Devin Ellsworth

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Paleolithic Dreams

Is it just me, or is the so called “Paleo Diet,” (otherwise known as the caveman diet) getting a lot of attention these days?  In the last month I have heard about it from several sources, and have read a few articles surveying its principles and ideals.  For those who haven’t read up, let me quickly catch you up to speed.

The basic premise of the Paleo Diet is that in evolutionary terms, human beings have not evolved much in the last 20,000 years or so.  With regard to diet, this means that our bodies are still “programmed” to need the same foods we subsisted on back when we were hunter-gatherers.

For the champions of this particular diet, this translates into a genetic map of what we should be eating, and they think they’ve struck gold.  Foods that are emphasized include meat first and foremost (admittedly they recommend only free range and grass fed animals), nuts, berries, seeds, other fruits and root vegetables.  What is strictly NOT ok are grains of any kind, as well as processed foods.

The premise here is that our bodies have not caught up, in evolutionary terms, to the advent of agriculture, and that grain is actually very bad for our bodies, causing huge spikes in insulin to deal with all the carbs, and leading to the obesity epidemic.

Now this is where I really start to take issue.  Forgetting for a moment the incredible environmental toll of a diet based on meat as a centerpiece, even if it is well raised, blaming grains for the obesity epidemic is just misguided and dangerous.

No one denies the role that processed foods play in the enlarging of American waistlines, but putting the other half of your chips into the grain theory is just factually inaccurate.  You need only look across the great Pacific ocean for billions of examples of Asian eaters who subsist on vast quantities of rice on a daily basis.

Japan, for example, has an average life expectancy of 82.9 years, edging out the great US of A by a whopping 4.7 years!  And they achieve this with very low obesity rates to boot.  Sure diet isn’t the only factor leading to longevity in the nation of sushi, but it equally isn’t causing a crazy obesity epidemic as the Paleo founders believe about this country.

In fact, Americans eat on average the absolute highest annual poundage of animals worldwide, which (even though we also consume the most calories of any nation) would lead one to believe that we de-emphasize grain in our diet by comparison.  When compared globally, our consumption of grain pales in comparison to countries where it is literally at every meal.

And yet somehow, we are to believe that our bodies essentially don’t know what to do with it and it is the reason we are fat.

The other major component of the Paleo Diet is prehistoric exercise, such as running barefoot and doing wind sprints as opposed to long distance running (supposedly to mimic being chased by something big and scary).  This I have little problem with, since any advocacy for more exercise is a good thing, regardless of what is going on in your imagination.

But one of the major proponents of the diet, John Durant, had a great quote in an article featuring him where he talked about how great he felt, how he had more energy, was in the best shape of his life, etc, and he credited this lifestyle.  What’s funny is that literally every person who decides to stop eating processed foods and start exercising more will also feel “great” and like they have “more energy than before.”

It’s not rocket science.  Eating twinkies and watching tv makes you feel bad.  Eating whole foods and running barefoot in the park (or whatever other exercise it may be) makes you feel good.

I take issue with this diet because I think it is dangerous advice at a perilous time.  Americans continue to get fatter, the world continues to get warmer, and the very last thing we need is someone telling us to eat more meat.  While it may “work” for the very dedicated few that promote this lifestyle, for the vast majority of American’s this lifestyle will be dulled down into a mantra that meat is good and carbs are bad and that maybe I should run once in awhile.

I think Michael Pollan said it best in his book, “In Defense Of Food.”  I am roughly quoting here; “virtually every diet that human beings (culturally speaking) have ever come up with has promoted human health, except the Western Diet.”  And what tipifies the Western Diet?  Large quantities of meat and processed foods.

The Paleo Diet eliminates one, and I give props for that, but at the cost of another.  I am not ready to give up on grain, or the countless studies supporting its healthfulness, because people want to pretend that we still live like cavemen.  After all, they did only live to be like 30.

I’ll take Japan and their 83.9 years, thank you very much.


Leave a Comment!

I agree totally that elimination of food like substances is critical to health.

However, I think the Paleo Diet folks have the grains thing partially right. I was listening to an interview of Gary Taubes (author of Why We Get Fat) recently and he theorized that the overabundance of simple carbs such as sugar, HF corn syrup, and white flour is is the leading cause of weight gain and retention.

He thinks, similarly to the Paleos, that our ancestors would not have had such ready access to sugar and therefore we evolved to produce an insulin reaction to simple carbs, which in turn tells to body to start storing it as fat, presumably because these sources would help our ancestors in lean times. He also noted that other foods, even ones with sugars such as fruits and vegetables do not illicit the same reaction in the body.

His conclusion was to almost totally eliminate carbs from his diet, but it seems more sensible to avoid refined sugars and simple carbs as much as can be tolerated and to not worry as much about the complex carbs. This would seem to fall in line with those that give up soda and manage to loose significant weight.

I also believe you are right about the Paleos error in making meat the centerpiece of diet. They have been criticized for not looking particularly closely at the actual diet of Paleolithic Man and this is one area that fits that criticism because, with the exception of arctic dwellers that subsist almost entirely on meat, meat, especially big game, was not the center of our ancestors’ diet. Fish was a much more common protein source and nuts would have supplemented.

So, looking at “the Land of Sushi,” though white rice is somewhat refined and less nutritious than brown rice it is much less refined than sugar and white flour and having fish as the central protein source is also healthier and better for the environment. So the Japanese really do eat closer to a true Paleo diet and are healthier.