Art Imitates Life

From time to time, someone manages to write an article that, while fictional in terms of context, contains a lot of very solid facts. I happened across one of these today and wanted to share it with all and sundry, because it’s total gold in terms of its content.

Here’s the link: Archaeologists Officially Declare Collective Sigh Over “Paleo Diet”.

I encounter a lot of people who are totally obsessed with diet, in the belief that controlling it will somehow magically transform their life or save them from aging. While it’s totally true that specific people are sensitive to one or more foods and should avoid them for health reasons, and that a major percentage of Americans (and others, mainly in First World nations) eat really horrendous diets filled with artificial ingredients, the idea that one diet fits everyone’s requirements is ludicrous. Everyone’s biochemistry is a bit different.

I know people who are gluten free (some justifiably, due to Celiac disease or other verified medical issues), vegetarian, vegan, insanely vegan (one guy limited his intake so severely that his cholesterol is actually too low, and has to take supplements to avoid a condition known as Pernicious Anemia), and another who’s on a diet that bans all Nightshade family plants as allegedly “inflammatory” (there’s no science backing the latter one up).

Probably the most annoying to me as a historian and science geek is the Paleo Diet, which allegedly uses foods that humans “evolved eating”. Some folks go as far as to do only raw foods, in the belief (also unsupported by science) that cooking “destroys essential nutrients”.

I have a bridge for sale, and suspect most members of the latter group would make an offer on it.

This is where the fiction-but-not-fiction blog comes in. Here’s the first (fictional but correct!) quote:

“As long as the diet of an individual keeps them alive long enough to successfully mate, then that diet has conferred an evolutionary advantage. By that metric, the agricultural revolution has proven to be the most effective dietary system in the history of our species. We are the most prolific higher-order vertebrate on the planet.” It is a point that he feels is overlooked by Paleo Diet enthusiasts.

Yep, that’s right — if what you’re eating keeps you alive long enough to reproduce, it’s all that nature requires. Whatever happens afterward is totally irrelevant from an evolutionary standpoint, as stated in no uncertain terms by yet another (fictional!) researcher: “In a strict evolutionary framework, all your body needs to do is keep you alive until you breed. After that, you’re just living on borrowed time.”

Here’s where things really get good, though.

“Nearly every food item you currently eat today has been modified from its ancestral form, typically in a drastic way, ” he began. “The notion that we have not yet adapted to eat wheat, yet we have had sufficient time to adapt to kale or lentils is ridiculous. In fact, for most practitioners of the Paleo Diet, who are typically westerners, the majority of the food they consume has been available to their gene pool for less than five centuries. Tomatoes, peppers, squash, potatoes, avocados, pecans, cashews, and blueberries are all New World crops, and have only been on the dinner table of African and Eurasian populations for probably 10 generations of their evolutionary history. Europeans have been eating grain for the last 10,000 years; we’ve been eating sweet potatoes for less than 500. Yet the human body has seemingly adapted perfectly well to yams, let alone pineapple and sunflower seeds.”

This is totally accurate, and supported by loads of data. Every food available in a typical western-culture grocery store, whether plant or animal based, is the result of hybridization and selective breeding over the period it’s been used by humans.

For example: what we know as “corn” (of the American variety, that is) was derived from Teosinte, a grass-like plant in South America that was rapidly hybridized by native cultures starting, as far as is known, no more than 4000 years ago. Every variety of plant now sold — even to so-called “Paleo” dieters — is a modern variety that did not exist when humans were evolving. And as the quote above notes, humans of European descent have only been eating New World plants — tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, yams, blueberries, avocados, and so forth — for about 500 years, max. And even New World natives, who migrated to North & South America no earlier than about 20,000 years ago, are themselves descendents of Old World populations who had no dietary contact with these New World foods.

So, if you want to eat a true “Paleo Diet” you need to move to Africa, live in the veldt, and eat more or less whatever you can catch while you’re not being chased by large predators like lions and bigger hominids. You’ll be noshing (constantly!) on grasses, other plants, small rodents, left-over meat from other carnivores’ kills, grubs, and more or less whatever you can lay your paws on and can wrestle down your gullet.

As “Dr. Hoyes” says in the article:

You really want to be paleo? Then don’t buy anything from a store. Gather and kill what you need to eat. Wild grasses and tubers, acorns, gophers, crickets- They all provide a lot of nutrition. You’ll spend a lot of energy gathering the stuff, of course, and you’re going to be hungry, but that’ll help you maintain that lean physique you’re after. And hunting down the neighbor’s cats for dinner because you’ve already eaten your way through the local squirrel population will probably give you all the exercise you’ll ever need

For myself, I’m insanely happy humanity long ago figured out how to cook food, because doing so is thought to have displaced the energy required for digesting meat and tougher plants away from the digestive system and into the fire. Liberating all the energy used for digesting raw foods allowed us to expend that energy evolving our massive brains instead. Had our ancestors not learned how to cook, we might not be arguing about diet and obsessing about health via the Internet.

For that matter, the agricultural advances that occurred as part of the Neolithic Revolution allowed human civilization to evolve from bands of hunter-gatherers to settled communities. Had we not learned how to plant and cultivate cereal grains, we’d still be limited to small groups fighting over limited resources in the wild. There would be no science, no medicine, and limited historical knowledge because everyone would be too busy foraging for food to do anything else.

I will also note for the record, even though it’s somewhat inflammatory to state it this way, that most of the dieting obsession involves relatively wealthy (in terms of world statistics), self-satisfied westerners with access to ready, plentiful food and ongoing medical care. This is, of course, to be contrasted with the starving masses in less developed areas of the world who’d give their eye teeth (if they still have them) for a bowl of generic macaroni and cheese that costs $.69 on sale at the local Mega-Mart. Basically, folks in developed countries have the luxury of obsessing over exactly what they eat. Well, mostly, unless they’re living in a low income area of the US where malnutrition is rampant.

As my mother used to say, “count your blessings.”

I’ll let one of the comments from the original article have the last word on this topic.

They didn’t thrive under [the real “Paleo” diet]. They *starved.*

That’s why you lose weight on a paleo diet; because you can’t get enough calories eating that way! Today you do well on such a diet because the availability of these foods is so high that you can get by on quantity even if they aren’t calorie rich, but you wouldn’t last a MONTH if you were kicked back to those times.

‘Nuff said.