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’.
I 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.
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