Good to hear from you again, and many thanks for your professional support of my research agenda over the years. I would be quite happy to answer these questions for your interns.
1. What process do you use to start a research project?
Cordain: It usually starts with an unanswered question I have in my mind, or an inconsistentchy between or among scientific papers I have read. For instance, my paper (Cordain L, Brand Miller J, Eaton SB, Mann N, Holt SHA, Speth JD. Plant to animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in world wide hunter-gatherer diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2000, 71:682-92.) arose from a concern I had with Boyd Eaton’s original 1985 NEJM Paleolithic Nutrition paper in which he indicated the normal hunter gatherer plant to animal subsitence ratio was 65 % plant food and 35 % animal food. The reference he cited was a chapter in a book (Man the Hunter, 1968) by Richard Lee, a Harvard anthropologist who had studied the !Kung hunter gatherers. In Lee’s chapter, he indicated that the !Kung plant to animal subsistence (65 % plant, 35 % animal) was similar to that reported for most hunter gatherers in Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas. So, I went to the original source (the Ethnographic Atlas) and put the data set for 229 hunter gatherers into an Excel spreadsheet, and discovered that in fact the average subsistence was almost entirely the opposite (65 % animal and 35 % plant). In Lee’s analysis, he failed to include fished animal food along with hunted animal foods. Hence, Boyd Eaton had simply repeated an earlier assumption/mistake that I uncovered by going to the original source and reanalyzing the data.
2. What specific tools do you use in your work (e.g., databases, forms of measurement, statistics)?
Cordain: About 1/3 of my research is empirically derived via experiments or measurements, whereas 2/3 come from papers in which I review prior data in a novel manner to generate a new perspective/hypothesis upon previous dogma. For instance, prior to my paper (Cordain L, Lindeberg S, Hurtado M, Hill K, Eaton SB, Brand-Miller J. (2002). Acne vulgaris: A disease of civilization. Archives of Dermatology,138: 1584-90.) the dogma in the dermatology community was that diet did not cause acne. Years earlier, I had read an obscure paper by a Canadian physician (Otto Schaefer) who provided medical care to the Inuit between 1950 to 1970 as they made the transition from traditional hunters/fishers to the western world. In this paper, he said that acne was unknown in the Inuit until they adopted a western diet. In my Archives of Dermatology paper, I wanted to document if indeed non-westernized peoples had no acne. I recruited two researchers (Staffan Lindeberg and Kim Hill) who worked directly with the Kitavan islanders and the Ache hunter gatherers respectively. We reported no acne in either of these populations. Hence, I had my answer. What I had to do was go back into the dermatology/medical literature and back engineer the mechanism by which a western diet could elicit acne at the cellular level. I accomplished this by immersing myself in the salient literature to develop a hypothetical mechanism which was verified 4 years later by my colleague, Neil Mann in a randomized controlled trial of a high protein/low glycemic index diet.
3. How did you gain your expertise with the various tools that you use?
Cordain: I learned most of the tools of the trade (probability, statistics, research design, computer use) in graduate school, but necessarily do a lot of reading in all fields to keep abreast of new ideas and data as it arises.
4. What are some important experiences or suggestions that you’d like to share with a novice researcher?
Cordain: Always go back to the original sources/papers and re-read them. If you ever catch a splinter of inconsistency, doggedly pursue it to its logical conclusion.
5. What’s the best way for me to learn more about research in Paleolithic Nutrition?
Cordain: Voraciously read everything you can on the topic and devise a logical filing system where you can rapidly access all of the information.
6. What motivates you as a researcher?
Cordain: Curiosity, enthusiasm and excitement about discovering new insights into unknown or poorly understood phenomenon. Currently, my passion is how diet may represent an environmental trigger that may underlie most autoimmune diseases.
7. What experience or life event caused you to research Paleolithic nutrition?
Cordain: In 1987, I read Boyd Eaton’s now classical 1985 NEJM paper on the topic and decided it was about the best idea I had ever read on the underlying rationale for human nutrition and healthful diets. After reading this paper, I went out and copied and read all of articles Boyd had cited in this paper. I then read most of the citations in those papers and continued the process. I then started to organize all of these papers into topics (cereal grains, dairy, legumes, salt etc.) and put them into file folders. After about 3-5 years of doing this, I found myself with a mountain of information and patterns began to emerge from all of these papers, and these patterns have formed the basis for many of my publications.
Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus