NOSTALGIA for an imagined past, an idyllic time when life was simpler and more natural, seems to be part of the human condition – as is the desire for a quick fix for all our problems.
But, seriously, the Paleolithic era?
The immensely popular Paleo diet is a return to “eating how we’re biologically designed to eat”, as one website puts it, declaring: “If a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither can you.”
The average Paleolithic human was “tall, muscular, agile, athletic, and incredibly versatile”, this particular website says. The average human now, by contrast, is “overweight, out of shape, stressed out, unhappy, sleep deprived and dying from a myriad of preventable diseases”.
Happily, the personalised diet plans and expensive protein powders marketed on other Paleo websites should be able to fix those symptoms of modern malaise in no time.
Our desire for simple answers to complex problems can lead us down some very silly paths.
Chef Pete Evans’ Paleo cook book for mothers and babies was withdrawn last year after health experts warned of the danger of an infant “formula” based on liver and bone broth.
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The anti-dairy stance is not generally that extreme, but it is part of the Paleo belief that our genetic make-up is better suited to a hunter-gatherer diet than the foods offered to us by modern agriculture.
We were “meant” to eat large amounts of meat along with some foraged vegetables, they say, but not more recent foods such as milk, grains or potatoes.
Well, we weren’t “meant” to be Googling the latest super food on our smartphones either. Or to be taking antibiotics, living in houses, or having our sewage carried away in pipes.
The average life expectancy at birth in the Paleolithic era has been estimated at 33 years, a statistic that doesn’t figure prominently in the marketing hype.
The suggestion that evolution stopped in the Paleolithic era is also flawed. Generations of animal husbandry have led to most human populations evolving the ability to tolerate lactose into adulthood, for example.
That’s not to say that adding more fresh foods and more fibre to modern diets wouldn’t be a good thing.
One of the founding fathers of the Paleo movement, radiologist Dr Stanley Boyd Eaton, raised the possible advantages of eating like our paleolithic ancestors back in 1985 in an article for the New England Journal of Medicine co-authored with anthropologist Dr Melvin Konner.
“The diet of our remote ancestors may be a reference standard for modern human nutrition and a model for defense against certain ‘diseases of civilization’,” they concluded, after comparing the likely Paleolithic diet with that of modern humans.
Their comparison raised some interesting points about actual Paleolithic diets, though, some of which may have been missed by the operators of your local Paleo cafe.
Perhaps the most obvious is that your standard meat purchase today wouldn’t have much in common with the animals caught by our hunting ancestors. Their meat would have been leaner, more muscular, with more polyunsaturated fat and protein, and fewer kilojoules.
Even more to the point might be that “catching” your dinner in the cold aisle at your local supermarket wouldn’t have quite the metabolic effect of hunting it down in the primeval rainforest.
Dr Eaton is still an advocate for the diet, though he acknowledges it couldn’t sustain all 7 billion people of us, suggesting in a recent Salon interview that we might need to reduce global population by a factor of 70.
Reducing the world’s population would be a good thing for other reasons, though it’s clearly not going to happen on that scale without a major catastrophe.
More realistically, the thing we might best learn from our Paleolithic ancestors would be to stop searching for miracle diets, get off our backsides and spend more time staring at the horizon than at our screens.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based science and medicine writer.