Fact or Fiction?
The Paleo Diet is the Way Humans are Suppose to Eat
The “Paleolithic Diet”, or “Paleo Diet” for short, is a dietary fad that has gained rather significant popularity over the last few years, mostly due to promotion by several high-profile celebrities (such as Megan Fox and Miley Cyrus). Like vegetarianism and veganism, The paleo diet restricts or prohibits access to certain kinds of foods while emphasizing others. However, unlike veganism and vegetarianism, the paleo diet doesn’t base its method of consumption on reasons of ethics or food security, but on a supposedly scientific basis.
In essence, the paleo diet restricts the consumption all kinds of foods that were not available before the beginnings of mass agriculture- this means all grains (breads, pastas, rice), beans, soy, refined sugar, and dairy products. Meanwhile, foods that were supposedly abundant to humans before the agricultural revolution are encouraged. Most fruits and vegetables are eaten, as is meat, both red and otherwise.
Proponents of the paleo diet claim their reasons to be wholly scientific, and based on ideas of how humans evolved. According to paleo dieters, humans evolved to match the availability of food in natural world as it existed before mass agriculture – animal meats, naturally occurring fruits and vegetables- and that the introduction of grains, dairy, and refined sugar has changed the human diet faster than humans themselves have been able to evolve. This idea is based on the idea that the human genome has changed relatively little over the past 10,000 years, but during that time there has been a tremendous change in diet of the average human. According to paleo dieters, this rapid change is responsible for today’s problems with obesity and heart disease, as humans have become “un-synced” with the diet we evolved to consume.
But is this paleo diet really healthier for humans? Well, the answer is both yes and no. First, the positive: by the nature of the food they eat, paleo dieters consume far less processed foods, such as white bread, sugary cereals, packaged meat and potato chips, which have been proven to increase the risk of health problems. In this way, paleo dieters are making themselves healthier, and reducing their risks for heart disease and obesity.
Unfortunately, the paleo diet’s scientific claims don’t exactly match up with what we know scientifically about paleolithic people and their diet.
First – there was never really a time when humans were completely “in-sync” with their environment. Just as human evolution is never static, so too is the state of the world around us. The environment species live in and consume from is constantly changing, and species must always adapt to keep up with this change, less they go extinct. In fact, studies have shown that this was the case for Paleolithic humans, who were always forced to change their diet to keep up with the ever-changing natural world. This is the basis of the agricultural revolution – it gave humans sources of food that they could control and that wasn’t necessarily dictated by the whims of the environment.
Second – It is very difficult to state that there is single diet that pre-agricultural humans followed. Food availability differed depending on where people lived in the world, and many of those foods have since got extinct or otherwise changed over the year. For example, modern wheat and rice are not naturally occurring species, and are actually the result of a long running experiment in artificial selection carried out by humans over the past 10,000 or so years.
Third, humans are evolving, even though our genome may not have changed much over the past few thousand years. One example comes from one of the foods paleo dieters shun: dairy. While it is true that Paleolithic man didn’t possess the ability to consume milk past infanthood, as humans began raising livestock, the mutation that allowed for lactose tolerance became more and more evolutionary beneficial, until most humans evolved the ability to drink milk and eat cheese. So too have the microbial communities in our intestines evolved alongside the diet of humans, allowing us to consume foods, such as grains, that our ancestors couldn’t have. The microbes that exist in our guts today is far from what lived inside of our ancestors 10,000 years ago.
One of the more incredible things about humans is just how adaptable we are; not only to the changing natural world but to the environmental changes we have created for ourselves with the evolution of culture and technology. This isn’t just relegated to our food, either- in malaria-affected areas in Africa, the immune systems of human populations have adapted to be more resistant to mosquito-born diseases. Some of these mutations developed as soon as 5,000 years ago- long after proponents of the paleo diet claimed that we stopped evolving.
While it is true that we do need to reduce the consumption of processed and preserved foods to lead healthy lives, and that the paleo diet is one way of doing so, is true, but the paleo diet is by no means the only way for humans to live with a healthy diet. Humans, by our very nature, will always be evolving, and will continue to evolve even as new foods and food technologies become available in the years ahead.
So, sorry – while there are good aspects of the paleo diet – the idea that this diet represents the true way humans are suppose to eat based on evolution is fiction, not fact.
- “How to really eat like a hunter-gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet is half-baked” – Scientific American
- Debunking the Paleo Diet– TEDx
- Real palaeo diet: early hominids ate just about everything (Science Alert, Feb 2015)
- Sayers K. (2014). Blood, Bulbs, and Bunodonts: On Evolutionary Ecology and the Diets of Ardipithecus , Australopithecus , and Early Homo , The Quarterly Review of Biology, 89 (4) 319-357. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/678568
Devin Windelspecht is a freshman at Northeastern University in Boston MA where he majors in international relations.
- top: Bison in the Altamira caves. By Baperukamo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Grains: By unbekannt270 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
- Produce: By Ɱ (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons