A lot has been said about the paleo and its related diets (aka ancestral, primal, etc.), in general, in the popular media. Some of it has been responsible and accurate. Much of it, particularly those reporting on Marlene Zuk’s book Paleofantasy, has not. Those in the latter category have often taken the form of hasty, uninformed critiques that appear to be little more than thinly veiled attempts to cash in on the popularity of the ancestral health movement. Put “paleo” in the title and the web traffic will follow, in other words.
While these cautionary voices seem to have had little effect on the ancestral health movement’s popularity, which continues to grow, they have succeeded in creating some confusion about what the ancestral health movement is and is not — even perhaps amongst some of its proponents. The default tactic in the paleo misinformation campaign has not been to address its central premise, which is the application of evolutionary biology to inform our understanding of health and nutrition, but rather to concoct some cartoonified version of the paleo diet — often replete with imagery of club-wielding cavemen and muscleheads gnawing on turkey legs — to attack instead. As a result, after reading these “critiques”, most in the ancestral community come away bewildered, wondering “who on earth are they talking to??”
It’s analogous to people claiming that the smallpox vaccine doesn’t work by arguing that it doesn’t prevent pancreatic cancer. Seems a little disingenuous, right?
Surprisingly, the slander quotient seems directly correlated to the size of the news outlet. It’s possible that it’s also directly correlated to the amount of advertising revenue said news outlet receives from the makers of snack cakes and low fat frozen dinners, but I’ve yet to crunch those numbers.
So what’s a person to do in the face of such underhanded shenanigans? Do you just kindly restate the argument you’ve been giving, even though your critics didn’t seem particularly concerned about its actual substance the first time around? Or do you simply beat them at their game of straw man construction, resigning yourself to that fact that, in the internet age, the truth is sooo last century?
Not surprisingly perhaps, those of us in the world of ancestral health are a little old fashioned, naively clinging to the belief that the truth still matters to some folks. Other notable ancestral health proponents like Paul Jaminet, Mark Sisson, and Robb Wolf have provided some excellent defenses of their own. In order to fortify readers of this blog and the book against these opportunistic slanderifications and stifle their cyberproliferation, I too feel an obligation set things straight.
Myth: The paleo diet is about trying to eat like a caveman.
Truth: The paleo diet is about avoiding evolutionarily novel foods that are linked to disease, favoring the nutrient dense, low toxin foods that are not.
Explanation: This particular argument goes something like this: “today’s world is different than the world of the cavemen. The animals and plants we eat have changed thanks to farming and domestication. Ergo, trying to eat like a caveman is a pipe dream, a fantasy. Take that, paleo diet!”
Truth is, we’re well aware that the mammoths and mastodons are gone. Alas, our meat loving ancestors hunted them and several other large animals to extinction. So, yes, it is technically impossible to eat exactly like a caveman. And if this was a mandate of the ancestral approach, then that would be wrong. As it turns out, it isn’t. Even Loren Cordain’s original book states this concept plainly: “With readily available modern foods, the Paleo Diet mimics the types of foods every single person on the planet ate prior to the Agricultural Revolution.” The key words here are “modern”, which acknowledges that our food today is different, and “mimics”, which acknowledges that our food has changed some since we started farming.
The primary objective of those who adopt this way of eating is not to eat precisely like a paleolithic human, but rather to avoid foods that have been introduced in the neolithic, particularly those that have plausible biological mechanisms by which they lead to disease. Wheat, for example, was not consumed by our paleolithic ancestors. It is an evolutionarily novel substance to the human digestive tract, and one which has clear mechanisms linking it to the diseases we know are ones of modernity. On the other hand, though a wooly mammoth is not a cow, both animals are largely built from the same raw materials, and I imagine our small intestine would have a hard time telling the difference between the two.
Myth: Paleo advocates say that we’ve “stopped evolving.”
Explanation: So the criticism typically takes this form: “Those poorly informed paleo nuts think that human evolution stopped after the paleolithic era. Yet, there’s clear evidence of genetic adaptations that have occurred in the neolithic. Therefore, the paleo approach is wrong and neolithic foods are fine. I bet we’ve even evolved a Twinkie gene by now. I think I’ll go have another.”
This one is particularly baffling. Take a look at this review paper on Western diets and diseases of civilization, for example. In it, no fewer than 14 studies are referenced on the very subject of genetic adaptations to agriculturally based dietary pressures.
The truth, for those who take the time to look, is that understanding one’s ancestral lineage and the particular neolithic adaptations it may confer has been a subject of great interest in the ancestral health community. Hardly proof that we all believe that evolution stopped when the paleolithic ended. Once again, the paleo critics have either completely misunderstood the point of all this, or deliberately mischaracterized it to make it an easy target.
But let’s not get carried away here. Simply saying that evolution continues doesn’t mean we can eat anything we want with impunity. The roughly 300 generations that have passed since humans adopted agriculture is a blip on an evolutionary scale, and certainly nowhere near the time needed to reach genetic equilibrium with a radically altered environment. And it also doesn’t magically render irrelevant the adaptations that took place in the 160,000 some odd hominid generations before agriculture. No matter how much bamboo I stuff my face with, I’ll never be able to digest it, because I don’t have the evolutionary history of a panda bear.
Here’s another way to frame this critique that highlights its absurdity:
“The paleo approach is wrong because it ignores the health implications of our evolutionary history since the paleolithic, thus one’s evolutionary history does not have health implications.”
Myth: Paleo enthusiasts romanticize the paleolithic era.
Truth: We don’t. Though even if we did, this would be a really bad argument.
Explanation: I love my iphone. A world without Star Wars is the stuff of nightmares. And don’t even get me started on Spotify. Make no mistake, I’m glad I was born in 1975 and not 134,900 B.C. It’s an amazing time to be a human being.
In this particular mischaracterization, paleo enthusiasts are said to believe that life was better for humans in the paleolithic, therefore humans today should eat like cavemen. So all you have to do if you’re a paleo critic is show that life wasn’t better in the paleolithic, and you’ve eviscerated the paleo argument in a dazzling rhetorical fluorish. Ta da!
Again, the problem, once again, is that this isn’t some universally held, foundational belief upon which ancestral health rests. More importantly, it has no bearing whatsoever on the merits of the paleo approach. Regardless of whether your average paleolithic human’s life was joyous and fulfilling or nasty and brutish is immaterial to whether they were afflicted by diet-induced diseases.
What the ancestral health view does say, rather, is that human biology was shaped for the vast majority of our evolutionary history in the paleolithic era. As such, most of our body’s adaptations were in response to selection pressures we faced during that time. This would mean that foods we consumed throughout the paleolithic are more likely to lead to higher levels of biological fitness than foods that we’ve added to the human diet since that time. To put another way, foods introduced in the neolithic deserve much greater scrutiny for their impact on our health, given that they’ve only been around for a small part of our evolutionary history. So when we’re looking for the causes of diseases of civilization, they should naturally be our first suspects.
Something we’ve been eating for 2 million years is much less likely to be disease causing (and even more unlikely to affect reproductive fitness) than those introduced since the industrial revolution. This shouldn’t be a controversial notion to any biologist.
Myth: Hunter gatherers/paleolithic humans don’t acquire diseases of civilization because they don’t live long enough to get them.
Truth: Several lines of evidence reveal this to be false.
Explanation: First, the archaeological record clearly demonstrates a decline in human health with the advent of agriculture. Skeletal remains in the early neolithic reveal evidence of anemia, bone demineralization, cavities, and other signs of poor health and nutrition. After we started farming wheat, our bones shrank, we died earlier, and were sicker while we were alive. There were other contributing factors, for sure, but poor nutrition was clearly one of them. It has only been in the very recent past that we’ve figured out how to live longer in spite of our inferior diets.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, direct evidence from modern day hunter gatherer populations proves this claim untrue. The prevalence rates of the diseases of civilizations in those eating traditional diets are significantly lower than the rates in modern age matched controls. What’s more, in cases where hunter gatherer populations have transitioned to modern lifestyles and diets, the diseases of civilization (diabetes, hypertension, gallstones, obesity, cancers, gout, stroke, heart disease, etc.) start to appear, usually a few decades after the nutritional transition occurs.
It’s evidence such as this that leads us to believe that, as Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman states in his book The Story of the Human Body: “a large percentage of the medical conditions that afflict human beings today are evolutionary mismatches because they are caused or aggravated by modern lifestyles that are out of sync with our bodies’ ancient biology.”
And, so, if most medical conditions today are mismatch diseases brought on by modern foods, what’s the glaringly obvious way to prevent them?
Myth: The paleo diet is pseudoscience.
Truth: While the paleo diet still largely exists outside the mainstream, it is firmly rooted in the soundest biological principle of all.
Explanation: It isn’t surprising that many folks are skeptical of things that exist outside of the mainstream health community. As the saying goes: “What do you call alternative medicine that has been proven? Medicine.” In other words, if an ancestral diet was scientifically sound, it would have already been accepted into the mainstream.
This is typically a reliable line of reasoning, as much of what exists outside the mainstream is either devoid of any scientific foundation or outright fraud. On the other hand, science and medicine are not stagnant endeavors, and change and progress are an essential part of the process. This means there will always be things that are not part of the mainstream today that will be part of it in the future.
Have some folks come to some absurd conclusions about health using an evolutionary perspective? Yes. Yet, if I were to incorrectly derive the formula for the area of circle, this doesn’t mean we should reject mathematics. That, as emphasized in this particular defense of the ancestral approach from the journal Evolutionary Psychology, would be throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.
Have some folks used the paleo diet’s popularity primarily as a vehicle to make some extra dough? Sure. These sorts of thing are bound to happen in every sphere of human activity, particularly when it becomes popular. But the ancestral movement has on the whole been quite good about policing itself.
Those who take the time to understand it will realize that the ancestral health movement is firmly rooted in evolutionary biology. It’s a movement that was started by scientists, is grounded in evolutionary theory, and further informed by insights gleaned from the fields of biochemistry, anthropology, and archaeology. And, as science should, it has changed over time in response to evidence – at a pace much faster than is typical, likely because it is unbound by competing institutional interests and incentives.
On the other hand, mainstream nutrition research is an unequivocal mess, and has floundered in large part precisely because, unlike the other biological disciplines, it has not used evolution as a guiding framework. What’s more, it has made a habit of extracting cause and effect relationships from observational population data, and has repeatedly failed to modify its ideas even in the face of scientific evidence that refutes them. That, without a doubt, is pseudoscience.
Myth: The paleo diet is about eating a lot of meat.
Truth: Meat, despite its reputation, is a nutrient-dense, low-toxin food. However, it is entirely possible to eat an evolutionarily appropriate diet without consuming animal products.
Explanation: It is certainly true that an evolutionary perspective on health will divorce one of the notion that meat is unhealthy. Yet, all this means is that meat is an evolutionarily appropriate food, and, particularly given how long our species has been consuming it, is very unlikely to be causally related to the diseases of civilization. Animal products are as nutrient dense and low toxin a food as there is.
And while it is true that it’s much easier to get adequate dietary protein and essential fats and amino acids if you’re incorporating animal products into your diet, it is still entirely possible to avoid evolutionarily novel foods and not eat meat. For me, and for many other migraine sufferers, obtaining adequate protein from plant sources exclusively would necessitate eating migraine-inducing amounts of carbohydrate. Having a protein-dense, carbohydrate-free whole food (i.e. – meat) available is essential.
Whether or not one incorporates animal products into his or her diet is entirely a personal decision. Some folks are rightly concerned about the treatment of animals raised for human consumption, particularly in the factory farming system. I and many (perhaps most) other ancestral health proponents I know are as well, which is why we obtain our animal products from farms where they’re raised humanely. But I think telling people that meat is bad for them as way of cutting down their consumption of animal products is a dishonest approach.
It’s also worth noting that since I switched to an ancestral diet, I eat far MORE fruits and vegetables than I did previously. I suspect this is true of most other folks as well.
Myth: The paleo diet is one diet.
Truth: Humans are well adapted to a vast array of possible foods. One person’s version of the paleo diet may look completely different than another’s, yet both are equally healthful.
Explanation: Here’s another one that drives ancestral health proponents nuts. It goes like this: “There was no single paleolithic diet. Humans were living in all four corners of the earth during the paleolithic, and different civilizations ate very different things from each other.”
To which we say….precisely our point! We’re well adapted to eat a LOT of stuff, and in today’s world of the glorious supermarket we have an endless array of foods to choose from that are healthful. As such, there’s no reason that in the 21st Century we should be suffering en masse from diet related mismatch diseases.
Again, the goal here is not to eat like a caveman, it’s to place any foods humans didn’t eat prior to the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions under heightened scrutiny, especially since the we know that our modern diets and lifestyles are likely responsible for the vast majority of diseases humans now acquire.
The bottom line is this: the paleo approach to nutrition and health isn’t about living or eating like a caveman, nor is it about one single, rigid dietary protocol. It is simply about using evolutionary biology as a guiding framework for understanding what we should and should not put into our bodies. It just so happens that, when it comes to our diet and lifestyle, a lot changed when the paleolithic ended, and so it’s an obvious reference point for anyone interested in using evolutionary history to understand our health.
So, for those critics interested in crafting a credible challenge to this approach to understanding human health, I’m going to help out by giving you the the actual argument you must make. Here it is:
“Why Evolutionary Biology and Human Evolutionary History is Not Relevant to Our Understanding of What Human Beings Should Eat”