FRANKFURT- In a rare display of professional consensus, an international consortium of anthropologists, archaeologists, and molecular biologists have formally released an exasperated sigh over the popularity of the so-called “Paleo Diet” during a two-day conference dedicated to the topic.
The Paleo Diet is a nutritional framework based on the assumption that the human species has not yet adapted to the dietary changes engendered by the development of agriculture over the past ten thousand years. Proponents of the diet emphasize in particular the negative effects of eating large quantities of grain and its numerous by-products, which can lead to hypertension, obesity, and various other health problems. Instead, the Paleo Diet posits that a reliance on lean meats, fresh fruits, and vegetables while minimizing processed food is the key to health and longevity.
The nutritional benefits of the diet are not what the grievance is about, said Dr. Britta Hoyes, who organized the event. She agreed that a high-carbohydrate diet can have a detrimental effect on long-term health, as many studies have demonstrated. Instead, the group’s protest is a reaction to the biological and historical pediments of the diet, in particular the contention that pre-agricultural societies were only adapted to eat those foods existing before the Neolithic Revolution.
Hoyes, a paleoethnobotanist who specializes in reconstructing prehistoric subsistence, stated that only thing unifying the myriad diets that she’s studied has been their diversity. “You simply do not see specific, trans-regional trends in human subsistence in the archaeological record. People can live off everything from whale blubber to seeds and grasses. You want to know what the ideal human diet consists of? Everything. Humans can and will eat everything, and we are remarkably successful not in spite of this fact, but because of it. Our adaptability is the hallmark of the human species. We’re not called omnivores for nothing.”
As for the idea that agricultural products are somehow maladaptive to the human species, researchers at a seminar entitled “It’s When You Mate, Not What You Ate,” pointed out that evolutionary fitness is measured by reproductive success, not by the health or longevity of an individual.
Richard Wenkel, a biostatistician who chaired the panel, explained: “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.
“Look at that British girl who lived off of chicken nuggets for almost eighteen years, ” Wenkel continued. “The fact that her body was able to utilize the meager nutritional value of those things and get her to reproductive age is an incredible feat. It shows exactly how effective our versatility has been in human development. 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.”
Wenkel stressed that personal health is too often confused and conflated with evolutionary fitness, a fact that has become more pronounced with the popularity of the Paleo Diet. Roddy Collins, a colleague of Wenkel’s, drove the point home: “It’s like, even my barber is suddenly an expert in evolutionary physiology. A seventeen-year-old kid at my gym give me a ten minute lecture on how my Clif Bar was poison because humans can’t metabolize soy. I’ve been studying human evolution for thirty years.”
One of the strongest critiques of the Paleo Diet was presented by Karl Fenst, a bioarchaeologist with the Ardipithecus Institute, in a keynote address entitled “Papayas Ain’t Paleo, and Neither Are You.” Rather than focus on relative merits of one diet over another, Dr. Fenst instead attacked the premise that agricultural products are somehow “‘unnatural,” with wheat being specifically singled out. What people seem to ignore, he said, was that the fresh fruits and vegetables forming the basis of the Paleo Diet were created by the same agricultural process that produced cereal grains.
“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.”
In a Q-and-A session afterwards, Dr. Fenst provided some clarification into what he felt was at the heart of the issue: “The real problem is that people are cherry-picking data to sell this diet, and that it seriously misrepresents the historical and evolutionary development of our species.”
Back in the lobby, Dr. Hoyes was busily collecting signatures for an even stronger gesture than the sigh to be held at the conference next year. “Were thinking of something big,” she explained, “like a statue of a Cro-Magnon eating a baguette.” The room burst into applause at his news.
When asked what she would tell people who wished to pursue a true paleolithic diet, Dr. Hoyes laughed harshly before replying. “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.”
Summing up what many considered to be the main point of the entire conference, she told reporters:
“Look, the diet itself is sound; it’s the philosophy that’s bullshit. Eat what you want. Just leave the damn cavemen out of it.”