The Paleo Diet, known for its heaping portions of animal flesh, is being blamed again for its resemblance to the diet of one “modern Stone Age” man in particular:
Bringing some scientific rigor to the debate over what Paleolithic people really ate before the invention of brontosaurus burger buns, is TED speaker Christina Warinner. Warinner is an anthropologist of nutrition; she studies the diets of ancient people through the fossil records, including even microfossils on the teeth of people who’ve been dead for tens of thousands of years.
If you’d like the short version, Warinner says that what passes for Paleo these days is not even slightly Paleolithic. First of all, there were many Paleo diets, for all of the seasons and climates in which people have ever found their daily meal. The fruits, vegetables, nuts, and meats that die-hard Paleolithic dieters dine upon are all inventions of human agriculture. Real Paleo peoples ate what was fresh and locally available, in its season, and they had to work damn hard to get it.
Recent news reports that bowel cancer rates are rising worldwide. Young people and men are getting bowel cancer at increased rates. Is it the diet associated with the youthful, masculine lifestyle of the Paleo community: eschewing bread in favor of meat, and preferring CrossFit to cardio machines? Or is the problem slightly older than this new fad? Although Warinner is able to trace the diet trend to a book published in the 1970s, Paleo has only recently taken off, and can still only be realistically described as a new health movement at best, or at worst, a fad.
What has changed in the last 35 years is our increased reliance on industrial foodways, due to advances in food transportation, communication, and related technology that enable worldwide manufacture, shipping, and sale of food. This is why, as Warinner points out, most processed food is made of just three ingredients, soy, corn, and wheat—commodities that are energy dense and cheap to store. Conventional feedlot animals, including poultry and fish, are fed on the same three crops. So even if you think you’re eating meat that’s Paleo, it is made of corn, soy, and wheat, too.
And it’s not just the Paleo people eating more meat. Most people eat more meat as it gets cheaper relative to income. This is just one aspect of the Westernization of diet, and meat consumption alone doesn’t explain the incidence of bowel cancer.
Most people still eat plenty of bread and drink soda and sweetened energy drinks, foods you won’t find recommended on any nutritional website. We now know a few more ways to break the human machine. Jamming it with a monoculture of wheat, soy, and corn is one of them.
There was no one Paleo diet. Compromise and adaptation have always been the keys to our success as a species. Agriculture and other food technologies are the reason there are billions instead of millions of us, yearning for the energy to beat truck tires and climb ropes with the abandon of the well insured. Corporations may seem to rival Mother Nature in the variety of their offerings, but we could use more of the restraint that came with eating only at Her table.
Read more: Why Americans Are So Fat