Is Paleo Right or Accurate?

The Paleo diet is predicated on the assumption that ten thousand years is an insufficient amount of time for the human being to adapt to eating foods like grains, legumes, and dairy. This assumption is based on another assumption; that evolution through mutation is a linear predictable process and that all of us are the same and there is no room for deviation or exception from this blanket categorization of humanity. I think many biologists would disagree. I also think many anthropologists might take issue with this assumption. Homo sapiens are if nothing else a species noted for its ability to adapt and overcome. We are also a species noted for its wondrous variety, depth of characteristics and ability to defy convention.

 
Look at the fact, that many of us with Northern European descent can not only tolerate milk into adulthood but thrive on it. Our bodies easily digest lactose and break down casein protein efficiently. Look at the indigenous populations of the Central Mexican highlands. These people eat a diet almost entirely corn-based. They eat a diet Paleo advocates would tell you is unhealthy. These people’s lives are almost completely untouched by many of our modern American diseases like diabetes and heart disease. They are in truth some of the healthiest, most robust, long-lived, and active human beings on the planet. The fact is that for every thing “Paleo” says we should not or are not adapted to eat there is a population on this earth that has adapted to eat it and thrives on it.

 

Necessity is the mother of all invention and in our case adaptation. While we humans like to think ourselves the masters of our environment we are heavily influenced by it as well. It is true that many of the foods we take for granted today were unheard of to our ancient ancestors. It’s also true that this is because many of these foods just didn’t exist or were unknown to earlier man. The European discovery of the New World introduced hundreds of new plant and animal species that are now mainstays of our diets, yet were previously unknown. We didn’t eat chicken or turkey ten thousand years go, or lettuce, asparagus, brussel sprouts or spinach. All of these are creations of agriculture. They were adapted from wild bitter nasty plants that we happened to eat accidentally and noticed it didn’t kill us. If we apply the same logic that is used by Paleo proponents we might think that Europeans would have been unable to consume and enjoy these new foods yet we know this to be untrue. The potato, a new world tuber favored by the Inca and Maya would save the Irish peasants from near starvation. Ironically they would become so well adapted to this particular food source that when pestilence wiped out most of the potato crop in the late 1800’s it nearly wiped out the Irish.

 
Mutation is the driving force behind all genetic change. Mutation is also an unpredictable force that can happen in starts and fits. Ten thousand years ago there were only a few species of Canines on this planet. Today there are hundreds and all occurring in less than five thousand years. Canines were acted on by an outside force namely human breeders and adapted to meet a variety of roles and diets determined by location and climate. Dogs are survivors and supreme adapters. Why should we think humans are any less different or incapable of adaptation on such a short time frame when acted on by outside forces, like, climate, disease, and war?

 
I’m not trying to make an argument that Paleo is wrong. I recognize that the modern wheat growing on fields across this land is not the wheat our ancestors ate. It’s not even the wheat our nation’s founders cultivated. The same goes for corn, beef, pork, and chicken. The same can be said of grapes, apples, oranges, and greens. Trust me go back in time just five hundred years and sample some of these foods and I promise you it would taste much differently than what we have today. What I am saying is that much of what the Paleo movement is based on is just speculation and assumption. It’s also extremely simplistic, and naive. Likewise it fails to take into account a variety of biological fact and evidence testifying to the contrary. Many of Paleo’s tenets are common sense and logical but too many people have turned them into rules inviolate that cannot be refused, disobeyed, or broken. It’s eating folks not cult devotion.

 

I think the real point of Paleo is a romanticism of an earlier simpler age and I get that. On the surface this simpler more primal existence calls to the stressed out burned out adult in all of us. The fantasy does not mesh up with the truth though. The lives our ancestors lived ten thousand years ago are first and foremost unknown and unknowable to us.There just isn’t enough evidence or record left behind to say with real certainty what they did and didn’t do or did and didn’t eat. Until recently we thought for sure the first settlers of our continent came from Asia across the land bridge between Alaska and Siberia. Now its possible that Europeans traveled across the ice and frozen Atlantic and got to North America first. We also thought we knew that civilization developed around five to eight thousand years ago. Now its possible that civilizations have developed several times over the last one hundred thousand years only to collapse and reform again and again. The point is there is a huge gulf between what we think we know and what may or may not be fact.

 

This can be further illustrated with the understanding that the Paleo diet is in part founded on the findings of a few naturally preserved corpses of our ancestors from the last ice age. It’s hard to say with anything resembling certainty based off of these few individuals what humans were eating ten thousand years ago. But like many things we like to fill in the gaps with assumption and hypotheses. That’s all well and good until you try to pass off these assumptions as scientific fact. We see a lot of this in fitness and nutrition today. Scientists and marketers are keen to place connections between factors that may have no real influence on each other besides existing at the same time.

 

Often studies claim to show an outcome yet the test samples were biased, unreliable, or based on voluntary recall of participants. In other words there were no real hard facts involved and no solid conclusions other than to say “yeah it’s possible.” For instance based on the few preserved corpses we have found from the paleolithic era; is it possible to say that human beings ate a diet consisting mostly of lean meat, simple vegetables and complex starches? Yes it is possible to say that. It may even possibly be accurate in regards to one small population or village. However in regards to hundreds of thousands of individuals across varied climates and conditions its impossible to say that all humans on the earth at this time were adapted to eat this diet and did so, so therefore we all should do the same today. It is also possible that my opinion is flawed and wrong so I’ll leave you with that.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. SD says:

    Excellent post. I have no doubt in my mind that people ate what was available at the time, dependent on their geographic location. “Necessity is the mother of all invention and in our case adaptation.”. So true, and is very easy to see in countries that still have hunter/gather people, as small of a population as they may be now. And as you stated, people are into moving, eating, and living how we MAY have in years past (with modern conveniences still). As much of a FAD as paleo may be, like CrossFit, it has definitely given more attention to movement and “proper nutrition”, which is a good thing from a health perspective. Again, great post.

    1. savagefitness says:

      I definitely think Paleo/Primal eating has made more people aware of what they put into their bodies and by consequence what manufacturers are putting into our food and how damaging it is. My only real complaint is that like CrossFit many people have began to take the “rules” of Paleo as holy gospel with no room for disagreement or questioning. They have decided to accept at face value what someone tells them is right for them regardless of their own actual condition. I think it ultimately falls to each of us to investigate what foods work best for our own performance. Just as we should be willing to go another way if say CrossFit isn’t the best fitness trend for our lives or goals. regardless of how popular a thing is we owe it to ourselves to seek the truth behind the claims.

      1. SD says:

        Agreed, human nature at its best (i.e. Blind leading the blind).

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