Paleo-hokum 3

“There’s a sucker born every minute.” — David Hannum, P.T. Barnum’s competitor at hoodwinking the public (1860)

JISHOU, HUNAN — Eat like a caveman! Lose weight! Be healthy! Science proves it!

The paleo-diet is the latest in a series of diet fads that seem to crop every decade or so. (Anyone remember the Atkins diet, the grapefruit diet, the protein diet, the low-carb diet?)

A few of my relatives and friends are trying the paleo-diet out. Since this amazing new diet plan has not yet made headlines in China, I had to go look it up.

My bullshit meter hit level 9.

mastodon coprolite

Actual mastodon shit

While the actual dietary recommendations of the paleo-diet are not so bad, the so-called “scientific basis” for the paleo-diet is mostly a crock of mastodon droppings. (See photo at right)

It’s a gimmick. It’s one of those ideas that at first glance seems almost plausible, but on deeper inspection is just hucksterism dressed up in a white labcoat.

So, I’m going to put on my science teacher hat and analyze the paleo-diet. I’m not saying you need to give it up, but you should at least understand a lot of it is hokum.

The basis of the paleo-diet

Beginning in the 1970s some researchers thought there was a connection between the diet of early humans and their health. They concluded that there was a correlation between the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago and so-called “diseases of affluence,” like cancer and heart disease. These writers proposed that humans were genetically predisposed toward eating as hunter-gatherers, and that humans were just not “designed” to eat agricultural products.

Their recommendations were to return to the paleolithic diet, since it was somehow healthier.

Specifically, the paleo-dieticians recommend the following:

  • Avoid dairy products, grains, legumes (like tofu, peas and beans – a source of protein for vegans and vegetarians), refined sugar and processed foods. These are all based on agricultural products, which were supposedly unavailable to Stone Age folks.
  • Eat fresh meat, especially from grass-fed and free-range animals, fish and seafood, fresh fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and nut- and seed-based oils. Supposedly, hunter-gatherers lived on a diet that was 19-35% animal protein, supplemented with wild plant foods.

In studying the remains of paleolithic people, the researchers noticed little or no signs of obesity, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, or other maladies many modern people suffer from now. They concluded the paleo-diet was the explanation.

I have a simpler explanation, and it doesn’t take a PhD to figure it out.

If you want to avoid getting those illnesses, imitate the cavemen, move around a lot every day, and die before you’re 40. Better yet, before you’re 30.

Harsh advice, but paleolithic people were already dead before they had a chance to get “diseases of affluence.”

Hominid skeletons from 30,000 year ago

Paleo-diet boosters have this romanticized, unrealistic image of the lives of hunter-gathers. Theirs was not an idyllic time living off the land, in harmony with nature, carefree and happy. They were in constant peril of starving to death, being attacked and eaten by predators, or dying young from malnutrition, illness or intestinal parasites.

The real paleo-diet was a subsistence diet, requiring hours of hunting and searching for food, and frequent migration to follow game animals. A more true-to-life paleo-diet would lack sufficient nutrition to sustain most of us for more than a few days.

The modern paleo-diet is an artificial reconstruction of a diet that never existed.

There are several other problems with the “science” behind the modern paleo-diet. I’ll deal with each one in turn.

Genetics

Paleo-diet boosters say that the environment in which early hominids evolved shaped their (and therefore our) genetic structure to be most suited for a Stone Age diet. That’s stupid. It’s like saying we are genetically adapted to wear eyeglasses, because we have ears and a nose to hang the glasses on.

It would be much simpler to propose that, genetically speaking, hominids are omnivorous and can eat a wide variety of foods. They came to live as hunter-gatherers because they had no other choice. It’s not like Ogg the caveman could stop by Pizza Cave after spending the entire day tracking a herd of deer only to have a pride of sabre-tooth tigers get the deer first.

Genes are not destiny.

Dairy and other farm products

There is no evidence to suggest early humans were unable to eat cereal grains and dairy products. The fact that such foods were easily incorporated into the human diet thousands of years ago suggests we are genetically capable of eating many foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have available at the time.

Evolution is on-going. It did not suddenly come to a screeching halt once we mastered the art of agriculture. The human digestive system quickly adapted to cereal grains and dairy products. The relative abundance of food, a more settled and safer environment, and better nutrition also meant people could live longer — long enough to get diseases often associated with older people.

Besides, if it wasn’t for agriculture, none of us would be here now.

Western bias

You know, I live in China. Everyone eats rice, at almost every meal. If not rice, then they eat noodles made from wheat or rice or even sweet potatoes. Chinese people eat more vegetables and less meat than Americans, and significantly less sweets. As a people, they’re pretty healthy. But, the paleo-diet suggests the Chinese, and Asians generally, should all be diabetic lard-balls ready to keel over from a heart attack at any minute.

Of course, there are fat Chinese people. They eat too much. Some are fat because they often eat at McDonalds and KFC. You can draw your own conclusions.

Not that original

In essence, the paleo-diet suggests we eat more fresh fruit and vegetables, leaner meat products, less sugar and less processed food. These are fairly common recommendations by dieticians, but they lack a sexy title like “paleo-diet.”

As for cutting out cereal grains, legumes and dairy products, the paleo-diet offers no convincing evidence these foods are bad for us. Vegetarians and vegans, in particular, could not survive on a paleo-diet, because it lacks the complementary proteins found in legumes and cereals. (For example, no tofu with rice, no red beans and rice, no bean burritos.) Or, to put it another way, there were no vegetarian cavemen or women.

to hell with it

Cartoon by Carl Rose, The New Yorker ©1928

It’s all fake

After watching the TED talk video I cite below, I realized another flaw in the modern paleo-diet. Most, if not all the foods it recommends we eat did not exist before the advent of agriculture. Ogg the caveman could not hit Pizza Cave on the way home. He also could not find bananas, broccoli, tomatoes, navel oranges, brussel sprouts, and many other fruits and vegetables, because they never existed in the wild. They are all products of human intervention.

For that matter, Ogg could also not benefit from domesticated chickens, geese, ducks or turkeys, and their eggs, or cattle, or pigs. These are all products of agricultural civilizations.

Nor did he and his wife Igga have time to fry up an omelet before heading out for a busy day hunting game and picking berries. They didn’t cook much back then, other than roasting meat over an open fire.

Sorry to burst your bubble

If you’re on the paleo-diet because you think it will work for you, by all means give it a go. But don’t be a slave to it, because you think it’s got all this scientific mumbo-jumbo behind it. Most of it is pure conjecture, which is what we science types politely call bullshit.

Sources:

This TED talk by Harvard archaeologist Christina Warriner is a good introduction to the fallacies of the paleo-diet.

I also used this article in Scientific American, and a shorter one at an Australian blog.

Scientific American: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half Baked
The Sceptical Nutritionist: Debunking the Paleo Diet

For details about the paleo-diet, I referred to Wikipedia and these two sites:

PaleoDiet.com – The Paleolithic Diet Nutrition Page

Website of Loren Cordain, Ph.D., probably the biggest name in Paleo-diet land now.

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3 thoughts on “Paleo-hokum

  1. Reply James Timothy Richardson Jan 12,2014 1:36 pm

    Good post. All “diets” are false. Its simple, just eat less calories than you need, and you’ll lose weight. You don’t even have to exercise. But if you do, you can have a few more calories.

  2. Reply John Wheaton Jan 12,2014 5:41 pm

    The woman who gave that talk had some good advice. We should eat as many different kinds of food as we can. Americans mostly eat foods made from corn, wheat and sugar, and a lot of beef. In other words, our diet is not so diverse. More fruit, more veggies, less fat, less sugar. And more activity. Also, the portions we are served in most restaurants could really feed two people, but we tend to eat all up, because we don’t want to waste food.

  3. Reply James Timothy Richardson Jan 12,2014 11:12 pm

    When we go to a sit down restaurant, the portions are pretty large. I know this odd, but most times I just order a burger and fries. The variety in ones diet is very important. Junk carbohydrates are our worst enemy. We just weren’t designed to eat all that sugar.

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