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Can A Christian Follow A Paleo Low-Carb Diet?

Posted Nov 17 2010 4:40pm

I really enjoy philosophical questions about nutrition from my readers because it means they are giving serious thought to this whole concept of livin’ la vida low-carb and not just blindly following it (that’s what far too many people are doing with conventional wisdom regarding diet). Some people buy into the healthy low-carb lifestyle hook, line, and sinker because it just makes total sense to them through the scientific evidence and results they see personally while others have to come into it gradually at their own pace as knowledge and understanding begins to happen and they become convinced empirically. That’s what is so fantastic about the whole low-carb/Paleo/primal community is that each of us are at varying levels on this journey to attain optimal health and have our own hurdles and obstacles to overcome to make this way of eating work for us in the long-term.

With the rise in popularity of the Paleolithic diet in recent years that hearkens back to the nutritional and exercise habits of our early human ancestors, an intriguing question has come up amongst a certain segment of my readership: Christians. I’ve briefly discussed the subject of diet and the Bible in a previous post I wrote called “Does The Bible Consider The Atkins Diet A Sin?” As a believer in Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, I’ll receive an e-mail from time to time questioning how I reconcile my faith in God and the Paleo diet. Whether it’s the whole “evolutionary” aspect of it or the seemingly high-carb diet of Biblical days, there are some serious concerns whether or not a Christian can follow a Paleolithic diet while maintaining the integrity of their religious beliefs. The following e-mail I received from a reader recently addresses this directly from a Christian who sincerely wanted to know how her faith and chosen diet can co-exist:

Hi Jimmy,

I’ve been a faithful, long-term low-carber for seven years, so I’m totally on-board with the health benefits of low-carb eating. I enjoy reading your blog, Dr. Eades’ blog, and Gary Taubes book/interviews. I like to think I’m pretty well-educated on the ins-and-outs of low-carbing.

I have one question that keeps coming up that I don’t know how to answer. I am a Christian, as are my parents. I know that you are, too, so perhaps you can put this into perspective for me. My mom keeps saying, “Why did God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, eating from the fruits and vegetables that grew there, if human digestive systems were not designed to eat those things? Why did God even create edible grains if we weren’t meant to eat them?”

The people in the Bible routinely ate “bread” and even Jesus used the metaphor, “I am the Bread of Life.” Christians “break bread” together as part of the commemorative act of Communion. You see where I’m going with this. At what time in human history were we hunter/gatherers?

The results of low-carbing speak for themselves, but this perplexes me. Thanks for any insights you can offer, Jimmy.

Wow, deep question! It reminded me of this thread on the CrossFit Discussion Board discussing the same thing from a Christian who loves Paleo low-carbing, but wonders about how it matches up with Biblical teachings. You know, I’ve never put my diet through the Biblical lens quite to this degree personally because to me it’s not about necessarily the ancestral/evolutionary aspect of low-carb eating as much as it is regarding the science that supports high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb living for my body. That’s not to say I don’t feel a definitive brotherhood with people who are into the Paleolithic movement, though, because we’re on parallel paths to the same thing: getting people healed from the diseases of modern man by educating them on the negative consequences of consuming what is considered “food” in the 21st Century and to instead hearken back to the diet that our forefathers once consumed for vibrant health. Nobody in the Paleo or low-carb community will disagree with the ultimate goal of the education we are providing.

Since I have quite a Rolodex full of names of people I’ve interviewed on my podcast or come across in the blogosphere who are of the Paleo/primal/low-carb bent, I thought it would be fun to ask them to take a stab at this conundrum presented by my reader. Keep in mind that these experts on Paleo diets may or may not have a faith in God so take their answers accordingly. Nevertheless, this should give you plenty of food for thought on the subject. ENJOY!

Dr. Loren Cordain , author of The Paleo Diet

This is a tough question for which there are no easy answers. In lectures, my standard approach is to acknowledge that I respect all people’s belief systems, but the topic of today’s lecture will focus upon the evolutionary basis for optimal human diet and not religion.

The great evolutionary biologist, Dobzhansky said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” A similar statement could be made for nutrition, as this discipline is simply applied biology. I did not “invent” the Paleo Diet, but rather together with scientists from around the planet, we simply uncovered what was pre-existing — the diet of the world’s hunter gatherers and the diet to which our species is genetically adapted.

“Low carb” works not because Mike Eades, Dr. Atkins, Gary Taubes, me or any mortal human invented a low carb diet, rather it works because low carb and low glycemic loads were universal nutritional characteristics of the ancestral diet that shaped our genome. When we make our modern diet consistent with the general nutritional parameters that were present in pre-agricultural diets, then we restore the balance between our body’s genetically determined nutritional needs and the foods our physiologies require for optimal function.

These are the fundamental reasons why modern day “Paleo” diets are nearly universally therapeutic. Accordingly, these nutritional insights have only come about in the past 10-30 years and could have only come about after Darwin’s recognition of the universal process (evolution via natural selection) by which life forms changed and adapted over the course of our planet’s 4.5 billion history. Evolution is not a theory, but rather a fundamental fact which guides insight into all biological processes including nutrition. Evolution doesn’t necessarily exclude spirituality for all people, and many prominent scientists who study genetics and biology process have developed personal belief systems that accomodate evolution through natural selection.

Kevin Brown , author of The Liberation Diet

I have written an article called “The Spiritual Side of Healthy Eating” in which I try to incorporate God’s input on diet. Of course, as we believe God is the Creator, there is no Paleo diet, as we became meat eaters after our fall into sin in the garden of Eden. We were designed to eat plants initially, bread after the fall into sin, and animals after the flood of Noah’s day. We are not currently able to do well on a high-grains or high fruit diet. God gives us a perfect illustration of a healthy meal in Genesis 18 where He records the foods that He eats, and we know that God does all things perfectly. Any record of a meal that God eats personally includes fat and protein.

Nora Gedgaudas , author of Primal Body-Primal Mind

Reasoning your way through anyone’s religious belief systems can be a real minefield. There are almost as many ways to interpret Biblical ideas and writing (or any religious text) as there are individuals out there aspiring to the general belief system. One way a person can think about this is that humans are not the only life form on the planet and many different foods exist to nourish many different kinds of things. What’s food to one species is poison to another. Grains may be “edible” but so are poisonous mushrooms. Just because it’s something we can put in our mouths and eat when better food isn’t available doesn’t mean it’s great for our health. We can digest and do OK with some fruits and a wide variety of vegetables, though these are not sufficient to sustain us alone. We lack the four stomachs of ungulates to make optimal use of cellulose-based foods. We can get some good things from them but they are insufficient as a primary food source. We need animal source foods to properly meet all of our many nutritional requirements. Jesus ate lamb and fish, too. Within Biblical context I suppose one could say because we are “fallen” from the Garden it no longer is sufficient to nourish us.

Grains have always been an inferior source of nourishment but in Biblical times they were also genetically very different from the way they are today. In recent times Big Agribusiness has genetically modified and bred a great deal more gluten into the grains, literally causing a 400% increase in the incidence of Celiac disease within the last 50 years alone. No more that 1% of people with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity has ever been diagnosed and the ramifications are potentially devastating to every facet of human health. This problem is literally epidemic. Where the average person may have tolerated grains better in Biblical times they were never really a quality source of nourishment. They leave us vulnerable to numerous vitamin and mineral deficiencies, impair the function of our thyroids and pancreatic organ, the starch in them wreaks havoc on our adrenal system, our brains, immunity, digestion and cardiovascular system. They are truly addictive in the most sinister sense of the word and truly inferior in nutrient content.

Grains are cheap fodder used to fatten cattle…and they fatten us in a very similar way. Over many generations of poorer quality diet our genome has become increasingly vulnerable to many dietary and adverse environmental influences (remember Pottenger’s Cats?). We simply haven’t got the room for error anymore. We’ve spent close to 2.6 million years as hunter-gatherers as a whole and less than a few thousand years (or in some instances less) as agriculturalists. We simply are not genetically adapted to healthfully depend on grains as any sort of dietary staple. We are not physiologically designed to depend on carbohydrates as our primary source of fuel. The Food Industry, Big Agribusiness, Big Pharma and just about every other evil major corporate interest profits greatly, however, to have us believe otherwise.

Robb Wolf , author of The Paleo Solution

Jimmy forwarded an email to me in which a woman was trying to reconcile a perceived discontinuity between the Paleo concept and her Christian faith and asked me to write a few thoughts on the topic. Jimmy has done so much good for the low-carb Paleo concepts I’d do about anything to help him but I cannot help but comment up front that this feels very much like sticking my neck into the hangman’s noose. Faith and belief systems are so incendiary that I suspect I will greatly offend at least someone by even commenting on this…but it’s also an important topic. I guess all I ask is that folks take this as the opinion of one person, I do not claim to have all the answers, not do I claim my position to be “right.” It is just my opinion.

In the email Jimmy shared the woman was articulating a sense of confusion over the following: She knows her body runs better on low carbs, but yet Biblical passages recommend the “breaking of bread” as part of sacrament, worship and community building. The rub arises when she or her parents consider the “Paleo” concept and they cannot reconcile (literally) a “time before bread.”

I’ve received perhaps a few thousand similar emails over the years and the commentary goes something like this:

“Hey Robb, I appreciate the work you do, the diet and lifestyle you recommend has completely changed my life, reversed disease and I feel great. I have to tell you though, this whole “Paleo/Evolution” thing is just wrong. Your food is right, the lifestyle recommendations are right, but your ideas supporting them are wrong. Just wanted to share that clarification with you.”

You can look around my site and find these comments, I can dig some out of my inbox if folks want to see them, but it’s a very similar story as what Jimmy received.

So, I can see a couple of different scenarios in how to reconcile this information:

1. Good food, Bad ideas
Folks can just ignore the “Paleo” concept. If you want to understand some of the inner-workings stick with the molecular biology discussing insulin resistance, grain intolerance etc. ignore the overarching concepts of Evolution and you should be set. Now, some of the conflict the woman had from Jimmy’s email grew out of the fact the Bible recommends bread. True enough, but it has no commentary on high fructose corn sweetener. At some point you need to think for yourself and navigate the grey areas. If foods made you sick, perhaps it’s not a great idea to eat them. Here is a nice resource of someone who sees no conflict between low-carb, grain free eating and a rich religious life.

2. Interpretations change
This is where I’m likely to make a bunch of people mad, but here goes: We are human. Shocker, I know, but part of being human is a remarkable ability to be “wrong.” There was a time when Western thought was that the Earth was the center of the universe. This was based on Biblical teachings. Galileo was raised in this prevailing mindset yet his astronomical observations placed the Earth not at the center of the universe, but one of many planets circling our sun. The response from the church? He was tried, found guilty of heresy and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. My point? Our understanding of the world changes and sometimes this conflicts with notions that have been brought down from our faith, but it need not destry either our faith nor our ability to be rational, thinking people. Read more about Galileo here .

Now, I make a living coaching people, selling “diet books” and similar shenanigans but if you know me at all you will know I am motivated by a powerful desire to be of service to people. I want to help. Low carb diets help. In fact, they heal. Grains, sugar and processed foods are problematic for a variety of reasons, you have only to try removing them from your diet to experience the benefit. So, at some point folks need to figure out how important it is to make sure the details of their faith dovetail with the observed health benefits they and their families receive from low-carb, “Paleo” eating.

Richard Nikoley , Paleo blogger at “Free The Animal”

OK, what’s going on here, and I’ve seen this before in my own family of many “born-again Christians” is she’s pointing out an apparent contradiction. In other words, she’s right: either Paleo dietary principles are right or Christian doctrine. They can’t both be. Contradictions don’t exist in reality. That said, here’s a post I wrote sometime back to confront that exact thing .

It’s not important how it is that after being raised with a Lutheran dad, a Mormon mom — who then both converted to Evangelical, born-again Christianity when I was about 10 — I became a non-believer: the A-word. From ages 10-18 I attended school at the Baptist church my parents were involved with and then a second one they helped start. I actually got a great education, though deficient in science. Here’s the self-guided curriculum that was used .

I attended Divinity or Bible School for a year out of high school: Tennessee Temple University in Chattanooga, Tennessee which pretty much ended up being the beginning of my downfall from faith. But it took a long time, another 10 years roughly until I came to grips with the fact that I just did not believe any of it. And that was 20 years ago now. I want to be as inclusive in all of this as possible so I don’t think it’s important to force confrontation of the contradiction. As one friend of mine, also a non-believer, raised a Catholic says: religion is an intensely personal issue. Leave it alone. Focus on actions.

Virtually everyone lives with some form of cognitive dissonance. It’s probably an evolutionary survival adaptation. So, why single out religion when there are people who, for example, hold a marriage together where both people would be happier otherwise (and sometimes, the kids too). Or, staying in a job you hate and makes you miserable. You could go on all day.

Here’s how I might deal with the specific complaint from a believer’s perspective, though not perfect. “God created all manner of toxins, from outright poison that will kill 1,000 people with a single drop — and snakes and other poisonous animals — to mild irritants, like poison ivy and gluten. And then there’s the whole host of things some people are deathly allergic too — like peanuts — while others can eat their fill. Perhaps these are merely bumps in the road with the occasional steep cliff to avoid. So in addition to other pitfalls that test faith and allegiance in the spiritual realm, so there may be physical and nutritional pitfalls to avoid as well.”

Diana Hsieh , Paleo blogger at “Modern Paleo”

I suppose that I’d say two things:

First, I don’t think that the Bible should be looked to — even by Christians — for dietary advice. That’s clearly not its purpose. It’s not a divine cookbook (except in some few laws). Its claims and metaphors about food reflect the habits of the primitive agricultural societies in and for which it was written.

Second, the Bible contains much worse things than bread-eating, such as stoning blasphemers, demands of death for gays, near-sacrifice of children, drunken incest, genocide, slavery, etc. Those things — not to mention its basic morality — strike me as far more important.

Personally, as an Objectivist, I don’t regard the Bible as anything more than canonical ancient literature: it has no moral weight for me. So if the Bible commands bread-eating, so much worse for the Bible.

However, I do understand that Christians have a different perspective. Yet ultimately, they need to decide what will have more weight with them: the hard facts about what makes their lives here on Earth better, and the claims of Scripture. I hope they choose the hard facts. If not, they’ll self-destruct in far more important ways than diet. And that’s a terrible shame.

Now that you’ve heard from the Paleo superstars, what do YOU think? Can a Christian confidently follow a Paleo low-carb diet without jeopardizing their belief in Jesus? Do you think this issues matters at all whether you are a Christian or not? Let’s hear from you because I know you have an opinion on this subject. Leave your comments below.

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