The ‘paleo diet’ is pseudoscience


Depiction of a man from the stone age (Shutterstock)
Reconstructions of human evolution are prone to simple, overly-tidy scenarios. Our ancestors, for example, stood on two legs to look over tall grass, or began to speak because, well, they finally had something to say. Like much of our understanding of early hominid behavior, the imagined diet of our ancestors has also been over-simplified.


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Take the trendy Paleo Diet which draws inspiration from how people lived during the Paleolithic or Stone Age that ran from roughly 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago. It encourages practitioners to give up the fruits of modern culinary progress – such as dairy, agricultural products and processed foods – and start living a pseudo-hunter-gatherer lifestyle, something like Lon Chaney Jr. in the film One Million BC. Adherents recommend a very specific “ancestral” menu, replete with certain percentages of energy from carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and suggested levels of physical activity. These prescriptions are drawn mainly from observations of modern humans who live at least a partial hunter-gatherer existence.

But from a scientific standpoint, these kinds of simple characterizations of our ancestors’ behavior generally don’t add up. Recently, fellow anthropologist C. Owen Lovejoy and I took a close look at this crucial question in human behavioral evolution: the origins of hominid diet. We focused on the earliest phase of hominid evolution from roughly 6 to 1.6 million years ago, both before and after the first use of modified stone tools. This time frame includes, in order of appearance, the hominids Ardipithecus and Australopithecus, and the earliest members of our own genus, the comparatively brainy Homo. None of these were modern humans, which appeared much later, but rather our distant forerunners.

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