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Anti-Nutritionism, L-Canavanine, And The Limitations of N=1 Self-Experimentation
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April 4, 2012
5:17 am
Forum Posts: 2045
Member Since:
February 22, 2010
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What Is Nutritionism?

While I disagree with Gyorgy Scrinis (and the popularizer of the concept, Michael Pollan) on their proposed solution, I believe Scrinis' concept of "nutritionism" as an error in dietary thinking has merit—and I doubt anyone in the paleo community would disagree.

"Reducing food to its nutrient components could be called "nutritionism", and it has probably become the dominant way of thinking about food and health, and of constructing healthy diets.

The nutrition industry has implicitly, if not explicitly, promoted nutritionism by continually framing most research studies and dietary advice in terms of these chemical-nutrient categories.

The rise of nutritionism…

April 4, 2012
6:36 am
Samantha Moore

Outstanding! Thank you---

April 4, 2012
6:59 am

A great post as always.

You've addressed much of my frustrations with Paleohacks! People are chasing numbers, not health. Many are complicating things in pursuit of a prescription/formula they can follow.

April 4, 2012
7:33 am
Halifax, UK
Forum Posts: 364
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June 5, 2011
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Those last five points are exactly where I am now and while reading would have made those very points here in the comments.

Recently, I have taken to saying things like, "I love haggis more than I love paleo, so there!" or "I love whisky more than I love paleo". These are things outside of paleo, potentially bad for me but things I love enough to risk it, so to speak. I don't eat them frequently but when I do, I thoroughly enjoy them.

Certain neolithic foods that I dearly love are off the table because they now make me feel ill (Yorkshire Pudding, processed cheese and most beers, sadly, by way of a few examples), others do not (yet ... Haggis, whisky, Guinness, for example). That's not n=1 at work, that is simply a list of neolithic things that I will still happily eat that (a) do, and (b) do not make me ill - they're never going to be paleo, but does that matter? Absolutely not!

I won't call them cheats, because I am not cheating! Yes, I'm not sticking rigidly to a paleo diet by consuming these things, but so what? I'm not Paleo Man! I'm a simple human being who hopes he's getting it right. Following as closely to how our ancestors have done for thousands of generations is a pretty sure bet, so long as we can get our foods from as close to the ground as we can.

I love how you keep coming back to "or, as much as we know about xyz at the moment". You've said it before - we're on the first page of a huge book called 'Understanding Nutrition' and even modern biochemistry will not tell us the answers; certainly not when the absractions (nutritionalism) are combined together in an organism we use as food.

Noting Asclepius' comment above, I said it in one of my own recent blog entries - optimal is not necessarily advantageous, or desirable:

For my next step in paleo, I'm going back to seasonal and local eating - the difficulty is getting seasonal and local food! Read that back ... what I mean is, if something is seasonal for me, where I live, that product in a shop might not have been grown anywhere near where I live or even grown seasonally, perhaps grown in a warehouse all year round. Taking time to buy produce in farm shops, noting down the growers, farmers and butchers, then researching them to build up a list of local growers, farmers and butchers is worthwhile.

Solid article, J! This is one I will read over again and again - it is very much where I am at the moment and I think where many people are. Funnily enough, ancestral lifestyle authors seem to be going one way while the community quite another way. These concepts can very happily draw paleo back on track and proud.

Take care, pal.

Right, time to get me a T-shirt ...

Living in the Ice Age

April 4, 2012
8:11 am
Dave Sill

"Every living thing on this Earth is the descendant of millions of generations of successful ancestors—not a single one of which was eaten, trampled, gored, poisoned, burned, drowned, starved, fell from a tree, killed by parasites or infection, or otherwise died before it managed to reproduce at least once."

Beautiful. Thanks.

April 4, 2012
8:14 am
Dan Brown

Great read. Sign me up!

April 4, 2012
8:38 am
eddie watts

i'm glad you're tackling nutritionism as it is getting frustrating seeing it everywhere.

i will also share this specifically with some friends who are sufferers of Lupus in particular, as well as with my whole facebook.
(i now know that some people do read my links as a friend shared a link i put on there before from a different blog. also i normally get comments on my sharing of your work too)

April 4, 2012
11:41 am

If we have evolved with plants from the beginning, why haven't we evolved the means to eat them? Like we have with meat and fish, tubers and fruit? Not a scientist here, so be nice!

April 4, 2012
11:43 am

Very Nice post. Congrats.
Just one small repply to your statement that nobody in the Paleo community has ever talked about l-canavanine:
Since 2008, Prof Loren Cordain has talked about L-canavanine many times in his lectures on autoimmunity.
Keep up the good work

April 4, 2012
2:39 pm

“Every living thing on this Earth is the descendant of millions of generations of successful ancestors—not a single one of which was eaten, trampled, gored, poisoned, burned, drowned, starved, fell from a tree, killed by parasites or infection, or otherwise died before it managed to reproduce at least once.” Or as the genealogist said, "None of my ancestors died as infants." 🙂

Thank you for this post. I have long known that fava beans could be a problem, though I didn't have much information beyond that, and had read some reassurances that cooking them solved the problem. But I don't eat them anyway. It's good to know about the alfalfa sprouts, since it would be easy to consider them a perfect low-carb food.

April 4, 2012
5:36 pm
Forum Posts: 2045
Member Since:
February 22, 2010
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I'm glad you find it helpful!


There's definitely some chasing numbers on Paleohacks, and there's definitely some denial..."please, someone tell me my favorite junk food is paleo or that I can make a paleo version of it".  It's a useful resource when used correctly -- but remember, what it's really telling you is "Here's the result of a popularity contest between what a bunch of random people on the Internet said."  

In other words, Paleohacks is great for presenting you with options you may not have previously considered -- but it's still your responsibility to investigate them, and the popularity of an answer doesn't necessarily predict its truth or usefulness.


I believe yours is a much more healthy attitude than orthorexia or guilt.  The stress caused by "no, I can never touch that again, ever" or "oh no, I'm a failure, I drank a Red Bull" is most likely more damaging than the Red Bull itself!

That being said, there's a difference between cheating and giving up entirely.  At some point we're not 90/10 or even 80/20...we're just using "paleo" as an excuse to put more processed meat on a pizza.  But your metric of "close to the ground" is a good one: the closer we can get to the source of our food, which is the Earth, the more nutritious it's likely to be (all other things being equal).


Thank you!  I'm reasonably sure it's a paraphrase or summary of something Richard Dawkins said, though I don't remember from where.


Glad you enjoyed it!  If you checked the "Subscribe" box, make sure to click the link in the subscription email.  If you didn't get one, check your junk or spam folders.


Though I doubt that alfalfa supplements or sprouts, or fava beans, are statistically a major contributor to lupus incidence, it's certainly worth avoiding foods that could easily exacerbate the problem -- especially when there's no reason to consume any of them in the first place!  (Even if you're too poor to afford meat, there are far less toxic beans than the fava.)

More soon!


April 4, 2012
7:42 pm
Paul Verizzo

I think N=1 can be valuable, vs. controlled studies, in that if many individuals report roughly the same outcomes from a specific action, it certainly may indicate an advantage.

"Hmmmm.....many diabetics switching to a very low carb diet can reduce or even eliminate insulin, maybe there is a cause/effect relationship!"

I think Sisson talked about this once.

I think controlled studies in diet and nutrition are almost impossible. Thousands of variables with both short and long term outcomes. For this reason, I think N=1 is a good jumping off point.

April 4, 2012
7:52 pm
Pete Ray

As always, J., yours is the voice of reason, in the face of PhD researchers using "scientific consensus" as an argument in favour of their incomprehensible theories.

April 4, 2012
8:57 pm

Great stuff! You're in my top 10 fav blogs now!

April 5, 2012
1:56 am
Forum Posts: 2045
Member Since:
February 22, 2010
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"If we have evolved with plants from the beginning, why haven't we evolved the means to eat them? Like we have with meat and fish, tubers and fruit?"

That's a great question, and the answer is: we have, to some extent.

For instance, avocados contain the fungicidal toxin persin, which is harmful or toxic to many animals (especially birds) but apparently harmless to humans in reasonable quantities.  Aspirin is toxic to cats, but a very effective pain reliever for us: it's very closely related to salicylic acid, a phenolic compound found in willow bark.  And so on throughout the plant kingdom: cruciferous vegetables are chock-full of glucosinolates which give them their bitter taste, and which we are reasonably well equipped to deal with (although large quantities do become goitrogenic).

The way to think about it is an arms race.  Each generation, the plants which aren't too bitter or poisonous to eat get eaten, and the survivors produce more plants.  Yet the animals that can eat those plants without being poisoned also survive...and the cycle continues.  

Every plant is full of anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, insecticidal, and digestion-inhibiting compounds!  The difference is that some animals eat that plant often enough to be competitive in the arms race with the plant, and some don't.  For instance, cats lost the ability to neutralize salicylic acid, because it's been tens of millions of years since their ancestors ate anything that contained salicylates.

The problem for humans is that there are plenty of plant toxins we can eat and still manage to reproduce...but they still shorten our lifespan or decrease our quality of life.

Yes, it's a complicated issue with no easy answers!


Thanks for the correction: I'll make a note of that in the article.

Note that I deliberately used the phrasing " example I've never seen mentioned" for exactly this reason.  Even if it doesn't appear in the paleo literature, I suspected I wasn't the only one to encounter L-canavanine and its leguminous relatives -- whether from Bell 2003 or elsewhere.

I greatly appreciate the vote of support!  It means a lot to know I've earned the respect of professionals such as yourself.


Alfalfa sprouts are basically an object of religious devotion: anyone hardcore enough to choke them down is viewed somewhat akin to a saint of nutrition.  No, there is absolutely no reason to do so, and there are several good reasons not to.  I stick to baby greens.


Add together thousands of N=1 and you get N=1000, which is a bit more interesting.

Far more importantly, though, the progress of diabetes is something that can be quantified and accurately measured, at home, with a blood glucose meter.  In that case, the data isn't "I feel fine", it's "My post-prandial blood sugar is no longer 280, it's 140."

Pete Ray:

I'm glad my work isn't going unnoticed!  

And no, you're not the only one who noticed that particular appeal to (imagined) authority.  Perhaps it's easier than getting the science right.


I'll take that as a compliment, even though I don't know what the other nine are 🙂


I'm caught up (for now), so now it's time to catch up on sleep.  Thank you all for helping keep a civil, information-rich place!


April 5, 2012
6:43 am

"cheat intelligently & proudly" , i like it.

these days the cheat food has to be really enticing for me to be worth it,


April 5, 2012
8:12 am

You can solve some of the limitations of N=1 if you get yourself a bunch of clones that you keep locked up in the basement and fed various experimental and control diets. However, you still have issues with the long gestation rates of various diseases - not to mention the cost of housing and feeding those good for nothing layabouts.

April 5, 2012
2:04 pm

In fact there IS something that will make a Krispy Kreme not delicious: intellectual aversion based entirely on the 'do you know what's IN that!?' or 'have you seen who eats those?' method. (like the famous bread on PH: I can't look at a cruller without shuddering. Oh, my mouth knows how it would taste/feel, but my brain immediately says stop right there, starts in on a rant about rancild oils, and my stomach closes the drawbridge and that's that.
That's the only contradiction I'll offer here; I think this is a great post and a sign of both the way and the times.

April 5, 2012
10:34 pm
Pete Ray

I second Lauren's comment. It often happens now that I take a bit of a doughnut or pastry and can actually taste the "vegetable" fats that have gone into it. It's most probably my mind playing tricks on me, but hey, it gets me to put that doughnut down, doesn't it?

Regarding herbivorous, seed-eating mice, John, have you read this (rather long) article: I posted this in a comment on Dr. Scientific Consensus' blog, but he simply brushed it off.

April 6, 2012
1:59 pm

J. Stanton,

Long time reader, first time commenter.

I just ordered The Gnoll Credo and am looking forward to devour it. Your blog is spectacular.


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