This is a double-post, both here and on the Paleo In The UK website. It explains my own food contemplations recently, and how I have been forced to evaluate my own diet. The closing paragraphs of this article share some insights into what I’m going to discuss more in the coming months: immune responses, mast cells – and how to train the nervous system to change the distress responses of the body to certain foods.
For now, however… read on to discover why I forayed into vegan/plant proteins… and the price I paid.
WHY I TRIED SOME NON-PALEO FOODS…
One of the things that I am pretty adamant about is that I have to know I am giving the right information to my patients.
It’s not difficult to understand why – people trust me: they trust that I know what I’m talking about, and they trust that I am going to make the right recommendations for them. They pay me to give them accurate information that is going to change their lives – and I take that responsibility incredibly seriously.
As such, I am always researching, investigating and studying. Not only do I seek to keep my knowledge current (and the science of nutrition evolves constantly), but I also seek to disprove my own conclusions as much as possible. This is actually what science should be about – attempt to prove theories balance by attempts to disprove hypotheses.
Whenever I find myself veering a little too close to be fairly secure in the way I see things I watch myself experience (sometimes crippling) doubt. I am so familiar with this way of being now that I see it as part of my innate security mechanism. If I’m going to align myself with a certain way of doing things (treating, eating, living) then I have to be sure about it.
I started the Paleo In The UK website because I needed a reliable and accurate resource to point my clients towards that represented the nutritional approach that I believed would most benefit them. I wanted to direct my clients towards information that was balanced, scientific, rational and calm (there’s so much dogma and hysteria in healthcare) and reflected the evidence for the nutritional approach that I was recommending. And it needed to be accurate.
The research and information I poured into this site was intensely investigated and, to my mind, highly validated – both scientifically and empirically.
However, it was also myopic. Almost as soon as the basics of this site were completed I felt uncomfortable – because I was aware that there were a whole host of people who were promoting entirely different diets… based on different, yet equally valid science.
This led me down a rabbit warren of veganism. Intellectually AND practically. (To those clients – you know who you are – who I have persuaded back to meat after their own forays into veganism, please don’t hate me… and read on…)
The reason I was intrigued by veganism is because I started to listen to the rather wonderful Rich Roll Podcast. Yep, I wanted to hate him. But he’s just so damn nice and his story is so compelling. He is clearly thriving as a vegan: in life, in business, in extreme endurance athletics, in sobriety – and in the long term. His isn’t some 6-month or 3-year experiment which is on the wane and starting to show detrimental effects. He, and many of his podcast guests, are EXTREMELY healthy… and very vegan.
So often those who are advocates of Paleo are lapsed vegans. Vegans for whom the lifestyle was toxic and damaging. Vegans who felt like life was rushing back to them when they ate red meat again. These are powerful stories of how unhealthy veganism can be.
But on the other side of this argument you have people who are not just claiming the moral high ground with their vegan lifestyles but they are also – to all intents and purposes – really doing well on it.
WHERE THE SCIENCE SITS
Then there was the Ray Cronise and Julieanna Hever Rich Roll Podcast episode. Ah… here was a bona fide scientist approaching veganism from a purely biological and scientific angle. He even says during the episode that he couldn’t care less about the environmental or ‘ethical’ reasons for veganism but is solely interested in biochemistry. And he thinks the evidence is in favour of vegan diets for health.
Herein lay my problem. I don’t like the idea of appalling animal practices. Ethically and emotionally I probably would be vegan (or at least vegetarian) … but no-one has yet been able to convince me that the health benefits of Veganism could hold a candle to the nutrient-density of a Paleo diet.
Now, let me be clear – Rich Roll, his wife Juliet and most of his guests do NOT promote refined carbs, processed foods and gluten-laden diets. In fact, they AGREE with the Paleo principles in more ways than you might think: whole foods, plant based, nutrient dense foods with minimal processing and no artificial stuff added. This is not some junk-food veganism which promotes Vegan Oreos as a viable alternative to cheesecake.
But even with this supremely healthy, whole foods vegan approach I have been much more swayed by the science that animal protein and fat sources provided more health benefits to the human body.
There are points of contention between the science, however:
- the bioavailability of nutrition from plant matter is inferior to that from animal protein – but there is no real evidence to suggest that this is actually a problem for all human beings
- the inflammatory potential of grains and legumes does outstrip the nutrients found within them (the nutrients vs. anti-nutrients equation is not favourable) – but again, the concept of ‘anti-nutrients’ is more mechanism than in vitro proof. I myself have been highly sceptical of some of the hysteria about plant compounds (e.g. lectins) which get unfairly criticised and are actually relatively benign for most people
- the fat from animal sources contains fatty acids not found in the plant kingdom. Conversion of fats from plant sources into their usual forms is notoriously inefficient. However, there is little long term evidence of the overall effects of diets which are high in ADDED fat. Ancient hunter gatherers may have had higher fats in their macro percentages – but this wasn’t through mainlining coconut oil and olive oil, it was through their animal consumption. There isn’t really anything to say that fat is totally necessary – and indeed in tribes where more plant matter was available than animals, their diet shifted accordingly. And guess what… their biochemistry and biology adapted
These truths are deeply frustrating when you have made your mind up that foods should be structured in the way of the Paleo template – where nutrient density, bioavailability and lack of anti-nutrients is the fundamental pillar around which decisions are made.
And yet, Ray Cronise bio-hacked his way to vast weight loss by understanding the science behind cold thermogenesis and then re-regulated his cholesterol levels and hypoglycemia which had been pushed to unhealthy levels by a Paleo-style diet. He did this using a plant-based, vegan approach.
His scientific understanding of metabolism has led him, along with Julieanna Hever, to produce an entirely different template around which to base food decisions: a food triangle which re-categorises foods and divides them according to health promotion and energy density. By energy density they do mean nutrient density, but they also take into account caloric density.
From the triangle Cronise helped Penn Jillette to his 100lb (plant based) weight loss and has assisted many diabetics and heart disease/cancer patients to remarkable health. NOTE: not just recovery from their illnesses… but actually to becoming healthy. Eating plants. Most of them… ALL plants.
WHAT’S THE SCIENCE BEHIND PLANT PROTEIN?
It’s pretty easy to understand that the animals we eat are nourished by the plants that they eat. Vegans consider that they are cutting out the middle animal – and expecting their bodies to synthesis the amino acids necessary from the plant kingdom directly. And it’s not impossible, actually. The theory is fairly good.
More worryingly, when examining longevity and illness, the protein question is really the important one. The only thing that has been shown to directly influence longevity within science is some form of caloric restriction – and, indeed, protein restriction.
By the end of the research deep dive that arose because of my investigations – I was more confused than ever. My opinions about protein were seriously questioned, and I pondered the appropriateness of recommending animal foods on a site such as Paleo In The UK. I read countless quantities of data on the benefits of plants…. And despite all the animal husbandry stipulations I started to ask myself a question: if protein (especially dense animal protein) is creating metabolic challenges… should I be endorsing animal consumption?
After freaking out momentarily, I watched my behaviour start to change. I contemplated foods I hadn’t thought of in a long while. Because I’d been reading so intensively about the benefits of plant foods, my own feeling towards them changed. I saw them as potential foods again, I guess – not demonising them, but realising the value of grains, legumes, nuts and seeds as the base of the diet. More than this, thinking of metabolism in a Cronise way led me into the contemplation of the use of added fats in the diet. Would I thrive better on a carbohydrate-based lifestyle I wondered?
Now, whilst I didn’t actually go vegan, I did bring back in foods that I haven’t eaten in forever: nuts, seeds, spices, rice and legumes – in a variety of ways (soaked, sprouted and cooked – not from a tin).
I didn’t go fast, and I didn’t give up immediately – I kept trying and I was patient because I know that the microbiome and the biochemistry need to adjust after years without these fibrous and grain-based foods. And I thought I was OK. With the exception of nuts which I am largely intolerant to, I brought other things in and sort-of changed my diet around.
WHAT BRINGING BACK IN GRAINS AND LEGUMES TAUGHT ME
Of course, eating white rice and the occasional legume on a Paleo diet is totally fine, actually. This is, of course, a template.
But the problem is that the reasons to NOT eat these foods were starting to become invalidated in my own mind. But slowly I started to notice that my resilience in other areas was waning. I was becoming more reactive to certain things (foods – and people/situations) and I felt less stable within my own physiology.
Now, I don’t come from the obese or diabetic category and nor am I in perfect health with robust digestion and a solid constitution. I, like may of my patients, have health stuff that I ‘juggle’ on a daily basis.
What bringing back in legumes and grains taught me is that removing foods such as rice, legumes in particular and other grains meant that my health juggling got profoundly more difficult.
This whole experiment (which I hadn’t even intended to do) showed me, once again, the value of Paleo nutrition.
And no, it did NOT teach me the value of animal protein. instead, it taught me the challenge – for some people – of deriving nutrition from solely plant sources.
INCLUSION VS. EXCLUSION – THE FRAMING OF PALEO
Navigating nutrition is notoriously tricky because our relationship to and perception of food really does play a role in how we eat and how our body digests. More than this, our knowledge of how free we are with our food choices can directly alter our sense of ourselves and our body.
For these reasons, I am always careful to structure diet plans around inclusions (not exclusions) and to promote dietary styles based on freedoms rather than restrictions. It’s an important part of psychologically hacking the approach to health. I also choose this approach because food is NEVER the enemy. There are no bad foods, there’s just foods that don’t suit certain people and are not suitable at certain times.
The problem with trying to make peace with all foods is that for many people certain foods really do present a challenge. Sometimes – particularly in chronic illness – you have to recognise where YOUR enemies are, and then judiciously avoid them.
This is not making out that certain foods are damaging to everyone, nor about celebrating the taking of animal life, or even painting plants as nutritionally inferior (because, as you can see above, neither of these ‘truisms’ are actually true). Instead, it’s about recognising that there are those for whom the noble, vegan lifestyle built on tough-to-digest, fibrous veggies and plant proteins is precisely counter to what their body actually needs.
Perhaps this will only be temporary – but when you are HEALING a body you are not focussed on longevity or protein signalling… you are in a state where your body has been damaged and you need to repair. And there are those for whom life is actually just a little more challenging generally given the host of genetic/metabolic/inflammatory/immune conditions they are battling. For these individuals (and I class myself as one of them) it is by avoiding the foods which drain and tax digestion and energy that we actually are able to live a very full, healthy life.
WHY PALEO VS. VEGAN IS THE WRONG DEBATE
I have written a lot about vegan and paleo as if they are in competition for dietary superiority. In truth, they are not. Actually we in the nutritional world would do well to stop having this discussion. Mostly, I switch off the Rich Roll Podcast when it starts to be propaganda for Veganism. If I have to hear him say again how wonderful the What The Health movie is I will probably stop listening all together.
Nutrition should not be about stating that one diet is superior. Ever.
It should be about understanding that each food is a dense network of information that your body must interact with in order to benefit from. I remembered, towards the end of this experiment, why I promote a Paleo lifestyle for many of my clients. Every day I deal with people whose bodies have been triggered into states of inflammation, immune aggravation and mass dysregulation. Righting this state is not about doing the tough stuff, it’s about taking away the stress.
There is always an argument for hormetic stressors and teaching a body to thrive by allowing it to face challenges and forcing it out of its comfort zone.
But a body in disarray and manifesting a chronic illness is already far from its comfort zone. Returning it to a state of equilibrium may or may not involve long term food restriction. But in the meantime, whilst the fires of inflammation and immune aggravation are raging, the best way to bring the body into harmony is to focus on the foods which give lots and take nothing. For me, the award for this goes to animal proteins over plant proteins.
So, I’m back on the Paleo bandwagon, I guess. And I’ve ditched the chickpeas. Which generally makes my life easier (and also makes me a nicer person…) I am certain that there are still things we do not know about nutrition. I am also certain that there will be people who are generally healthy who may thrive equally well on either plant or animal proteins. And I am also certain that are some individuals for whom animal proteins (and fats) create serious compromises.
Which is why I believe each diet should be represented. Not actively promoted or sold as universally appropriate – but at the very least represented by those who understand the science and the population for whom their nutritional approach would be best suited.
My role within this is to back the Paleo approach for lowering inflammation and increasing nutrient density in the most bioavailable fashion. I am now investigating the immune system in quite some depth as I believe that it may be the difference in immune reactivity which allows plant vs. animal proteins to be the best source of nutrition for individuals.
I believe that investing time in understanding who benefits from what diet is a much more relevant line of enquiry than continually yelling that one diet is ‘better’ than the other. And the Paleo In The UK site is there – and deserves to be there – for those who find that this way of eating (and life) is what suits them.
(And for those who want to level placebo/nocebo effects at me and suggest that this subjective, ‘n of 1’ account is merely evidence of my own prejudice – remember that I was utterly and totally convinced of the merits of legumes when I started to eat them this time. I really wanted to find a way to eat that didn’t involve meats and fish. I really, really WILLED my body to re-regulate itself around plant proteins. In fact, it was the influence of such will power which allowed this experiment to continue for longer than it perhaps should have done.)