The folly of the “palaeolithic diet”

There’s this new fad going around called the “palaeolithic diet” (or at least, that’s what it should be called. I’ll have none of this American “paleolithic” thank you very much). It is essentially people trying to eat what our ancestors ate, the logic beign that it is what we’ve evolved to deal with and will thus offer some health benefits.

This logic, however, misses out on the best part of being a member of the genus Homo: our generalised anatomy. Our longest lived ancestor was Homo erectus and it was able to live as north as Georgia (the country, not the state) prior to fire and even made it to the chilly climes of Britain without clothes.

Imagine living in such a miserable environment with nothing more than a few handaxes and maybe fire (the evidence is somewhat circumstantial for it occurring that early).

Further technological development was essentially redundant after this

We’re well adapted to being generalists, able to survive in a variety of environments. This includes our digestive system. Over the course of the actual palaeolithic we’ve lived and eaten in dozens of environments because we’re generalised and that’s what we do.

There is no magical mixture of berries and meat that we’ve specalised to be extra adept at consuming. Positing that as what we’ve evolved to do is the very antithesis to our actual evolutionary history. Generations of hominins died so you wouldn’t have to live off berries and meat.

Paranthropus aethiopicus died for your dietary sins

Now, that’s not to say living of whatever mixture of meat and berries they say is good for you won’t actually be good for you. It may very well be. But if it is, it’s because it’s fulfilling your nutriotionary needs, not because your body has evolved to be super-great at digesting it.

So when you plan your diet, base it around your dietary requirements and not some invented evolutionary reasoning instead.

11 thoughts on “The folly of the “palaeolithic diet”

    • That was a whole tangent I decided not to go down, but is ultimately just as valid as the point I was making. The Palaeolithic covers millions of years and several countries, thus we would have encountered numerous environments which contain a wide range of foodstuffs.

      So when talking about the “Palaeolithic diet” one must ask “which Palaeolithic diet?” The one people ate in Britain 900 kya? In Britain 500 kya? In France 900 kya? etc.

      The list of variants is almost endless

  1. I think I take more of a hybrid approach. It’s true that our ancestors were likely generalists and adaptable to a more-or-less omnivorous diet. On the other hand, agriculture is a pretty big change in a relatively short time, and modernized agriculture even more so. I agree that it’s probably folly to go looking for the exact foods that our ancestors ate (a paleo shopping list), but the larger principle of trying to eat foods that are less processed, as well as fewer starches, is probably the healthier way to go (within reason).

    • I’m not here to discuss the merits of processed food versus “natural,” simply that those who seek out the palaeolithic diet because it has some evolutionary significance are barking up the wrong tree since the most evolutionarily significant part of our diet is that there is no real specialisation.

      That’s not to say a palaeolithic diet isn’t good for you, just that it’s good for you because it’s providing your needed nutrients and not because it’s hitting on some special genetic buttons. So when deciding a diet, it is your requirements you should take into account and not your ancestors.

  2. Didn’t our ancestors also die off rather younger than we expect to nowadays? It may have been all the red meat in their diets and the lack of cholesterol testing 🙂

    • At the same time they also lacked advanced medical care, so I don’t know how much can be attributed to their diet and how much can be attributed to, you know, death by disease.

      • Not to mention their lack of things like:
        – Central heating.
        – Advanced sewage systems (granted this would only be relevant after settlement)
        – The prevalence of lots of dangerous predators.
        – Consistent water supplies (when moving).
        – Law enforcement?
        – Technology in general.

  3. Interesting post and comments. First time caller but enjoying some of your posts.

    I can’t claim to be an expert in evolutionary biology but I wonder how conditions such as coeliac (UK spelling) disease and lactose intolerance might fit into this discussion. These are conditions based on genetic susceptibility and environmental exposure whose “genetics” perhaps point to some more recently introduced foods (i.e. wheat and other gluten-derived cereal produce and mammalian dairy produce) not necessarily providing any specific advantage to certain people.

    Coeliac disease is quite strictly defined, granted. The increasing focus on non-coeliac gluten intolerance potentially present in some other groups: perhaps represents one facet of why some people are moving towards this dietary approach. As for milk and lactose intolerance, we can turn to the East for an example of where this may be an issue:

    Dr Emily Deans over at Evolutionary Psychiatry: talks quite a bit about this approach, specifically with a psychiatry tangent (she is a jobbing Psychiatrist in the States).

    I am not providing a defence for the stone-age or any other kind of dietary intervention. I’m a firm believer in ‘horses for courses’ in terms of our genetic diversity and variable propensity to issues with food and environment in general. Don’t even get me started on epigenetics..!

    Many thanks.

    • I certainly find tracking recent genetic developments rather interesting since it makes evolution seem so distant. Granted these changes are small, but spotting the black death causing a gene to rise to prominence or Western milk drinking prompting lactose tolerance is always interesting.

  4. Have to agree, man is an opportunistic eater, if it’s edible, it’s part of our diet. This new fad paleo diet is a joke, grok never ate bacon and doubtful he even had the resources or time to make slabs of it to go with his eggs in the morning.

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