From Kon-Tiki to Kidneys: Let the Evidence Speak
I’ve been talking about and studying this paleo nutrition/evolutionary medicine idea since late 1998 when I first ran across the topic. It’s impossible to describe how much the landscape has changed and how much more we know…Holy CATS…13 years later! If you’ve read my book or just caught the right podcast you will recall that I was tinkering with my food in the mid-late 90’s by eating a whole food, vegan diet. I studied at the George Oshawa macrobiotic institute, took classes on Ayurveda and Five Element theory and consulted with several of the luminaries in the vegetarian/vegan scene. The reasons for this tinkering included a sense this way of eating would improve my health, extend my life…and it was a great conversation starter when trolling for unwashed hippy girls, which I have an odd predilection for. Add to that a sense of moral superiority at not eating animals, and a sense that this was an ecologically benign way of eating and it’s easy to understand why I gave it a shot. What’s tough to understand is why I stuck with this way of eating when every parameter of my performance and health tanked. I went from a lean, muscular 180 lbs, squatting over 500lbs and being able to dunk a basket ball from a flat-footed start, to an emaciated 140lbs that could not bench press my body-weight. I had high blood pressure, triglycerides in the 300’s and systemic fatigue that seemed to start in my belly and emanate outwards. I was a mess. I’d sold off my common sense and ability to rationally judge the effects of my eating choices with regards to how I Looked, Felt and Performed. I was wedded to an idea, not to results. Looking back now I understand I was deficient in a host of nutrients due to the severe inflammation in my GI tract. Despite the fact I looked “slender” (substitute gaunt and emaciated if you like) I also had all the signs and symptoms of insulin resistant diabetes brewing. I now understand I was in that purgatory of nearly full systemic melt-down: Autoimmune dysfunction, insulin resistance, nutrient malabsortion…and I lived in a place that has not seen the sun since the pyramids were erected, Seattle, Washington. I changed my eating in a desperate attempt to save myself. I literally had no other options…if this paleo shtick had not worked I’d not be here right now, either by biology’s hand or my own. Things were that bad.
I think this paleo/evolutionary medicine approach to things is pretty close to the bulls-eye with regards how we can optimize our health and wellness…but I insist that we not turn this whole thing into a religion. The transformation that can be wrought with this approach is powerful, anger can be felt at the “powers that be” for recommending what appears to be complete jack-assery…but we can do better than opine on this stuff, we can quantify and tinker and continue to refine what are our collective best practices. Many people have parroted tripe about “open source” with regards to fitness, but it takes something beside paranoia and egotism to change ones position for the better. I credit first and foremost my friend Mat “The Kraken” Lalonde with helping me to update my understanding of these topics and to refine my delivery of the “why’s” behind the recommendations I make. Chris Kresser, John Welbourn and many other folks have also helped but I think I’ve learned the most simply as an outgrowth of the interaction I’ve had with all the readers, podcast listeners and seminar attendees. The why to that is that folks take the basic message that is being broadcast, tinker with it, report outcomes and we move forward. Crowd Sourcing and decentralized markets at their best!
Given the title of the post you may be wondering when the heck I’ll get around to talking about kidneys! I’ll get there, but I have more to say that is decidedly non-kidney related. Last night I started reading the book Kon-Tiki by Thor Hyerdahl. I re-read the introduction by Thor 3 times and am by no means deep into the book but the basic idea is this: Thor posited that the Polynesian islands were settled not in an west–>east expansion as had been previously thought (the book was published in the late 1940’s) but rather that pre-Columbian Incas from the approximate areas of Peru traveled westward on rafts and they and their descendants settled Polynesia and the Pacific islands. What struck me was the recounting on Heyerdahls’ part that once their expedition proved that this trans-Pacific crossing was POSSIBLE, the skeptics who defended an alternate position were little interested in facts, they focused instead on personal attacks and behavior that bordered on slander. In one section Heyerdahl related that most archeologists of the time did not believe the Galapagos Islands had ever had human contact or settlement until after Europeans made landfall in the 1500’s. Based on his success navigating over 43,000 nautical miles Thor felt the paltry distance from Peru to the Galapagos could not have been a barrier to the early Incan seafarers. He also pointed out a hole in the notion that humans had never been to the Galapagos: Not once had there been an expedition of trained archeologists to assess if there was any EVIDENCE of early human habitation. Thor organized such and expedition and in quick order found several camp sites with pottery and artifacts consistent with what one would expect from the early Incan civilizations.
This reminds me of the daily refrain from the medical establishment, nutritional science departments and the media who make grand proclamations about what humans did or did not eat in the ancestral life-way, what this might mean for modern human health…and these folks have never bothered to look at or read the literature on the topic. It’s an interesting parallel: In the Galapagos island case the idea was: Europeans were the first to make it there. Even though no one had bothered to actually LOOK, nor use people trained in discovering evidence of early human habitation (archeologists) to validate this claim one way or the other. The refrain from medicine and dietetics is that our heritage as hunter gatherers has no bearing on modern human health, despite the fact that the evolutionary biologists, geneticists and anthropologists beg to differ on the topic. Also interesting to keep in mind is the modern view of the habitation of the Pacific Islands might involve the convoluted story of early seafarers making it west to east across the Pacific, only to subsequently turn around and re-populate those islands. Geneticists are telling us more about this story than pottery shards ever will, but it’s interesting; where once the notion of early seafarers making it across the Pacific AT ALL has now been replaced with perhaps multiple waves of colonization, back and forth across the Pacific. Thor’s original idea may only be partially correct but his early investigations pushed the understanding of this topic forward and we’ve just had to wait for better technology to better understand this topic.
Similar to the migratory waves we now envision as populating the Pacific islands and America’s, so too do we see waves of people entertain this paleo idea of nutrition…with inevitable questions. What about cholesterol? Will paleo help gastrointestinal problems such as Crohn’s and irritable bowel syndrome? Will an ancestral way of eating improve fertility or perhaps halt the progression of various neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s disease? Won’t a high protein, paleo type diet cause kidney disease? These are great questions and we should have similarly great answers. The kidney issue has received a ton of airplay of late, both in terms of folks asking questions and in new studies showing that a smartly constructed paleo type diet may be the absolute best way one could eat to either reverse existent renal issues, or to avoid these problems in the first place. We should be able to look at the how the kidneys normally function, investigate renal pathophysiology (autoimmunity, advanced glycation end-products, infections and other vectors of disease) then we should be able to retro-engineer the cause of these issues given a solid understanding of these processes and a wee-bit of evolutionary biology. We should then be able to show clinical examples of successful interventions which reverse or ameliorate these diseases. I’d like to call this the “definitive guide to kidney health” but my previous mistake with veganism has made me reticent to call anything definitive. It should however be helpful for folks to understand this topic and feel more comfortable using a paleo approach. So, this will be the (very lengthy) introduction to a multi-part series which will start with how the kidneys work, what things can go wrong with them and how a paleo diet can actually help reverse many of these problems. Unlike my foray into veganism however, we will not believe things because it “seems” right, we will hang our hat’s on positive health outcomes. No matter how much we may “want” a theory to be true, we lose what is best in us when we cease to think and adopt dogma instead of facing the need to change our deeply entrenched positions. Stay tuned for installments in the weeks to come. I’m not sure how many sections it will be, you will know when it’s done ;0)
And for your viewing pleasure, here is the original Thor Heyerdahl film, Kon-Tiki, which won an Oscar for best documentary in 1951.