Food

The Paleo Diet Fad Has Spun Totally Out of Control—and It's Giving Neanderthals a Bad Rap

Neanderthals didn't munch on paleo Filipino pili nuts with Himalayan sea salt. But our ancestors had a good understanding of what foods were available to them.

a walk in the woods for mushrooms
Photo Credit: Chipmunk131/Shutterstock

The Paleolithic diet has taken the world by storm in recent years, and modern man has eagerly cashed in on the growing desire to eat primitively. The paleo industry is expected to rake in $300 million a year by the end of 2018. According to a trade group known as the Paleo Foundation, one big growth segment of the industry is paleo/vegan crossover products. It conjures an image of a flock of free range tofurkys, which surely must have been a favorite of our vegan ancestors who wanted to pretend to be eating meat. The range of Certified Paleo Products include paleo granola, paleo mushroom coffee and cold-brew wellness teas, paleo gluten-free pizza crust, paleo Filipino pili nuts with Himalayan sea salt...you get the pictograph.

In other words, this dietary fad, which sprang from provocative roots and may indeed have real-world health benefits, has also spun out of control into a certified paleo shitshow. And while it’s entirely appropriate to scoff at this absurdity, this profiteering alone isn’t reason to dismiss the idea that our diet should, ideally, align with what humans ate when their bodies evolved into their current form. After all, if you had a car designed for diesel fuel, why would you put unleaded gasoline in the tank?

Since our ancestors were presumably spear-throwing hunters, it follows that the paleo diet should be heavy on meat, and devoid of modern day processed carbohydrates and dairy products.

The theory is tempting for numerous reasons. It doesn’t hurt that us modern humanoids do enjoy our meat and fat—at least many of us do—and confirmation bias is human nature. In other words, we gravitate toward any theoretical support to justify how we want it to be. And, those who try a low-carb diet in hopes of losing weight tend to be pleased with the immediate results. They line up with the uptick, in recent years, in the available data suggesting that concerns about dietary fat—to which we are also quite partial—are overblown, if not completely backwards. There is a growing body of clinical evidence that cutting processed carbs and adding animal fats and protein is just fine, an idea that flies in the face of the dominant dietary paradigm of the the last few decades.

One recent study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, sought to verify the popular claim that a paleo-esque low-carb diet can help control diabetes. Two groups of diabetics were fed different diets: one was a paleo-esque low-carb diet, and the other a standard modern diet—the kind upon which many so-called diseases of civilization like obesity and diabetes are blamed. The results were significant after only 14 days, with the paleo group faring noticeably better in terms of diabetic markers like blood sugar and insulin resistance.

These results, while based on a relatively small sample size, nonetheless validate the paleo-digm. And they joined a growing list of studies that suggest physiological benefits when modern humans avoid modern foods. A subsequent meta-study that involved many more data points found evidence that a paleo-type diet improves risk factors for the constellation of chronic conditions known as metabolic syndrome, including heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and belly fat, as well as diabetes.  

But even as the clinical evidence mounts in favor of diets that are low in processed carbohydrates and high in fat and protein, different lines of inquiry call into question the basic assumptions upon which the whole thing was originally built. Namely, that our ancient forefathers were all bloodthirsty fat-chewers.

A team of scientists that took on the glorious task of analyzing the microbial DNA found in the plaque recovered from the teeth of unearthed Neanderthals found something curious that, when you think about it, shouldn’t be a surprise at all: Our ancestor were omninvores. Sure, they hunted, when possible. But more often they gathered. They were opportunivores who ate what they could, because they didn’t have the freedom to hold out for only Certified Paleo skillet taco sauce.

Some of the teeth did indeed display the microbial fingerprints of a meaty diet—wooly rhinos and wild sheep, specifically—but others showed no evidence of meat whatsoever. Instead, they showed a diverse diet of the likes of mushrooms, tree bark, pine nuts and moss. At least there were Twinkies to be found; the absence of processed carbs, in addition to being one of the most clinically sound elements of the diet, is also among the most likely things to be true about it.

“We need to revamp the view of Neanderthals as these meat-eating, club-toting cavemen,” Laura Weyrich, a member of the team told The Atlantic. “They had a very good understanding of what foods were available to them.” This understanding may have included knowledge of medicinal plants. Traces of poplar bark, for example, which contains aspirin, were found on the teeth of one individual who had a dental abscess.

Of course, these are Neanderthals we are talking about, not modern humans, so caveats apply. But the same basic conditions of scarcity, and geographic differences in available available foods, would have surely applied to ancient humans as well.

“What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat. We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the Earth, consuming diets ranging from almost all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes,” William Leonard of Northwestern University wrote in Scientific American in 2002.

Aside from what they ate, the more serious practitioners of one of the myriad paleo doctrines tend to understand that ancestral health, or alternatively, the primitive lifestyle, is also about things like movement and fresh air. A good club duel, providing you prevail, can do the body a lot of good, even before you sit down and eat your vanquished opponent's eyeballs.

One primal activity, foraging, would be much less frowned upon than mortal combat in today’s more litigious than indigenous culture. As it involves food, air, exercise, and earthy smarts, and a healthy amount of discomfort, it ticks a lot of boxes that both certified nutritionists and paleo coaches would endorse. Foraging represents a full half of the “hunter-gatherer” cliché that has been so endlessly romanticized. And this is perhaps one of the most important lessons we can extract from the original paleo lifestyle and apply to our own modern-day schedules.

The reasons to forage go beyond exercise to nutrition. It also helps you connect with your landscape, and get in harmony with the local natural cycles. It offers stress, like damp feet and scratched arms, which stimulates the immune system. And, especially this time of year, it offers the possibility of nutrients that your body might badly need.

With the winter snows finally receding across most of the country, the green shoots of springtime will soon emerge. The dandelions come first, at least in my neck of the woods. Then come the nettles, if you know where to find them (near running water). This kind of mission is a great excuse to pick up a local field guide to native, edible plants and bond with your home ground.

Throughout most of human history, including modern history, winter has been an especially difficult time to get your vitamins. And the young, often bitter sprouts that push up through the mud are often just what you need. So instead of buying a new diet book, buy a local plant book instead. Instead of trying to guess what your ancestors ate, lace up your shoes, take a walk, and find something to eat. And you might want to brush your teeth afterwards, if for no other reason than to confuse the dietary researchers of tomorrow.


 

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.
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