Picture this, if you will: you and your compatriots have been deathly silent for hours, stalking through dense vegetation. Your prey is none the wiser of your presence and it must remain that way if your family is to survive another day. And there it is! – through the leaves, vines and trees you see the wild boar, the one whose footprints you have been tracking for many hours. You must now approach silently, avoiding the crunchy leaves and twigs ready to snap beneath the soles of your feet under the slightest duress. You are now close enough to land the killer blow, but you must not startle your prey, as if it bolts you’ve wasted a day of hunting and your family will go to sleep hungry. Yet you are successful! You skewer your prey with your flint-headed spear. Congratulations.
Now begins the long and arduous journey of hauling your quarry to your camp. You stalked this prey for many miles and now you have to drag it back through dense forest as all the while the light of the day diminishes, the temperatures drop and nocturnal predators awaken from their slumber, no doubt attracted to the feast you now carry upon your person.
Having survived the journey home you find yourself thanking the spirits, for your camp hasn’t been ransacked by neighbouring tribes, predators or a mammoth stampede. You can now reap the rewards of the trials and tribulations of the day, starting by harvesting everything useful from your catch. Using nothing but tools made of flint and your bare hands, you strip the beast of everything of worth: meat for your meals, hide to clothe you and your tribe, bones for tools and weapons. Finally you can eat. The quality of the meat cannot be guaranteed as you do not know the diet of this boar; you only knew of its existence today, merely hours before you snuffed it out. You can only hope that the meat captured today will provide sufficient nutrition to keep the tribe alive and functional for one more day and that the animal doesn’t carry harmful diseases and bacteria – which threaten lives as there’s no medical intervention possible. This is the ‘paleo way’.
Fast forward to 2015. We now live in an era where days gone by are misremembered and fallaciously romanticised. We revere the Golden Age of piracy, when pirates raped, pillaged and plundered whilst being pursued mercilessly across the Atlantic by the British Navy. Scurvy, starvation and mutiny were common aboard every ship; if a pirate were to capture your vessel your throat would likely be slit and you’d be tossed overboard to feed the sharks. We glamorise the Middle Ages, where brave knights fought gallantly for the favour of their monarch and to win the heart of a fair maiden. The reality is that it was a hard life of subsistence, taxes and the Bubonic Plague. We play Cowboys and Indians while watching Clint Eastwood movies, as they conveniently miss out how white man used smallpox to infect indigenous tribes, hunt their buffalo and kidnap their children to raise a generation coerced into believing their values. Humanity has grown fond of forgetting the harsh lessons of history, rather preferring to cherry-pick and assimilate more palatable aspects of it into our culture.
Those who find themselves susceptible to the latest fad diets have fixed their gaze on our Palaeolithic ancestors in the hopes of learning how to get in touch with nature without all of the hunting, gathering, disease, malnutrition, infant mortality and tribal warfare. Hoorah! Enter the ‘Paleo Diet’, a popular existence of kale chips and grass-fed artisan beef gently reared by local organic farmers, who deliver it straight to your door. Fancy gorging on generous portions of steak and broccolini in the belief you’re aping your ‘healthy’ ancestors and losing weight? Great – the ‘paleo way’ may be for you! You’ll apparently notice a boost in libido, increased mental clarity and a far longer, healthier, more active life. Where do we sign up?!*
OK, we exaggerate slightly. The paleo diet has both been popularised and pilloried. How on Earth can we mimic the behaviour of our early ancestors; could aspects of this diet be useful, or is it dangerous? This lifestyle is heralded by such Greek gods of health as ‘Dr Oz’ and Ironman champions. We poor saps surely have much to learn….** So let’s find out the way to paleo paradise, aka ‘the world’s healthiest diet’.
Essentially this diet prescribes anything our Paleolithic predecessors may have eaten, but put that hunk of rotting wild boar down, damn it! Today’s paleo warrior has a more refined choice of foods (as opposed to scrabbling around for anything that would ensure short-term survival, as our ancestors did). Hence paleo pilgrims are allowed to eat meat from grass-fed animals, fish, fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and olive oil, along with plant-based oils such as walnut and avocado. So far, so delicious (and healthy)! However the diet forbids all grains, cereals, legumes (e.g. beans), potatoes, salt, pasta, dairy products, as well as all processed foods and refined sugars. Plus, say goodbye to coffee forever, and you should probably kiss that glass of wine goodbye. If you’re partial to the occasional bit of bacon, be afraid, be very afraid. Eek. If you believe that potatoes are the root of all evil, the paleo game-plan probably doesn’t sound so bad, but is this diet really any better for you than the typically advised balanced diet? Short answer – no – and it may even be risky for some people. Although the paleo diet claims to adhere to eating habits practised by Paleolithic people this is a misnomer as there was never a single ‘paleo diet’ – people from that era simply ate whatever they could find.
Moreover if this diet is as simple as it sounds, why are there so many products around to explain it? Surely you don’t need to splurge $30 on a book that tells you how to feed your baby the paleo way – i.e. with bone broth?! In bounces the beaming celebrity chef Pete Evans…. A ‘paleo’ baby food book by Evans of My Kitchen Rules fame (or infamy, depending on your view) was recently taken off shelves by publishers as it was ‘howled down’ by doctors and dieticians. There were concerns that this diet could actually endanger young babies’ health as it proscribes dairy. The book apparently recommends a ‘bone broth’ for babies under six months old as a dietary supplement. However official guidelines from authorities such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) state that a tiny baby should really only be consuming breast milk or infant formula. There is no mention of vinegar and chicken feet.
In response to claims by the books’ authors, dietician Jennifer Cohen issued the following statement: ‘Expert governing bodies [including WHO] do not recommend the introduction of complementary foods before the age of four months… babies do not have sufficient renal, immune or gastrointestinal function to metabolise nutrients from complementary foods prior to this time.’ Boom. Out with the bone broth. What about liver pâté for older babies? According to the book’s co-author, Charlotte Carr, “Pâté is a superfood for babies…a wonderful first food”. Here’s Cohen’s response: “Although cooked chicken livers are safe to give infants over six months of age, it is important that infants are not given excessive amounts because of the high level of Vitamin A. Case reports of liver toxicity have been reported…of a seven-month-old that was given the equivalent of 200 grams of liver.” Hmm, maybe place the carving knife aside then.
Cohen also withers the term ‘superfood’ on the vine: “Use of the word superfood is not regulated and therefore can be used to describe all foods.” Quite apart from the possible health risks to an infant who cannot digest particular nutrients or solids, there is already intense pressure on new parents. The last thing they need is a celebrity chef telling them to feed liver to their young baby, particularly when the man himself is no authority on this subject. The Australian Federal Health Department has said it is ‘aware of this publication and has concerns about the inadequate nutritional value of some of the recipes, in particular the infant formula’.
It seems that Evan’s book is not the only paleo aspect in the firing line. What about the adults? Well, it seems that the ban on grains may be unfounded as there is evidence that Paleolithic people did eat grains. According to the head of the Dietitians Association of Australia, Claire Hewat, “Any diet excluding whole food groups should raise suspicions….The idea of cutting out grain-based foods and legumes is not backed by science”. Studies have suggested that there are benefits derived from consuming whole grains, which the paleo diet forbids. Claims that ‘we have not evolved to eat dairy’ are also misplaced as the mutation allowing us to metabolise dairy products arose during the course of human evolution in seven independent instances. The British Dietetic Association termed the paleo diet as among the ‘five worst celebrity-endorsed diets of 2015’. They stated this diet can easily become ‘unbalanced, time consuming, [and] socially isolating’. Awkward!
What is the logic of the paleo diet? Let’s approach why its enthusiasts argue for our adoption of a ‘stone age’ lifestyle, despite the fact that most of us do not live in caves. According to its main advocate Loren Cordain, genetically we have not changed much in the past few million years and we are ‘Stone Agers living in the Space Age’. Hopefully we adequately annihilated this rose-tinted view of our past with our opening to this piece, but let’s just knock it on the head with the proverbial caveman club. We are not ‘stone agers’. There was never a single ‘paleo diet’ – our ancestors lived in tribes all over the world and lived off everything from tubers to insects. Hence the entire paleo premise is nonsense which encourages us to part with hard-earned cash (and grow Cordain’s sizeable fortune, if we buy his books) but is unlikely to revolutionise human health. Cordain cites a small study of diabetics who showed better blood sugar control on the paleo diet – but unfortunately a sample size of just 13 people isn’t enough to convince us to put down the pasta fork.
There are various pitfalls associated with picking up paleo. These include ‘hearing what we want to hear’ and enthusiastically chomping through plenty of meat, while forgetting the veggies. If paleo followers eat too much meat they will gain weight. It is also not recommended to eat a huge quantity of meat as it has been linked to increased risk of certain cancers. If someone on the paleo diet wishes to lose weight, they may snack on so-called ‘paleo’ snacks, which are just junk food expensively packaged as a paleo treat. If we really want to eat in a healthier manner, eating plenty of fruit and veg is a good step, but that doesn’t mean religiously following a regime of paleo restrictions. No one is arguing with the paleo point that we should avoid eating too many sugary and fatty treats – this is sensible advice. But cutting whole food groups from our diet seems a pointless step too far.
As we all know, advising people to keep moving, eat their greens and avoid chips-’n-beer marathons doesn’t shift shiny books and fitness DVDs. It’s no secret that we love a quick fix to health problems, whether that be advice to ‘quit sugar’ or adopt the paleo diet, as advised by convincing smiley strangers. Whether these canny folk make their impact by haranguing poor people in lycra (Gillian McKeith) or advising us to drink a parasitic fungus (Sarah Marshall), they sure do attract publicity. Truly healthy living is never going to be achieved with a quick-fix diet.
In an age when the Western lifestyle is associated with increasing prevalence of heart disease, diabetes and obesity we appear more fixated than ever by the idea of healthy living. Cooking programmes abound, glossy magazines sell madcap weight-loss plans and companies continue to promise to cut calories from their bestselling products. From this confusion emerges the allure of the paleo diet. It’s easy to see its appeal – a ‘back to basics’ premise coupled to big promises. However eschewing spaghetti or a dash of milk in your tea is unlikely to make a huge difference to your overall health, unless you have coeliac disease or are lactose intolerant. In our case the horror of giving up either of these things would outweigh any supposed benefit peddled by paleo advocates! Everything in moderation, after all….
The choice to go paleo is often guided by two logically fallacious arguments. The first is the frequently spouted ‘appeal to nature’; the argument that suggests that everything that is directly from nature can only be good for us. There are things in nature that I know are definitely not good for us – like lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! This obviously doesn’t mean we advocate the extreme of a fast food-fuelled, highly sedentary lifestyle; just don’t let our ancestors choose what you eat. Make your own decisions as to whether deep-fried Mars bars are the way forward. The second logical fallacy is the ‘appeal to tradition’, wherein we should adhere to the lifestyles of those that came before us just because they survived long enough to reproduce. This is when we don our rose-tinted glasses and gaze back into history as we conveniently forget the childhood mortality rates, prevalence of diseases we are on the verge of eradicating today and general malnutrition from a failed subsistence lifestyle.
We will end on a quote from an anthropologist that relates to the paleo diet’s homespun logic that ancient humans were ‘healthier’ because they were hunter-gatherers and did not cultivate crops. Healthy or not, these ancient people rarely lived for long. As Kenneth Sayers summarises, “it’s hard to be healthy when you’re dead.” Hence fretting over dietary ‘slips’ when you accidentally eat something outside the paleo range is probably counterproductive. It’s much more important to stay active and eat your five-a-day (or seven-a-day in the land of Oz). So let’s all put down our spears and calm down. Maybe we should really just eat food, mostly plants, not too much.
– This article is a joint effort between Will from Scientific Blatherings and S from Bio Detectives.
NB: Neither Bio Detectives nor Scientific Blatherings recommend ‘quitting’ carbohydrates, as this food group is considered important to a balanced diet, as well as the maintenance of healthy friendships.
For a detailed Scientific American article that debunks some of the (flawed) evolutionary biology that justifies certain paleo practices, click here. There’s also some useful facts for you to memorise and impress your paleo friends with at their next dinner party.
* Well, you can sign up on Pete Evan’s website if you really want to. But we strongly advise you not to. Don’t do it guys. Just say no.
** my own version of dietary guidance should probably be limited to ‘do not eat your bodyweight in Doritos’, as well as some handy tips on how to avoid choking to death on a sushi roll – S.