January 24, 2010Posted by on
For many people the new year represents an occasion to set the clock back to zero and make a fresh start. We invariably eat too much during the festive season, only later to feel remorse for our gluttonous ways. With the new year comes the renewed goal of losing some of the extra padding. There are no end of miraculous sounding diets which promise to convert fat to flat. Among the various in vogue diets is the so-called Paleo diet (short for Paleolithic diet), also known as the caveman diet. The central premise behind the Paleo diet is that many human adaptations evolved during the Palaeolithic, and as such, we are maladapted to the modern world in which we find ourselves.
The premises of the Paleo diet raise some interesting questions that are well worth exploring. For instance, are we really better adapted to the Palaeolithic than the modern era and which aspects of the Palaeolithic does the Paleo diet reference? Many proponents ask the question “who ever heard of a fat caveman?”, as if the answer is somehow inferred. While it is seems be the case that the average Palaeolithic human had a brawnier body than the average modern human, we should not confuse correlation with causation. A better question to ask is whether the “caveman” physique is due solely to diet or are there other factors at play?
While certain human adaptations undoubtedly arose during the Palaeolithic, these are likely to be no more or less important than the adaptations of preceding and subsequent periods in our evolutionary history. Most of our genes evolved a long time before our ancestors were recognisable as primates, never mind humans. Moreover, humans continue to adapt to their diet today. Lactose tolerance is a good example of a trait that arose in many populations of humans after the Palaeolithic. Evolution exists on a continuum; it didn’t start and end sometime during the Palaeolithic.
The Palaeolithic covers a period of around 2.5 million years, as well as an immense geographic range. Moreover, many species of humans lived in very diverse environments during this time. Proponents of the Paleo diet rarely specify what period and indeed which populations or species they use as their model. Food procurement methods changed dramatically over this time period. Over the course of the Palaeolithic, humans shifted from mostly scavenging their meat to systematic hunting. Even among modern hunter-gatherers there is great dietary variation. For instance, the diets of Inuits and Aboriginal Australians couldn’t be more different. Another consideration is that humans have been selectively breeding plants and animals over many millennia. Many of the domesticated varieties we see today are unrecognisable from their wild ancestors. As such, while the Paleo diet recommends greater reliance on meats and non-cultivated plants, it should be kept in mind that these probably bear little resemblance to the wild species our ancestors ate.
The limb bones of the early Upper Palaeolithic Gravettian people are not only large but also have massive muscle attachments. Early humans were physically fit not only because of their diet but in large part due to their high mobility. Hunting and foraging expeditions would have required these groups to cover large distances. Demographic pressures impinging on these small bands of humans would also have further encouraged greater mobility.
It is not disputed that the diet of early hunter-gatherers was much more varied than that of their agricultural counterparts. Early agriculturalists often had an over reliance on few food types, leading to various nutritional deficiencies and generally poorer health. However, there is little reason why this should be the case today. Our shops and markets are packed with varieties of food that our ancestors would be only able to dream off.
Many of the recommendations of the Paleo diet are sensible, such as eating less processed foods, decreasing our sugar intake and increasing our dietary fibre. In this regard, the Paleo diet is on par with most governmental dietary recommendations. Why the need to dress it up in some romanticised account of how our ancestors ate? I will concede that versions of the Paleo diet are probably healthier than the diets most of us adhere to. However, the reasoning behind it is based on an immutable view of human prehistory, coupled with some poor evolutionary thinking.
Above photo modified from original by Lord Jim under creative commons license.