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When The Conclusions Don't Match The Data: Even Loren Cordain Whiffs It Sometimes, Because Saturated Fat Is Most Definitely Paleo
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November 14, 2010
9:55 pm
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(Note: This article has been revised, extended, and greatly improved as a result of an error caught by an alert commenter.)

Caution: contains SCIENCE

Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century
Loren Cordain, S Boyd Eaton, Anthony Sebastian, Neil Mann, Staffan Lindeberg, Bruce A Watkins, James H O’Keefe and Janette Brand-Miller.
American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 81, No. 2, 341-354, February 2005

This paper is basically all you need to know about why paleo diets work, and why they are the most healthy diet possible...

...with one exception. The authors make a giant mistake by regurgitating the "saturated…

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January 13, 2011
6:02 pm
anon
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Lately I've been eating mostly lean meats and feel horrible. Thanks for this enlightening article. Time for shop for some ground bison!

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January 15, 2011
9:38 pm
Tim
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Thanks! Found this blog from PaNu blog, looks like lots of good reading here. I have recently read a book called "Imagining Head Smashed In" that chronicles a mass bison kill and the hunting habits of the Native bands dating back 8,500 years. It is clear the fat was what was being hunted, certainly not the lean. You can google up the book and download a free pdf it is a fast and interesting read, well referenced. Fits right into the Paleo way of looking at things.

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January 18, 2011
6:03 pm
Paula
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Thank you for vindicating my desire to eat fatty meats. If I eat few carbs, then what's left is protein and fat. Too much protein leads to rabbit starvation, so fair amount of fat is unavoidable. My instinct tells me that eating a fatty piece of meat makes more nutritional sense than drizzling a chicken breast with olive oil. I don't eat nuts, so other than lightly buttered veggies and olive oil on salad greens, my only source of fat is meat.

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January 18, 2011
10:55 pm
Aaron Blaisdell
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If you can't find good cuts of fatty meats, and only have lean meats available, you can always cover it in butter to up the fat content.

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January 27, 2011
12:51 am
Sebastien
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Great article. Another nail in the coffin for the lowish fat Paleo side of things. It scares me every time I see lean meat and Paleo in the same sentence.

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February 16, 2011
1:16 pm
David
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I've been eating my own version of a Paleo diet for some time now, and it has not failed to help me lose weight, improve my skin tone, and generally feel better. For the most part I will eat any meat, most plants, and limited amounts of fruit. I am primarily concerned with not eating: grain / glutens / flours, corn, soy, dairy, refined sugar, or any types of oil other than extra virgin olive oil.

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February 19, 2011
8:28 pm
Mark
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This analysis is wrong. Figure 6 of the cited paper, reproduced above, is depicting protein, SFA, MUFA, and PUFA as a percentage of total carcass ENERGY. It's already broken down by percentage of each. So for April, since you selected that month, the total energy provided by SFA is 9%, while MUFA contributes 8% of energy, and PUFA contributes just 2% of total carcass energy. The vast majority of carcass energy comes from protein, which provides 77%. To the paper's author's point, the energy from SFA is 9%, while MUFA/PUFA combined is 10%. For each month of the year, in fact, the energy from MUFA/PUFA combined exceeds that of SFA, which the author stated accurately. Granted it's not by much, but MUFA/PUFA does provide more energy as a percentage of the total carcass energy than SFA. Therefore, the statement by the paper's author that MUFA/PUFA is dominant, as a function of energy, is accurate.

You stated above "...PUFAs and MUFAs ordinarily constitute most of the total carcass fat (11). [False: half the carcass is SFA. 47%/53% and 49%/51% equal 1/2 within the precision of their data set.] " You're mixing up your faulty analysis of Figure 6 with the author's cite from reference (11). Did you read that other paper? In that paper he was talking about fat by weight (mg per 100 gram sample of various tissues), while you apply your analysis of Figure 6 (which is concerned with ENERGY not weight) to a completely different subject matter. I could go on, but basically every statement you inserted into the quote is inaccurate.

I think what we Paleos really want to know is how much fat, especially SFAs, were actual paleolithic people eating. The only paper I am aware of that actually takes a stab at this in a scientific way is this one: http://thepaleodiet.com/articles/CRC%20Chapter%202006a.pdf. If anyone knows of any others, I'd love to read them.

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February 23, 2011
4:35 pm
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Mark:

I'm not confusing my citations. Let me explain in more detail.

Since the measurements given are only accurate to within 1%, proportions of 9%/8%/2% means that a single 1% variation due to rounding, let alone multiple variations, can change the listed proportions by 12% up to 50% — depending on which number you twiddle.

Furthermore, the question remains: how were these percentages calculated in the first place? From the caption for Fig. 6: "Edible carcass fatty acid composition was calculated by multiplying tissue and organ mass by fatty acid composition (% mass) in these tissues from values for caribou or similar ruminant species."  So these relative values in Fig. 6 weren't even measured directly…they're imputed from measurements that might not even be from caribou!  

 Claiming 51%/49% and 53%/47% are significantly different than 1/2 (or each other) under these circumstances is strongly disingenuous in my opinion — as is claiming any sort of 'seasonal cyclic depletion'.

My points stand.

 

Moving on to the other Cordain et. al. paper you reference (full text here): based on Table 5, the muscle tissue lipids of wild game average 45% SFA, basically identical to feedlot beef…and, as is noted repeatedly, muscle tissue concentrations of SFA are substantially lower than subcutaneous fat concentrations (tissues typically eaten by hunter-gatherers but trimmed and discarded by most modern humans).

Given the inevitable measurement differences between individual animals (this independent analysis shows muscle tissue concentrations of SFA in grass-fed beef to be 51.5% SFA, 44.7% MUFA, 3.8% PUFA), I think that claiming any decreased relative concentration of SFA in wild game vs. modern feedlot beef is nonsensical.

 



 

Furthermore, the data in Table 5 includes n-6/n-3 ratio. The average of all wild game is 3.8, versus 5.2 for grain-fed beef and 2.2 for grass-fed beef. So according to this data set, wild game muscle tissue has a PUFA ratio closer to feedlot beef than to grass-fed beef! (And, again, Table 5 shows 10.3% PUFA for grain-fed muscle tissue lipids, vs. 3.8% for an independent analysis of the same…so there is substantial variation involved.) 

Please note that I don't disagree with Cordain's conclusions about n-6/n-3 ratios: I disagree with his conclusion that "Fatty domestic meats" are to blame. Seed oils are to blame, as they rarely contain any n-3 at all, and never contain EPA and DHA.  And the PUFA profile of chickens and pigs is far inferior to grain-fed beef anyway.

 

I will give you credit for catching one error, though: the percentages in Figure 6 are total energy, not fat percentage, so my last sentence is incorrect. I'll revise to reflect that…as well as the data below.

However, Cordain's calculations of total energy in Figure 6 are wrong, and do not reflect the animals which are actually hunted and killed.

From the paper: "Total body fat and total body protein, as a percentage of energy, were calculated from the respective mean values by weight by using the cubic regression equations developed by Cordain et al (20)."  That would be this paper, and this figure contains the cubic regression equations.

The assumption Cordain makes is that hunters would randomly choose a caribou from the herd: Figure 6 includes "mature male, immature male, and mature female caribou."  

Yet the written record of hunting cultures shows this assumption to be nonsense.  [Edit to add: I've added all this, as well as direct evidence from archaeological remains of caribou hunters, to the article.  And all my speculations below turned out to be absolutely correct.] We have direct evidence from observing Native American bison hunters: they preferentially hunted only the fattest animals (usually cows that had not borne a calf that year) and often discarded the lean meat if fattier animals were available. I quote Jack Brink, Northern Plains archeologist, and his masterwork Imagining Head Smashed In:

"Fat, not meat, was the food source most sought after by all Plains Aboriginal hunting cultures…"

"Assuming that bigger was better, he [George Carlin] aimed at a massive bull and suffered ridicule and laughter from the rest of his party 'for having aimed at an old bull, whose flesh was not suitable for food.'"

And we see quotes like "My people killed three bulls … which served for our dogs." from early explorers.

Furthermore, they killed most animals during the fattest time of the year (late fall), and preserved their flesh for consumption during the leanest times: "The Indians had certain spots where the fixed winter camps were established in the fall of the year. At this season the buffalo were fat and prime and the drives to secure a winter's food supply were usually held immediately after this fixed camp was established."

One might argue that this preservation was a more recent adaptational behavior — but so is living in a cold climate at all, as modern humans didn't leave Africa until c. 65,000 years ago, and didn't arrive in Siberia until perhaps 35,000 years ago. Game in sub-Saharan Africa, where hominins evolved, doesn't have nearly the degree of seasonal fat enrichment and depletion that Arctic animals like caribou do (or even North American game animals like deer and elk), so year-round fat content of African game hunters wouldn't have had the same radical seasonal depletion issue.

Returning to Figure 6: we've established that caribou hunters would preferentially kill the fattest animals, not a random animal. Figure 5 shows average fat concentrations for mature bulls, young bulls, and mature females. (Note that caribou hunters wouldn't kill an average animal of each type, either: they would only select the fattiest.  But let's take those percentages as written for now.) Crossing 25% bodyfat (from a mature bull in October) with the cubic regression equations Cordain uses yields…

…90% of calories from fat, not 66% as he lists in Fig. 6!

Similarly, 11% bodyfat (from a bull in July) yields 54% of calories from fat, not 30% as he lists in Fig. 6!

Crossing 5.5% fat in April (from a mature female) yields 36% of calories from fat, not 23%…and so on throughout the year.

So it appears that my original misreading of the table roughly cancels out the unrealistic selection of the numbers it contains.  How about that!

 

There are even more issues.  Quoting the original paper again, "Larger mammals generally maintain greater body fat percentages by weight than do smaller animals." Recall that preagricultural hominins preferentially hunted megafauna: mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, giant tortoises, gomphotheres, chalicotheres, giant hartebeest, giant bison, woolly rhinoceri, and the myried other megafaunal species that our ancestors drove extinct during the Quaternary period. Even modern American bison (let alone ancestral bison) are many times larger than caribou.  

Such animals would have contained a much greater percentage of carcass fat, which would therefore have comprised a much greater percentage of the human diet.  Taking caribou as a typical representative of the hunter-gatherer diet is somewhat disingenuous, as humans didn't even reach the area where caribou lived until perhaps 35,000 years ago. (Compare this to our 2.6 million year history of butchering animal carcasses with stone tools, and the fact that meat-eating most likely dates from before our split with chimpanzees 6-7 million years ago.)

 

In conclusion: my points stand.  The reason Cordain harps on the SFA issue is that he apparently still believes (or believed, at the time of these papers) that SFA is bad for humans, despite the fact that neither saturated fat nor modern grain-fed red meat consumption is associated in any way with heart disease…and he seems to be willing to torture the data until it supports this long-disproven hypothesis.

This turned out to be much longer than I thought, and probably deserves an entire new article!

JS

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March 13, 2011
11:02 pm
Zoe
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It's true, Australian Aborigines use to hunt the fattest kangaroos - they refuse to hunt the skinny adults ones. In fact, one of their favorite bush tucker (food) is witchetty grubs (insect larve) which are full of fat.

Photographs of Australian aborigines before 1900s when they were still eating their traditional diets, the men were lean, strong and had six packs!

Fast forward to 2011 and the aboriginal population here have completely embraced white man's food (alcohol, sugar, wheat, vegetable oil, etc) and you'll rarely find skinny aboriginals unless you look in the really remote outback areas.

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March 13, 2011
11:49 pm
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Zoe:

Thanks for the information on Aboriginals!  All the sources I can find show that adult kangaroo meat is ridiculously lean, to the point of "Where do they get any fat in their diet?"

As far as the six-packs, I believe it.  Pretty much every picture of hunter-gatherers before domestication/enslavement shows people you really wouldn't want to mess around with.  Have you read Weston A. Price's "Nutrition And Physical Degeneration"?  (I suspect you have)

I appreciate the information and hope you'll stick around.

JS

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April 5, 2011
4:46 pm
Peter Ballerstedt
Guest

Thanks for this post. Well done!

I'm concerned about the "New Conventional Wisdom" that I hear from various diet/lifestyle communities - 'information' that "we all know" that isn't based upon facts. My recent post on the subject - http://grassbasedhealth.blogspot.com/2011/02/new-conventional-wisdom.html

Regards,

Pete B

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April 20, 2011
8:37 pm
Saturated fats bad a
Guest

[...] entry pic shows the amount of fat in the stomach cavity of a pastured bison. <edit to add> When The Conclusions Don’t Match The Data: Even Loren Cordain Whiffs It Sometimes, Because Sat... Could it be that the bison/deer have less area to free roam than what they had in the stone age [...]

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July 29, 2011
9:11 am
Walter
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Sad, that the author of Imagining Head Smashed In was so anti fat. Shows how obviously very astute people can be hypnotized by society.

Page 41 and thereabouts even more anti fat statements

" Camped in the middle of a barren, demanding landscape, living on a restricted diet and with limited source of heat, we found that in a matter of a few weeks we experienced a craving for fat – devouring chocolate bars, peanut butter, oily sardines, and even eating spoonfuls of margarine right out of the tub. Though I shudder at the thought now, at the time there was nothing I wanted more than fat."

[Fixed the HTML -JS]

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July 29, 2011
9:12 am
Walter
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Sorry about the bad HTML tag above. The book is "Imagining Head Smashed In_

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August 1, 2011
1:12 pm
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Walter:

Fortunately he keeps such comments to a minimum, does an excellent job documenting the importance of fat in the diet of meat hunters (even if he doesn't understand exactly why...limited ability to process protein), and doesn't claim that it was somehow unhealthy for them.

JS

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February 3, 2012
9:47 pm
Rick
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"Even modern American bison (let alone ancestral bison) are many times larger than caribou."

BULLSHIT, bison are big but they're not multiple a caribou.

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February 3, 2012
10:10 pm
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Rick:

My facts are straight.

Adult caribou typically weigh 175# (small females) to 400# (large males) -- although bulls of 700# have been recorded.  (Source.)

Adult bison weigh 1000# (small females) to 2000# (large males).  (Source.)

JS

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August 29, 2012
7:28 am
Christine
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In Loren Cordain's defense (and I'm greatly indebted to the guy for opening my eyes to this way of eating in the first place), he has come around on the SFA issue and now acknowledges that his original hardline stance was misinformed.

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August 30, 2012
10:41 pm
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Christine:

I believe you're correct...although I seem to recall an intermediate stage where SFA is bad, but only in the presence of excess carbohydrate (or something like that).  

Note my closing statement: "My purpose is not to trash Dr. Cordain: he’s done a great deal of good over the years, and “Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet” is a solid summary of the issues, one to which I’ve referred people many times."  I absolutely credit him with his work over many years, and we wouldn't be where we are if not for his efforts.  However, I believe it's instructive to know exactly how and why this particular stance is incorrect, because "Origins and evolution of the Western diet" is still widely cited.

JS

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