Issue 3 / 1 February 2016

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Chef Pete Evans’ Paleo cook book for mothers and babies was withdrawn last year after health experts warned of the danger of an infant “formula” based on liver and bone broth.

Related: MJA InSight — Sue Ieraci: Placenta placebo

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.


Poll

Is the Paleo diet a healthy choice?
  • No ... Cavemen lived to 33 (60%, 120 Votes)
  • Maybe ... all things in moderation (30%, 60 Votes)
  • Yes ... It's as safe as any fad diet (10%, 19 Votes)

Total Voters: 199

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8 thoughts on “Paleo diet bordering on ridiculous

  1. Max Kamien says:

    Sadly, the bent spoon award has not damaged this icsientific neanderthal’s publicity machine.

  2. Robert Darby says:

    In his bold, fascinating book Sapiens, Yuval Harari makes the point that the chief characteristic and value of the diet of hunter gatherers was not that it excluded certain products, but that it was highly varied and did not depend on a single staple. Since you could only eat what you could find, each day, and probably each meal, would be different – berries, fungus, shoots, wild fruit, insects, tubers (potatoes), grains and seeds (wheat), snails and animal meat where it could be caught (which was probably not very often) and much else. The result would be a complete nuttrition profile and plenty of fibre and vitamins. Whether  or not the hunter-gatherer diet was healthier than a sensible diet of today, it was certainly healthier than the diet of the succeeding agricultural revolution, which depended far to heavily on one or two crops – wheat, potatoes, maize etc – and was less nutritious, as well being more subject to famine when the crop failed (which must have been pretty often if C19 Ireland is any guide).

  3. Ray Taylor says:

    “Cavemen lived to 33”

    Statistically so did Romans…

    I was reading an article on populations and lifespan recently that demonstrated that current average lifespans of that level in today’s nations are dictated by factors like high infant mortality rates and high accidental death rates, and that those who got past those risks in any community then tended to have life expectancies not dissimilar to our own in recent years.

    It also suggested those factors affected average the Roman statistics and that many Romans lived to ages commensurate with modern humans. That may well have applied to early humans too.

    We have to be careful hoe we interpret average figures…

     

  4. N170450@amamember says:

    Robert Darby is right – there is no single “Paleo DIet”. Ancient people had to eat what was available to them – whether they were equatorial cavemen or tundra cavemen. If the tundra dwellers suffered a particularly bitter winter, or drought, they died.

    It’s a common error to think that some point in the distant part was the peak of human existence. Health and longevity are better than ever before, as is transport, shelter and communication – even ethics and philosophy. Idealising the Paleolithic lifestyle makes no sense.

    IN terms of lifespan, it’s true that infant mortality contributed to average figues, but overall longevity has also increased. Paleolithic man was definitely not “healthier”.

  5. Rosemary Stanton says:

    Our ancestors consumed a wide variety of foods, which varied in different parts of the world, just as they do today. The idea that the Paleo diet excluded foods such as grains simply doesn’t fit with evidence from many areas where wild grasses and their seeds were grown, stored and ground into flour. The ABC had a fascinating interview between Richard Fidler and Bruce Pascoe today (1st Feb 2016) in which Pascoe talked about the evidence he has collected about Aboriginal populations in Australia and their use of grains and seeds which were harvested, stored and ground into flour – the world’s “oldest bakers”. He also detailed fascinating information about cultivation of some crops, irrigation and storage and its role in their culture. Access the broadcast at http://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2016/02/01/4397892.htm or read Pascoe’s book Dark Emu: Black Seeds – Agriculture or Accident? published by Magabala Books.

  6. Joe Kosterich says:

    Cavemen only lived till 33. But they did not die of diet and lifestyle realted illnesses so this is meaningless. The evidence that staurated fats in the diet are not   a problem is now clear. Yet many still cling to their belief in “lets eat lots of carbs” and foods with stars. History will record that the low fat diet was the worst fad diet(in terms of history 40 years is a fad) and has caused the most problems healthwise.

  7. Robin Choong says:

    I’ve been on the Paleo diet for two years and in my late 50’s, I can out crossfit everyone in the gym, daily do 1000 pushups, 20 muscle ups, 1000 crunches, 500 burpees, 50 pullups, run a 100metres in 10.18 seconds, 5% body fat and my libido is through the roof..only kidding!  Another diet fad in a long line of diet fads. Another example of the fallacy of romanticising our distant past.

  8. Anna Alexander-Reid says:

    Fortunately my work day permits much reading and researching. Enough so that my fledgling interest in reversing my type 2 diabetes grew into a crusade of fact finding from around the globe. Dr Alessio Fassano and Dr Rodney Ford, along with Dr David Perlmutter, Dr Mark Hyman and  Dr Datis Kharrazian have provide me with a wealth of information. What do they all have in common? All Non Australian, think and practice outside the box using evidence and anecdotal based medicine. They all have spoken at health summits and Webinars that promote and support Paleo diets. They all believe gluten is noxious and toxic to us one and all. They all support a high fat diet (coconut, olives, full fat dairy). They support the existence of type 2 Hypothyroidism. They collectively implore us to eat organic foods. They support the the very real possibility and successful reversal of Auto immune disease. Thank heavens for the age of the Internet so that we curious folk can escape from the narrow practice guidelines and often outdated dogma that the vast majority of Australian Doctors still purvey to a mainly unwitting public. I’m doing very nicely now and enjoy my 50% /40%/10% – fat/protein/carbs diet daily which has reversed my Type 2 diabetes, Sjogrens Disease, Coeliac Disease and my outstandingly perfect lipid profile, CRP of 0.1 and 30kg weight loss is just the icing on the cake. So sad I couldn’t source the assistance I needed from within my own populace. 

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