Stephen Phinney and Jeff Volek are among the most important minds of the low-carb movement. With four advanced degrees between them (Volek has an RD and PhD, and Phinney has a MD and PhD) and hundreds of scientific publications on low-carbohydrate diets going back decades, after almost 10 years of low-carbohydrate dieting under my own belt, last year I was excited to sit down and read their book The Art and Science of Low-Carbohydrate Living, their popular primer on low-carbohydrate diets and, after having read almost everything published on low-carbohydrate diets in other popular books, really deepen my understanding.
Looking for a scientific treatment of the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in the research record on low-carbohydrate diets, as I read I was first a little disappointed by the book. Then I was appalled. The first two chapters called into question everything that followed. This was a turning point for me in understanding low-carbohydrate diets and the people who advocate for them.
Phinney and Volek engage in rampant conspiracy mongering. I wanted to like the book. But I couldn’t. The content of this book and its worldview, in my opinion, so poisons the well of scientific discussion that it makes any serious adherent to the book immune to rational argument.
It is said that a great piece of literature raises more questions than answers. I believe the same could also be said of a great piece of science. It is also said that a work is not literature if it only provides answers–it is propaganda. By this definition, Phinney and Volek’s book is propaganda. It needn’t be, because I know that there remain many questions about low-carbohydrate diets.
Here is my thesis:
I believe this is a poisonous book. By believing that the other side is responsible for a conspiracy, one is justified in one’s own selective and misleading use of scientific research. I will now try to demonstrate what I mean by this.
These first two chapters are about indigenous groups that consume low-carbohydrate diets. Here is the key introductory paragraph to these paragraphs:
Before commenting, I should introduce my background. I have two bachelor’s degrees. One was my bachelor’s of sciences degree in biology, but I also have a bachelor’s of arts degree in anthropology. I decided to major in anthropology in part because after high school, I read Loren Cordain’s book The Paleo Diet, and this changed my life. I was Paleo. I was also an angry kid, and I thought that I wanted to learn about hunter-gatherers, because modern society was a bum deal.
So, as an anthropology major, imagine my perpetual surprise when I hear that hunter-gatherers were adapted to consuming low-carbohydrate diets. Just as with Phinney and Volek’s (hereafter, PV) claim that this was the case, this is never referenced. The reason it is never referenced is because it isn’t true. Every dataset that looks at hunter-gatherer diets–and there are several mainstays of anthropologists over the past century, employing varying methodologies–shows a range of carbohydrate intakes.
PV indicate that these three groups are “examples” of low-carbohydrate hunter-gatherer groups, while in fact they exceptions. Of the hundreds of hunter-gatherer groups observed, these are the only groups that might provide evidence for PV’s thesis.
Also the notion that Homo sapiens lived in barren or temperate regions until very recently–including during the Ice Ages–also is not supported by any evidence that I am aware of. When the Ice Ages occurred in Europe, Homo sapiens retreated to the Mediterranean:
They only recolonized Central and Northern Europe relatively recently. Indeed, Scandinavia was only colonized by humans at around 12,000 BCE–an eyeblink in human evolutionary history. Indeed, the lifeways of Scandinavia are only as old as agriculture itself.
The famous Inuit? Same deal. According to the book “A Paleohistory of the North: Human Settlement of the Higher Latitudes”, Alaska too was only colonized around 12,000 BCE, with the Inuit themselves arising on the scene only 2,000 years ago:
The Inuit arrived in Alaska after the fall of Attica at the hands of the Peloponnesians, after the deaths of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Alexander the Great, and Julius Caesar and during the reign, approximately, of Augustus in Rome. There was a reason indeed that the great civilizations began in Southern Europe: everyone else was just getting started. The existence of humans in the Northern climates is, to be clear, neolithic and in some cases almost modern in its novelty.
In point of fact, modern genetic studies show that modern Inuit (a population from northern Alaska) spread through the Arctic less than 700 years ago, genetically and culturally replacing the Paleo-Eskimos, residents of the Arctic for about 4000 years. What this means in turn is that the Inuit were just getting settled in when the Renaissance was underway in Europe. Yet PV want to propose that the Inuit are an ancestral population!!!
When PV were imagining our ancestors chasing around woolly mammoths, they were probably actually eating pasta with Francesco somewhere in the South. OK, minus the pasta. But you get the point. What PV have done in this passage is to pretend that low-carbohydrate living in these harsh climates was the normal human lifeway. The Ice Age was a recent event, and humans had a very ambivalent relationship to it, with permanent settlements largely only existing in the South.
What this means is that the Inuit, Masai, and Bison People were not necessarily representative of our human ancestors. In fact, they were chosen by PV precisely because they stand out as exceptions, even as PV propose they represent the rule. And they aren’t even exactly what they seem either. We have only seen this in the case of the Inuit, but we shall soon see it with the Masai as well.
Yet, through a bit of hand-waving, they try to make this work:
Again, no reference is provided to support that most of the world’s cultures survived on low-carbohydrate diets–in fact, this is at odds with the available evidence, which shows copious dependence of our ancestors on a wide variety of foods, including fruit, tubers, legumes, and grains.
PV’s discussion of Ireland is unreferenced and just wrong: archaeologists believe that cereals, including wheat and barley, arrived in Ireland almost 7,000 years ago and were extensively cultivated.
The discussion on Scandinavia and Russia is equally unreferenced. It is difficult to know what to take seriously. Even if true, the amount of gene flow because of repeated migrations, especially in Scandinavia from mainland Europe during the course of the neolithic (except perhaps for Finland) would substantially undermine the argument.
Yet behind these attempts at justification lingers a rather curious value judgment: “low carbohydrate cultures were suppressed by the agricultural imperative.” A whiff of Jared Diamond and Marshall Sahlins and an insinuation of romanticization of hunter-gatherers so often latent among Paleo diet writers makes itself felt here. There is much more of this in the book, but we shall have to pass it by for our purposes at this time.
PV, perhaps sensing that their evidence is paper thin, now appeal to a supposed gap in evidence:
In other words, because writing didn’t exist, we don’t know that just because the evidence is so thin, these supposed low-carbohydrate cultures didn’t exist. Here PV make an incredible claim: >99% of ethnographic observers misreported their findings. The ones who told the truth are the ones that PV is reporting on. What a convenient and ridiculous remark.
PV give no evidence that this happened, content instead to accuse most observers of faking data. Still, if only an empirically unfounded claim, we might chalk it up to (serious) disagreements about interpretation. But it isn’t. It also simply doesn’t make any sense.
Here’s why. Ethnocentricity is a commonplace pitfall that most ethnographic observers are aware of. This is why it is so controversial when they report on infanticide, or on cannibalism: the observers might be biased, and trying to paint HGs are “primitives” or “savages.” Indeed, there is a (dominant) school of thought within anthropology that asserts that there is no such thing as an objective cross-cultural observer, precisely because such observers will always distort their analysis with their own biases. Even perception is biased.
But report they do. Outside the West, we know from cross-cultural observers that infanticide is a cultural universal. And we know that in diverse cultures, Bob is frequently offered as a blood sacrifice, or even taken as the main course on festive occasions. (Sorry Bob.) And this kind of reporting goes back to Herodotus, perhaps the most ethnocentric and biased cross-cultural observer in the Western canon. Indeed, most scholars now believe that Herodotus way over-reported differences.
Why? In part because they’re interesting. That’s why cross-cultural observers are interested in other cultures. They want to find differences. Through these differences, in turn, it is frequently argued that cross-cultural observers want to understand themselves.
That is why I studied anthropology: because I wanted to know the range of possibilities of human existence. Because I wanted to learn about something different. That is one of if not the major motivation of cross-cultural observation.
“Primitives” through Western history always been a foreign Other, an Other that contrasts with modern civilization; “primitives” tell us by their negative example who we are. Thus, the tendency in anthropology has been to exaggerate differences too much.
We need to ask, therefore, why it has been consistently OK to talk about eating Bob but not about restricting carbohydrates? About bizarre sexual rituals but not about eating only meat? About pagan idol worship, but not about foregoing grain?
Before proceeding, let us take a brief look at the paragraph that comes after PV accuse 99% of cross-cultural observers of fabricating data, because finding other human societies who don’t eat wheat would be too much existentially to bear.
Here PV, thinking they are supporting what they are saying, provide a perfect counterargument to their own argument. According to PV, when observers encounter HGs that do not live in houses, they report this accurately, and call them derogatory things like “uncivilized” or “unsettled”. Yet when they encounter HGs that do not eat carbs, they fabricate data.
This simply doesn’t make sense. It is like PV are trying to refute themselves.
At this point I started to become incredulous. Is it really possible that PV are truly the excellent minds that many claim them to be? Or is this a case of “hugely overrated”?
PV’s attempt to make the argument that cross-cultural observers couldn’t stomach low carbohydrate HGs demonstrates a lack of familiarity with the ethnographic literature, and the anthropological tradition. And just plain bad reasoning skills. What is most striking however is the lack of self-consciousness about this terrible way of arguing, yet the confidence of PV’s prose.
It’s questionable moreover whether PV’s examples serve their own argument. Inuit are widely understood to have rare genetic mutations that prevent them from entering ketosis, the very state that PV claim is ideal and evolutionarily normal. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4225582/
Also, as Evelyn Carbsane has pointed out, Masai women demonstrably do not eat low carbohydrate diets. Image below.
What are the implications? Hyuge. This means that if we want to make the argument that Masai are low carb adapted, it’s only the men, but not the women. Yet… that’s not how genetics work.
Probably knowing that just discarding the evidence wouldn’t be sufficient, they accuse observers of not living with the people that they report on. Excerpt:
This is false. There are sections of libraries filled with books on HG populations by people who lived with them. Yet again we see PV accusing their opponents not just of dishonesty but now of laziness. Worst of all, in order to do this, they have to make things up.
In order to dismiss archaeological evidence as well, PV conclude that plant foods were probably not eaten or fed to dogs:
10/10 intellectual gymnastics. And no, there is not “some” data that dispute “these proportions”. Rather, virtually all available data do.
Let’s unpack this. First, they say “not all that is written of hunters and nomadic shepherds is incorrect.” No, they only mean to impugn everything that is in conflict with their theory. Which brings us to the next point.
What do PV mean when they say “when assessed against a modern understanding of metabolism”? Just what it sounds like. They cherry-pick the evidence that is consistent with their theory (although not really).
As for a “sparse but useful truth”—whether simple or complex, I prefer my truth unqualified, and not requiring in order to function, a vast intellectual conspiracy over hundreds of years to hide data by thousands of investigators.
If this post seems to drip venom, that’s because reading these chapters really did piss me off. And it makes me wonder, if the evidence from archaeology is so readily dismissed when it conflicts with their ideas, what would keep PV from doing the same when evidence from the own fields conflicts with their assumptions?
This is why I do not trust or value the work of PV. That is not to say that it cannot be valuable. It can be. But I question whether they are objective interpreters of their own science, and I now pay particular scrutiny when evaluating work on which either of them are an author.
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