You Can Thank ‘Paleo Nostalgia’ for the Paleo Diet’s Popularity

The epiphanic moment in Midnight in Paris doesn't have anything to do with artists, cultural decadence, or even trans-epoch romance — it's all about a mundane dream visit to the dentist in which Hemingway sycophant Gil Pender realizes that, holy shit, the local anesthetics in the early 20th century sucked so much that it was probably better to just suffer with an infected tooth than have a sadistic giant named McTeague dig around in your mouth with a rusty screwdriver and some good ol' Yankee Doodle know-how. "Golden age thinking," or nostalgia for a time we never knew, is part of the inescapable absurdity of being human. Nostalgia intrudes — rudely, often uninvited — on every conversation about modern innovations, from the inevitable demise of artisanally mass-produced Nora Roberts paperbacks, to the proliferation of processed, carb-heavy foodstuffs. Wasn't human existence soooo much more salubrious when everyone (except all those poors who couldn't afford expensive books!) read musty leather-bound volumes and trudged out to the garden to yank a turnip out of the ground every time they wanted a snack? Surely, those were the days.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of this misplaced nostalgia has been the so-called Paleo diet, which contends that people didn't evolve to sit on their haunches and eat cheese Danishes all morning — we were meant to run through the woods, harpooning mastodons and grunting inarticulately at each other. The human body wasn't engineered to deal with bread and pasta, so eating lots of bread and pasta turns us all into the the dough people from WALL-E, not the worst fate in the world if someone invents one of those sweet hover recliners.

Following the Paleo diet logic seems to make sense for a lot of people looking for the inner track on weight loss, but going Paleo is sort of bullshit, according to Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist at UC-Riverside and author of the new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. In a recent interview with Slate's Alison George, Zuk pointed out the fallacy of Paleo diets, which is that they attempt to make a sweeping judgment about the course of human evolution without considering that human evolution is still very much in progress:

There is this caricature that organisms evolve until they get to a point when they're perfectly adapted to their environment, then heave this big sigh of relief and stop. Anything that happens to them after that is disastrous.

You see this attitude in what can be referred to as "paleo-nostalgia"-the notion that we were all better off before agriculture, or civilization, or the Industrial Revolution. It's not to say life has been unmitigatedly getting better. But it's more helpful and accurate to see that all organisms are constantly evolving. There has been no point in our past when we were perfectly adapted to our environment.

I'm not dismissing the idea that you need to look at our evolutionary heritage to think about what's best for us healthwise. But when you start plucking out pieces in an oddly specific way, you can run into trouble.

Perhaps people weren't meant to drink tureens of Fanta while toggling through the DVR archives of Cake Boss over the course of a Sunday afternoon, but things are way better now than they were 10,000 years ago, when Earth's hottest spot was Jericho and if you wanted something to eat, you had to kill a goat with a rock. Everyone looked really good naked, though, which is a good thing considering clothes were made out of fleas and animal skins.

The Paleo Diet Is a Paleo Fantasy [Slate]

Image via Supri Suharjoto/ Shutterstock.