Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book review: The Paleo Manifesto by John Durant

If you've adopted the Paleo diet or read many of the books on how to eat this way, you have noticed that most of the books are pretty formulaic.  They start with a general overview of how we are maladapted to our environment, how this maladaptation is affecting our health, the specific aspects of our food environment that are maladaptive to us, and then present a 30 day plan to shift your ways of eating to the Paleo way.  When I picked up The Paleo Manifestion: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, I sorted of expected to get the same formula I have read time and time again.  In this instance, I was very happy to be wrong.

The way this book is written, you get a quick, albeit surprising introduction to where Mr. Durant is going from page 1.  John was one of the earlier adopters of the Paleo lifestyle.  While certainly not as early as Art De Vany, he adopted the Paleo lifestyle because his health deteriorated after leaving college and entering the 9 to 5 world.  He started a Paleo group in NYC and ever since has been blogging at  While a very small part of the book is a personal account, most of it is chock full of philosophical theories of how and why the Paleo lifestyle seems to work from a Harvard graduate who studied evolutionary psychology.

In the first part of the book, John does a great job of showing why the environment we evolved in is important for our health.  While some of this is rooted in our evolutionary past, most of it is done by relating the experiences of other animals as they are plucked from the environment they evolved in and placed in to the zoo.  Oddly enough, when you pull a primate from the environment it evolved in and is naturally suited for, it begins to experience the same health problems that many of us experience.  Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, mood/anxiety disorders, odd eating behaviors, becoming overweight, and sexual dysfunction to name a few.

Caretakers in the zoo would often attempt to remedies these maladies in the same way we attempt to, with pharmaceutical drugs, but this doesn't work.  After trial and error, they found the best way to improve the lives of these primates is to make their enclosures in the zoo as similar to their natural environments as possible.  When they do this, the primates' health issues resolve and good health returns.  While what is in their diet is obviously a big factor, it was only one of the many variables that they changed.  For example, if you feed gorillas what essentially amounts to processed food containing grain, you're not only impacting what enters the body, you are also impacting how their body reacts to what you are putting in to it.  Gorillas have huge guts that burn a lot of calories processing fibers in plants that we can't.  When you feed them processed food which is basically pre-digested, they naturally burn fewer calories as they don't need to rely on their guts to break their food down.  This causes them to eat their food, throw it up, and then eat it again. Once their diet is shifted back to their native diet, this behavior stops.  They also tend to burn more energy rummaging around looking for plant materials to digest, far more than they would if you just tossed them some of the prefabbed pellets that they were accustomed to getting in the zoo that contained the nutrient profile that "science" identified as being optimal for gorillas.  Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?(*cough*Food Pyramid*cough*)

Another great aspect of this book is how John goes far beyond the singular variable of diet and gives a pretty good basis for deciding the importance of each environmental variable.  Environmental variables that we are constantly under, such as gravity, are very important as are cyclical variables such as light/dark cycles and the seasons.  When these variables are altered, they cause rapid changes in the way our genes are expressed, and thus, our health.  He mentions a few studies on the genetic effects of zero gravity on astronauts, which basically amount to increased aging.  Many of these genetic effects are mirrored in people who sit for long periods of the day and constantly expose themselves to artificial light 24/7.  One could easily make the argument that exercise exerts it's anti-aging effects this way, but I think this is framing the statement wrong.  Exercising doesn't reduce aging, not exercising increases aging as "exercise", otherwise known as physical activity, is the default condition we evolved to be good in.  In other words, we are meant to move, we are not meant to sit.

John covers quite a few environmental factors that are crucial to human health based on the fact that they have been a part of our environment for far longer than our written history indicates.  Being barefoot, getting daily physical activity in the form of walking, exerting ourselves regularly with exercise, forming social interactions, and going for periods of time without food(fasting) are just a few of the environmental factors he covers in the book.  I think most books on evolutionary health point to these things being important, I just feel that John does a better job at driving these points home with his writing style.

Probably the greatest thing I learned from this book is his take on religion and the focus of cleanliness in older religious texts.  Religion refers to cleanliness as being like godliness, and he makes a great case for why.  The most fascinating thing about this focus on hygiene is that they didn't have any way of knowing what was causing health problems back then.  Through trial and error, as well as the passage of time and many deaths, they were able to figure out their greatest predator's Achille's heel, practicing hygiene.  They were able to do this without hindsight or the help of a microscope to identify the actual cause of their number one cause of death, which is quite amazing.

Overall, I really don't know how to rate this book.  I suppose if I had to give it a star rating I would give it 5 out of 5 stars.  The reason it is so difficult to rate this book is because I don't look at the books that I read as x out of x stars, I look at them as either essential to developing my thought process or not.  One thing you have to realize is that there is very little direct science to back up much of what he proposes in the book because it simply hasn't been done.  This is the problem with looking at something like evolution, we have to fill in so many holes because we can't talk to people who lived thousands of years ago and there really is scarce evidence of their existence.  John does a fantastic job of laying out his ideas and this in turn has influenced many of my ideas, not only by improving them but also giving me a way I can relate them to other people.  As far as other books I have read, I put this up there with The Biology of Belief by Bruce Lipton as extremely influential to how I view human health.