Thoughts on paleo

The paleo diet is a pretty big thing right now. Though I haven’t been tempted to try it, I’ve been interested in learning about it because it seems like the concept has a decent thesis: Eat what humans are built to process and we’ll be healthy.

But the execution seems to have some flaws to me. I’ll let an expert explain this.

I was listening to NPR’s Fresh Air yesterday after work, and my idol, Terry Gross, introduced the guest, evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman. The topic: How modern life contributes to the diseases and ailments we deal with today. I immediately freaked out (in a good way), hoping he’d address diet.

He didn’t discuss plant-based eating and how that can prevent and reverse tons of conditions that are on the rise, but Lieberman is a paleo skeptic. In fact, he says, paleo diet adherents are dead wrong about a lot of assumption about the paleolithic lifestyle – it really depends on where in the world one lived, which is logical.

“The Paleo diet also has a kind of simplistic approach to this question, almost creating a bunch of rules that don’t necessarily make any sense from an evolutionary perspective,” he said.

He goes on:

(I)t’s a kind of diet by analogy. If hunter-gatherers ate it, it must be good and if we eat it – if it’s more recent than hunter-gatherers, it must be bad. And you can, of course, quickly appreciate that some of that logic is a little bit flawed because just because something is recent doesn’t mean it’s bad. And just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s good. And furthermore, hunter-gatherers didn’t evolve necessarily to be healthy. They evolved to have lots of babies and health was only selected for in so far as it helped people have more babies. That’s after all, what natural selection’s really about.

And hunter-gatherers, in fact, aren’t always healthy. There’s I think a kind of a little bit of romanticism applied to hunter-gatherers. And there’s also no one kind of hunter-gatherers. After all, our ancestors who are hunter-gatherers lived in environments as diverse as the African savanna to and rainforests and in the Arctic and everywhere else, they managed to eke out a living in all kinds of different habitats. And there was no one Paleo diet, there were many Paleo diets. And so it’s a complex problem.

… (T)here’s a big debate going on about fats and what kinds of fats are healthy and we’ve been hearing for years now that saturated fats are evil and unsaturated fats are healthy. But some hunter-gatherers eat a lot of saturated fats. And so some Paleolithic diet proponents believe that you should just have as much saturated fat as you want. And there are various arguments for and against that but that’s an experiment that I, for example, am not willing to undergo, is to eat as much saturated fat as I’d like. There are still scientific arguments about what ratios of fats are the best and what’s the right fat. And in fact, I think even asking what’s the best is often problematic because again, what’s the output parameter you’re interested in? You know, are you interested in living longest or being more vigorous or having more offspring? Remember, that what natural selection cared about the most was how many offspring you had who then survived to then have offspring themselves. So just because hunter-gatherers may eat certain diets doesn’t mean that they’re going to, that’s the same kind of diet that’s going to promote health in a modern context.

Food for thought.

This conversation covered lots of bases. Find the audio show, great snippets to read or a full transcript here.

AND: Additional thoughts from an archaeologist here.


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