A healthy diet: follow science or the caveman?

hunterMalnutrition and a sedentary lifestyle lay at the root of many modern diseases. Conventional medicine usually responds by offering a quick fix, and doesn’t address underlying causes. Many patients end up taking prescription drugs until the day they die. Drugs that usually only suppress symptoms and come with significant side effects. People start to look for alternatives and many pin their hopes on ‘Dr. Google’. A multitude of websites and blogs provide their readers with information on how to obtain ultimate health and happiness. Unfortunately, not all information is equally valuable, or scientific if you will. Luckily, an impressive amount of research literature can be found online nowadays, allowing you direct access to the truth. After all, the truth is what science is all about, right? Not everyone agrees with that. And maybe you shouldn’t either.

“Why most published research findings are false” is the title of an academic paper, that was published by PLoS magazine in 2005, and caused quite a stir in the academic world. It was written by epidemiologist John Ioannidis, who currently works as a Professor of Health Research and Policy at Standford University. In his paper, Ioannidis provides a model that shows that typically imperfect research techniques, researcher bias and the common tendency to focus on exciting theories (as opposed to plausible theories), mostly result in wrong findings. He found that eighty percent of non-randomized medical studies (the most common type) were convincingly refuted afterwards, and even gold-standard randomized clinical trials turned out to be wrong 25% of the time. In 2010, ‘The Atlantic” published an article that speaks about Ioannidis’ analysis of 45 of the most highly regarded research articles that claimed to have uncovered effective interventions. Of these claims, thirty-four had been retested and the results were shocking: 41% had been convincingly shown to be wrong or significantly exaggerated. Remember, we are dealing with ‘top-research’ here. Fortunately, Ionnidis helps us to separate the wheat from the chaff. In his paper, he deduces several interesting corollaries about the probability that a research finding is true:

“Corollary 1: The smaller the studies conducted in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

“Corollary 2: The smaller the effect sizes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

“Corollary 3: The greater the number and the lesser the selection of tested relationships in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

“Corollary 4: The greater the flexibility in designs, definitions, outcomes, and analytical modes in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

“Corollary 5: The greater the financial and other interests and prejudices in a scientific field, the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

“Corollary 6: The hotter a scientific field (with more scientific teams involved), the less likely the research findings are to be true.”

For more in depth information, his paper can be found here.

The caveman approach

Health related websites, communities and magazines love to copy wild claims that science makes about food and nutrition, as they make a good story and also because authors are often unaware of possible credibility issues. Hopefully, after reading my blog post, you are more aware of the pitfalls of health science. Next time you read about the amazing health boosting properties of goji berries, chocolate, chia seeds or other super foods, don’t simply take it for a fact. You may use Ioannidis’ list of corollaries to decide whether or not information is likely to be based on solid science. If you are, however, not willing to make things unnecessarily complicated, I propose another strategy. It’s based on Evolutionary Theory and is called the caveman diet.

The caveman diet, or paleo diet, is mainly focused on the consumption of real, unprocessed food that cavemen could have eaten thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture. The diet is low on sugars and carbohydrates and contains no grains. Meat from pasture raised animals, eggs, wild fish, vegetables, nuts and limited quantities of fruits are the way to go. Millions of years of evolution prove we thrive on it whereas disease statistics tell us that our modern Western diet is detrimental to our health. Still not convinced? Then think of a zoo and the natural diets that are cautiously being prepared each day for the animals. Diets that are based on what animals really eat, out in the wild. For some reason, we seem to think that the rules of nature don’t apply to humans and that we can get away with eating large amounts of pasta, cereals, bread, soda pop and processed foods. Foods that either don’t exist, or are hardly available in nature. Imagine what would happen to zoo animals, when we would feed them junk food.

So forget about the food pyramid, speaking of sloppy science, and use your common sense and the caveman approach. Try it for a couple of weeks, and see if you feel better. I bet you will!

Categories: Evolution, Food

4 Comments

  • Rob de Vos says:

    [translated from Dutch] Another solid article Caspian! Unreliability of scientific publications is common within climatology as well, even though it’s considered to be more of an exact science. Nevertheless, similar mechanisms determine the way research is done. The conventions of academic institutions and professional journals are very familiar as well. I’m curious about your new blog post!

  • We just couldnt leave your website before saying that we really enjoyed the quality information you offer to your visitors… Will be back often to check up on new stuff you post!

  • Paleo Diet says:

    Hello friends, nice piece of writing and fastidious arguments commented
    here, I am really enjoying by these.

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