Why the paleo diet isn’t really paleo

steak on the grill

CC BY 2.0 Mike

Forget bison steaks, almond butter, and coconut oil. Our ancestors were probably foraging vegetarians who didn’t turn down the occasional lizard or wildebeest carcass when it was available.

I have a beef with the Paleo diet. Not only is it unsustainable from an environmental perspective (for being so meat-centric and reliant on imported tropical ingredients), but I also dislike how inaccurate the modern interpretation of what our Paleolithic ancestors ate actually is.

I’ve heard the counterarguments: “This is a Paleo-inspired diet! It’s more about eliminating processed foods from the diet than eating like an actual caveman.” Call it semantics if you will, but maybe the diet needs a new name. The real thing was nothing like the modern interpretations, particularly when it comes to the quantity of meat consumed.

First of all, our Paleolithic ancestors were very flexible.

This is a funny one, because there’s nothing quite so inflexible as a dedicated Paleo eater! My dinner party club pretty much died when several members became Paleo, others went vegan. “But that’s not Paleo!!” you’ll hear people shriek.

And yet, researchers Ken Sayers and C. Owen Lovejoy, who study primate and human evolution and anthropology respectively, point out that humans’ evolutionary success is due in large part to their dietary flexibility, even if it means eating insects, half-decomposed wildebeest carcasses, possibly human flesh (according to John Durant, author of The Paleo Manifesto), and – gasp – white rice! Sayers writes:

“Hominids didn’t spread first across Africa, and then the entire globe, by utilizing just one foraging strategy or sticking to a precise mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. We did it by being ever so flexible, both socially and ecologically, and always searching for the greener grass (metaphorically) or riper fruit (literally).”

Secondly, our Paleolithic ancestors were probably mostly vegetarian.

Rob Dunn argues in Scientific American that, based on the fact that our human guts (alimentary canals) most closely resemble those of chimpanzees and orangutans, and are “strikingly, elegantly, obviously ordinary,” our human ancestors were probably nearly all vegetarians.

“What do other living primates, the ones with guts mostly like ours, eat? The diets of nearly all monkeys and apes (except the leaf-eaters) are composed of fruits, nuts, leaves, insects, and sometimes the odd snack of a bird or a lizard. Meat is a rare treat, if eaten at all. The job of a generalist primate gut is primarily to eat pieces of plants.”

We have not all evolved to eat a meat-centric diet because we are best designed to eat what our ancestors ate – and not all our ancestors had the same diet and lifestyle, depending on where they came from. Adaptations continually occur depending on where and when people live; it’s silly to assume human digestive evolution stopped as soon as the agricultural revolution began 10,000 years ago.

“The notion that there was a time of perfect adaptation, from which we’ve now deviated, is a caricature of the way evolution works,” Marlene Zuk, a biologist and author of Paleofantasy, writes for the New York Times. “Evolution isn’t the creaky old process we used to think it was. Increasingly, scientists are discovering that the rate of evolution can be fast (sometimes blindingly so) or slow, or anything in between.”

Third, our Paleolithic ancestors were likely fairly unsuccessful hunters.

It’s a romanticized fallacy to think that lean, fleet, proud early hunters managed to catch rabbits for the stewpot on a nightly basis. National Geographic addresses this in “The Evolution of Diet” (September 2014), explaining that “man the hunter” is backed up by “woman the forager” in every hunter-gatherer tribe, even today in rural parts of the world.

“There’s been a consistent story about hunting defining us and that meat made us human. Frankly, I think that misses half the story. [Hunter-gatherers] want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods,” says paleobiologist Amanda Henry.

The Paleo crowd did get at least one thing right, and that is their rejection of processed foods and refined carbs. I believe the best diet is one that is comprised of whole, real foods, sourced locally and seasonally, and it doesn’t need to be excessively high in animal protein or devoid of all grains to do so.

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