Friday, September 27, 2013

The neolithic paleo diet

Some time ago, I came across an article that seemed to imply that some people believe (incorrectly, in the authors' view) that hunter-gatherers expend more energy than modern Westerners, which is why hunter-gatherers are fit while office workers are not. I've always thought instead that the argument was framed in terms of traditional farming societies versus modern society. It's rather astounding how much people back then ate. I remember reading statistics that the average American in the early 1800s ate something like 3000 calories a day, while the recommended caloric intake today is 2000-2400 calories. Considering that the modern diet is much more similar to the traditional diet of agricultural societies (e.g., meat and potatoes, bread and butter, etc.) than it is to the diet of hunter-gatherers even though office workers perform far less physical labor than farmers, it makes more sense to compare modern diets to traditional farming diets rather than to hunter-gatherer diets.

A friend then asked whether it would make sense to simply move away from a traditional farmer-based diet that our ancestors ate to, say, a paleo diet. That got me thinking. Over the past year or so, I've done a decent amount of research into food and diet, including reading Gary Taubes's Good Calories, Bad Calories (a rather technical book debunking "fats are bad" persuasively and promoting "carbs are bad" less persuasively, though I think the evidence for refined sugar being bad is a lot stronger) and Bee Wilson's Consider the Fork (which is mostly a food history book), and rereading Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and The Omnivore's Dilemma (which I am rereading right now).

One of the points that Taubes makes obliquely is that people who eat traditional diets do not get fat, even though these traditional diets run the gamut of anywhere from Inuits who never eat vegetables to Pacific Islanders who eat lots of starch and fish. Pollan makes this point more explicitly: Some traditional diets are high-fat; others are high-carb. Yet none of them seem to lead to the "diseases of civilization" that we see associated with the Western diet. So while I think a paleo diet wouldn't hurt, I don't think we need to go that far. In other words, as long as you adopt any traditional diet, you should be fine.

The problem, though, is that that is probably harder than it sounds. Our modern society simply does not make it easy. Are you going to have time to cook for yourself every single day? Can you bring your own lunch and eat it in half an hour or less? Traditional diets generally did not consist of prepared sack lunches. And even if you did adopt a traditional diet, how closely do you need to follow it? As Pollan points out, we don't know exactly why traditional diets work. Is it because of their presence, or is it because of the Western diet's absence that people become healthier? If we don't know what particular components make them healthy, then it seems dangerous to pick and choose certain things in a traditional diet. Can we even mix traditional diets? I don't know if I could stand eating the food of only one cuisine for the rest of my life.

And in the case of the paleo diet in particular, what exactly does it consist of? Ignoring the fact that there's no such thing as the one paleo diet that hunter-gatherers around the world followed, I don't think it's even possible for a modern urban Westerner to approximate anything like a true paleolithic diet. The biggest flaw is the fact that it's nearly impossible for somebody today to avoid all domesticated agricultural products. Paleo diet enthusiasts claim that we shouldn't eat grain because that's a neolithic invention. Yes, that's true, but what about "grass-produced meats"? Animal husbandry is another component of the Neolithic Revolution. In fact, not only did hunter-gatherers not eat beef or chicken, but they also did not eat bananas, or lettuce, or broccoli -- at least, not in the way we think of them today. Wild bananas are full of inedible seeds; wild lettuce is very bitter; wild broccoli doesn't even exist. The same goes for apples, which have been selected to be much larger and sweeter than their wild cousins; olive oil, which would not have existed before the Neolithic Era because what little fruit borne by wild olive trees would be small, have little oil, and be surrounded by thorns; and countless other foods. My point isn't simply to attack the paleo diet (although I realize I am doing that), but rather to point out that it's hard to know what a traditional diet actually entails.
Having said all this, I think the easier solution is to focus less on the presence of a traditional diet and more on the absence of the modern Western diet, which seems to be the common thread between any traditional diet, no matter how different they are from each other. This means avoiding (in varying levels of strenuousness) refined sugar, refined grains, and processed foods such as margarine, soy protein isolate, high-fructose corn syrup, and so on. It's hard to avoid these in a modern diet, but at least it's a start.

No comments: