Paleo pseudoscience and food cults

posted in: Health, How to human | 2

If you’ve ever been on the internet, you ran into the so-called “paleo” diet – an approach to nutrition based on the notion that the healthiest possible lifestyle was practiced by people who died at twenty.

To be fair, they mostly died for reasons unrelated to nutrition – except for a frequent complete lack thereof. But as opening witticisms go, that was a nice one. Let’s get serious now.

The popularity of “paleo” is part of a trend – for reasons that deserve attention, dietary fads are popping up all over the place. But the obvious nonsense, “paleo” is interesting because of how strikingly unscientific it is while labouring to make the opposite impression.

It is useful to make the distinction between degrees of seriousness:

Paleo light – is mommy bloggers calling recipes without flour “paleo” as a sort of recognizable shorthand. This is relatively innocent aside from spreading the meme (although I will make fun of it later).

Paleo heavy – is pretence of actual historical accuracy, pseudoscientific scaremongering with potentially lethal consequences and archaeologically demonstrably false mythopoeia, frequently for personal gain.

We’ll uncover why it’s actually bullshit, and we’ll do it in two parts: first, we’ll examine the pseudoscientific claims and confront them with actual science (excellent article behind that link, by the way). Then, we’ll look at the practical problems of paleo. (spoiler alert: many genuine paleolithic foods no longer exist, most others are unavailable from supermarkets, and nearly all are disgusting to modern humans).

The science

Fortunately for the internet, the pseudoscientific claims of paleo were comprehensively challenged by actual experts on ancient humans. A good summary: “The Paleo diet rests on a number of false assumptions about what our ancestors ate and, far from ‘putting archaeology into practice’, most of their claims are either not supported, or actively discredited, by the archaeological record.”

The diet was the subject of one of the two TED talks worth watching.

(This is the other one. It will serve you well to watch both.)

Like much pseudoscience, the idea sounds superficially plausible in a folk-sciencey “Obviously the Sun orbits the Earth, are you blind?” way – surely, it takes longer than 10,000 years to evolve new traits?

Actually, it doesn’t. For example, we evolved the ability to digest milk in adulthood in only a few thousand years. The bigger the advantage, the more likely evolution will happen fast. Being able to process more kinds of food, especially from controlled, reliable sources like agriculture is a huge advantage – so huge, it is what enabled humans to become the dominant species on Earth. Those who didn’t have it mostly died out in the numerous famines haunting human history until very, very recently.

More fundamentally, evolving new traits was not necessary. Paleo rests on the assumption that our metabolism needs to evolve and adapt to specific substances (such as cereals) before they become safe for consumption, but that’s not how it works.

First, that line of thinking has a massive chicken and egg problem – we’d never become able to eat anything until we already started eating it while it was still bad for us but then it would be bad for us and we couldn’t start eating it. 

Second, our metabolism doesn’t need to adapt specifically to each substance. It is instead a chemical furnace pre-adapted to a broad range of potential foods, most of which it never needs to have encountered in practice at all. This is because all organic matter on the planet is largely similar, and your stomach doesn’t give a flying fuck what particular type it receives.

As a race of opportunistic omnivores, humans evolved to digest anything vaguely organic and not immediately poisonous. 

Worst case scenario when you run into a novel protein or sugar is a bit of flatulence or the shits (as evidenced by lactose intolerance), not the range of systemic symptoms ascribed to gluten by suggestible non-celiacs.

If grains are a problem because they’re “new”, then everything that didn’t grow or gallop on the Serengeti two million years ago is – including coconuts, avocado, blueberries, cows and other “paleo” staples. Doubler standards were not observed since Hitler decided his black hair and jewish ancestry weren’t a problem when leading the Aryan master race.

Regular readers may recall a recent article advocating something close to a paleo diet. Not quite. I recommend curbing carbs to remove the calorie surplus responsible for everyone’s asses being visible from orbit for the last fifty years – ever since people became mostly sedentary. The fact it tends to come from agricultural products is incidental. It is a matter of simple energy balance as per the first law of thermodynamics, not “substances we didn’t evolve for”.


The (non)practicality

“Paleo” is not a reconstruction of what our ancestors ate. Rather, it’s what some armchair dietician imagines they might have eaten if they had a supermarket (the actual answer in that scenario is “everything including detergent and the cashiers”).

But suppose someone were to consult actual scientists and try to follow a truly faithful paleolithic diet. Could they?

Short answer, nope. Long answer, fortunately nope, and they would change their minds quickly if they could.

First, for the steak-guzzlers who need a mythological justification to counter the guilt tripping inflicted on them by vegans, our ancestors were mostly vegetarians. Meat appears to have been exceedingly rare.

So, “paleo” in it’s bro-friendly incarnation as “tons of steak” is wishful thinking.

Second, a real paleo diet is unappetising and now impossible, because a lot of the stuff our ancestors ate is simply extinct. Much of the rest – avocado, banana, cows, root vegetables – are only available (fortunately) as extensively modified agricultural products. What little still exists and can be obtained in pre-agricultural forms is unappetising, toxic or outright scary, and paleo mommy bloggers and crossfit douches wouldn’t touch it with a ten foot flint javelin.

This, for instance, is the difference between a wild and a cultivated banana:

120711-BananaPhoto-hmed-1040a_files.grid-6x2(credit Angelique D’Hont)

Guess which one goes in “paleo” recipes.

Speaking of paleo recipes, gourmet thirty-ingredient contrivances made with stuff from five continents aren’t exactly fucking faithful hunter-gatherer cuisine. The internet loves sharable memes, so have this:


And bugs – lots and lots of bugs. If you’re feeling adventurous, here’s stuff our ancestors actually ate.

In conclusion

The point of this article is not to tell anyone what to eat. Rather, it is about a bullshit-proof attitude to making these choices. Eat what you want, with two simple caveats (cave-eats, ahahaha…ahem):

1. Make sure it’s backed up by science, and if it isn’t, don’t pretend. Blogs aren’t reliable sources (*ahem*).

2. Don’t go all lifestyley and sanctimonious about it. It’s just food. All elevation of diet to cult deserves a kick in the nuts by Lionel Messy wearing these, and people who turn diets into lifestyles urgently need something more interesting to do with their lives. This applies to all “fadevangelism”.

Obviously, the vegetarians were first, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to imitate them – especially without the benefit of a credible moral argument. The example is a deterrent rather than an inspiration.

Elevation of diets to cults, rampant tribalism and religious embrace of banality are symptoms of a deeply bored society – what the Science Babe calls the “I have so much time and money on my hands that I’ve made food a game” movement.

Psychologists are even starting to argue it is a class-contained civilizational nervous disorder.

So, is paleo completely dumb? At best and taken not-too-seriously, “paleo” can be a rule of thumb. Avoiding grains and dairy means avoiding a lot of mostly empty calories, so it can be a mental shortcut for people whose attention spans or intellectual faculties aren’t capable of handling concepts like “moderation” and “macronutrients”. By compelling better choices for fake reasons, it is the Santa Claus of nutrition.

But that doesn’t excuse the steaming piles of bullshit behind the movement. The strong and rather specific backlash from skeptics is mostly due to the pseudoscientific pretence coupled with evangelising tendencies. Few things are more incensing to the scientific mind than smug proselytisation of evident error.

People who feel opressed and picked on for their choices in diet should first make sure they aren’t the ones pushing their crap on others. 

If you want to get healthier, don’t waste time on fad diets and supplements (both forms of avoiding the real work) – just fucking exercise.

People are bored, and looking for new games to play. “Clean eating” is the quintessential first world problem – elsewhere, people worry about eating. 

As a citizen of a country that only (re)entered the developed world within my own lifetime, food faddism is baffling and has a whiff of “first-worlders spoiled by easy comfort losing their minds”. The first casualty in such situations is regrettably often a sense of proportion and context.

So let’s have some context.

It’s just food, for fuck’s sake.



Supplement about dietary supplements:

The obsession with “eating right” by removing stuff has a cousin: adding stuff.

Being unregulated, not only do a stunning share of supplements not contain any of the stuff advertised, many contain unlisted allergens.

In other words, you’re lucky if they do only nothing.


Just like there is nothing “unnatural” or “alien” in a normal diet, nothing is missing from it either. If it was, the human race would have died out long ago.

Unless you live so deep behind the polar circle you get more light from auroras than the Sun (and may consider Vitamin D) or so deep inland fish are mythical creatures (in which case, Omega-3 fatty acids), the healthy number of supplements is zero.

Humans are not that fragile.

We survived on anything we could find for millions of years.

And we obsess over having enough fucking selenium.

“But people died at thirty back then”. Yeah, because something ate them, or they starved to death, or were killed by other humans, or by diseases that no longer exist outside the third world and California. Not because they didn’t have enough zinc.

That’s not to say the human body doesn’t need minerals. But it doesn’t need precise-to-four-digits, Goldilocks-zone amounts of them. Healthy ranges are accomodatingly broad. If you eat a normal varied diet, you’re good.

So just chill.