Thursday, December 18, 2014

Paleo Diet Reading List

Reading about human origins can be fascinating, and informative.  It has been said that nothing in biology makes sense except in light of evolution, and the same could be applied to diet. I originally wanted to understand the physiological biochemistry of digestion, but several textbooks later I had lots of facts but very little understanding.  While strolling at the zoo, I realized I needed textbooks that described the differences between animal digestion -- a comparative physiology textbook, perhaps.  But again, after reading all of the most popular titles, I had only scattered facts and no theory of the differences between human and animal digestion, or even between carnivore, omnivore, and vegetarian modes of sustenance.

Luckily, two Harvard professors have written books on human evolution with particular emphasis on how dietary changes made us human.  In the process, they provide the best, although somewhat contradictory, source of information on comparative dietary physiology.  Daniel Lieberman's The Story of the Human Body (2013) is a more traditional telling of human evolution, but it is written in an attempt to answer the question of how our paleo bodies have adapted (or not) to modern lifestyles.  Richard Wrangham's Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), is an extended argument concerning the importance of cooking to human evolution, but he does deal extensively with the comparative behavior and anatomy of humans, proto-humans, chimps, and other primates.  Only at the end of his book does he tackle the problem of modern dietary choices for humans, and then only as a parting shot.  John Hawkes, at the University of Wisconsin, is often mentioned as an authority on human evolution, and I would include his Great Courses lecture (2011) in this triumvirate of human evolutionary tales.

The above works often reference modern accounts of extant hunter-gatherer tribes to understand what life might have been like during the Paleolithic era.  The most notable of these books are Lee's account of the !Kung San, and I would also suggest Weston A. Price's classic Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diet and their Effects.  A modern synthesis and review of the same subject matter can be found in Lindeberg (2009).

It is interesting to compare the literature on human evolution with the diet book literature making use of ideas in human evolution.  The originator of the "Paleo Diet", Loren Cordain has several books specifying his interpretation of the evidence.  While his 2002 book specifies a diet that seems more restrictive than what I've read in Lieberman and Wrangham, I haven't had a chance to read his 2012 book yet.

1. Lieberman D. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; 2013.
2. Wrangham R. Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human. Profile Books; 2009.
3. Price W. Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects (Hardback). Benediction Classics; 2010.
4. Lindeberg S. Food and Western Disease: Health and Nutrition from an Evolutionary Perspective. Wiley; 2009.
5. Lee RB. The !Kung San: Men, Women and Work in a Foraging Society. Cambridge University Press; 1979.
6. Cordain L, Friel J. The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance. Rodale; 2012.
7. Cordain L. The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat. J. Wiley; 2002.

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