In Pursuit of Paleo Perfection; or, A Response to Don Matesz

A well-known figure in the Paleo community has recently gone rogue. Don Matesz of PrimalWisdom.com has bid adieu to the Paleo diet he says he’s been following for 14 years (post here).

What would the Buddha say about our dietary bellyaching? Where's that laughter coming from?

Disclaimer: I’m only 6 months into my own Paleo/Primal experiment. I’m not as strict as many adherents. I follow this diet the same way I am a Buddhist—I understand all the rules, but I also know that I have to live in the world as it is, not as I want it to be. Which is to say, whatever I choose for my life must be realistic and sustainable. Some people do fine within tighter parameters, and to that I say, “Good on ya!” But it ain’t my way. And I, myself, am curious what the long term consequences of Paleo will be. All I can say is that the path feels right to me right now, because the CW way I was going was sending me straight into despair.

So what’s going on here? What strikes me about Don’s parting shot is the same thing I see on Paleo/Primal message boards and sites like PaleoHacks.com, which is a total devotion to the science and the theory until it goes wrong. I see a lot of people finding Paleo out of sheer frustration with everything else. They’ve already tried Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, Curves, and the grapefruit cleanse, but for some reason, they think Paleo is the one. Or they have intestinal issues, diabetes, arthritis, and migraines and they’re fed up with their doctors’ non-answers. Or whatever has brought them here. And in the beginning, it’s seductive. There’s a ready-built community of like-minded folks just waiting to help you. Paleo has a Fuck-The-Establishment vibe to it, which I personally love, but can attract all kinds of folks who are a little too comfortable being paranoid of everything. And, of course, Paleo lets them down someday, just like everything else has.

Give it to me straight, Doc. Am I gonna live?

I didn’t come into Paleo expecting it to cure me of everything. In fact, I didn’t expect Paleo to cure me of anything except maybe a few pounds. There were some results I had read about which made me wonder if they would happen for me and they haven’t. Conversely, there have been some wonderful side effects that I didn’t see coming.

I understand that Paleo won’t have the same results for everyone. But some of Don’s results just aren’t jiving with me, and are actually the opposite of my experience. Let’s take them one-by-one, following his list:

  1. Skin: My skin is no drier than it was before and this seems to vary for me seasonally. My husband had chronic patches of eczema before Primal dietary changes and he continues to have this issue. I occasionally get flare-ups of eczema, but also did pre-Primal, and these also seem seasonal. I still have an occasional issue with dandruff, but—you guessed it!—it seems seasonal and of such little consequence that I use a special shampoo about twice a week and forget about it. Primal hasn’t been a cure but it also hasn’t been a cause. In addition, my struggles with lifelong acne are over, see here for more on that.
  2. Allergies: This season, mine seemed a bit better than usual. My husband seems to be having the same amount of trouble with his. Again, no causation, no correlation.
  3. Intestinal Distress: Mine has been about 90% cured. Sugar and gluten are obvious triggers for me, and when ingested now, well…let’s just say the difference is obvious and my husband dreams of inventing a wearable diaper vacuum device for our bedroom. My friend Juliann was also having intestinal troubles and hers have been eliminated as well on Primal, see here for her story.
  4. Elimination: There was a transition period for me, but it wasn’t uncomfortable or constipating. Everything was back to normal on that front within a matter of weeks.
  5. Lipomas: Don’t know nothing ’bout no lipomas.
  6. Stiffness and Cramping: Don’s previous post about blood coagulation was extremely controversial within the Paleo community, so I’m not sure his theory is based on any hard data. For my part, I’ve not had any issues with stiffness and cramping beyond what I experienced pre-Primal. If anything it’s the reverse. I had a knee injury at the same time I went Primal and after a few months of rest, it hasn’t been heard from since.
  7. Anxiety Attacks: I can say with absolute certainty that my anxiety has been improved anywhere between 80 – 100% on Primal. This has been the biggest surprise to me and the biggest gift. I am considering no longer wearing my dental nightguard because I don’t clench my teeth anymore. Needless to say, Don’s issue with this is surprising.

He also seems pissed at low carbing. But here’s the thing, and some of you may not know this: Paleo/Primal nutrition is not specifically low carb. Technically, it’s all carb neutral. The Paleo Police don’t care how many carbs you eat. Your intake will be determined by your goals. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll need to be on the lower end and if you’re an endurance athlete, you’ll take in more. The goal is to obtain those carbs in the form of natural carbs like fruit and starchy vegetables. “Carbohydrate” in and of itself is not a bad word, they just aren’t all created equal.

So all this begs the question: What exactly are we trying to “cure” with our diet? What result will be good enough? Do we keep searching for a dietary answer to all of our ills?

Or do we accept that there is a limit to our understanding? That what we eat isn’t the answer to everything. That sometimes shit happens because the body is a funky, imperfect, mysterious thing. That even though we eat according to Paleo/Primal guidelines, we may still be ugly, dumb, and poor. Or whatever our issues are. It won’t fix our marriages, it won’t make our kids behave, it won’t be a genie in a bottle waving away all our fears. There is still real life to contend with. So how do we know where the line is between a perfectly imperfect life and true physical ailment brought on by nutritional choices?

Just. Eat. Real. Food. And enjoy it.

Why are you looking at me? I dunno. But it starts with keeping our expectations in check. And my senses tell me that approaching food as the sum of its component parts, as macronutrients and such, is not the way to go. Maybe in a few years I’ll feel differently, and if I do, I’ll let you know right here. But my hunch is that whatever happens to you when you’re eating honest-to-goodness real food is probably just the symptoms of a normal human body.

We assume that pain or discomfort or dysfunction means something is wrong in the body. I would agree with you. But who said we get to go through life without pain or discomfort or dysfunction? Who said that Paleo was a magic bullet for everything that ails us? If we could go back in time and ask our ancestors about this, they would probably laugh at our whining about dandruff and show us the botfly larvae trying to eat its way out of their leg. It’s the expectation of absolute comfort, total serenity, and perfection that will drive us mad.

If you think diet will cure you of everything, I’m not sure that position is any better than other people thinking there’s a pill or medical solution to their problem. Sometimes there just aren’t solutions.

So yes, folks. You’ll still get warts. You’ll get the flu and dry skin and cavities and ingrown toenails. And worse. We are human, after all. And what’s more primal than that?

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7 Responses to “In Pursuit of Paleo Perfection; or, A Response to Don Matesz”

  1. Just eat real food and enjoy it; yes. YES. I have been doing this 60% for the last few months. I still drink alcohol and still eat sugar. I’ve noticed some lovely changes — my skin is significantly clearer, my reproductive system is working like clockwork for the first time in my life, and I’m leaner. I haven’t seen a huge numbers change on the scale, but I suspect that is because I still occasionally lean on sugar when I need a fix.
    Point being — ways of eating — as you’ve noted, are personal. As they say, results will vary. Thank you for your constant encouragement and common sense!

  2. I like your post. I was thinking along the same lines. Who said Grok had beautiful skin? Most people I know that have soft, smooth skin slather on lotion. I really like the botfly reference. I’ve been Paleo since 2008, strictly primal since July 2010. I have had nothing but good results. I think Don Matesz is trying to align his diet with his other beliefs. But that is my opinion.

  3. damaged justice Reply 06/16/2011 at 7:08 am

    I stopped reading Matesz after numerous people had dismantled his arguments on saturated fats, and his only response was to delete his original post and pretend it never existed. I have nothing but contempt for that kind of despicable dishonesty.

  4. I am a bit more ambivalent. I agree that Paleo is anti-establishment, but I believe that this is not a good thing. There is a lot of us-vs-them mindset on the Paleo world, and they feel just about as superior vis-a-vis the CW’s as the typical CrossFitter feels vis-a-vis a Globo-gym-goer. I do not agree that Paleo is not low-carb though (apologies for the double negative). There are many reasonable people out there who think like you and use Paleo as a guide and take what works for them and leave the rest. And then there are the zealots, and they are often on the low-carb-is-the-key-to-heaven-side.

    Unfortunately arguments often get extended into the ad hominem space. Actually, just above you can see a (very benign) example of this in damaged justice’s comment: whilst you can of course draw inferences about Don’s expertise based on the anecdote given, this does not mean that he is wrong with his arguments against low-carb.

    The point that I want to make though is the following: Don has been following Paleo for 14 years, which is probably longer than 99.9% of the people who claim they are Paleo now. Now what I’d say is that if someone who has that kind of experience speaks, you listen. It is like when Rippetoe speaks about Barbell training. I do not agree with everything he says, but if our opinions differ I at the very least go and revisit my own beliefs, to make sure I am still OK with them despite Rip disagreeing.

    Same here – if Don says that the first couple of years it seemed like a good idea, but in the long run it was anything but, then in my view this is something that I need to take into consideration. I might ultimately disregard his views, but I should not do so lightly.

    And as for low carbs, I think the jury is still out, especially for those of us who are trying to switch-over midlife. IMHO it is very difficult to get adequate levels of carbs if you are eating strict Paleo. Say you are an active male, you consume 3000cals / day and you want 30% of this in carbs. This is 225g of carbs. Now assume you want to limit fructose to 50g / day, limiting carbs from fruit to say 75g / day. Where do the 150g come from? Given that I cant eat grains/legumes/rice/potatoes, will I get all of this from sweet potatoes? My ancestors have probably never eaten it, at least not in the last 10,000 years, so is it wise to put all my eggs in this basket, especially if one of the few people who might know are telling me that the basket is broken.

    Facit: I am taking Don’s views very serious. I might ultimately disagree, but I would not dismiss his points lightly.

    • Thor, thank you for such a thoughtful response.

      By no means do I think anyone should take Don’s views lightly. And I absolutely agree with you that the longest I’ve seen anyone else on a Paleo-style diet is about 3-4 years. So yes, he’s an absolute elder as far as that is concerned. We should not be dismissive to his observations. I hope I haven’t come across that way.

      Where I get hung up is why would these symptoms pop up? What could we possibly be missing in our diet when we’re eating such nutrient-dense foods? Or are we causing problems by having too much of certain nutrients? I’ll be curious to see his progress, since he wasn’t specific about what foods he will now eat or not eat.

      I am just always wary of people thinking they absolutely know the cause of something. There is so much we don’t know, we get into dangerous territory assigning causation where there may be none.

    • P.S.—I think there’s some building backlash against the extreme low-carbers, for better or worse. I’m neither here nor there on that issue. I think by virtue of eliminating grains and processed foods, we end up being low-carb, but as Kurt Harris is fond of pointing out, just because something is a carbohydrate does not make it inherently bad for us.

  5. As for what we could be missing, maybe it is simply carbs :-) ? I know there is this view in the Paleo community that they are not essential, but maybe this is not true. After all (1) you need about 75g / d for your brain, even in ketosis, (2) it is the only fuel that you can use for max (=anaerobic) efforts, (3) the reason why it is nevertheless not essential is simply because it can be created by breaking down protein, but this comes at a cost (stress hormones, waste products, overall inefficient use of energy). So maybe eating low-carb is unhealthy for some people right from the start, and for others it only catches up with them after a few years, and other do fine forever.

    As for that there is so much we dont know, I agree. But this is more of an issue than a solution here. CWers have been eating grains as staple for at least as long as history has been recorded. Many of the assertions in the Paleo community are just that – assertions – and ultimately I believe that current science is inconclusive with regards to Paleo vis-a-vis enlightened CW (no processed foods etc).

    As for Paleo not being low-carb – this really depends whether or not you extend the number of allowable vegetables. De facto on strict Paleo you will find it difficult to be even moderate carb, and using yam’s (a food that has not been in the food chain of many of us for more than a couple of 100 years) as the main source of carbs for the rest of one’s life seems a bit of a gamble to me as well. So if you want Paleo and moderate carbs, I believe you need to include at least potatoes and rice, you will need to dial your fat and your proteins back. As an aside – Louie Simmons says he eats loads of proteins, and he eats about 150g/day. He is one of the strongest lifters in the world, and has been over the last decades, so the rest of us should be able to do with significantly less.

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