The Paleolithic diet attempts to replicate the dining habits of our ancient ancestors. To do this in the most genuine manner, shovel some plants, roots, and barely-edible berries in your mouth and hope you survive. Rats, beetles, and any other living creature you can catch are also on the menu.
The impetus behind this movement is the belief that we evolved to be hunter-gatherers, and that today’s food wreaks havoc with that. This represents a misunderstanding of an evolutionary tenet. If an animal could only thrive in environments identical to their ancestors, this failure to adapt would lead to extinction.
So as agriculture progressed, humans evolved the ability to digest gluten and dairy products, and their mouths developed a shearing overbite that replaced a straight-on cutting shape. Besides being biologically distinctive from our Paleolithic grandpappies, we eat food that has been greatly improved through artificial selection. When a Paleo dieter eats cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts or kale, they likely don’t realize that post-Paleo Man developed all these from one plant species.
The diet eliminates not just processed foods, but anything dieters think was unavailable to those in the Paleolithic Era. A partial list of off-limits sustenance includes corn, potatoes, sugar, salt, dairy, grain, and legumes. But the idea that we have gotten away from an optimum diet fine-tuned for human benefit is erroneous. Hair and bone samples of persons from the era showed several instances of malnourishment and even starvation. There is no reason to adopt the purported dietary lifestyle of this or any era. As evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk has asked, “If we’re going to nominate a period to emulate, why not eat like a medieval peasant or an ancestral tree shrew?” And if picking the Paleo Era, one still must decide which society to copy from, among all that existed during the 2.5 million years. There is no seal or walrus in any variants of this diet, yet Inuit hunter-gatherers consumed sea mammals with as much gusto as Don Gorske does Big Macs.
Indeed, the diet is said to be based on foods which hunter-gatherers ate, but is more accurately based on what proponents think they ate. For instance, anthropologists have found fire pits from early humans that contain grains, one of the most verboten foods in the diet. There is also evidence suggesting humans in this era cooked wild potatoes, legumes, and sugars.
The diet is not without benefit, as its abundance of unprocessed foods will likely increase satiety. And similar to other low-fat, low-carbohydrate diets, the Paleo combats heart disease and diabetes, and aids in weight loss. It promotes eating lean protein and certain fruits and vegetables, which is healthy enough. But the items it excludes makes it difficult to get adequate calcium and fiber.
While historically dubious, with moderate health benefits, the Paleo diet poses no danger, unless one becomes too dogmatic. Along those lines, there is nothing in scientific literature to support claims from the movement’s leaders that it prevents acne, autism, cancer, arthritis, or the ill-defined inflammation.
Then we have Australian chef Pete Evans, who wrote a children’s Paleo cookbook. It included a bone broth baby formula that contained 10 times more Vitamin A than would be safe for an infant. Because of this potentially fatal recipe, the publisher refused to print it. Evans responded by declaring he would not be silenced, digitally publishing the book himself, and encouraging others to slurp away. Try it and see if you survive. That’s the most authentic Paleolithic diet yet.