In which I discover ‘decadent’ paleo food

The other day I spotted something on sale in a sandwich bar and decided I’d seen it all. Paleo Muesli, a Paleo Roll and other Paleo-labelled products, all described as ‘decadent’.

Wright_NeanderthalI almost rolled about laughing, because one of the reasons why the ‘Paleo diet’ is so popular is because it rejects the foods that have fuelled our civilisation since about 10,000 years ago – especially the industrial incarnation.

The marketing department of this franchise, with its industrially-made products, was clearly immune to the word ‘irony’. Also ‘oxymoron’.

This doesn’t mean I endorse a ‘Paleo diet’. From the anthropological viewpoint it’s pop-sci that misreads hunter-gatherer culture (then and now) and which understates the ability of humans to adapt to new dietary content in fairly short periods – as in, a few thousand years.

The reality of the human condition in the stone age  – ‘paleolithic’, ‘mesolithic’, and finally ‘neolithic’, which broadly lasted until agriculture became prevalent about 10,000 years ago – was that tribes of approximately 150 kin-related individuals exploited local territories for whatever could be found. Despite the concept of men (‘mighty hunters’) bringing back mega-steaks (‘Ugh, Grug bring Mam-muth for Wo-man’), the fact is that women, typically, collected more calorific value in food than the men.

Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.
Neanderthal family group approximately 60,000 years ago. Artwork by Randii Oliver, public domain, courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The notion of ‘hunter gathering’ consisting of just a few varieties of food, to which our modern ones are add-ons, is flat wrong. Hunter-gatherer diets were highly varied, place-dependent, and often consisted of small quantities of many different types of foods – roots, berries, fish, meat, grains, and so forth. The composition was dependent on the range available in the area. In northern climates there was more emphasis on meats and fat than in the tropics. This demanded a biochemical adaptation to the new diet.

There is excellent evidence that – despite the strident cries of the ‘Paleo’ brigade today, wheat was part of that diet in some areas, possibly over a very extended period. The Gravettian culture that flourished around what is now the Black Sea, over 40,000 years ago, certainly collected wild wheat, ground it up, and made flat-bread. They even had wheat storage pits.

The evidence is that our biochemistry has mostly adapted to wheat, corn, cow’s milk and other stuff of the agricultural revolution. Mostly. But it’s taken a while. And that’s why industrially processed food – especially with additives – is likely to do a mischief. Because those additives are brand new to our systems. But the older stuff? Not so much.

My take? Obviously if somebody has a medical problem or allergy they need to be careful and follow doctors’ advice. But for most of us, I figure if we eat moderately, look to a wide range of different foods – and restrict ourselves to the kinds our grandparents ate, including preparing our meals fresh at home, we’ll possibly be OK.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


23 thoughts on “In which I discover ‘decadent’ paleo food

    1. They possibly did. There’s that stage in the plant decay process where sugars emerge (and/or the stuff ferments…) Here in NZ, corn in that state was considered a delicacy by nineteenth century Maori (corn arrived with the British).

      1. Indeed, at one time quite a bit of food was allowed to turn a bit. Fermentation is arguably in this category, and some sorts of fermentation are pretty “paleo” in origin.

        I’d be surprised if any paleo people allowed meat to start to decay a bit. It was probably mostly consumed on the spot or dried, but certainly in later years game meat in Europe was frequently allowed to hang a bit. Chances aren’t bad that the process of tenderizing meat in that fashion was a bit of an accident and that it may go way back, as if you are out on the steppes and starving and turn up on a bison, you might eat part of it no matter what.

  1. I find the whole food industry quite distasteful (no pun intended). Whilst one half of the world struggles every day to obtain a decent meal, the other half have turned food into a ridiculous pastime of fads and overconsumption.

    1. Too true! It’s ironic that while life for about 95 percent of human existence, including today, has consisted of a struggle to find enough to eat, the last few decades in the west have instead focussed on the outcomes of the way food production and the fact that humans need food to live have been industrialised.

  2. Really terrific points, Matthew! One huge complaint I have with the Paleo/Caveman Diet is the fact that we live much longer now. And while there are undoubtedly too many fake and chemical-laden food staples (especially in the US), the human body is highly adaptive. Entire cultures have survived on plants alone, and legumes are some of the most nutritious foods around.

    1. Actually, the concept that we live longer is highly flawed. We don’t, we just don’t die as often prematurely.

      Most of the “living longer” concept is actually based on a misunderstanding of statistics. In the Western World, its no longer the case that we have a high infant mortality rate. Next to that, we don’t have a high child mortality rate due to childhood diseases. And we don’t have a high mortality rate for women of child bearing age, due to deaths during delivery. If we take those three things out, we account for nearly all of the supposed “increase in life span”.

      Next to that, if we add in the reduction of deaths due to infectious diseases, and finally farming and industrial accidents, we’ve accounted for nearly all of it. The ability to address things like high blood pressure, asthma, etc., account for even more.

      So the actual increase in life span, while real, is highly marginal. Which is why we can find quite a few examples of old age in prior times, simply because these misfortunes did not befall everyone, and when they did not, people tended to live out their full lifespans.

    2. Yes, we definitely have a more significant lifespan than we used to – that old adage of historic life being nasty, brutish and above all short was true. Here in New Zealand, pre-contact Maori typically lived to no more than 40, though someone who survived that long might expect to live to 70 or more. (Curiously, a similar pattern was also evident in Europe of the same period). The trick, I think, is making the life available to us now as a result of modern medicine a usefully active one at the ‘far end’, and as you say, the modern chemical-laden diet isn’t great for that. I expect we’ll adapt, as you say – but it’ll take a bit of time.

      Here in NZ the regulations relative to staple food additives are fairly tight and I believe we have less chemicals than in the US (even in our ‘fast food’ – all the familiar US chains are also here). But it’s still pretty difficult to get ‘clean’ food at reasonable prices.

      1. A significant contributor to male death in much of human history was violent death. People always believe the opposite in any one era, but there’s less and less violence of all types over time, and we live in the least violent era of human history. Few westerners will die now a violent death, whether that be via crime, a domestic dispute, or war. Not so earlier on. At one time, an exposure to war was pretty much a human norm.

        1. Exposure to war still is the norm in many parts of the world. Alas. A part of the human condition that we struggle to control, as a species. The west is going through a more civilised period at the moment but I do wonder if that might change at some stage in the unknown future.

          1. The future is never fully l predictable, but the amount of violence of all types has declined. It’s quite remarkable actually.

            On war, even the amount of warfare in very non western parts of the worlds is way down. There are spots where this is not true, but be sure, but they tend to be the exceptions to the rule. And warfare itself has become less lethal when it involves western, or western influenced, nations. Now, the latter certainly isn’t true everywhere.

            It’s much too soon to declare that we see the end of war in sight. We certainly haven’t. And we can’t even really say is this trend will stick. But a trend it is. A war with the massive levels of violence that the wars of the mid 20th Century featured would be almost unimaginable for most westerners now. And unlike most people in most of human history, the overwhelming majority of westerners will never personally experience a war. Indeed, most westerners will never personally experience a violent death, a real change from history over time.

    1. True! I never could understand how anybody could eat a ‘300 gram’ or ‘500 gram’ steak, I do eat meat but in that quantity I think I’d be ill… in our household we vary the protein as widely as possible – fish, nuts, eggs. cheese etc – and some days don’t eat meat at all.

      1. And you probably don’t eat a massive quantity of anything, for that matter.

        The biggest problem Westerners face in their diet today is that they eat a lot of just about anything. Portions have grown, and even people who choose the salad option (not me) are eating a quantity of food that’s astounding, but unlike manual laborers of old, they aren’t burning up those kinds of calories.

        For a small person (such as me), it’s always evident if I go out to lunch. A lot of days I don’t even eat lunch, but anyone who works in town will sometimes for social reasons. The proportions are always enormous. Breakfast on the road tends to be the same way, as at home I’ll eat very little for breakfast and be fine, but on the road proportions are suitable for an army of Cossacks.

        1. There was that fad in the 80s where food was served in miniscule servings – nouvelle cuisine. I think a lot of today’s serving sizes, leaking into the domestic home cooked world, are huge as a legacy of the 1990s reaction to that. ‘Value for money’. It’s certainly contributed to the obesity problem in the west.

          1. I’m always amazed by the size portions in fast food restaurants. The “medium” size drink is what was the large size when I was young. The large size is colossal. I can recall when I was little people ordering the small sized drinks, but most places don’t even have a small now.

  3. Decadent paleo food? FFS! People will believe anything, and eat anything if they can be convinced it’s good for them. It’s good to see someone making some sensible comments about food for a change.

    1. Someone has to! 🙂 In our household we’ve discovered that fresh home-cooked is best and are able to ignore the barrage of adverts insisting that if we buy this fast food or that one, we’ll have a great social life or experience a ‘taste sensation’ (when I last heard, taste WAS a sensation, but apparently not to advertisers) or whatever.

  4. OK – because I tweeted this story, I got auto-followed by @Paleo_Lunch! And no, I didn’t follow them back. 🙂

  5. I am with you and August on an increased life span as well as the problems with the U.S. diet. People are looking for the one way to eat, which is akin to finding the one way to meditate. Whole, fresh food cooked at home is best, I think, but each body has its nutritional requirements, sometimes dictated by disease and environment. Really enjoyed this post, Matthew.

    1. Thanks. Yes, I agree. We have to tailor what we do to what is best for us individually, food included. Sometimes that involves trial and error. Convenience food, packaged by others for profit, isn’t it – however it’s labelled.

      I’ve been enjoying reading your recent posts, incidentally, as your journey unfolds. My own journey has been on its own unexpected path this last couple of months and I have not been able to put the time I would like into social media, so my commenting has been absent, but I hope things will be back on a more even keel in a while.

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