Palaeolithic (US Paleolithic)
- relating to or denoting the early phase of the Stone Age, lasting about 2.5 million years, when primitive stone implements were used.
I’m not going to pretend this isn’t going to be a biased post. It is. I made up my mind long ago about what I thought of the Paleo diet, based on its premises, its promises, the nature of its cult-like following, and its fairly consistent evaluation as one of the worst diets of the year in 2013. But I think I do owe people an explanation as to why I feel so strongly about all this – and it’s not just about the meat.
The Common Sense
The founder of the diet, Loren Cordain, may indeed have devoted a lot of his time at Colorado State University to his studies on the relevance of paleolithic diets to modern-day humans, but then he published a book – and later a series of books. Of course he wants to sell his book. He also has a website, to which you have to pay a membership fee for exclusive advice and support. I know this is an obvious point to make but always question anyone who is trying to sell you anything – that’s not to say their might not have a good product that you may benefit from, but never take their word for it. Especially not if they are encouraging you to take their word for it.
The founding principle of the paleo diet is that Stone Age hunter gatherers were not burdened by the chronic illnesses and diseases that Western populations currently battle with. But I would counter than a large part of the differences in health status could be accounted for by the fact that we are living longer. Older populations are often sicker populations – and of course I know that we are talking about an era in which our life expectancy may actually start to decrease for the first time in history, but we are talking about lives that are almost three times as long now as they were when we were just figuring out that fire was hot. (I was going to make a flippant statement about how our health statistics would look if we all started dying in our thirties, but I won’t.)
Of course I couldn’t agree more that we have adopted far too lazy a lifestyle, and we rely far too much on unnatural processed foods, and we desperately need to reconnect with our food sources and our body’s signals. But to say that we need to go back to the Stone Age to find health is to write off all the evolution that has happened in the last 20,000 or so years. We did not invent Special-K and start snacking on Danish pastries 20,000 years ago. So why are we shooting back past 20,000 years of evolution to find our ideal diet? Have we been going downhill all that time? What about Japan topping life expectancy and long-term health evaluation lists, with their rice-heavy diet? I’m pretty sure it’s not just because they drink green tea – which, incidentally, is allowed on the paleo diet. No comment (I’m dying to make several, actually, but I’m going to be dignified about this).
The Tunnel Vision
So assuming that aiming to whizz back through several tens of thousands of years of evolution is the only way to save our ailing populations, how do we know that diet is the key? How can we rule out the fact that our sedentary lifestyles are responsible for our demise? That perhaps pollution and other changes in the atmosphere may account for some chronic illness?
And if diet is the key to all this, then what about the early days of agriculture and domestication? I cannot find any evidence that pre-agriculture hunter-gatherers were significantly healthier than our later ancestors of several thousand years ago, who were out sowing and harvesting and thrashing wheat and other grains. I’m not saying the evidence doesn’t exist, but I would have thought it would feature quite highly on the list of things to mention when promoting the diet.
The Double Standards
My understanding is that the paleo diet is built on items that can be eaten in their natural state – which is why legumes and starchy vegetables like potatoes are out, but I don’t quite see why green beans, string beans, broad beans and peas are vetoed as they all grow above ground, with distinctive fruits or pods that can easily be removed from the plant, and can be eaten raw (broad beans are the least pleasant, but I have done it and lived to tell the tale).
You might be thinking that it has something to do with the availability of these plants, but having seen the remaining list of tolerated foods and recipes, I think you will agree that geography and climate were not factors in these decisions.
While apparently primitive humans did indeed eat eggs of various species from very early on, I would be highly surprised if Neanderthals were cracking open half a dozen eggs and grinding salt and pepper into their omelette muffins. I’d also be interested to know where they were getting hold of apple cider vinegar and anything from zucchini and onions to cayenne pepper and avocado in the same part of the world at the same time. While the Paleo Diet website lists several recipes containing various types of wine, most Paleo sites agree that alcohol of any kind is out, so I will turn a blind eye.
The Non Nonsense
Obviously, a high-five from me for recognising that dairy is totally unnatural and superfluous to our human needs.
And I even appreciate that all cuts of meat are encouraged – one of my big problems with the meat industry and modern animal consumption is how wasteful and hypocritical it is. If Paleo dieters are indeed eating tripe and brain and other organs, then great. Unfortunately most of what I see on the internet revolves around steak, lean turkey, and chicken breast, so I don’t think they’re part of the cure.
And of course, I can’t argue with the encouragement to eat a wide variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I just feel bad for the grains and starchy vegetables, who are really having a hard time of it with all these glossy paperback diets.
Most importantly, Mr. Paleo didn’t order his nutrition plan from Amazon, nor did he have a wealth of inventive recipes at his fingertips. So my main point (besides being not to trust anyone who wants to sell you anything), and one that I have made before, is that the healthiest diets are the ones that don’t tell you what to eat or what not to eat. They’re the ones which focus on quality of life, on fresh minimally processed produce, on seasonal and local foods, on listening to your body and eating what you feel you need, on moving your body regularly and vigorously, on spending time outdoors in the sun and sleeping enough.
I just can’t wait for the Medieval diet to come out. Although, with the press raving lately about how Western populations were healthier in wartime than they are today, maybe the World War II diet will be next…