When pursuing health, you should choose modern science over popular myths about your ancestors–some arguments (and facts) against so-called Paleo diets

“Eat like your ancestors. Go Paleo like your caveman forebears. Eat in an evolutionary way. Cut gluten—our ancestors didn’t eat wheat—and gain your health back. Intermittent fasting—like hunters who haven’t yet caught their prey—maintains lean muscle mass but shreds fat: it’s how we were evolved! Whole30: 30 days of eating like evolution wants us to!”

We are told over and over that if we “just eat like our ancestors,” we will attain optimal health.

But what if this is a popular myth, an ideology that romanticizes the past, and what if the diets that propose that one eats in this way are based on mythical constructions of that past?

I disagree that we should “just eat like our ancestors.” Here’s why.

1. What did our ancestors actually eat? Knowing what our ancestors ate is possibly as difficult or more difficult than nutrition science itself. For instance, it was long thought that our ancestors never consumed grains. We now know that grains were regularly and almost universally consumed during the entire record of the Paleolithic to which we have access:

(From: “Plant foods and the dietary ecology of Neanderthals and early modern humans“)

2. Which ancestors to look at to eat like? What our ancestors have eaten has changed radically and rapidly over time. A brief look at the history of the European diet over the past one or two thousand years demonstrates this clearly. (For example, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medieval_cuisine.) The wide variety of documented dietary strategies in the anthropological and archaeological record does likewise.


(Credit: Jen Christiansen, Scientific American)

3. What timeframe is most important for evolutionary change? Recent evidence suggests that recent evolutionary change could be the most rapid. (For more, see: “Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution“.)

4. What are our goals? Our ancestors were optimizing for fecundity not longevity, and within certain resource and/or time constraints. Many of us are optimizing for long-term health, and we have far fewer resource constraints. Our ancestors were looking to stay alive and maximize survival reproduction. They didn’t have their eyes on how they will maintain health into their 70s, 80s, 90s, or even 100s, because most of them did not expect to make it to those ages. Today, we face the real possibility of living that old—especially if we maximize health and minimize our rate of aging early in life.

It is true that industrialization and what might be called the post-industrialization of the food system has been a catastrophe for chronic disease risk. And starting with whole foods is likely to be the best starting point for creating a diet. But that’s the end of it.

After that, a better approach is to look at populations that have the characteristics we want—say, maintaining a healthy weight and being healthy for as long as possible—and try to determine what features of these populations explain these characteristics. Using animal models, well-designed observational studies and wherever possible randomized clinical trials in modern populations, we then test our ideas. If our ideas hold up to these tests, we incorporate our findings into recommendations. If they don’t, or if they have intolerable downsides, we try to explain why we got things wrong.

Logical, science-based. No romanticization of a past that we reconstruct in our imaginations involved. No conspiracy theories necessary. Modern health science incorporates all evidence in a critical way to come to conclusions. That is why modern science is better than the Paleo paradigm or so-called ancestral health.

We still must tailor the recommendations to our own life situations. Only we as individuals are can adapt the science to what feels best and healthiest for our own bodies. But we need to keep our minds open to what the cutting edge of hard, critical science can contribute to that quest for personal optimization. It isn’t always–or even often–what the Paleo gurus would have you believe.

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As an MD/PhD student, my passion is for communicating the cutting edge of medical science and fighting misinformation. If this post is of use to you, please consider donating to my Patreon account. Your contribution will make a significant positive impact, and I will be greatly personally appreciative.

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You can find me on Twitter at @kevinnbass.

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