed easier to concentrate at work. Elizabeth no longer felt hungry during the day, despite being on a 1200 calorie diet - though she's sometimes hungry for dinner if I'm home late and she skips her daily snacks or breakfast. We've both lost unwanted weight from around the midsection - about 10 pounds for me, and 20 pounds so far for Elizabeth, not counting childbirth and the first week or so thereafter (it's 40+ pounds counting that). Granted Elizabeth's weight loss has presumably been accelerated through milk production, but we think she'd be stabilizing on a slimmer and more healthy weight even without that. And we both feel like we're eating a lot better than we ever have before, what with the steak, fish, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

There are a few disadvantages. I spend two or three times as much time cooking - maybe 20 minutes for dinner instead of 5-10 before, plus time to prepare Elizabeth's lunches. Typically we need two grocery trips instead of one each week. I'm not sure how much alkaline vegetables we need to prevent bone density loss.

Still, that's a lot better than spending several hours a day gathering and hunting - and risking broken bones in the process - as our real paleolithic ancestors did.
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On October 26th, 2008 10:28 pm (UTC), enugent commented:
Do you make exceptions for Mary Chung's?

Elimination of indigestion when you cut out grains makes me wonder if either of you has a bit of celiac disease.
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On October 26th, 2008 11:54 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
We do make exceptions for Mary Chung's, though we've started skipping the scallion pies in favor of guo tieh or other appetizers that have more meat and less grain. The vegetables are also paleo.

Based on the timing, I think that the gas was from mostly from the potatoes that we previously had several times a week; that didn't stop until I tried the experimental "no nightshades" fortnight. We've added back in occasional tomatoes and peppers, which are fruit and thus paleo, but we've left out the potatoes, which as tubers are likely not paleo (though there's debate about that). I found independent verification that potato starch tends to be less digestible than other common forms of starch; evidently significant quantities of raw potato starch leads to gas in all subjects.

Elizabeth's constipation was almost certainly due to insufficient soluble fiber; we had previously controlled that with bananas, but she had problems remembering since she didn't like bananas that much. Now we have lots of fruit in our diet, so we get plenty of soluble fiber.

I think the benefit of removing the grain lies mostly in removing empty calories, though the benefit touted by proponents is that lectins in the grains tend to cause immune disorders - such as celiac disease. I don't think we had celiac disease as malnourishment and weight loss were not our problem.
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On October 26th, 2008 11:24 pm (UTC), chenoameg commented:
Where do you currently get your meat? I cannot praise the Chestnut Farm meat CSA enough.

I'm also curious about where you buy your wild Alaskan salmon.

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On October 27th, 2008 12:24 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
We get our meat from several sources. I put in one order for a minimum order quantity of something like 40 pounds of grass fed ground beef a couple months ago - as much because I wanted full fat ground beef as because of the grass fed aspect, as this was before I had fully researched the omega 3 issue - from an online place. I can give you the details if you want, but googling might be just as good, as I'd likely order from a different place next time.

Our steaks and roasts we get from Whole Foods and the black angus at Johnnie's Foodmaster. These are both grain finished, but about 80% grass fed. I've gotten addicted to the dry aged steaks from Whole Foods, but they are very expensive; we can only afford them because I only use 3-4 oz per person per dinner, and even then it's only once or maybe twice a week. I used to go to the Malden meat market, but they are only open during week days.

We also eat regular old factory farmed pork chops. The data I've seen seems to indicate that pork is less sensitive to diet than beef or fish; perhaps it's because pigs are adapted to an omnivorous diet, or perhaps it's because no one is raising razorbacks.

I don't think I'd be happy with a farm share as I prefer to have more control over what cuts I cook.

Strangely enough, the first time I became aware of the wild salmon was when Foodmaster had a sale. That didn't last for long. Now I get it at Whole Foods, but the run will probably only last for a couple more weeks. Like their steak, it's expensive, but I like it much better than the farmed salmon.
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On October 27th, 2008 04:31 am (UTC), chenoameg replied:
Before I got the meat share I ordered beef from River Rock Farm; it was excellent meat.

I enjoy the random nature of the cuts, and the meat is very very tasty. (The pork is flavorful!) But I understand it's not for everyone.

I have also found the chicken from Mayflower Poultry to be more flavorful, but I haven't checked on its diet, nor have I managed to make it a regular part of my shopping.
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On November 3rd, 2008 08:09 pm (UTC), enugent commented:
Are you going to use the same strategy with Margaret when she starts eating "solids"? Most people start with cereal, but I don't think there's any reason you have to, as long as she's getting enough iron (baby cereal is fortified with it). I presume that a dairy-based formula is also OK, given other constraints.

If you want to start giving her the food you're eating relatively early, I know that a lot of people have had success with these (we never used ours much because Tom found it too much of a pain to clean the bag, but we weren't that committed to the whole idea anyway - we were perfectly happy to buy jarred foods).
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On November 4th, 2008 04:05 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Formula is a difficult decision for us. Obviously breast milk is the right choice from a "paleolithic" standpoint, but given how long it took to get Margaret, we'd like to start trying soon for a sibling for her, which means switching to formula. Cow's milk is very different: three times as much protein and one fifth as much fat, reflecting the fact that baby cows have more muscle and less brain to grow. Infant formula is better, though it's somewhat disturbing that human milk doesn't meet government guidelines for it (not enough protein, vitamins, or minerals).

There's about a 7 IQ point advantage to breast feeding over formula on average, which is significant. That gap might be closed or partially closed by formulas with added DHA and ARA, but the particular form of those fatty acids used in the additive may be linked to gas, diarrhea, and dehydration. Sigh.

I've been thinking about getting a blender and using the "give her whatever we're having in mush form" approach. The feeder thing you mention might be a good idea too, though their site even admits cleaning is a pain.

I wonder what paleolithic hominids did. Possibly they just breast fed until all the baby's teeth were in, but it must have taken a lot of patience to continue much after the incisors came in.
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On November 4th, 2008 06:35 am (UTC), enugent replied:
Breastfeeding with teeth isn't really that bad, even with the incisors. I breastfed Dorothy to 14 months without a problem. I don't remember exactly when which teeth came in, but I know she started around 5 months, and definitely had a mouthful of them by 14. Bottom teeth are a total nonissue, since the tongue covers them in a correct latch anyway, and it doesn't take very many times of taking the baby off after getting bitten before s/he makes the connection that biting=no milk.

But I understand your dilemma with the switch to formula. It's a tough decision to make.
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On February 12th, 2010 03:17 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
Belated addition: as someone else has pointed out to me, paleolithic hominids undoubtedly prechewed some of their food for infants and toddlers. We haven't quite brought ourselves to do that for Margaret, though.
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On December 17th, 2008 09:50 pm (UTC), ex_aria_sta commented:
Is this not similar to Atkins? I love pasta, but love meat more, and don't get me started on veggies! I can live on meat and veggies. I've long thought that the food pyramid showing the largest part of our diets needing to be grain was due to funding from the grain industry.
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On December 18th, 2008 05:42 pm (UTC), psychohist replied:
Of the well known types of diets, Atkins is certainly the most similar. The differences are that Atkins has a more restrictive introductory period and then gets less restrictive, and that Atkins is, I believe, explicitly low carb, while paleo permits any level of carbohydrates as long as they come from whole fruit rather than grain.

I do agree that the "food pyramid" seems strongly influenced by political interests, in particular grain agriculture and to a lesser extent dairy; in general I think government food recommendations are likely to reflect political interests at least as much as real findings.
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On January 21st, 2009 08:06 pm (UTC), enugent commented:
If you haven't seen it yet, I thought you'd be interested in this article from the New York Times.
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On January 22nd, 2009 03:36 am (UTC), psychohist replied:
I'm afraid I'm mostly appalled that someone teaching at a university - even not a very good one - believing that the transition to a paleolithic diet occurred only 55,000 years go. Homo Erectus goes back to 2,000,000 years ago, which would be a better date. That's a lot more time to evolve.

She also fails to understand the paleo diet concerns about dairy, though that's more excusable as a more specialized issue. It's true that adult lactase persistence has developed relatively quickly, but that's because it's inactivation of a suppressor gene, rather than creation of an entirely new gene. However, the real concerns of Cordain and some others advocating the paleo diet have to do with foreign proteins in dairy - some of which aren't present in human milk.

Here's an article on the various adult lactase persistence mutations:


Notice how they are all point mutations within 100 base pairs of each other, 14000 base pairs upstream of the gene for coding lactase. Unfortunately I didn't save the link to another article, which explained how this area once activated acts to suppress the lactase production gene in people who don't have any of these mutations.
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