I hadn’t intended to return to the subject of the paleo diet, but in a moment of synchronicity, just as I was rolling my eyes I stumbled across an article entitled “Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh over ‘Paleo Diet’.”
I am not one to ignore a synchronicity, so I’m revisiting the topic.
(Previously, like palaeoethnobotanist Dr. Britta Hoyes, quoted in the article, I concluded: “Look, the diet itself is sound; it’s the philosophy that’s bullshit. Eat what you want. Just leave the damn cavemen out of it.” I now have to slightly revise my stance. If you want to see why, keep reading.)
“Archaeologists Officially Declare…” is a rundown of the results of a two-day conference in Frankfurt where archaeologists got together to discuss the silliness that is the paleo diet, pointing out some major flaws in the philosophy, which I summarize below:
- There is no such thing as the paleo diet. Humans have had thousands of kinds of healthy diets. “You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it.” (Hoyes)
- Indeed, palaeolithic people ate anything they could get their hands on: “You really want to be paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need.” (Hoyes)
- Besides, you really can’t even access the species that palaeolithic people ate. Almost everything available now–besides totally wild species like chipmunks and birch trees–has been modified by agriculturalists. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500.” (Dr. Karl Fenst)
- What was good for humans in terms of natural selection was determined by reproductive success, not individual health. Individual health is not the same thing as evolutionary fitness. For one thing, “fitness,” in biological terms, is not a property that describes an individual, but rather an allele (a variant of a gene–for example, sticky earwax is one variant of a gene that makes earwax). Every individual is a mess of both fit and unfit alleles. And anyway, fitness isn’t about living a long life, it’s about not-getting-dead just long enough to make babies. In terms of reproductive success, what is best for humans is what makes them have the most babies–and that happens to be agriculture. “As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” (Dr. Richard Wenkel). You’ll notice the earth was not massively overpopulated before farming.
- This wasn’t mentioned in the article but in my opinion, the most imporant take-away message is that anything preaching “evolutionary correctness” should be avoided at all costs because the “correct” methods were usually made up by someone who wasn’t paying attention in their Anthropology 101 class. If someone says men are evolved to be cheaters, or women to be vain or have poor abstract thinking skills, or that humans can eat kale but not beans–call BS immediately. Such maxims are always oversimplifications, reductive, and are usually being used to justify bigotry or some other behavior that is frowned upon (maybe for good reason). When I say someone wasn’t paying attention in class I mean that they got only the most superficial, simplistic understanding of key points and failed to get any of the context or nuance.
Now I want to revise what I said about the paleo diet probably being healthy enough if you can afford it and are so inclined. I do realize there are many variants on the paleo diet theme, and I don’t even know all of them, so understand that I’m referring to the general principles. That is, that the diet should consist of meat, fresh fruit and veg, some nuts, and should not include (or include very few) grains, legumes, or dairy products.
Humans, across time and space, have eaten and will continue to eat pretty much anything we can stuff into our faces, and we haven’t died out yet. If we do make ourselves extinct, it doesn’t look like it’s going to be our diets that kill us as a species. So is the paleo diet, as Dr. Hoyes said, “sound”? In a sense it’s true–eat paleo or don’t, whatever. Even if you connect yourself 24/7 to a saturated fat IV you will probably live long enough to reproduce…although the IV pole and tube, the meat sweats, and probable failure to conform to current standards of beauty might get in the way of your sexy times.
It has been my experience–and I’m not claiming to be a dietician, nutritionist, food scientist, or even a thin person, but I am a person who eats food and is in pretty good health–that prescribing certain foods is more effective than proscribing them. That is, try thinking of what foods you need and must eat, and then make sure you do so, rather than thinking in terms of what foods are prohibited and trying to avoid them. First, it’s easier and, I dare say, more psychologically fulfilling, to take specific, positive action in support of health than to feel like you are either depriving yourself, or attempting to halt the decline of health. Second, if you are filling up on something healthful you’ll obviously have less room for the unhealthful stuff. For example, every day you could decide you must eat one serving of something fermented, six servings of vegetables, an ounce of chocolate, a tomato, a glass of wine, a naturally blue or purple food–or whatever. Your food prescription would depend on your individual needs. And that’s why you’ll never see this in a bestselling diet book–because there is no one size fits all. (Plus I don’t think anyone will pay me for The Trial-and-Error Diet!) For me, soy is not a good idea–for you, it might be awesome. To give yourself a shortcut through the process, think about what has worked or not worked for your family. My family has problems with blood sugar. We’re mostly hypoglycemic (and chronically depressed), and in the past some relatives drank alcohol to feel normal and ended up becoming big-time alcoholics. A couple became diabetic in later years. So I already know sugar and alcohol are going to be an issue for me. (By the way, I have found iris flower essence to be a huge help in preventing blood sugar crashes and helping normalize my blood sugar all day. But Matthew Wood says it only works that way for hypoglycemia, not diabetes.) Treat food the way you would treat herbal medicine, in other words.
I’ve noticed that people get just as insane about dietary orthodoxy as they do religious orthodoxy. For every person who swears by the GAPS, paleo, or Weston A. Price diets, you’ll find an equal number swearing those will kill you and only veganism, raw foods, or the USDA food pyramid is the way, the truth, and the light. There is much namecalling and accusations of chicanery, if not actual fraud, fly fast and furious. The very dogmatism about health scares me more than the alarmist claims that such-and-such will kill me. Unfortunately it means that we’re really on our own here. It’s all trial and error. This is even more the case when we rely on the internet for information, since it creates a false feeling of consensus, and some search engines (ahem, Google) and social media (Facebook) effectively censor what you’re exposed to by using algorithms to “optimize” performance (i.e., to give you more and more of the same).
I think ultimately we need to calm down and ask ourselves what “health” means to us as individuals and why we are fighting for it. Then it becomes much easier to decide how to go about it.