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NeanderThin: A Caveman's Guide to Nutrition

by Ray Audette with Troy Gilchrist
(1996, 3rd edition) Paleolithic Press, 6009 Laurel Oaks, Dallas, TX 75248, 137 pages, ISBN #0-9646345-1-1.

Review by Kirt Nieft
Copyright © 1998 by Kirt Nieft. All rights reserved.
Contact author for permission to republish.

NeanderThin author Ray Audette is someone who appears to be a real-life nature boy at the same time he's a science aficionado to boot. He spends considerable time hunting and gathering with his falcon, making him something of a Tom Brown for the alternative diet crowd. In keeping with that, Audette's book NeanderThin is an easily-read, somewhat meandering exposition of why he thinks we should all be eating a paleodiet. It's really devilishly simple, almost religious even--with chapters titled "Genesis," "Life in the Garden of Eden," and even "Catechism." I took the religious overtones as tongue-in-cheek originally, but rumor has it that Mr. Audette is working on a book about Paleolithic religion, so right now it's unclear how seriously he considers the religious overtones.

This is an easy book to summarize. The fleeting and often interesting diversions in the first chapter--about everything from R. Buckminster Fuller (a paleo-eater in addition to his other credits) to chaos theory (a barely fleshed-out tangent)--fade into memory as Audette explains that humans are designed to eat only "foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone." Much is made of the difference between "technology-dependent" foods--which are not obtainable or edible with only a sharp stick--and our proper ancestral foods, which are. Where Audette draws the line on what is technology becomes a bit slippery as the chapters unfold, but more on that soon.

Forty pages later, the "Ten Commandments" tell us what to avoid (grains, beans, dairy, potatoes, dairy, and sugar) and what to enjoy (meats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, berries). In between, after his standard-fare testimonial, we are taken on Mr. Audette's very agreeable tour of the rise of man, the joys of the Paleolithic life, and the "fall from grace" with the advent of farming. According to Audette, diseases of civilization are primarily immune disorders that occur because we are eating foods we are not sculpted by evolution to utilize properly.

While this theory is not exactly Audette's invention, he does get away with stating it pretty bluntly and without limiters for the most part. The first words of the book are, "As I am not a doctor or a scientist..." and he appears to enjoy his unconstrained status as a "civilian" in making some sweeping statements which appear as Fact when they are probably more like Controversial Conjecture. While he has several dozen references listed in his bibliography, no text is footnoted, so it would be a considerable task to figure out which of his statements do indeed have some supportive research. Nevertheless, his bibliography would be a great starting point for further lay research into the ideas presented in the book--as it was probably intended.

There are the obligatory sample menus and recipes, very few of which could be prepared with only a sharp stick, but who's counting, eh?

So how about some of these Controversial Conjectures? During a discussion of allergies, Audette writes (page 39, in discussing newly emerging technologies of the late Paleolithic):

Meats could now be preserved by drying and smoking them in racks above the warming fire, techniques that merely supplant the sun-drying preservation of meat that had existed for millennia. The same types of plants that were edible raw continued to provide the vegetable component of our omnivorous diet.

Perhaps Audette is unaware of the reputed carcinogenic status that smoked meats carry in some circles these days, but it is that last sentence which I would love to see some support for. Why would our ancestors only cook the foods they could also have eaten raw? Didn't the cooking fire allow our species to extend the range of foods eaten to include previously hard-to-eat vegetation, including tubers and tougher or more bitter greens? Later Audette admits that this would happen, but in his view only as the end of the Paleolithic became the Neolithic--mostly he admits that it happened with grains.

Now, of course, one of Audette's central premises is that we should only eat foods which we could eat raw, even if we might cook or otherwise process them anyway for other reasons. This is a conservative approach and makes a lot of sense, but it is not clear that in doing so we are mimicking our Paleolithic ancestors (the premise of the book), who probably hadn't read NeanderThin and were roasting to a crisp the previously inedible roots they found if that's the way they tasted good. Well, okay, everybody tweaks their anthropology to match their version of diet, but let's look at another example.

Also from page 39:

With the extinction of megafauna (large ground animals), caused by hunting in tandem with dogs, new food sources were needed.

The causes of the extinction of the megafauna are actually hotly debated in anthropological circles. Here, Audette makes it sound as if the matter is already soundly decided. It is a picky point, and a bit esoteric I admit, but this is a good example of the matter-of-fact way that Controversial Conjecture is tossed off as Fact. But, frankly, I was disappointed that Mr. Audette doesn't have a similar theory-as-fact about why technology blossomed only during the last interglacial period and not during one of the previous ones. ;-)

Page 46:

Corn is considered the number-one carcinogen in the American diet. It is responsible for more cancer deaths than all of the pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and other additives that contaminate our food. Many scientists believe that corn is responsible for more cancer deaths in America than cigarettes. Grains, in general, are so carcinogenic that the EPA now requires people who are exposed to them in their work (mill workers, grain elevator operators and some bakers) to wear respirators to provide protection against the cancers and lung disease that plague them.

I think Audette probably means there are some toxic molds which grow on corn that are carcinogenic, but it is rather deceptive (whether inadvertently so or not) to not make clear the claim applies not to corn itself but to an aftereffect due to improper storage. Further, calling grains carcinogenic as particulate pollution (as in breathing floury, dusty air) is disingenuous (any particulate matter in the air we breathe can cause trouble), especially when there is scant mention of the carcinogenic research on charred meat or deep-fried fats. This is called cherry-picking one's research and Audette does it well.

Now onto a topic of especially personal interest to me: raw vs. cooked food. I don't know how much it matters whether paleo-foods are eaten raw or cooked. However, coming from a formerly all-raw instincto background, I am especially attentive to any arguments and research which define the differences between what is raw or cooked or not. When I first heard about Audette's book, I was confused: if we are to only use a sharp stick to get our foods, how is it to be cooked? Wouldn't cooking change a food to the dreaded status of technology-dependent? Well, okay, one has to draw the line somewhere on technology, but where exactly does Audette draw it? We have the sharp stick; we have the cooking fire; we have the chili recipes; and we have the pork rinds (low-salt of course) lathered with almond butter as a snack food.

Audette is straightforward about how he feels about the raw vs. cooked issue, but, is it just me, or does he seem in some instances to be a tad arbitrary...

Page 53:

Although all meat is edible raw, it is not recommended that supermarket meat be eaten this way. Proper care must be taken to cook or dry such meat carefully to eliminate all bacterial contamination, which may cause food poisoning. Any of the vitamins destroyed during this process are easily replaced by eating fruits and vegetables.

Page 55:
Vegetables...are edible raw and will provide most of the nutrition when eaten raw by themselves or when combined into salads. They are only slightly less nutritious when cooked and can be used in soups, poultry stuffing and as a hot side dish.

Also from page 55:

All [available fruits] are edible raw and should be consumed when fresh...Canned fruits, preserves, jellies and jams should be avoided at all times as most contain very high amounts of sugar and have lost most of their nutritional value during processing.

Page 117:

Q: According to your theory, shouldn't I eat all my food raw?
A: In a perfect world, yes. But modern farming and food processing techniques preclude this practice. Meats, poultry, eggs and seafood are prone to contamination by bacteria (salmonella, e. coli, etc.) and parasites (trichinosis, tapeworms, etc.) and should be cooked or dried at least enough to sterilize them. When available, irradiated foods will eliminate this risk and make steak tartar and raw eggs much more popular.

Page 56:
Although roasted nuts are available, the hunter-gatherer should consume them in their raw form whenever possible.

Obviously, one guideline here is that when the less-than-ideal conditions of food safety that may result from modern food processing techniques and shipping demands are at issue, one is advised to cook for safety reasons. Also, there is probably some accommodation being made here in allowing cooked vegetables so the diet will be more palatable for more people--including, one might even speculate, perhaps for Mr. Audette as well. ;-)

However, beyond that there still seem to be a couple of inconsistencies here left unaddressed. By my scorecard we have fruits and nuts raw, veggies either way, and meat, well, we are only waiting around for the better days (?) of food irradiation to make it safe to eat raw, while meanwhile, we eat it cooked, and it's not that big a deal apparently. (Mr. Audette seems to be one of the very few alternative diet folks who is looking forward to food irradiation.)

And if it is okay to roast meat, why isn't it okay to roast nuts? Presumably because there are safety issues with meat processing methods today that don't exist with nuts. However, while arguing for pages about how meat supplies nutrients that are not available from plant foods, here he turns about and says that, no worry, any damage done to meat by cooking can be made up from some fruits and veggies (presumably raw), yet cooking is also allowed with vegetables. Left unanswered: Does Audette, then, believe any nutrient loss from cooking vegetables is negligible, and if so, where is his rationale or evidence? And if it is in fact believed to be neglible, then why is it not also negligible with meats, or at least why was the potential concern about that raised with meats in the first place? And is chili technology-dependent? Can I use a small sharp stick to stab my pemmican?

To some degree, I'm being a bit facetious here, of course, but I do wish the treatment had been more complete, without certain of these assumptions and discrepancies being glossed over with no comment, leaving the more inquisitive reader to wonder about them. On the other hand, granted, there are probably no easy answers to these questions and it is likely that I have spent too much time wondering similar things for the past decade or so, but...

Instinctos shun any cooking and very few paleo-dieters are willing to eat all-raw even as an experiment. With a dearth of research on the cooked vs. raw topic, anecdotal evidence becomes ever-more interesting to me. Audette dismisses the importance (?) of unfired food as easily as instinctos dismiss any arguments that cooked food may be useful. I guess my fantasy is to have Mr. Audette eat Instincto for a year, and have Mr. Burger (the father of Instincto) eat NeanderThin. And then I want them on a panel where I can question them in detail on their respective experiences. ;-)

Lacking such, I have ended up eating a very NeanderThin-like diet myself as an experiment after years all-raw. I find that I can eat more animal foods--every day, every meal if I want to--if they are cooked. I find that I don't turn into a pimple-ridden, constipated ex-instincto. I find my blood sugar levels delightfully steady. But I also find my urine smelling like cooked meat after a meal and a return of some minor foot and armpit odor. Ah, well, pros and cons to everything. Maybe I should get off Mr. Audette's case here for not obsessing on the raw vs. the cooked as I have for too long, and continue on to other issues.

Page 76:

Cravings for forbidden foods are to be expected as all of these unnatural substances produce chemical addictions. These addictions are identical to the complex carbohydrate cravings of the alcoholic or heroin addict. Whether the source is a drug or a bagel, the endorphins (morphine-like substances) produced by the brain are the same, and it is these unnatural levels of endorphins which we crave.

This kind of rationale is almost fill-in-the-blank-type verbiage lathered on by any idealistic diet writer you care to pick. Whatever the diet, the no-no foods are claimed to be addictive like heroin. The vegetarians have animal foods being addictive. The fruitarians have everything but wild fruit as an addiction-to-overcome-by-spiritual-will. The instinctos have cooked-food addictions to recover from. And NeanderThin doesn't disappoint, with our grain addictions being identical to alcoholism and heroin addiction. Fruitarians have us living indefinitely on fruit; Audette has us being able to live indefinitely on pemmican if things came to that.

In fairness, just about everybody recommending the more "ideal," "natural" diets considers grains to be especially difficult to give up (except for cooked-food, i.e., non-raw, vegetarians who don't feel they need to be, and regard them as an integral aspect of their diet). Whether everybody should give them up is the question, but not one that is even considered in NeanderThin. This is man's diet and it is right for humanity, seems to be the message. But what about the folks who don't thrive on the diet? It appears Audette does quite well on the regime, and so do some other paleo-dieters, but making the jump from oneself to humanity is, well, what fringe-diet writers do. But what about the folks who don't thrive on the diet? Are they part of a different humanity?

Audette clearly relishes and relates to the story of Vilhjalmur Stefansson--the Arctic explorer who spent decades among the Eskimo and advocated a high-meat diet--and appears quite influenced by his writings and adventures. Interestingly, Stefansson and a partner ate a meat-only diet for a year under carefully controlled circumstances several decades ago. (The experiment, done under metabolically ward-controlled conditions, was reported on in the Journal of the American Medical Association at the time, in 1926.) Stefansson himself did pretty well, but the other fellow's cholesterol levels skyrocketed (to over 600 at times!). Anecdotal experiences posted on the Paleofood mailing list (which uses NeanderThin as the list's FAQ) show that not everyone gets Stefansson-like (or Audette-like) results. Some people tolerate all sorts of "cheating" on a NeanderThin regime and others claim, as Audette does, that the tiniest infraction makes them ill.

What may be more addictive than "forbidden fruits" (no-no foods) is the idea that there is one dietary mantra that can be sung by the whole choir.

Pages 81-82:

In cultures that survive on technology-dependent foods exclusively (i.e., vegetarian cultures), diseases such as measles, mumps and influenza, which are considered minor in industrialized countries, result in extremely high mortality rates. In contrast, the hunter-gatherer experiences much milder colds, influenza, mononucleosis and yeast infections.

There must be something I am not understanding about these two sentences: Didn't these same diseases decimate hunter-gatherer populations around the planet during colonial times when their lands were invaded by foreigners?

Okay, I think I've been picky enough already and I'll spare you the story of how Audette is down on potatoes and extends his potato argument to all tubers, including sweet potatoes which are perfectly edible raw. Time to quit thrashing the book and admit that when it comes time to recommend my mother a diet book, it is to NeanderThin that I refer her. Regardless of the liberties Audette takes with research issues, despite his religious and idealistic overtones, NeanderThin remains a perfectly accessible book to nearly any reader. And the topic of paleodiet is not very published these days, or if it is, is geared mostly for the research community rather than the general reader. Mr. Audette and Dr. Eades (Protein Power) pretty much have the corner on the market, even if the market share is pathetically trivial at this point in time.

Much of the premise of a paleodiet (that humans are genetically adapted to such a diet through evolutionary selection) is undeniably sound and Audette's popularization of it is excellent in packing a lot of paleo lore into a small book. Quibbling about the details is going to continue indefinitely if for no other reason than that we are no longer a Paleolithic people. Our food supply is different in quality and quantity. Generations of agricultural life have left our genetics not quite in their pristine paleo form any longer. And individual variation resulting from the mish-mash of each of our genetic heritages means that no diet book, not even the sum of all serious paleodiet research, is ever going to be able to tell you whether you would be better off eating your salmon raw, or whether a steamed sweet potato is good for you. Circumstances alter cases and we are all our own experiment in diet and lifestyle.

Not that you'd pick up any of that sentiment from the relatively black-and-white reasoning in NeanderThin, but if folks were going to experiment with an "alternative diet," they could do far worse than trying Mr. Audette's recommendations.

--Kirt Nieft

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