The paleo diet has come to be well known in the past few years, with the internet really helping it take off. One of the reasons for its popularity has to do with the obesity epidemic, and the knowledge that industrial food and refined carbohydrates are probably fueling it. Our paleolithic ancestors did not eat processed food and did not suffer the various degenerative diseases that we do.
There’s been much debate on what paleo eating actually is or should be. (Perhaps as a result of the debate as well as the uncertainty and variety of what paleo peoples ate, ancestral health is a term that has become preferred by some.) It became a sort of received wisdom that paleo peoples ate little in the way of carbohydrate, since they didn’t practice agriculture and seem to have preferentially sought food via the hunt. This dovetailed nicely with the advocates of the low-carb diet, carbohydrates being blamed by them for the obesity epidemic. But apparently all was not well in low-carb paleo land, both for theoretical and practical reasons.
Into the debate stepped Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet, with their book, now in a new edition, Perfect Health Diet. (The Jaminets kindly sent me a copy.) The Jaminets, both scientists, were motivated by longstanding health problems to find the answer to their problems. And one of the chief differences between their “perfect health diet” and standard versions of paleo is the inclusion of carbohydrates, what they refer to as “safe starches”. Controversy in ancestral health land has ensued over this, and will likely continue, but the Jaminets make an excellent case for the inclusion of starches in their diet. However, it’s worth emphasizing that their diet recommends on the order of 20 to 30% carb calories, so by modern American standards, this is still a fairly low-carb diet. In any case, the emphasis on carbohydrates is only a small part of this book, though worth emphasizing here for the way it differs from more standard paleo prescriptions.
The Jaminets offer some interesting and novel – at least, novel to me – arguments. For instance, they believe that obesity could be largely a function of malnutrition, which induces hunger in order to try to satisfy the body’s needs. It follows that becoming properly nourished is a necessary condition of becoming lean. Proper nourishment includes both forgoing food that contains toxins, e.g. grains and vegetable oils, and including nourishing foods and supplements, e.g. bone broth and salmon.
Another novel argument is that which tries to discover the optimal macronutrient composition by looking at the content of human breast milk, which evolution has shaped to ensure that human infants receive the best nourishment for their survival and growth. The Jaminets conclude that, while babies need somewhat more carbohydrate for their large and growing brains, which human milk provides for them, the fat and protein content is similar to what adults need in their daily eating. They also take a look at what all mammals need and conclude that whether the mammal is a carnivore or herbivore, at the cellular level the needs remain the same, and the digestive tracts of various mammals ensure that their needs are satisfied.
There is much, much more to this book. The Jaminets discuss fasting, fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals and other micronutrients, and how to obtain these from the diet and avoid food toxins. They discuss proper supplementation, as well as the notion that infections may be a leading cause of much illness, even those we normally think of as associated with aging or just normal wear and tear. The book also has chapters on the optimal amount and type of exercise, which confers great benefits in surprisingly small amounts and which conversely appears alarmingly easy to overdo. Circadian rhythms also come up; one of their novel and interesting arguments concerns the fact that watching television appears to be worse for health than mere sedentary behavior, which they believe may be due to the disruption of circadian rhythms by nighttime viewing of TV.
Every step of the way, the Jaminets meticulously support their arguments with citations from the scientific and medical literature. In contrast to many health- and diet-related books, Perfect Health Diet requires the reader to take nothing on faith. The book is written for skeptical grownups who have no need of yet another guru. Yet any thinking adult willing to make the effort will find nothing overly difficult here.
This is just a fabulous book. I’ve read many books in the arena of health and nutrition, and I have to say that Perfect Health Diet is hands down the best I’ve ever read. The book addresses almost everything you need to know to live in perfect health, and the arguments of its authors are thoroughly convincing. If you have the slightest interest in improving your health, you owe it to yourself to read this book.