April 13, 2011

Rebutting 'the Paleolithic diet'

Atlantic Monthly blogger Megan McArdle questions the premise of the "Paleolithic diet": namely, "Are Grains Making Us Fat"?
I hear a lot about Taubes' theory from people pushing the notion that "we're evolved to eat meat and fruit, not processed grains".  I mean, true as far as it goes--but it doesn't go very far.  A ribeye and an arugula salad with olive oil and vinegar is almost as far from what our paleolithic ancestors ate as pasta primavera and an angel-food cake.  The meat our ancestors ate in the wild was not mostly fat-rich steak—game animals don't have that much body fat, and their muscles are a lot less tender.  We've selectively bred our domesticated animals for considerably more succulence than our ancestors enjoyed.  In the rich world, we've also stopped eating the "gamier", more vitamin-rich organs.  In fact, almost every fruit or vegetable you enjoy eating has been bred to be larger, higher-calorie, and full of less in the way of fibers and natural pesticides than what our pre-agricultural ancestors ate.

Check out her informational graphic about American diets a hundred years ago versus now. Not that much has changed, so ask yourself, what did change?


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Interesting, a few months back when Goof Girl started to talk Paleo the websites i looked at were very much about deer (our companion animal and evolutionary food stuff) and organ meats. Now the Paleo scene seems to have um er 'gentrified' [?] in to a version of Atkins.

Please do more posts about this, I'm not the only one who'd like to look a little closer into this new food fad/cult/thingy

Peg A said...

Very good points. As for that has changed in the last hundred years to make us unhealthier: more chemicals in our environments, making our bodies more toxic in general. Less exercise. More processed foods, more pesticide residue, more corn syrup, more soy, more trans-fats. Closer interaction with technology.

I like the Paleo diet cuz it makes me feel better, but it's true that those following it to somehow ape (ha ha) our ancestors's eating habits will find it difficult. The NYT had a great article last year about people following this lifestyle who store elk in their upright freezers (which take up half their tiny apartments) and who exercise vigorously before meals, even occasionally scooting around on all fours...presumably in Central Park.

LabRat said...

Lean game steak wouldn't have been what our ancestors prized, either- most of the real prizes of fat deposits on a wild animal come from parts and areas modern Americans disdain to eat, like the fat around the kidneys or the general bonanza of liver. I like Megan McArdle, but while she's correct about the historical myopia about starting from the seventies, she also doesn't seem to have a very clear idea about what living off game actually entailed.

As to what's changed... far fewer vegetables. Far less moving around required to attend to daily chores. Transition from a "normal job" involving a lot of physical work to something much more white-collar. A constant high flow of glucose is a good thing if it's all getting used.

Chas S. Clifton said...

She also leaves out the effects of poverty and tobacco as appetite suppressants, but the graphic is what intrigues me the most.

Reid Farmer said...

LabRat is exactly right about the prehistoric quest for fat. One of the common types of remains we see in archaeological sites here in North America is smashed pieces of animal bone. After the bones were cracked open to get the marrow, they were smashed and boiled in water to render out the fat and produce "bone grease". Haven't seen bone grease in any of the paleo diet articles I've seen.