The Paleo Diet is Bullshit.
Many critics have claimed that “The Paleo Diet is bullshit ” while many Paleo Proponents claim “Nobody has adapted to a Post-Agricultural Diet”. The question is, who is right?
If you ask me, the answer is neither. And if you are a firm ‘believer’ in evolution, you may come to the same conclusion. Allow me to preface this article in this way:
• Evolution via natural selection is the central dogma of Biology.
• The Paleo Diet serves as a logical framework based on evolutionary theory.
• The Paleo Diet as an evolutionary template gives us the basis for testable health predictions.
• The Evolutionary Theory is a good framework for hypothesis generation.
Now, It’s really not as far-fetched as one may think to apply the evolutionary theory to diet. Here’s a perfect example:
Evolutionarily and biologically speaking, I know that my cat is an obligate carnivore, and evolved to be that way over eons. Yet, I fed her Royal Canin Urinary SO for years because that’s what the veterinarian prescribed her for chronic urinary tract infections (UTI). Initially, I trusted the judgement of my vet, but my cat never improved. I postulated that my obligate carnivore of a cat was biologically maladapted to her prescribed diet of chicken, corn, rice, and soymeal, and I hypothesized that my cat would improve if I switched her to a raw cat food diet consisting of muscle and organ meat. Unwittingly, my cat Flip became a science experiment. Luckily, it worked for her, and she hasn’t had a UTI since the transition, over 4 years ago.
See, not horribly outlandish. Read on.
The concept of the evolutionary diet, or “Paleo Diet” itself is applied with a similar basis, often for similar reasons, but to humans. The theory is that the “Paleo Diet” is the one which humans are physiologically best suited for, since humans (homo sapiens and homo sapiens sapiens) evolved following this dietary regimen. So, people across the world are testing this theory with an n=1 experimental design. It’s a large-scaled science experiment, and of course, results vary. Some find after 30 days of eliminating grains and dairy that they cannot reintroduce them well while some find that they do just fine. I think it’s good to know your personal limitations. In that capacity, the Paleo Diet is probably the best baseline to test your dietary limitations from since it is the original diet of our species.
However, we use evolution as a reason to adopt the Paleo Diet, but then we often forget what evolution is really about — the incredible ability to adapt as a species under pressure to new environments. I cringe when I hear I anyone say that “No one is adapted to grains and legumes and dairy.” Trust me, I sincerely wish that were true (for agricultural reasons) but it likely isn’t.
While researching insecticide applications on monocrops, I learned that with every new insecticide class, cases of resistance surfaced within 2 to 20 years — and that this type of prolonged exposure artificially selects for resistance. We saw the same thing happen with Methicillin-Resistant Staph. Aureus (MRSA). This, as I see it, is part of the natural selection and evolution process. Species adapt, over time, to interventions that were designed to kill them… Or in our case, prevent us from eating them.
If our ancestors were initially maladapted to their new agricultural diets—which is likely since early agrarian societies weren’t as healthy or robust relative to hunter-gatherer societies according to surveys of dental caries and associated pathologies by physical and forensic anthropologists— they would have experienced significant pressures to adapt. If it takes 2 to 20 years for insects to adapt, it seems likely that over the course of 10,000 years, selective pressures from a Neolithic, agricultural-diet, would render some population of adapted humans.
As the hypothesis goes, populations who have a short agrarian history (having only a few generations pass since being hunter gatherers) wouldn’t be well adapted, and those who have the longest agrarian history (having several hundreds of generations pass since hunter-gatherers) would have the most well-adapted populations.
This particular evolutionary hypothesis could help explain why studies of aboriginal populations indicate that they experience an abnormally greater rate of “diseases of civilization” when they adopt “Neolithic” diets. It may also explain why some specific ethnicities experience abnormally greater rates of “Neolithic” disease and autoimmune conditions, as well. Perhaps not enough time has passed to exert enough selective pressure to manifest into adaptation. It’s not a perfect explanation, but it does merit further inspection.
By that accord, it also makes sense that the longer your ancestors had adopted a Neolithic Diet, the greater your chances of being well-adapted are.
For example, there are entire populations of people who are seemingly impervious to the negative aspects of high-grain diets, like those who live near the Cradle of Civilization, or the Fertile Crescent, where the earliest known agricultural civilizations began. Interestingly enough, those who live in the region also consume a “Mediterranean diet”.
Which makes me wonder…
Is there something inherently better about the Mediterranean Diet, or is it possible that we are just studying a population of people who are simply better adapted to a post-agricultural revolution diet? After all, they live in the Cradle of Civilization. If this hypothesis was true, they would have had the longest time to adapt.
Anyway, I see the Paleo Diet as another application of evolutionary theory to generate a hypotheses, and a baseline to test adaptation from in lieu of knowing precisely who may be well-adapted, or maladapted. Which is why I find that believing that the “The Paleo Diet is bullshit” or that “Nobody has adapted to a Post-Agricultural Diet” for believers of evolution requires some substantial amount of cognitive dissonance.
Food for thought.