Cordain, again…

In anticipation of this Thursday's release of Jimmy Moore's interview of Loren Cordain, which I'll blog about after I listen to it, I had a tidbit to report from Cordain's free newsletter, which I subscribe to.

The latest issue (v5, #16) is The Impact of Saturated Fat on Health. For those new to all this, Loren Cordain wrote The Paleo Diet, a book that when I last wrote about it, I lamented not being able to toss my ebook reader across the room.

I have a love/hate thing going with Cordain. I love the principles, i.e., the fact of our evolution, how long agriculture has been a part of that, and how such facts inform our logic as to what things we ought to eat and not eat for optimal health, lean bodies, and taking years off your look.

I hate his ideas regarding saturated fat, and unfortunately suspect that he takes this position out of convenience and then uses silly science to justify it. Here, from the latest newsletter:

The estimation of saturated fats from animal sources is more complex because hunter-gatherers typically ate the entire edible carcass,10-11 necessitating the calculation of the total edible carcass saturated fatty acid content.

In mammals and most vertebrates, organ and tissue mass scales closely with body mass. Consequently, the mass of individual edible organs can be calculated from body mass using allometric equations.12-15 Edible carcass mass can be determined by subtracting the mass of bones (minus marrow), hide, hooves, antlers, blood, urine and gastrointestinal contents from the total live weight. Edible carcass saturated fatty acid mass can be computed by multiplying individual tissue and organ mass by their respective saturated fatty acid compositions and then summing these values. The edible carcass saturated fatty acid content by energy can be calculated from values by mass using the cubic regression equations developed by Cordain et al.16

10. Thomas, E.M., The Harmless People, New York, Knopf, 1959

11. McArthur, M., Food consumption and dietary levels of groups of aborigines living on naturally occurring foods, in Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, Mountford C.P., Ed, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1960, 90.

12. Stahl, W.R., Organ weights in primates and other mammals, Science, 150, 1039, 1965.

13. Calder, W.A., Size, Function and Life History, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1984.

14. Meadows, S.D. and Hakonson, T.E., Contributions of tissues to body mass in elk, J. Wildl. Manage., 46, 838, 1982.

15. Hakonson, T.E. and Whicker, F.W., The contribution of various tissues and organs to total body mass in mule deer, J. Mammal., 52, 628, 1971.

16. Cordain. L., et al. Plant to animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in world wide hunter-gatherer diets, Am. J. Clin. Nutri., 71, 682, 2000.

Now, how likely does it seem to you that primitive hunter-gatherers generally ate an entire animal, less "the mass of bones (minus marrow), hide, hooves, antlers, blood, urine and gastrointestinal contents from the total live weight"? Or, in normal times, would they have eaten the most desirable parts (fatty!), discarded the rest, and gone on another hunt?

This analysis just seems too contrived and convenient, to me. It looks like science done for the sole purpose of confirming a bias. How about to you?

Ever seen how bears deal with the salmon run? They strip off the fatty skin, particularly the belly fat, discard the lean salmon meat, and head back into the water for another. I don't think humans behaved altogether differently short of famine or starvation. I know that, had I had reasonable means to just obtain more fatty meat, I certainly would have, in lieu of eating lean, tough, unappealing meat.

Later: Oh, he began the newsletter talking about saturated fat being linked to heart disease. I don't think much of such associations, given that perfectly healthy primitive societies existed on 40-50% of total energy from saturated fat.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More


  1. Gary Katch on April 20, 2009 at 13:18

    Richard, I'm with you on this one. I think it is quite likely that the fatty or prized parts went to the head of the tribe and his family, and the scraps and leftovers went to the others, so there might be a health and subsequent survival differential within small populations. There's this same sort of hierarchy with lions and baboons, for example, where the tribe leaders get the best stuff.

  2. Stephan on April 20, 2009 at 13:36


    I have a different take on Cordain's newsletter. It sounded to me like he was stating that the typical American could eat nearly 50% more saturated fat and still be within what he considers our evolutionary niche. It seems like it might be a reversal from the lean meat and canola oil stance, or at least an adjustment. I have a post prepared on this that I'll be putting up today or tomorrow.

  3. Dave in Ohio on April 20, 2009 at 14:00

    My take is that homo sapiens won't eat more than a certain amount of protein per day on a regular basis. For me, it's about 150 g., but I'd allow as much as 200 g. for an adult male. During most of the year in temperate climates, the amount of edible vegetable matter available was fairly low, and certainly not 35% of the energy diet. (35% would imply over 200 g. of carbs per day. The energy it takes to find and eat that much plant food, even including some root plants is unreasonable, i.e., unsustainable, for most of the year.) If one takes a typical 150 g. daily ration of protein or 637 kcal. and (I'll be generous) 150 g. of carbohydrate (630 kcal.) leaving >50% of calories as fat.

    I saw a reference to the aborigines of Australia, a continent what was quickly stripped of large fauna thanks to early homo-sapiens eating everything in sight. Thus, the eating habits of today's aboriginal population is hardly a good model for man's earlier (and more natural) history.

  4. Patrik on April 20, 2009 at 14:27

    Hi Richard,

    I too get Cordain's newsletter and, while I respect him and his approach, I do think he is dead wrong on sat. fat.

    Like you, I don't buy his central assumption: that hunter-gatherers typically ate the entire edible carcass.

    Humans have clear preferences for different parts of any slain animal. They will not start randomly, say, chewing on the fibrous tendons of the lower leg muscles of a deer.

    They will harvest and consume the fatty — more caloric bang for your caloric buck — tissues first. Brain, liver, etc etc

    I imagine the lower quality meats were given to the dogs who participated in the hunt.

    Not to go totally off-topic – but from the evolutionary perspective, it is clear to me just as we kill ourselves slowly via the Standard American Diet, we are also killing our dogs, albeit slowly, by feeding them "dogfood" made with rice, oats and barley.

    I think the "BARF" folks are onto something.

  5. MarkD on April 20, 2009 at 14:57


    Consider this – For any hunters living in a wilderness, there is significant risk with every hunt, any large game animal can inflict harm, and even while hunting a small animal there is the risk of meeting a large predator, twisting an ankle etc. Thus, analogy of a bear standing in a river of runnign salmon is a ppor one. Surely with the inherent risks of the hunt, early humans would indeed have eaten all edible parts of a carcass……

  6. Jeff on April 20, 2009 at 16:36

    Amen. Love/hate is a good way to describe it.

  7. Paleodude on April 20, 2009 at 19:04

    Most people misunderstand Cordain.

    Saturated fat is cyclical. Sometimes it's abundant, sometimes not.

    Saturated fat year 'round is just a perversion of Atkins. Nature doesn't work that way.

    Everyone who takes issue with Cordain should provide approprate scientific literature. Anecdotes are great…but they ain't science.


  8. Patrik on April 20, 2009 at 20:25


    >>>Everyone who takes issue with Cordain should provide approprate scientific literature. Anecdotes are great…but they ain't science.<<<

    Sorry, buddy. But Cordain's underlying assumption (they ate all of the carcass) is based on two 50 year old sources which are just as anecdotal/subjective as my criticism of his assertion.

    10. Thomas, E.M., The Harmless People, New York, Knopf, 1959

    11. McArthur, M., Food consumption and dietary levels of groups of aborigines living on naturally occurring foods, in Records of the American-Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, Mountford C.P., Ed, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1960, 90.

    One can employ anecdotal evidence rationally and logically and still be "doing science".

  9. nonegiven on April 20, 2009 at 20:46

    There was a great post about saturated fat in the diet in the Fathead blog.

  10. Robert M. on April 20, 2009 at 22:25

    Visceral fat, such as the liver, is actually relatively low in saturated fat. That said, saturated fat is the only fat the body can directly burn as far as I know. Unsaturated fats are typically trans-saturated first and then oxidized.

  11. Patrik on April 20, 2009 at 22:40

    Once I learned that humans store body fat, at least partially, as saturated fat, I knew that saturated fat wasn't the bogeyman it was made out to be.

  12. Monica on April 20, 2009 at 15:44

    "My take is that homo sapiens won't eat more than a certain amount of protein per day on a regular basis."

    Dave in Ohio, I'm with you. I'm trying a high protein diet right now (@ 50-60% of calories) to try to get off stubborn pounds and it's killing me.

    Patrik, hear hear! The only beef I have with the BARF diet is that dogs should not get big weight bearing bones that are too dense for their teeth. Wolves never eat these but dogs seem to have lost the instinct to not chew on them and can break their teeth. And I think the other tidbits called for in the BARF diet are all wrong. Still, head and shoulders above typical grain and soy based dog food. My carnivore pets (dog and cats) get a diet of 80% meat, 10% bones, 10% organs — often referred to as a "prey model" diet. That's what their ancestors ate, that's what they eat. And I don't know pets in better health. They will never need a tooth cleaning that's for sure. Any tartar they had was gone a few months after starting this.

  13. Chris - on April 21, 2009 at 07:01

    I'm not going to step in the debate over Cordain as a whole, or saturated fat composition in our ancestral diet at the moment. Both of the arguments about what our ancestors likely did strike me a containing a lot of conjecture, and as areas where I don't know enough to argue my opinion well. I'm going to exercise some (rare) common sense and keep my mouth shut here.

    I did want to point out that while he's partially toeing mainstream line on sat fat to advance his agenda, he is still trying to move things in the right direction, be it not as forcefully as we would like.

    From the linked article –

    "Consequently, population-wide recommendations to lower dietary saturated fats below 10% to reduce the risk of CAD have little or no evolutionary foundation in pre-agricultural Homo sapiens… So we do not need to restrict ourselves to only tuna and turkey breast, avoiding every last gram of saturated fat."

    He is still calling foul on the mainstream recommendations.

  14. Richard Nikoley on April 20, 2009 at 20:32

    Does Cordain, or doesn't Cordain advocate fruit omsumption year round?

    Scientific references, please.

    Richard Nikoley

  15. Joe Matasic on April 21, 2009 at 05:36

    I'm undecided as to whether primitives ate the whole animal or not. I'm guessing it happened both ways. Depending on whether they were in tribes and had to in order to have enough food, alone, time of year for scarcity of prey, the specific animal they killed. I remember in grade school had they taught us that American Indians used the whole animal. This would really be relatively recent in the evolutionary aspect and I just use as an example. Though I'm certainly of the opinion that saturated fat is good for you. I also fall in line with the idea the man hunted larger game to extinction and usually the larger the animal the more saturated fat. So even if you went along with Cordain's theory then before the largest animals were hunted to extinction then they would have had a higher saturated fat content then Cordain seems to admit to.

    Feel free to shoot some holes through that. Just what I've picked up from reading. Not a lot of research in there.

  16. Monica on April 21, 2009 at 12:46

    I think it really depends on whether they are careful chewers. I think wings might be OK. I think wings are too small for my dog (50 lb dog) unless they're attached to a breast. It's something that could get stuck.

    My basic rule — and that of most raw feeders, I think — is that the pieces should be super duper small for the size of the dog, or quite large so they are forced to chew. No in between sizes. For instance, a chicken quarter might be too small for a golden retriever that just wolfs food down. A chicken half might be more like it.

    I have no doubt EVO is great with its high meat protein content. I feed raw for two reasons: cost (it's actually very cheap) and tooth care. The third marginal reason is that I had a dog for years who was allergic to most foods but showed huge improvements on raw food. I think cooking can change the proteins' allergenic qualities in a very sensitive dog. And when I got my new dog, she had tons of skin problems. I guess the fourth marginal reason is that it's just so darn easy compared to cooking…. 🙂

  17. Patrik on April 21, 2009 at 13:45

    >>> I remember in grade school had they taught us that American Indians used the whole animal.<<<

    @Joe Matasic

    I remember them teaching us that as well. However, while I am sure they were very efficient in using and eating the buffalo, nowadays I suspect that was, at least partially, "Noble Savage" enviro-Gaia-Hollywood-propaganda.

    In college, I remember reading an article which stated that Native Americans would sometimes precipitate stampedes amongst the wild buffalo, they would then then "guide" the stampede….straight over the edge of a cliff or ravine. According to this article, they were able to slaughter hundreds of animals this way. Many of which they did NOT eat or process entirely. In fact, if I remember correctly they preferred to eat the liver, kidneys, the hump and the tongue above all.

    I just Googled this. It is called Buffalo Jumping, apparently.

  18. Richard Nikoley on April 21, 2009 at 08:16

    Hmm, that's an interesting take. I did see that he was saying that 15% is fine. Yea, I guess that's 50% more than 10%, which I hadn't considered. Well, I hope you're right and that he is beginning to see the light.

  19. Richard Nikoley on April 21, 2009 at 08:21

    Bears have their issues with risks, too — mainly territorial with dominant males and young males vying for dominance.

    At any rate, I don't buy it. Man has been successful primarily because of his willingness to take risks for high-value nutrition and succeeding far more than he failed — not cowering in the corner gnawing on gristle. That many probably perished in the effort is likely, and it only bolsters my case (and improved the gene pool along the way).

  20. Richard Nikoley on April 21, 2009 at 08:23

    I compromise with EVO products, part kibble that's minimally processed and bound with low heat, part the canned food. In addition, they get lard, coconut oil, and fish oil. The transformation in my 11-yr-old has been so profound that I'm convinced this is a decent compromise.

    Monica, what sort of bones would you suggest for 15 pound rat terriers?

  21. Richard Nikoley on April 21, 2009 at 08:47

    Chris, yes; while I have issues with Cordain and don't shy away from highlighting them, he's still a hero in my book. That said, I think it's important to call him to task and I have to assume that he gets wind of some of these disagreements and perhaps that will motivate him to look deeper, or at least to come up with something better than the anecdotally based claim that primitives consumed everything edible rather than preferring the fattiest portions.

  22. Keith Thomas on April 21, 2009 at 19:14

    Richard wrote: "how likely does it seem to you that primitive hunter-gatherers generally ate an entire animal…"

    I'm with Patrik and Richard on this one. One point that has not been mentioned so far is that it takes a lot of people to eat a bison. We cannot assume that the family/tribe/band came with an appetite that always matched carcass-size. I have never killed and butchered a cow, but my son did so recently – alone. He had to take two wheelbarrow loads of unwanted innards away and dump them. Without refrigeration, he would have had about three days to pick what he wanted off the carcass before the maggots beat him to it. In that scenario he would pick what to him were the choice cuts, and he would certainly never have used all the meat. (On this occasion he kept the hide.)

  23. Monica on April 21, 2009 at 17:11

    The hunting abilities and tactics of the native Americans with re: to buffalo are pretty fascinating. I have heard of the drive over the cliff as well. And there are other accounts claiming that before the natives got horses in the 1500s?, which made the hunting process much safer, they would surround a small group of buffalo in a circle (women included) and then men would race toward the middle and spear them.

  24. Diana Hsieh on April 21, 2009 at 17:54

    Just remember that "using the whole animal" is definitely not the same as "eating the whole animal."

    More generally…

    Cordain's basic method of estimating food consumption seems completely wrong to me. It's not merely highly speculative — and so prone to major errors. It also yields narrow results that don't match our knowledge of the variety of diets eaten by healthy primitive peoples.

    It is far better, I think, to investigate thriving primitive peoples, identify the range of food eaten by them, then compile that data to identify the even broader range that's compatible with natural human vitality.

    I've not yet read Weston A. Price's book, but I understand that was his basic method. A person is very likely to do fabulously well in his eating choices by using the knowledge gained by that means as a general guide, then experimenting in that range to see what works best for him as an individual.

  25. Richard Nikoley on April 21, 2009 at 20:07


    Good point. I have butchered and attended the butchering of many a mule deer in camp. And I've seen homegrown cows butchered.

    I doubt Cordain ever has.

    Richard Nikoley

  26. Patrik on April 22, 2009 at 13:53

    >>>I doubt Cordain ever has.<<<


    Your bring up a great point about so-called "scientists".

    Many "scientists" are so far removed from their subjects, they really shouldn't be pontificating on them.

    For instance, I remember reading papers that modeled hunting and gathering behavior of H-Gs and shaking my head at some of the base assumptions, such as prey and resources were randomly distributed across the plain/desert/jungle etc etc

    And that H-Gs were getting up and tramping around "randomly" in search of food.

    This may make the model easier to manipulate mathematically, but is so far removed from the truth that it isn't even funny.

    Nonsense. They knew which animals liked to be near lakes/rivers/brush at what time of day and under what conditions (windy, wet, dry).

    (For the record, I respect Cordain, but simply disagree with his sat fat stance.)

  27. Patrik on April 22, 2009 at 13:55

    BTW my comment is not referring to what Art's power law distribution hypothesis of animal/H-G frequency of movement.

    Which I believe make sense.

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