Where did Paleo come from?
I loved watching ‘The Flintstones’ when I was a kid (showing my age, I know!). This cartoon, set in the stone-age, was a pioneering sitcom reflecting 1960’s suburban life in America, and poked fun at the vain, lazy, and self-absorbed Fred Flintstone; long before Homer Simpson existed.
But did I believe that ancient humans actually lived like that? Of course not!
It’s a natural human tendency to idealise or romanticise the past, especially when it’s so far back in the mists of time.
The ‘Paleo’ diet is a food fantasy cleverly marketed as dietary ‘cure-all’ harking back to a mythical stone-age past. It’s been around for quite a while, too, in some form or another.
In his 1975 book ‘The Stone Age Diet: Based on in-depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man’ Walter L. Voegtlin argued that that the ancestral human Paleolithic diet was that of a carnivore — chiefly (animal) fats and protein, with only small amounts of carbohydrates.
In 1988 S. Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostak and Melvin Konner published a book about Paleolithic nutrition. From the end of the 1990s, some medical doctors and nutritionists promoted a return to a so-called Paleolithic (pre-agricultural) diet.
In 2002, Dr Lauren Cordain, who holds a doctorate in physical education, published his bestselling book “The Paleo Diet” that summarized research on the subject and provided practical advice on “the diet you were designed to eat”.
So, was Fred Flintstone and his buddies really hairy-chested hunters of woolly mammoths? While it’s true that Fred worked at the Slate Rock & Gravel Company in the town of Bedrock, the short answer is ‘no’.
The Problem with Paleo
The Paleolithic period is the earliest period of human development, and lasted from 2.6 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago, across many continents, and during a wide range of climatic conditions (including a few ice ages). Apart from the huge variations in time, location and climate, there are several other anomalies with Paleo that were detailed in a Scientific American article:
- Put simply, true Paleo foods are not around anymore, and certainly not in your local supermarket. Almost every species commonly consumed today—whether a fruit, vegetable or animal—is vastly different from its Paleolithic predecessor. Animals and plants used for consumption have been genetically bred and modified to increase production and favour preferred features (such as bananas without seeds) to such an extent that it is now impossible to eat like a human from the Paleolithic period – short of taking a historical ride in a time machine!
- Contrary to Paleo proponents’ claims, Paleolithic humans did eat grains and legumes, and may have even cooked them. Recent research out of Italy shows that humans were eating grains well before modern agriculture. Marta Mariotti Lippi and her colleagues at the University of Florence found traces of oats on an ancient grinding tool in Southern Italy dating 32,000 years ago, about 20,000 years before farming was developed. Lippi says this isn’t the only instance of evidence pointing to ancient people eating starch. “In Central Italy they ate starch from cattail,” Lippi said. “In the Middle East, starch from wild wheat. In Russia and Moravia, they were eating starch, but we do not know which plants they processed.” And don’t forget, legumes and whole grains are excellent sources of fibre, protein, and other phyto-nutrients that form part of a healthy diet.
- Humans have evolved since 12,000 years ago, in contrast to Paleo lore, which teaches that our eating preferences are stuck in the stone-age. Genetic mutations, such as a tolerance for dairy in some populations, blue eyes, some people evolving extra copies of the amylase enzyme so they can more easily digest starches, have all occurred with the last 5,000 to 10,000 years. It is clear our bodies are easily capable of evolving fast enough in 12,000 years to accommodate new foods.
- Paleo diets can induce weight loss, but in an unhealthy way. Too much animal fat and animal protein can lead to a host of health problems. It is also ethically problematic. According to vegan dietitian Amanda Benham;
“Any diet [such as Paleo] that requires animals to be slaughtered, exploited or kept in captivity has something seriously wrong with it from an ethical viewpoint. Also I don’t recommend them on health grounds. They encourage unhealthy eating patterns such as high consumption of animal products (such as meat and eggs), which are loaded with saturated fats and cholesterol and devoid of fibre and other beneficial plant components. In the long run they unsustainable and any weight lost is readily regained.
“Another problem with diets high in animal products is that they have a much larger environmental footprint than plant-based diets. Producing food from animals requires a much greater use of resources such as land, water and fossil fuels than producing food from plants. It is also a waste of food itself to get our calories and protein from animal products, as many more times the amount of protein and calories from plants must be fed to animals than is actually produced. Also, raising cattle and other ruminants for meat and/or milk production is a major contributor to global warming via methane gas production.”
Our true Paleo history
In a Scientific American article Rob Dunn, science writer and biologist in the Department of Biology at North Carolina State University, argues that when taken too literally such diets are ridiculous.
One problem is deciding which group of ancestors to take our dietary advice from. Are the stone-age diet gurus Neanderthals, Homo Erectus or the Flintstone Family (Brontosaurus ribs anyone)? If we look at our closest ape relatives, chimpanzees, the answer to our dietary past is clear – it was mostly vegetarian. Chimpanzees do sometimes kill and devour a smaller animal like a monkey. However the proportion of the diet of the average chimpanzee composed of meat is small, less than 3% by mass. As Rob Dunn notes:
“The majority of the food consumed by primates today–and every indication is for the last thirty million years–is vegetable, not animal. Plants are what our apey and even earlier ancestors ate; they were our paleo diet for most of the last thirty million years during which our bodies, and our guts in particular, were evolving.”
So, to return a healthy, halcyon ancient diet regime Rob Dunn has more advice:
“If you want to return to your ancestral diet, … you might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts, fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves.”
Hmmm – perhaps we’ll leave the fungus-covered leaves out of our green salad for now…
Rather than dwell too much on what our ancient ancestors ate, the key question is, what is the healthiest option right now, today? Whether you eat meat or meat alternatives, it is clear from mainstream nutrition advice that most of our diet should consist of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts and complex carbohydrates (whole grains).