Sorry, Paleo Eaters: Your Diet Is Pretty Much Made Up
Bread and pasta lovers tired of hearing from their carnivorous friends on the Paleo diet about the evils lurking in that plate of spaghetti can take heart: Here’s yet another academic rebuttal to the Paleo fad that will make you feel better about not trying to eat like a caveman.
“Reconstructions of human evolution are prone to simple, overly tidy scenarios,” writes Ken Sayers, who studies primate and human evolution at Georgia State University. “Like much of our understanding of early hominoid behavior, the imagined diet of our ancestors has also been over-simplified.”
Sayers’ opinion piece, which appeared over at The Conversation on Tuesday, is a follow-up to research he and Kent State University anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy published in The Quarterly Review of Biology last December. The pair looked at the fossil record as well as chemical and archaeological evidence to try to determine what some of our earliest ancestors ate. They also incorporated a bit of “optimal foraging theory,” which uses mathematical models to predict how certain animals would find food in the wild based on various parameters.
The crux of their findings? What our hirsute forebears ate 6 million to 1.6 million years ago was no doubt entirely different from what modern-day fans of the Paleo diet eat. The diet varied so much depending on place and circumstance that it’s almost impossible for anthropologists to generalize what early hominids, who adapted to living in a range of environments, ate on a regular basis.
“Hominids didn’t spread first across Africa, and then the entire globe, by utilizing just one foraging strategy or sticking to a precise mix of carbohydrates, proteins and fats,” Sayers writes. “We did it by being ever so flexible, both socially and ecologically, and always searching for the greener grass (metaphorically), or riper fruit (literally).”
True, our ancestors weren’t kicking back around the fire noshing on Doritos and Dr. Pepper. If anthropologists have labored to point out that our modern ideas about what our distant forebears were eating are based more on myth than on science (see evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk’s Paleofantasy), most nutritionists at least cautiously endorse the Paleo diet’s rejection of highly processed foods that have been stripped of vital nutrients, the rampant consumption of which has been linked to a host of chronic, diet-related ills.
But as Sayers’ research suggests, anyone trying to approximate the diet of our primitive ancestors would likely have to start by replicating a sort of feast-and-famine cycle with respect to various food groups—because foraging in the wild means dealing with seasonal flux in the availability of different types of food. It would also mean dramatically expanding our notion of what’s edible.
“[P]lants’ underground storage organs (such as tubers), sedges, fruits, invertebrate and vertebrate animals, leaves and bark were all on the menu for at least some early hominids,” Sayers writes, noting that while evidence shows that hominids 2.6 million years ago were eating antelope, the question of whether the animals were hunted or scavenged “is hotly debated.”
That our earliest ancestors may have been subsisting on a diet of bugs and bark, or the prehistoric equivalent of roadkill, flies in the face of what is the oft-unstated, perhaps even subliminal, attraction of the Paleo diet, particularly among men: the image of the lean, fleet, proud early hunter, perfectly attuned to his natural environment, gorging on a feast of freshly killed beast—which, for today’s Paleos, apparently equates to eating plenty of bison steak.
“[T]he idea that our more ancient ancestors were great hunters is likely off the mark, as bipedality—at least before the advance of sophisticated cognition and technology—is a mighty poor way to chase game,” Sayers writes. “The anthropologist Bruce Latimer has pointed out that the fastest human being on the planet can’t catch up to your average rabbit. Another reason to be opportunistic about food.”
Instead of thinking of ourselves as somehow prehistorically aligned with the mighty hunters of the African plains—lions, say, or cheetahs—we might do better to look to the foraging habits of other animals for clues to how our ancestors ate. Sayers cites research that has found the back teeth of hominids were “bunodont,” that is, “low with rounded cusps,” suggesting our distant cousins were perhaps more omnivorous, like bears, which have similar teeth, as do pigs.
But eating like a hog in the name of good health is a lot less attractive than gorging on bacon.