37 comments on “Dear Mark Sisson: Where Paleo Recommendations Stand in Contradiction to Real World Observations

  1. Reblogged this on ByzantineFlowers and commented:
    Not “All” grains are bad! Nor should one avoid them… in this very insightful article written by Arthur Haines, you shall know the difference of nutritional grains vs the controversial hype on “Why Grains Are Unhealthy”…

    To Follow Arthur Haines, visit
    ArthurHaines.com
    Facebook ~ Delta Institute of Natural History
    Related links:
    The Paleo Diet: A Brief Rationale and Critique
    The Protective Benefits of Pine Pollen

  2. While you still might not see exactly eye-to-eye, I think you’d actually find a lot of common ground with Sisson. He’s covered many if not all of these topics on his blog–“less offensive” grains, traditionally prepared grains, soaking and sprouting, phytic acid in nuts (specifically in regards to brazil nuts in fact), etc. Only so much you can convey in a single article though.

  3. ByzantineFlowers, I appreciate your kind comments and promoting the Delta Institute of Natural History. We are all learning. I really feel that “grounding” the results of various dietary studies with observations of real people who consumed such food for a long time is a powerful way to filter through the research, publications, and dogma. Mark Sisson’s article is a good article. I just think he reached too far and lumped too many foods together with his statement. For some audiences who are not savvy with nutrition, perhaps avoiding grains is best. I take the stance that all people are intelligent and can learn–so I want to provide accurate messages, even though they more be a bit more complicated. Best wishes.

  4. Steve,

    From what I know of Mark Sisson, we do have much in common. And, based on your above comments, we probably feel somewhat similar regarding grains. However, he did not convey that in his article and many, many people saw that article. It, unfortunately, continued to confirm many people’s beliefs that grain is not paleo and poor for one’s health. Both are not true (at least, not true of all grains). Dietary information is complex, and dumbing it down to an overly simple message sometimes leaves out too much information. I am responding only to his article and not to his person or actual dietary beliefs (that he didn’t share in the article). Thank you and best wishes.

  5. Interesting article – thanks! You make the point that grains were consumed by our ancestors and many indigenous groups. I have not doubt that that is true. However the scale of grain consumption would have been very low indeed. Australian Aborigines, for example, would have processed seeds of various trees and grasses – but the processing was quite time and energy intensive. “Optimal foraging theory” would ensure that “efficient” energy sources would have been the main food source for them – for example, perhaps kangaroo meat would provide more efficient calories that the grinding of seeds? (And think of those poor womens’ backs and arms!) Seed collection would also have been very seasonal – and not available on demand as our modern grain civilisations are. The scale of our current grain consumption (and the scale of the agriculture – and land abuse – that is necessary to produce it) are without parallel. Sisson’s pyramid of nutrition – http://www.marksdailyapple.com/introducing-the-new-primal-blueprint-food-pyramid/#axzz2XB5fHX6y – shows quinoa, wild rice and other seeds as moderation foods – and I think that is the right context for grain consumption.

  6. Interesting article – thanks! You make the point that grains were consumed by our ancestors and many indigenous groups. I have not doubt that that is true. However the scale of grain consumption would have been very low indeed. Australian Aborigines, for example, would have processed seeds of various trees and grasses – but the processing was quite time and energy intensive. “Optimal foraging theory” would ensure that “efficient” energy sources would have been the main food source for them – for example, perhaps kangaroo meat would provide more efficient calories that the grinding of seeds? (And think of those poor womens’ backs and arms!) Seed collection would also have been very seasonal – and not available on demand as our modern grain civilisations are. The scale of our current grain consumption (and the scale of the agriculture – and land abuse – that is necessary to produce it) are without parallel. Sisson’s pyramid of nutrition – http://www.marksdailyapple.com/introducing-the-new-primal-blueprint-food-pyramid/#axzz2XB5fHX6y – shows quinoa, wild rice and other seeds as moderation foods – and I think that is the right context for grain consumption.

  7. Thank you so much for this article. I started the Paleo Diet a while ago with my husband and loved it at first, but found too limiting. I don’t have a weight issue, on the contrary. I lost 2 kilos in 2 weeks and believe me, I can’t spare those kilos! But at the same time I felt almost guilty in eating rice and quinoa… To keep my kilos on I need extra carbohydrates, but the way Mark explains the Paleo Diet I don’t think he has in mind people (like me) do not want to loose weight. I started the Paleo Lifestyle because I want to be healthier and it helped immensely with my hay-fever. It is good to know that some grains are not that bad. Thanks again Arthur.

  8. Oh, there’s another comment I would like to make. I do love the idea of wild foods, and foraging as a skill to be developed – we need to develop a taste for weeds! As a society we need to move away from annual grain consumption to move perennial food sources, for a whole host of reasons – but particularly the ecological and sociological disaster of modern monoculture grain production. This means that we need to develop perennial food sources – and rely far less on grains for carbohydrates, and use more nuts, perennial tubers that can replace annual grains. See research here on this topic: http://www.perennialsolutions.org/perennial-farming-systems-organic-agriculture-edible-permaculture-eric-toensmeier-large-scale-farmland.html

  9. Looks like this has been stated, but Mark Sisson has covered these topics in depth and to many of the same conclusions on his site. That said, I realize you were responding to the one article which really doesn’t get specific. It was most certainly written for a noob which is why all the intricacies were glossed over. But I don’t see it as a problem. Certainly, you can avoid all grains with no ill effects. I know you addressed this, but I think that’s the broader point the article was making.

  10. Reblogged this on A Primal Family and commented:
    Interesting thoughts and an open letter to Mark Sission. I do appreciate the open dialogue and this to goes to point out what I have believed even when I did Weight Watchers and that is I wanted to eat and feed my family clean, whole foods and avoid modern crappy over processed junk! 🙂

  11. Pingback: The Bigger Picture of Fat Acceptance | The Paleo Periodical

  12. Mark Sisson’s Response…With Mark’s permission we wanted to share his response to this article: “Arthur Haines, I do appreciate your intent in wanting to debate this, however, many of the commenters here have already addressed some of your points as well or better than I could. I have written so much on grains that I would normally be inclined to just send you 20-30 links, but I’ll cover a few key points here.

    This article was taken from a MDA post from a few years ago, one of many I have written clarifying my stance. This was a snap shot. I could have filled an entire book on the nuances of a (mostly wheat) grain-based diet, but Dr. Davis beat me to it! Also, can we agree that this is not a discussion about feeding the world? I get that there’s a problem and it needs to be addressed. But W/R/T the article on HuffPo, this is about feeding you and me the best possible choices if we are seeking optimal health.

    The fact that some of us can eat grains doesn’t mean we all should. Which is really my main point. IMO, the only reason to eat grains is because they are a cheap source of calories that easily converts to glucose (and eventually to stored fat). They are often inedible or poisonous in their unprocessed state and don’t particularly taste good by themselves unless you add yeast, sugar, butter, salt, jam, fruit, meat, etc. They are not a great source of any nutrition other than those cheap calories. Yes, if you are starving, grains in general can keep you alive. Surviving, but not thriving. Choosing to eat grains is not a “right or wrong” decision. I’ve often referred to a spectrum of “worst to best” grain choices, with wheat, barley, rye etc. on the bad end (with their concentration of prolamines) and wild or white rice on the other, fairly benign with its relative lack of antinutrient content. I stand by my assertion that a large majority of people would be well served by never eating wheat again. I’ve seen way too many testimonials from people who thought they could thrive with wheat in their diets, but then found their otherwise “fine” health improving noticeably upon removing the wheat (and usually many other related grains) and replacing with better foods.

    A few other points: I guess I should have been more specific throughout that piece when referencing fiber. My main issue here is with the belief that somehow we need a lot of insoluble fiber to move things through us. We don’t. I do, however, support the intake of soluble fiber from veggies and fruits as a means of staying regular – not because the physical structure sweeps us clean, but because those fibers feed healthy gut bacteria that make up a large part of a healthy stool. No need for grains at all if you get adequate veggies and a bit of fruit.
    True, some recent prior cultures have incorporated low-gluten grains into a diet that included meat, fish and fowl and it’s generally agreed that they produced healthy offspring. I think that’s more a factor of the relatively benign lectin-phytate-prolamine content and relatively low calorie contribution.

    Gluten is not the only problem in grains, it’s just the most obvious and most prevalent, especially in wheat. The prolamines in all grains can prove problematic for many people. I suspect we will see an increase in links between autoimmune conditions and grain intake in the coming years.

    As for the statement about humans not having had enough time to evolve to easily digest these plant storage proteins, nothing in the current literature convinces me that cereal grains were being processed to make bread much before 10,000 years ago, and in most of the world, even later than that. Some of the lit does mention “starch grains” found on grinding stones well before that, but starch doesn’t always equal grass seeds.

    I did say all grains are bad. I guess I could amend that to: most grains are antithetical to optimal health, a few not so much.”

  13. I couldn’t agree more, great article! Very well thought out and well written!

  14. Dear Mark,

    I appreciate you taking the time to respond and want to thank you for maintaining a good tone to the discussion. I realize you are busy and what I’m not going to do is write a long response that covers each of your points. I feel that we’ve both presented our main ideas and it will be up to others to decide what course of action they want to take. I agree completely with your comment that “The fact that some of us can eat grains doesn’t mean we all should.” I’m really only trying to present the flip side to that argument “the fact some people can’t eat grains doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t”. I agree this conversation is about the nutrition of grains and not how we will feed 7.2 billion people (that’s another topic altogether). I will take the time here to present (briefly) a couple points to consider for people who have read both of our writings.

    I don’t consider wild and heirloom grains to be empty calories. They are certainly not the organ meats of animals but they do contribute to the health of people who consume them. Some traditional cultures ate a significant proportion of their calories as grains and did not suffer ill health. If wild and heirloom grains were truly devoid of nutrition, we would have seen the evidence of this in their facial structure (recent-day) and in their skeletons (historical cultures). I realize there is abundant evidence of health restoration when people remove modern grains from their diets. This observation does not contradict either of our assertions. It is in line with yours (most all grains are bad) and in line with mine (most modern grains are bad). Had those same people eaten a diverse diet their entire lives that included some wild grains, I’ll argue there would have been no need for grain restriction in the first place.

    Regarding archeological indication of early grain consumption, evidence is clearly mounting that paleo hominids consumed grains. I note many people are resisting this (including paleo authors who have stated grains were not consumed by early people) but the alternative isn’t reasonable. Early people did not avoid grains and then, suddenly, begin cultivating them approximately 10,000 years ago and relying on them as an important part of their food strategy. It would have taken time to interact with these species, understand how they might be important for food, develop efficient methods of processing and cooking (such as grinding tools and stone ovens), and select non-shattering inflorescences so their cultivation would be worthwhile. This did not happen overnight. The complexity of grain cultivation and processing alone pushes the date of consumption back many years. Tubers, corms, and bulbs (i.e., underground storage organs) generally don’t require grinding and don’t benefit from more elaborate structures for cooking (i.e., these are easily cooked using simple methods—methods the indigenous still use today). Construction of stone ovens is beneficial for ground grains. Several independent workers have identified artifacts and plant remains that push grain consumption back into the paleolithic. Consumption of grass fruits was probably a minor part of the diet of early people. I consider that to be an appropriate proportion for the people of today (along with selection of the right kinds of grains).

    Thank you again for your time. I will take this moment to restate (repeating from my first letter) that I really appreciate the work you do and thank you for helping so many people challenge politically correct nutrition. I do feel your work could benefit from a greater understanding of wild plant foods and what, exactly, has been lost from (and gained in) modern produce (a criticism true of most diet experts). If nutrient density is important (and I believe it to be), then we need to critically look at all modern, cultivated species. Best wishes for your future pursuits. Sincerely, Arthur.

  15. The word that keeps appearing in the original post and the word that I find mostly absent from our current debates about nutrition is “context.” Is a candy bar “good for you”? Depends on the context. If you are crawling through the desert and happen upon a Snickers, then yes: a Snickers is better for you than sand. If you are living in 21st century America, with a wide-variety of food accessible/available and you meet the criteria for Metabolic Syndrome, then no: other foods are “better.” Unfortunately, having to take a closer look at the context of nutritional information and choices, at global, community, and individual levels, typically moves the complexity of a discussion around nutrition past something that easily conforms to a twitter feed or facebook post.

    The other phrase I was delighted to see was “nutritional literacy,” another concept worth pursuing in our current nutritional conversations. Cheers to you, Arthur Haines, for bringing attention to both of these critically important ideas.

  16. Just want to say this is a fantastic article with the proper tone that allows for discussion, rather than the typical Paleo/Primal “debunking” crap that passes around the net these days.

  17. Mark Sisson in his reply states:

    Grains -> Glucose -> Stored fat

    What utter garbage. And surely Mark has it the wrong way round. Just because some people can’t consume grains does not mean everyone should abstain from eating them. What insanity.

  18. Can you recommend a good reference or two for information on wild/heirloom gluten-free grains and their proper preparation? I don’t have Sandy Fallon’s “Nourishing Traditions” yet…I’m wondering if she might cover this well in her book.

    I enjoyed this article and Mark’s response. I think your worry is that some people will read one article and change their diet around what they read without any further research on their part. Sadly, this is often true. I wish more people would realize how important it is to educate themselves and then listen to their bodies needs on their journey to true health.

  19. Aaron,

    Loved this article! But….non-gluten grains are extremely expensive. I can understand why an Ethiopian would eat teff as a staple, but why should I buy an expensive small bag of a specialty item like teff (or any other heirloom grain?), when I could eat meat? Is there a reason to eat the grain, other than it provides non-meat calories? I do understand that eating too much meat isn’t good, and I like the variety that grains offer, but the historical argument doesn’t really make sense in a modern context.

  20. Dear Diana,

    Thank you for your comment. Non-gluten grains can be expensive if you need to purchase them. Some people have access to wild versions where there gathering is free. Everyone can learn to do this (if they desire to). Brown rice, for example, is not terribly expensive and widely available. There are many reasons to eat grains, which I’m addressing in another article. The point that is being missed is: variety. You are not alone in recognizing that there exist foods that are more nutrient-dense (on the whole) than grains. But following this argument, you would eat liver every meal. And, obviously lose out on variety in your diet. Indigenous people had tremendous diversity in their diets (well over 100 species of plants in many areas of the world, and many tens of animals). Here is the northeastern United States, there are easily 150 species of edible plants utilized by the original inhabitants. Many people in our society eat fewer than 30 species (do realize, for example, that broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, collard greens, Brussels sprouts, and kohlrabi are all the same species–Brassica oleracea). Losing out on variety means you lose out on different amounts and ratios of vitamins and minerals, you miss out on different types of phytochemicals, you miss out on different kinds of antioxidants, and you miss out on anti-cancer compounds (among many other items). All of these diverse plant compounds work synergistically to protect your health and foster beneficial gene expression (remember: the food you eat alters the expression of your genome and we used to be exposed to many more species in our diets than we are today). Summed up succinctly: dietary diversity equals dietary sufficiency. Look for another article on this topic. Best wishes. Arthur Haines.

  21. Arthur — can you provide some references to back up your claim that “evidence is clearly mounting that paleo hominids consumed grains”… Thanks.

  22. Pingback: A decent article in defense of grains. | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  23. Pingback: Dietary Diversity: The Forgotten “Vitamin” in Successful Diets | Exist Anew

  24. I would like to thank Arthur Haines for a great article as well as Mark Sisson for his measured response as well as the commenters above for adding to it.
    “The point that is being missed is: variety.” – AH.

  25. Great article from Arthur and a measured response from Mark and input from the commenters too. Internet debate at its best, thank you all for the knowledge. “The point that is being missed is: variety.” -AH

  26. Pingback: 3 Health Myths You Probably Believe, But Are Absolutely False | Wild Movement

  27. Great dialectic guys. Very nice to see two experienced minds discussing this. This is how we all find out the truth – which we will learn changes and changes and changes all the time.

  28. Nice article. I came here expecting a malicious attack on “the paleo fantasy” as many debunkers call it. But instead found well thought and logical discussion suggesting Paleolithic humans ate grain varieties, albeit significantly different than most easily available ones in today’s age. Cool stuff

  29. Christian, I’m glad the “friendly discussion tone” came through to you in my writing. Malicious attacks don’t serve any purpose and only turn some people away from what may be good information. I hope through discussion using historical facts, logic, and modern study to form a persuasive argument (rather than using pejorative language, emotional responses, and similar tactics that create a bad tone). Ktankeyasin (take care of yourself).

  30. Hi Arthur,

    First of all, good interchange between you and Mark. Kudos to you both.

    Have you read Stephen Buhner’s book “Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers”? In his book he refers to fermenting of grains to create brews that go back some 10,000 to 30,000 years, yes, 30K. The book discusses the uses of various grains by indigenous cultures that considered them to be sacred and thus used for sacred purposes. Interesting read. So, does it follow that if they knew enough to ferment them for sacred beverages, did they consume them for other purposes?

    Also, one book we always refer back to in our quest to eat healthy is “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon for that counter “diet dictocrat” information and recipes.

    My wife and I have for the first time this year begun to forage, basically in our own yard.

    Chris & Chrissey

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