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

Illustration for article titled 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.

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The Paleo diet is bullshit for the following reasons.

1. Ok so there was no monolithic one-style of eating during the Paleolithic. People hunted what was locally available (a lot of species like Woolly Mammoth are now extinct) and ate a lot of bugs. YES BUGS. EXCELLENT SOURCE OF FAT AND PROTEIN, BUGS. No where in any literature I have read about "going Paleo" does it say "eat bugs."

2. We aren't "engineered" to eat modern day cattle. People at Jericho were eating aurochs, big, mean, aggressive large-horned evolutionary great-grandpas of cows. Also, all those locally sourced cows eating nice not-corn grass the Paleo diet encourages us to eat? Those grasses are domesticates, just like the cows, AND NEITHER WERE AROUND DURING THE PALEOLITHIC.

3. MOST of our produce all those "natural" foods the Paleolithic diet urges to eat in lieu of big bad evil grains and corns were likewise NOT the same (or even the same species!) during the Paleolithic period. They are products of the Neolithic and beyond, of centuries of...dare I say it...GENETIC MODIFICATION (because really folks, that's what domestication is, genetic modification, no I'm anti-Monsanto just like you but for different reasons).

4. It really does not make any sense to me a diet that encourages the consumption of meats thinks that dairy products are bad. Of course there are people who have lactose intolerances and sensitivities, but there are also people who die when they smell a peanut. Does this mean we should all jump on an anti-peanut bandwagon?

5. We don't know exactly how healthy our Paleolithic ancestors were. We just don't - we have a spotty archaeological record, we can't even really say exactly what happened to Neanderthals (did we absorb them, were they truly a separate species, what the hell happened to them, why do people still have some Neanderthal DNA etc.). So who is to say there weren't certain health issues related to diet thousands of years ago? There's just no solid evidence either way. Maybe they were, maybe they suffered from things that we could never dream of, either way it's not really something to base your entire lifestyle on.

The two things the Paleolithic diet has going for it is a lack of processed foods (like chips) and a focus on a variety of different foods. But these are also hallmarks of any general "eat healthy" food philosophy.

I will say, the gluten-free people tend to annoy me slightly more than the Paleo people. Only slightly.