The Paleo diet craze is based on emulating the eating habits of ancient humans who thrived on a diet of animals and plants. A study published by a team of anthropologists suggests today’s Paleo diet is a romantic vision life of before agriculture, when noble hunter-gatherers fueled an idyllic lifestyle with healthy, all-natural foods.
According to these experts, Paleolithic peoples would struggle to find anything edible in pursuit of enough calories to survive, and if Twinkies had grown on trees, they would have been a staple.
State of nature
Writing in Leviathan, his classic book on human politics, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) described a world without government as a prehistoric “state of nature,” where people live in constant fear of violent death and the life of man is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Researchers at researchers at Georgia State University and Kent State University painted a similar picture of Paleolithic times, when the life span of early humans was so short that it would be difficult to argue that their diet was healthier than ours is now. The focus was on surviving long enough to reproduce, not about practicing a balanced diet.
The Paleo diet, also known as “eating like a caveman,” has become one of today’s most popular diet fads. Paleo eaters are seeking the health benefits of eating grass-fed meats, organic fruits and vegetables, wild caught fish and raw nuts. Foods to be avoided include agricultural products such as grains, legumes, dairy, processed oils, salt, and added sugars.
The researchers set out to examine available anatomical, environmental and chemical evidence, as well as the feeding behavior of living animals in the Paleolithic era spanning from 2.6 million to about 10,000 years ago. Writing in the journal The Quarterly Review of Biology, co-author Dr. C. Owen Lovejoy, Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at Kent State University, pointed out that early humans suffered from many competitive disadvantages. Small and slow, they weren’t adept hunters. The teeth in their heads were ill suited for chewing a wide variety of plants.
The Paleo environment
To reconstruct the diet of our human ancestors, the researchers considered a number of factors, including their habitats, the foods available and their energy content, as well as their digestion, locomotion, and cognitive ability.
According to the researchers, the popular Paleo diet is based on assumptions of what more modern hunter-gatherers had eaten. The diet of true Paleolithic humans wasn’t so specific. A wide variety of environments in different places at different times affected the type of food available. Cavemen in northern climates may have subsisted on animals, while those in warmer climes may have relied heavily on plants.
Today’s Paleo foods
Plus, the types of food available cannot be compared to those featured in the Paleo diet of today. For example, the researchers wrote that the wild strawberries growing high in Nepal were so bitter not even the monkeys would eat them, as was evident in their fossilized turds.
As for life expectancy, cavemen didn’t live long, despite the fact that the processed foods attributed to so many of today’s most common diseases did not exist. The researchers also raised the question, does a longer life simply give diseases more time to take hold and show their effects?
“Everyone would agree that ancestral diets didn’t include Twinkies,” said co-author Dr. Ken Sayers, a postdoctoral researcher at the Language Research Center of Georgia State, in a press release, “but I’m sure our ancestors would have eaten them if they grew on trees.”
Georgia State University