Today io9.com, a website I generally enjoy, had an almost entirely credulous and positive take on the “Paleolithic diet” by George Dvorsky. The Paleolithic Diet claims that the reason for modernity obesity and unhealthiness is, essentially, the agricultural revolution; that we evolved to eat like our hunter-gatherer forebears and our current diet is toxic because we didn’t evolve to eat it. The Paleo Diet shuns grains in almost any forms and encourages a lot of meat consumption along with generous portions of vegetables.
Well, look: it’s really important to maintain a healthy weight, and if the Paleo Diet is the vehicle to do that, hey, good for you. I am very happy if more people stop eating so many French Fries and refined sugars, and most people would definitely benefit from more vegetables in their diet. But like a lot of lifestyle changes, the Paleo Diet seems to activate the inner evangelist in a lot of people. And the kind of blanket arguments that this is the way to eat are just not credible. Plenty of people eat grains (and some sugars) and maintain a healthy weight. That’s because, by and large, they eat sensibly and in moderation, exercise regularly, and in general take care with the number of calories they consume and burn. Indeed, despite its claims to being a callback to an earlier age, the Paleo Diet seems to me to incorporate a lot of contemporary thinking, most of it unhealthy: extremism rather than moderation, black and white rules rather than questions of portions and frequency, and a general orientation towards gimmickry and quick fixes rather than gradual and contingent change.
The claim that eating like a caveman is the only way to eat healthily simply doesn’t seem to bear scrutiny. Often, people talking about this diet speak in a sloppy way about evolution, saying that evolution “intended” certain things, which is always problematic. Evolution privileges survivability, and it’s precisely for that reason that there was an advantage in our natural selection towards being able to consume as many different kinds of calories as possible. The agricultural revolution occurred some 10,000 years ago; the modern obesity epidemic is less than a hundred years old. And some of the healthiest diets in the world have a grain base. For example, on many metrics the Japanese are the healthiest people on earth. The staff of life in Japan is rice.
But here’s maybe a more important point: people on the Paleo Diet simply are not eating like paleolithic humans. Rational Wiki has the goods here, listing the type of foods paleolithic humans actually ate, which Paleo diet enthusiasts are unlikely to eat:
- Small game – really small game – like rats, mice and squirrels.
- Unpleasant plants, pre-selective breeding. Sour and bitter tastes existed in many plant foods before human interference. Although paleolithic man probably would avoid downright foul-tasting (and likely poisonous) food, the plants that they ate were hardly nice, friendly spinach or carrots. Many modern vegetables are more pleasant mutations of less pleasant or even poisonous plants such as the genuses solanum (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers) and prunus (almonds, peaches, apricots, plums, cherries). Safe varieties were likely discovered by just eating them and hoping it didn’t kill anybody. In addition, paleolithic people are known to have eaten woody stems, stripped bark, and pith: things suspiciously absent from the modern paleo diet that probably contributed to the extreme wear and tear on their teeth observed in fossil individuals.
- Organ meat – a critical part of paleolithic man’s diet. Does the average paleo dieter eat brains, tongues, stomach, eyes, liver, or kidneys? All of these brought important nutrition to our “healthy” ancestors that doesn’t exist in white meat and cuts of grazing beef.
- Insects, especially grubs and large beetles, including roaches.
- Lizards, newts, frogs, turtles and anything else that had meat on its bones.
- Grains and other starches such as sorghum, wild corn (in both North and South American), potatoes (South America), and a large variety of seeds. Evidence for consumption of legumes such as wild lentils has also been found, along with stone tools associated with processing them.
The point about the vegetables has to be stressed: the veggies people on the Paleo diet are eating are nothing like those eaten by actual paleolithic humans. Vegetables have been through, in many cases, millennia of selective breeding and agricultural manipulation. The veggies eaten by Paleo enthusiasts, even those that emerge from local organic farms, simply are not like those eaten by cavemen. Neither are the meats, again, even if they’re coming from organic farms; cows, chickens, and pigs have been selectively bred for centuries upon centuries, and the taste and nutritious value of their meat simply isn’t the same as that which we once hunted for.
Again, let me stress: if you’re on the Paleo diet, and it’s working for you, I’m not out to knock it. I’m just saying that the all-or-nothing thinking a lot of people associate with the diet isn’t helpful, and frankly I think the way the diet is justified is founded on a lot of junk anthropology. There are some people who cannot get thin and healthy no matter what their diet is, thanks to genetic predispositions, and those people often require surgical intervention. There are some people who can eat whatever they want and stay healthy. For the rest of us, there are many different possible healthy diets, a lot of individual choices, a commitment to being healthier, and hard work. A little couscous isn’t going to kill you, and eating more bacon isn’t going to solve your health problems. Ultimately there’s just being sensible and making the best choices you can.