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Healthy Aging: popular nutritional science vs. (Paleolithic) common sense — which should you trust?

By David Whiteside
April 16, 2019
Healthy Aging:  popular nutritional science vs. (Paleolithic) common sense — which should you trust? image

As we age, good health—or lack thereof—increasingly defines the remainder of our lives.

What we eat or don’t eat is a big part of this. Wise food choices rely on accurate scientific information.

But how reliable is the “food science” available to most of us? We often look to popular media—which is full of spin, misinterpretation, or fumbled facts. And the science behind most print, TV, online or social media “info bites” is often itself sloppy and biased. Punching through this double layer of outdated preconceptions, misinformation, lazy science (and lazy reporting) isn’t easy.

One answer is common-sense eating (like the Paleo Diet®) which bypasses the murky agendas and journalistic excess behind most popular “scientific advice.”

How do most of us hear about current nutritional science?

We make food choices every day—but based on what? Government guidelines, school textbooks, or media articles? Physician advice? Cute or charismatic blogs?

We tend to rely on these conventional sources because we assume they know better; that they have access to hard information like the latest studies and scientific research.

That’s an important distinction that many of us don’t consider. Nutritional researchers don’t generally talk directly to the public. The science is interpreted for us by others - primarily non-scientists.

We baby boomers and succeeding generations are particularly acculturated to government input, like the Food Pyramid and Choose My Plate, but media articles influence consumers of all ages. Busy or distracted readers mostly accept this information as accurate—and that it’s all they need to know.

To add scientific validity, online and print articles, even TV segments, often cite recent studies or the “latest research.”

But what does this “research” actually look like?

Scientists are just people like you and me--and all too human

Longtime NPR science writer Richard Harris critiqued the reliability of biomedical research in his book Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, [1] and reveals:

  • Most studies reach non-reproducible results.
  • Discredited results are not quickly (or in some cases, ever) retracted.
  • Subsequent research often cites and builds on discredited or retracted work—even years later.
  • Career advancement, job security and funding drive researchers to publish new or splashy results, even if incorrect.
  • Respected scientific journals (and peer reviewers) don’t reliably check the accuracy of submitted work.
  • Mouse-based studies can be deeply flawed due to the unusual logistics of breeding and maintaining these specialized populations.

According to Harris, for every ethical, committed scientist who effectively communicates important research directly to the public, there are dozens who publish questionable research — often simply for publishing’s sake.

Many others just follow the money.

Bidding for research

Can deep-pocket businesses pay researchers to publish results that help sell more product, even if the results themselves are questionable or even unreproducible?

Consider just one of many examples – the pasta industry.

Two recent articles, “‘Big Pasta’ Cooks Up Self-Interested Nutrition Science,” published by the Nutrition Coalition [2] and “Those Studies About Pasta Being Good For You?...” by Stephanie M. Lee, on Buzzfeed [3] strongly echo many of Richard Harris' concerns. These conflicts of interest have been around for years. Another example is the recent revelation that one of the scientists in charge of designing the American Dietary Guidelines in the 80s was paid by the sugar lobby. [4]

The willingness to throw millions of dollars into agenda-slanted research sadly reveals that much of what the public hears as “science-based” might really just be expensive marketing.

In fact, a 2007 study published in PLOS Medicine showed how funding sources influence nutritional scientific outcomes in favor of the financial sponsor. [5]

Hope they got that one right!

And how does the general public hear about most studies? Usually through their favorite device — from a journalist.

Science through the media lens

Many journalists strive for professionalism, but they also need a steady stream of riveting, must-read stories. Food-science “revelations” are perennial favorites. This puts the reporter (not typically a scientist) at the mercy of food company public relations staff, or a company scientist, for summaries and talking points. Some intrepid journalists go straight to the science—but then misinterpret or even exaggerate it to craft a better story.

What the public finally reads has often passed through several corporate filters. Unfortunately, the result is that much of this material tends to favor conventional products and “diet strategies.”

Recent headlines include “Coconut oil is pure poison,” “Low carb diets shorten your life;” “Cheese and butter daily will extend life;” “Whole grains help prevent Type 2 diabetes;” among many others. Studies “demonstrating” the dangers of saturated fat, or meat consumption, are regularly trumpeted.

Even casual back-checking on many of these “revelations” can demonstrate major disconnects between the reporting and the facts—particularly when the research is epidemiological.

But the damage is already done. Consumers turn to public media, find what they believe to be science-based information, and uncritically absorb it.

Nutritional science: what do the results tell us?

If all this popular science were sound, the results should speak for themselves - the general public should be in robust good health.

Instead, we see rampant and increasing obesity, metabolic disorders, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Those of us over 50 are hit the hardest.

American life expectancy has actually shortened since 2014 [6].

Conventional diet norms, reinforced endlessly by media and questionable science, steer us away from health—not toward it. No matter how many times we are told these norms are “healthy,” or “science based” we must finally step back and look at the results.

If our Western high-carb, high-sugar, trans-fat and seed-oil heavy regimen isn’t working, especially into old age, what’s the alternative?

Common sense tells us that if something’s not working…we should stop!

But we still have to eat.

Back to square one: The Paleo Diet

So, what did people eat back when “diseases of Western civilization” were virtually non-existent?

Is there a known “reset” diet?

Yes! Our hunter-gatherer ancestors (and modern hunter-gatherer populations) give plenty of examples. These groups were and are chronically disease-free — unless they adopt conventional foods [7].

The modern Paleo Diet brings us as close as possible to these pre-agrarian eating habits and their healthy results. It eliminates foods associated with chronic disease and replaces them with nutrient-dense whole foods (with heavy emphasis on fresh vegetables and fruit.)

Many studies have validated the Paleo Diet’s health benefits.

For example a recent study compared the Paleo Diet to the American Heart Association's recommended diet [8]. The Paleo Diet was the clear winner for both weight loss and improved lipid profile. Another important comparison of the Paleo Diet to a “diabetes diet” [9] showed that the Paleo Diet was superior in improving glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetics.

The science is out there but remember: The Paleo Diet is the original human diet. It predates science--you don’t need to read Paleo “studies” (unless you want to.)

You just need to try it for 30 days.

I’m on day 1046.


  1. Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, by Richard Harris, copyright 2017, Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, electronic edition
  2. “ ‘Big Pasta’ Cooks Up Self-Interested Nutrition Science,” 9/14/18, retrieved here
  3. “Those Studies About Pasta Being Good For You? Some Are Paid For By Barilla,” by Stephanie M. Lee, 4/19/18,, retrieved here
  4. Kearns CE, Schmidt LA, Glantz SA. Sugar Industry and Coronary Heart Disease Research: A Historical Analysis of Internal Industry Documents. JAMA Intern Med. 2016;
  5. “Relationship between funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles” 1/9/2007, by LI Lesser, CB Ebbeling, M Goozner, DS Ludwig,, retrieved here
  6. “Why Are So Many Americans Dying Young?”by Olga Khazan, 12/13/16 in The Atlantic, retrieved here
  7. “The introduction of refined carbohydrates in the Alaskan Inland Inuit diet may have led to an increase in dental caries, hypertension and atherosclerosis” by James J. DiNicolantonio and James H. O’Keefe, 7/7/18, The BMJ, retrieved here
  8. “Which diet best supports hearth health?” by Christopher James Clark B.B.A, 6/30/15, on, retrieved here
  9. Jonsson, T, et al. (July 2009). Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: ar randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 8(35). Retrieved from //

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