As the New Year gradually wanes, so are many diets. One diet that refuses to die is the Paleolithic or “Paleo” diet. Indeed, in 2013, the term paleo had more hits on Google’s search engine than any other diet. Yet one would be hard pressed to find a doctor that actually recommends consuming large quantities of saturated fat; and on the off-chance that one does find such a doctor, find another doctor. So why do so many Americans embrace a diet that, scientifically speaking, is a myth?
For those unfamiliar with the diet, the term paleo is derived from the Paleolithic era humans inhabited roughly 2.6 million years ago prior to the Agricultural revolution. A host of food related illnesses began to plague humans—from diabetes to heart disease—with the rise of industrial agriculture. Therefore, the reasoning behind the paleo diet is that we ought to revert back to foods our ancestors likely ate. These diets consist mostly of protein and the avoidance of grains. In addition, paleo dieters abstain from drinking milk, since humans were reared to only consume milk at a young age. In short, the basic maxim behind the paleo diet is that if the food is new, then it is bad; and if the food is old, then it is good.
There are a variety of reasons that the paleo diet fails. One issue concerns the term health itself. Although we all have an intuitive grasp of what it means to be healthy, the concept quickly becomes ambiguous upon further reflection. The term health encompasses biological, mental, social and even economic well-being. The problem with so many diets is that they leave the output parameter of the diet undefined. Is the diet intended boost energy levels, build muscle or decrease total body fat?
In addition, the paleo diet fails to grasp the basic concepts of evolution. In particular, just because our ancestors may have consumed a particular food does not mean it was healthy. Natural selection is concerned with maximizing gene reproduction rather than health. Therefore, if a particular diet is efficacious for gene reproduction and is a ticking time bomb for a malady set to detonate in the winter years of life, then that diet will still be seized by natural selection. For example, our palates are tuned to seize upon sweets but that does not mean sweets are healthy. Thus, whatever our ancestors may have consumed, it was not consumed because it was necessarily healthy.
Perhaps the biggest flaw with the paleo diet is that there was no transparent diet that our ancestors shared. Humans that occupied the paleolithic era were distributed throughout time and place. The environment our ancestors inhabited varied from the rainforest all the way to the Arctic. Therefore, whatever one particular group of savages consumed was not the same as another group of savages. If paleo dieters really want to revert back to a diet our ancestors likely consumed, they would best be directed to look at the diet of our closest living ancestors: the great apes, gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans. These diets consist mostly of nuts, fruits, vegetables and the occasional lizard.
The original intent of the paleo diet to ground a diet that is consistent with human nature can be appreciated. Unfortunately, once the facts are checked and arguments are probed, the reasoning behind the paleo diet quickly falls apart. In short: don’t swallow the paleo diet.
By Nathan Cranford