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19 February, 2014

The Real Paleo Diet

Keep walking, paleo dudes; it's bound to warm up someday.

Because I procrastinate, other people have beat me to the punch, but rest assured that this archaeologist has had it in for The Paleo Diet (TPD) since first learning that it was not a joke. The book, the fad, and the spin-offs have as much to do with the actual diet of Paleolithic peoples as Indiana Jones has to do with the Nazi-free tedium of actual archaeology.

The ideal is that if we ate like our early human (or pre-human for that matter) ancestors, we'd avoid being diabetic lardasses. TPD's inventor, Loren Cordain, has a PhD in health, and I suppose I could snipe at his utter lack of awareness of what Paleolithic people actually ate (and more importantly, I hope you will see, what they did to procure those calories), or lower myself to the credentials attack so favored by archaeological and other academics.

But instead, let's just take a look at where The Paleo Diet fails to be the paleo diet. Let's see what it really took to feed ourselves in the pre-agricultural world.

First off, nearly all of the fruits and veggies that you can gorge on in The Paleo Diet, well, they didn't exist in the Paleolithic. As a phase of human development, despite its many accomplishements, the Paleolithic is adamantly non-agricultural, so much so that archaeologists inserted the Mesolithic as a buffer, just to make sure that any latent or proto-agricultural pursuits (selecting, seeding, and weeding of wild food patches, for example) were excluded from the early times. You want to go Paleo? Then forget the "fruits and veggies" allowed by Dr. Cordain, because nearly all of them are from species domesticated over generations by post-Paleo peoples. Eggs? Not unless you grab 'em from under a wild bird or reptile (or monotreme, I guess, if you live down under). Macadamia nut oil? You've gotta be kidding.

Hooray! A wild berry; just don't eat it all at once.
Modern Americans tend to think of unfamiliar and ethnic-sounding foods as more primitive/pristine, but many of them still fall far short of being Paleo. Acting like your quinoa concoction is "wild" is an insult to the Inca (and before them, Wari and Tiahuanacu) farmers who domesticated it, and to the hippies who continue to grow it up north. Go gather goosefoot yourself, if you want something less sullied by the selective hand of man.

But the list of what you can eat and be Paleo is only part of the argument for TPD's bullshititude. A roster of  What Thou Shall Not Eat to remain truly Paleo makes the strictures of Leviticus look easy. No crops, no domesticated animals, and sure as hell no mammal-milk from the wild creatures (defined as: everyone but mom).

Paradoxically, the Paleo person may also have had more choices than the Kosher observant, if only because we have no clue about religious strictures in the way distant past. You are hungry, and you spy some crayfish or lizards, eat them. If you die soon after, your smarter relatives avoid those species. If your life consists of wandering the earth in search of food to simply remain standing, your religion may have more to do with Thanks than with Rules.

Speaking of wandering, get used to it. A key component of Paleolithic nutrition is walking. Needless to say, no catching a bus to the store or even driving to your favorite foraging spot. Sadly, being in modern America, it must be pointed out that there would be no horses, dinosaurs, or other mounts to relieve your feet. Trekking across the land, searching for food, hauling it back home, and doing all the prep with tools you have to make  yourself,...takes a lot of energy. Be careful not to burn more calories than you can hunt or gather (but Rejoice! for all this walking keeps you trim and slim). Oh, and be ready to pull up stakes and move camp a few times a year, because hunting depletes game, and plants grow where they want, not where you would consider it convenient, oh ye pre-agricultural Paleo person.

And speaking of housing, your only heat is a fire, the fuel for which must also be gathered, which may involve a lot more walking, returning with heavy loads. Then you stoke the fire in your cave or saplings-and-bark or whalebones-and-sod dwelling. Hope your Paleo food is healthy, because you will be in close quarters with other humans and their ailments, not to mention the constant smoke from the fire.

So, are we clear? The real Paleolithic diet is probably pretty damned healthy, assuming you don't eat a toxic plant or mollusc, and that your hovel-mates are healthy, and that you are killed suddenly in a hunting accident before lung disease kicks in. But anything touched by the hand of man, not just processed, but domesticated, is a sham. Anything bought rather than hunted or pulled off the landscape? Nope. A life of constant walking, clothing yourself in what you can tan or weave, eating what you can find,...that life is probably going to give you a healthy body until a mastodon rips you a new one, or years of breathing sand and smoke chokes you, or whatever.

Or, you can feast on spelt and walnut oil, broccolini and mangoes. There are plenty of healthy ways to subsist. Just don't call it Paleo until you've doing it with your own stone and bone tools, and eating only the wildest of foods in your humblest of abodes.


  1. Much better critique than the snort-and-scoff review I did just few days ago. Has the paleo-diet fad gained a new head of steam in Oly?

  2. The other thing about TPD is the assumption that the state of human existence and human health in prehistory represents what we "should" be, and therefore need to aspire to. This is predicated on presumptions of an impossibly subjective set of philosophies about purity and how to attain it, which tends always to be a road to Hell.

    The real problem is resources. In the age TPD attempts to idealize, food and health resources were not generally in abundance, and perils were. In the modern world, peril is defined on utterly different terms - and too many of us have access to glutting supplies of resources we do not need. Managing our consumption is the issue which drives BS like TPD.

  3. Thanks yall.

    There is such a head of steam that I have witnessed various sized tubs of all and sunder Paleo Nutrients for sale and in a household.

    Reigning in our sense of entitlement to just sate any pang would help, but it's the 1,000,000,000s vs 10,000s of us [I didn't check paleo-demography sources, so that's just my initial guess] that dooms paleo eating (if not TPD) as a winning strategy for us modern hominidae.

  4. So from the slightly less esoteric side of the discussion I am given to wonder how well crickets from Petco would go re-branded as Paleo-protein snacks and placed in a pretty jar... Market research commencement once vacation endeth!