Judging by social media and conversations with friends, everyone is “going paleo” these days. By that, I mean everyone is adopting the Paleo Diet, which, as the name implies, is unique in that it requires you to eat only rocks.
Hold on a moment. I just got a text from my fact-checker.
Hmm… It seems I misinterpreted that name. The Paleo Diet is not comprised of rocks. It therefore must be a diet for rocks. But that doesn’t really make any sense, either. I mean, what do rocks eat exactly? Maybe that’s why they need a diet; they’re malnourished.
Another text. One second…
Yeah, my bad. It turns out the Paleo Diet is actually for people, which makes sense, and it is not comprised of rocks, which also makes sense. The Paleo Diet is so named, because the goal is to eat as much like our hunter-gatherer ancestors as possible. And that makes no sense whatsoever.
To its hardcore adherents, the Paleo Diet is the only way to eat, and they are quick to tell you how wrong you are for not eating that way. To Paleo skeptics, it’s simply the latest in a long series of American fad diets. On that spectrum between believer and skeptic, count me as conscientiously agnostic. I’m not a nutritiophysicianist, or whatever you call a doctor who studies these things, so I can’t refute or validate the claims of this diet on medical grounds, but I can on cultural ones. So I shall.
Paleo Hates Evolution
Wait a cotton-picking minute! A Southern blog starting out its argument in defense of evolution? Blasphemy! That whirring sound you hear is William Jennings Bryan spinning in his grave. But stick with me here.
The entire Paleo Diet is based on the premise that human anatomy is not equipped to properly digest grains, legumes, dairy and many other food items common in the daily diets of most civilized cultures. In other words, we should have stuck with the diet of cavemen, as if cavemen had one universal diet.
What they’re telling us is that while the human mind is sufficiently evolved to conceive of the cultivation of crops, the human body didn’t keep pace. So our minds are a few tens of thousands of years ahead of our bodies? If this is survival of the fittest, I’d hate to see the proto-human species that got voted off this island Earth. They were probably so stupid they tried to eat rocks.
(Of course, the human mind could also conceive of how to process those crops to hell and back to create Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies. However, most human minds also know those Creme Pies will kill you, if you make them a staple of your diet.)
Anyhow, this whole un-evolved gut thing sounds like some crappy evolution to me. Maybe Paleo is more of a Bible thing.
Paleo Hates the Bible
Two of the key components (or missing components, rather) of the Paleo Diet are grains and dairy. You can’t have ‘em. Not just bleached wheat flour and not just cow’s milk — all grains and all dairy. (Some paleos will allow themselves the occasional bit of goat milk or cheese, but for the most part, any milk that comes from a teat other than the ones that nursed you is a no-no.)
I could go on for thousands of words about the references to grain in the Bible. But let’s start with the big one: manna. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God gave them manna six mornings a week to ensure their nourishment. Here’s how manna is described:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “I will rain down bread from heaven for you. The people are to go out each day and gather enough for that day … When the dew was gone, thin flakes like frost on the ground appeared on the desert floor. When the Israelites saw it, they said to each other, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was … It was white like coriander seed and tasted like wafers made with honey.
The Bible goes on to say that it could be boiled, baked or made into cakes. A fine, white grain that can be boiled or baked and comes from Heaven? Any Southerner worth his non-Paleo-approved salt can tell you what that is: grits! And any diet that is anti-grits should be ignored altogether.
Just as grains often symbolize the promise of God’s goodness and provision, dairy is mentioned frequently in the Bible, too. Probably no mention of dairy is more prominent than God referring to the Promised Land as a “land flowing with milk and honey.” That wasn’t a warning. It was a promise. He wasn’t leading his people to a land of intestinal distress and diabetes.
Heck, even the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem, is literally translated in Hebrew as “House of Bread.”
If we are to take the Paleo folks at their word, either we are a poorly evolved species with dysfunctional intestines or, if we are followers of the three major monotheistic religions, we are worshipping a god that tries to kill us with allergies while promising us all along that these are signs of his goodness.
At least the Paleo folks still have science.
Paleo Hates Science
Okay, maybe that’s a little bit of a stretch, but it’s not far off. The chief argument of Paleo is that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not suffer from “diseases of affluence.” Those would be ailments like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, asthma and lactose intolerance. To date, there have only been a handful of limited studies on the effectiveness of the Paleo Diet, and none of those have been long-term. Paleo is not even a theory. It’s an unproven hypothesis, at best.
When the foremost experts of any movement have books or expensive gym memberships to sell, I tend to ignore their science.
Maybe those cavemen of times past never developed type II diabetes because they pulled a hammy while chasing down dinner and became dinner themselves. Maybe they never got pancreatic cancer because, in a time of drought or extreme cold, they were killed by rival tribes for control of hunting grounds. Or maybe they killed themselves in a fit of 20-something angst, because they just wanted to give up the rat race and settle down, for goodness’ sake. (Racing rats was a ritual form of proving one’s fitness as a mate in many as-yet-undiscovered prehistoric cultures.)
If the downfall of man’s diet began with the invention of agriculture and the cultivation of grains, I ask this: where did those first farming cultures get the idea to grow grains to begin with? In the Fertile Crescent, people cultivated wheat, because they wanted a predictable and consistent source of a food that was already important to their diet. In Asia, nomadic peoples settled down and started farming rice, because they liked the way it complemented their fish. Native Americans cultivated maize, because they wanted more maize. In short, people cultivated grains for one reason: they were already eating grains.
As far as dairy, I can see a little more logic in assuming hunter-gatherers didn’t partake. But you can’t tell me that if they took down a nice, fat wild cow that they didn’t harvest the milk from her as well. Every part of the buffalo, as they say.
And who’s to say the occasional leaky goat or cow didn’t wander into a cave, spill a pint or two into a natural bowl in the rock? The udder juice was left to ferment until a salty rock conveniently fell onto the curdled milk, splashing out all the whey and pressing the curds into cheese for some curious cave painter to discover while searching for a fresh canvas. Sounds plausible. Hell, it happened to me last week.
Paleos also avoid legumes — in other words, beans. Beans! They’re good for your heart! The more you eat, the more you… Far too important a food group to be dismissed outright, I find it difficult to believe paleo man wouldn’t have come across a wild vine of beans from time to time. Chances are, he wouldn’t pass it by without trying a bite. (I’m imagining this was the job of a legendary food taster known for his ability to digest almost anything: Mukluk the Impervious.)
So the science is sketchy, at best. There’s always history.
Paleo Hates History
It is a given that civilized human society, as we know it, began in various parts of the world when hunter-gatherers gave up their nomadic ways and settled down to cultivate crops and domesticate livestock. From the simple act of planting and harvesting grain sprang the great dynasties of China, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians, and the cultures of Mesopotamia and the Indus valley.
Roman coins honored Anonna, the goddess who personified the grain supply. The Pilgrims at Plymouth would not have survived to observe the first Thanksgiving if not for the Wampanoag teaching them how to grow corn.
Everything you and I take for granted in our daily lives — from houses to education to money to the electronic device you are using to read this post — was made possible by the decision to cultivate grains. Therefore, when someone argues that science has proven the diet of paleo man to be a healthier alternative, I want to remind them that had paleo man not settled down and started farming, they wouldn’t have any such thing as science with which to argue their point. The Paleo Diet as a cultural phenomenon is itself a product of the cultivation of grains.
There are a number of serious consequences to be considered when arguing that everyone should eat paleo, and many of them are well articulated in this NPR post.
Certainly there is value in eating a diet that is free of simple carbohydrates and processed, manufactured foods. Many days, my own diet follows even the strictest paleo guidelines, focusing only on lean meats and fresh fruits and vegetables. And I have almost completely eliminated sodas, artificial sweeteners, processed sugars, and simple carbs from my diet. Even two slices of whole-grain bread in a day can make me feel bloated and ill. So, I get it. I understand the appeal of the diet.
What I don’t understand is the self-righteous, cult-like mentality of many of its adherents. I’ve got an anti-authoritarian streak that runs a country mile. The surest way to get me to not do something is to insist that I must. And backing it up with half-baked science and a complete disregard for the entire history of human civilization won’t help your argument. It makes me want to go eat a dozen Krispy Kremes at your kitchen table just to tick you off.
So eat Paleo if you like. Or don’t if you don’t like. But know that advocating for a hunter-gatherer diet in a post-agrarian world, where you need not hunt or gather it yourself, is a luxury of modernity. You can thank grains for that.