Dietary Dissidence

Cave Girl, issue 11, 1953.What’s this? Words of moderation from Melvin Konner, one of the founders of the paleo diet?

[H]umans are omnivores. Neither the “meat-as-a-condiment” wisdom of the heart-healthy scientists nor the “carbs-as-a-condiment” faith that now passes for “paleo” is persuasive to me. In a 2014 paper in the Journal of Human Evolution, Amanda Henry and her colleagues found that even our Neanderthal cousins ate barley broth along with their steaks. Once thought of as extreme carnivores, Neanderthals were actually diet opportunists, just like our own direct ancestors.

I first headed down the paleo road in the early aughts after reading Loren Cordain’s book. The appeal was twofold. Like him, I had difficulty accepting that animal fats cause heart disease in light of our physical traits obviously evolved for omnivorism; and I shared his enthusiasm for moving away from subsidized, vacuous, and overprocessed (and I say over because all food is processed to some extent — nobody is eating raw bison liver Revanant-style) corn- and wheat-based slop in favor of fruits, vegetables, and nuts.

Yet over the years I’ve watched the paleo movement transmogrify into crazed anti-carbohydrate zealotry. Based on my wanderings around the blogosphere, I think a lot of adherents arrive at paleo’s doorstep from a weight-loss perspective and become radicalized by making mad gainz in those early months of low carb intake. Many of these folks don’t seem to do a lot of sustained aerobic exercise (Crossfit doesn’t count) and so don’t recognize that carbs are — and were — a necessary component for endurance. From running distances longer than a 5K to eating white rice to drinking beer (no one will take away my beer *sound of racking shotgun*), I am undoubtedly an apostate.

In his last graf, Konner compares the paleo diet to vegetarianism or keeping kosher or halal, which is apt. All diets are less about nutrition and more about anxiety over pollution. The more strict and obsessive the diet — from the vegan to the raw-fooder to the paleo wringing his hands over a teaspoon of honey in his morning tea — the more high-strung the personality, which is arguably more malignant to well-being than any pound of butter.

“All of these strategies — low-carb paleo diets, too — seem to be compatible with life and health,” Konner writes. Reasonableness? What an old-fashioned idea.

Smorgasbord of Yore

Over a recent dinner, I learned a buddy of mine has become a proponent of the Paleolithic Diet, an eating system allegedly based on that of our Pleistocene ancestors. We’re both exercise buffs — me mostly aerobic, he anaerobic — so we traded notes. Yet his wife worried that his stringency in keeping to the diet amounted to an eating disorder.

Having read Loren Cordain’s book several years ago, the paleo diet’s emphasis on protein (from lean meats and nuts) resonates with my skepticism toward the carb-focused diet advice usually directed at runners (e.g., this 2004 article where it began to dawn on the Runner’s World editors that maybe we need something beyond spaghetti to heal and build muscle). Unlike Atkins’s meat-and-dairy-heavy, vegetable-light diet, Cordain advocates lean meat, fish, and as many fruits and vegetables you can stomach — all of which wash down easy after a run. I lean toward paleo but with some carbs (mainly rice) thrown in to supplement my running. Which maybe means I just eat normal.

Where Cordain and I diverge is his emphasis on agricultural products (grains, beans, dairy) as the root of modern ills. He can ramble on about the faultlessness of the peer-review process all he wants but the trap I see most people falling into is eating more carbohydrates than they burn and then acting surprised when they gain weight. The demonization of carbs in the media is strong. But they’re not the problem; the problem is some people’s imbalance between consumption and exercise. Running a marathon? By all means eat as many bagels as you want before, during, and after.

I further learned my buddy had added a twist unknown to me: he refuses to eat before 2 p.m. He explained that prehistoric hunter-gatherers wouldn’t eat until then because their morning was spent searching for food. Apparently this is based on the experience of an anthropologist studying the Aché hunter-gatherers of Paraguay. I took him to task, warning him there’s no way to know from the archaeological record what time of day archaic Homo sapiens ate (my guess: any time they had food); and that proxy measures — that is, using a modern hunting-gathering culture as a stand-in for those 20,000 years ago — may be useful for, say, determining how to make and use an atlatl but become uncertain when studying ephemeral and transitory cultural practices. If the Aché don’t eat before 2 p.m., that’s just what the Aché do, not what everyone did during the Ice Age.

It should be duly noted that said dinnertime conversation took place after four pitchers of rum swizzles and several rounds of margaritas and beers — which shows you where our priorities were whilst communing with our ancient forebears.

Publicity shot of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.E. B.C.