11 October 2011


This article first appeared in PORK #3. PORK #4 is out now, get it here!

The Palaeo Diet is an archaeology role-playing game cleverly disguised as a health food fad. The idea is to eat only what was available to our Palaeolithic ancestors, before the invention of agriculture. That includes lots of meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, but no cheese, milk, bread, rice, pasta, potatoes, beer, wine, or whiskey. It’s the Atkins diet (remember that from the ‘90s? all meat, no carbs) with an archaeopop veneer, as interpreted by bearded tech workers in Brooklyn. 
There’s some truth to it: until 10,000 years ago, people ate very little sugar and no refined carbohydrates. Palaeo fans argue that the real causes of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and other ‘diseases of civilization’ are the foods that were introduced in the Neolithic Revolution: processed grains, dairy products, and alcohol. The Palaeo diet means radically rethinking healthy eating: carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, is the enemy.

The diet, which has been featured in the New York Times (in the fashion section, naturally), Time Magazine, and even the Colbert Report, has spawned a tribe of entrepreneurs whose business is getting you in touch with your inner Neanderthal. The ‘Caveman Power Diet’ promises that by cutting out bread, fries, and beer, you will lose weight, increase your energy, detox your system, sharpen your mind, and get in touch with your inner self:
The Caveman Power Diet gets you tuned into your animal instincts, and as a result your senses will become sharper; like an animal in the wild who needs all his senses to survive.
When you are in tune with your animal instincts, you are in tune with your body's wants and needs. Throughout this diet you will notice yourself having more clarity of mind, and a deeper sense of knowing thyself.
The idea of recreating a pure ancient lifestyle is key to the appeal. Last year the NY Times profiled the trend, including French Palaeo guru Erwan Le Corre:
Mr. Le Corre, 38, who once made soap for a living, promotes what he calls “mouvement naturel” at exercise retreats in West Virginia and elsewhere. His workouts include scooting around the underbrush on all fours, leaping between boulders, playing catch with stones, and other activities at which he believes early man excelled. These are the “primal, essential skills that I believe everyone should have,” he said in an interview.
Another caveman trick involves donating blood frequently. The idea is that various hardships might have occasionally left ancient humans a pint short. Asked when he last gave blood, Andrew Sanocki said it had been three months. He and his brother looked at each other. “We’re due,” Andrew said.
Here's Le Corre in action. It's basically parkour in the jungle!

This is definitely a nice change from the office job and the McDonald's drive-through, but the archaeological theories behind the Palaeo diet are about a 50 years out of date. The Palaeolithic used to be taught as the age of ‘MAN THE HUNTER’: endless buffets of wooly mammoth steaks washed down with some wild berries and seeds, while you sit on bearskin rugs around the fire in your cave dwelling. As it turns out, archaeology suggests that animal meat was not a majority in most ancient diets. Men brag about hunting like they brag about anything, but in most cultures women made a greater nutritional contribution with their gathered nuts, grains, vegetables, fruits, and seeds. But the Palaeo diet comes out of folk archaeology, not real archaeology. “Caveman” and “Neanderthal” evoke raw, authentic manliness for a generation of overeducated cubicle serfs with neglected bodies.
But what about the idea that we ‘evolved’ for a Palaeo diet? I'm not so sure. Genes evolve quickly: most sedentary human populations (Europeans, Africans, and most Asians) gained genetic tolerance for lactose and alcohol within a few hundred generations, an eye-blink in evolutionary time. As desperate as we are for absolute truth since we kicked God to the curb, you won’t find it in our genes. They change quickly when they need to. If humans are ‘naturally designed’ to do anything, it’s to adapt to new environments. (This is why the current geological age – the Anthropocene – is named after us).

Which brings me to the next point: which palaeolithic diet are we talking about? Even today, there’s an incredible diversity of hunter-gatherer lifestyles around the world. Native people in the Arctic get 75% of their food from animal fat, but that’s a recent innovation too (the high arctic was only settled around 15,000 years ago). African hunter-gatherers get about 25% of their calories from animal products. And it’s simply not true that grains and starches played no role in Palaeolithic cultures. Aboriginal Australians made (and make) a carb-rich “bush bread”, and in my home state of California, acorns were a staple food in the period before contact. There is no singular ‘Palaeo diet’. The only rule is diversity, adaptation, and change.

As a role-playing game, the Palaeo diet seems like fun – you get to try new eating patterns (including lots of expensive, high quality meat and fish) while feeling superior to everyone down at the pub grubbing on fries. And running around on all fours grunting in the underbrush sounds pretty awesome too. But let’s keep it in perspective! The Palaeo diet is playtime for rich people in the global north. Feeding the world on mostly meat products is ecologically impossible.

Of course, if you're serious about the lifestyle, you gotta catch that fish like this (via Discovery):
There’s also a misanthropic primitivist agenda lurking in the corner. As Ray Audette (of NeanderThin.com) writes:
my definition of nature is the absence of technology. Technology-dependent foods would never be ingested by a human being in Nature. I determined, therefore, to eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology…
What a moron. Humans have always used technology – what else is a stone tool? – and our chimpanzee cousins do too. A human being without technology… is not a human being. It’s a meaningless concept, unless you read it as a theological statement: humans have fallen from the grace of our ancestors and been punished with obesity and disease. If we return to an upright lifestyle, we’ll be rewarded with health, happiness, and long life. It’s a pastiche of Original Sin, with pizza and beer in the place of the apple.

That said, I still find the Palaeo diet appealing. Underneath the bullshit there’s some real sense to it – eating nutrient- and protein-rich foods is good for your body, while sugar and white bread are not. A bit of perspective is in order, which is why I love Kurt Harris’s blog Archevore, which is full of interesting discussion of the Palaeo diet from a scientific perspective. Harris strikes a middle ground: 
That we are eating some things we are clearly inadequately adapted to seems certain, but the idea that the dietary bright line is narrow and exists at the 10,000 year mark is a cartoon view not supported by the science. I believe most of the dietary damage is due to industrial processing amplifying the effect of things that have always been around and were never good for us in the first place, even as I do believe wheat and other grains to the exclusion of animal products has been an issue for 10,000 years.
Want more? There's lots of trainers and lifestyle gurus that will help you get in touch with your inner caveman for a modest fee:


  1. This article cracked me up. I totally get a kick out of the paleo diet and really get a kick out of paleo exercises, although I do like how they skip on the processed foods.

  2. Thanks for the comment. I like a lot of it too - I came out of writing this article with a lot more affection for the diet/lifestyle than I thought I would. Avoiding processed foods is a definite win!