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Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?
December 9, 2011 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?

Many people (Steven Weil, proponents of "primal" or "paleo" eating, and others) say that we should eat as our ancestors did because they were healthier than we are today. I have always been confused by this -- my impression was that our ancestors were far shorter, had lifespans ranging from 20-something to 40-something years of age in most times and places, had most of their children die in infancy, were absolutely disease-riddled, etc. I also have also heard many people associate the lower weight of our ancestors with health, but my impression was that their lower weight was often the result of malnutrition and disease.

Am I off the wall? Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?
posted by cairdeas to Health & Fitness (47 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you're conflating diet and health. People today are generally more healthy than their ancestors because of improved hygiene, medicine, etc. It doesn't follow that our diets (high fat, high calorie, etc.) are healthier than those eaten by our ancestors.
posted by dfriedman at 10:33 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?

For certain definitions of "healthier", maybe. There were probably fewer heart attacks and less obesity, maybe.

But there was also a hell of a lot more food poisoning and deaths from congenital metabolic disorders (meaning: if you have a gene that prevents your body from metabolizing a particular vitamin today, there are drugs to treat that, or at the very least a diagnosis you can receive; back then, you just died). I suspect, though, that stating those facts cuts into the book sales somewhat, so people don't mention that part.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:35 AM on December 9, 2011


Also, the whole germ-theory-of disease thing, which our ancestors really didn't get, even just a couple centuries ago. I think the paleo diet is kind of cool because it forces you to avoid processed food, which is pretty horrible no matter how you look at it.
posted by zomg at 10:38 AM on December 9, 2011


The assertions I've heard from the paleo people are that Paleolithic man had a life expectancy of around 45, which fell at the advent of civilization and such and didn't get back to that level until the beginning of the 20th century.

Which looks sort of true.
posted by cmoj at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2011 [4 favorites]




Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?


Fossil records in meso-American populations showed a drastic increase in tooth decay (and certain other conditions and diseases) when they switched to an agrarian diet.

There's a lot of evidence that agrarian lifestyles have had some negative health impact on human populations, but they make up for it by providing stable sources of plentiful calories.

When you're talking disease and infant mortality you're probably looking at medieval period Europe, which is still very agrarian. I'd recommend focusing your research on the subject on the costs and benefits of agriculture, it's not all directly health related, but it's hard to isolate variables like that.
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2011


I think you're conflating diet and health. People today are generally more healthy than their ancestors because of improved hygiene, medicine, etc. It doesn't follow that our diets (high fat, high calorie, etc.) are healthier than those eaten by our ancestors.

Just to clarify -- I'm talking about claims that our ancestors actually were *healthier.* Not just that they ate in a more healthy way.
posted by cairdeas at 10:40 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Is there any evidence that our ancestors actually were healthier than we are now?

It depends which ancestors you're talking about. Taking height as a very rough proxy for quality of nutrition, my understanding is that the average height of Europeans was similar to its value today in pre-agricultural times, dropped dramatically through the middle ages, and only recovered after the industrial revolution.
posted by enn at 10:41 AM on December 9, 2011


Yeah, as cmoj alluded to, you'll need to distinguish between modern processed food, and agrarian lifestyles versus hunter-gatherer or whatever. We eat a ton of crap right now, that can't be blamed on agriculture.


Just to clarify -- I'm talking about claims that our ancestors actually were *healthier.* Not just that they ate in a more healthy way.


Well. You might need to be a lot more specific.

Modern medicine is indisputably good. But then if you've got lung cancer from industrial pollutants, we're backing up a bit. If you have leisure time, you're fit, and you're careful about your diet, you'll be absurdly healthy. If you're not, and you don't, you won't.

Your question was better before you broadened it to "healthier" and not diet, no offense. ;)
posted by Stagger Lee at 10:45 AM on December 9, 2011


I'm not in any way an expert on this, but I would guess that people were, on average, healthier back in the days when anyone who was the least bit unhealthy had no option but to die. If you were allergic to a major food item, if you had high blood pressure, if you broke a bone, if you had bad asthma, if you had a physical disability, if you were prone to bacterial infections, if you got chicken pox or appendicitis or tonsillitis, if you got bitten by an animal, all of these things could kill you. Literally every member of my immediate family had a condition or injury as a child that, if we had been born more than a few hundred years ago, would definitely have killed each of us before our tenth birthdays. If anyone who is the least bit sick or unhealthy or vulnerable dies, the people who live are going to tend to be the ones who were really healthy to begin with. Once you start being able to cure, or better yet, set up a regimen of long-term medical management for potentially life-threatening diseases and injuries, average life-expectancy goes way up, but more of your population is living with some kind of health problem.
posted by decathecting at 10:48 AM on December 9, 2011 [11 favorites]


The work of Loren Cordain is a pretty good starting point for researching this. "Healthier" is a loaded term. What we can say is that paleolithic man did not encounter diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and congenital heart disease that are currently thought to be linked to chronic inflamation.

Robb Wolf's older blog posts cover a lot of the biochemistry that supports the assertion that a paleo diet reduces inflamation and the diseases associated with it.

This paper by Cordain addresses many of the concerns that are in your question, and may be a good jumping off point.
posted by bfranklin at 10:53 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


You might be interested in this Discover magazine essay by Jared Diamond (who wrote Guns, Germs and Steel) in which he argues that agriculture is at the root of many modern societal problems, such as ill-health and inequality. He suggests that once agriculture was developed, it became possible for a few members of society to concentrate wealth (since now food could be stored, rather than having to be hunted and gathered), leading to ill-health for the general population and great prosperity, wealth and better diets for the few. Quote from the essay:
Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5' 9'' for men, 5' 5'' for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5' 3'' for men, 5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors.
posted by peacheater at 10:55 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I agree with several other posters--you'll have to clearly define 'health' or 'healthy' or whatnot before this question is really answerable.
posted by box at 10:56 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


A lot of epidemic diseases arrived only after urbanization. Domestication of animals was also a big incubator for some of the worst diseases we have. In a world without cities, our distant ancestors would have had much less need for the germ theory of disease.

20th-21st century 1st world society is best across the board (longevity, quality of life, low murder rate, consumer goods). Hunter gatherer societies might be second best, especially when you consider what it was like to be lower class in most of earth's cultures.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:56 AM on December 9, 2011


I think it would likely be a mixed bag. What factors of health are you interested in?

Diet? probably our ancestors were healthier in some respects. They ate less processed foods. Then again, depending on where your ancestors lived, and when (these are two other factors we'd need to clarify) they wouldn't have access to certain types of foods. So, they might have died of scurvy, because they didn't have access to limes... or potatoes for that matter.

Stress? Again, it depends on when and where you lived. I think 21st century society is pretty stressful. If we have work, we often have to work 40+ hours each week, and that doesn't leave us much time for leisure. In the Middle Ages they had some absurd number of feast days they got off, and in hunter-gatherer societies, the amount of work in any given day was probably 4 hours. Then again you had to worry about marauding warlords, or getting killed by someone in a neighboring tribe, which is probably pretty stressful.

This isn't really a yes or no question, is all I'm sayin'.
posted by baniak at 10:57 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


you'll have to clearly define 'health' or 'healthy' or whatnot before this question is really answerable.

actually, I think the OP is trying to do that for hirself, and that is what prompted this question. There are others who are making the vague claims that paleo people WERE healthier, not just that they ATE healthier, and I suspect that cairdeas is trying to analyze for what definition of "healthier" that is accurate.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


I believe the best indicator for health would be average longevity. That would take into consideration medicine, way of life (war, pestilence, famine etc).
posted by Postroad at 10:58 AM on December 9, 2011


Another point OP should clarify is whether the question is about, for lack of a better term, net or gross health? As noted above, agriculture and technology provides a safety net that was lacking in primitive hunter-gatherer society. Say ten people are born into a group. If one dies during childbirth, one dies due to a (now easily preventable) childhood illness, one dies when they are gored by an animal and the wound turns gangrenous (no antibitotics), and one dies due to anaphalactic shock after being stung by a bee (no epipen), you might still have six extremely fit and healthy people who is in much better physical condition than the average modern person.

Obviously we'd need data about the actual mortality rate then vs now to be able to make meaningful judgements, but the point is even if the average living adult was healthier, was it worth the lives of those who died in ways that could be prevented today?
posted by Wretch729 at 11:01 AM on December 9, 2011


Maybe what Paleo practitioners are really getting at is that we are living a lifestyle that is different from the lifestyle under which we evolved. This is probably the cause of a lot of our most bedevilling health issues - the type of diet we have might be quite nutrient (or at least energy) packed, but we didn't really evolve to digest many of the components in our foods.

The type of stress we evolved with was short bursts of high stress. The stress we feel today is a constant lower-level stress... which we are very ill suited to handle, evolutionally speaking.
posted by baniak at 11:02 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


Yeah, I agree with several other posters--you'll have to clearly define 'health' or 'healthy' or whatnot before this question is really answerable.

I'm really interested in any/all definitions or markers of health.
posted by cairdeas at 11:02 AM on December 9, 2011


I believe the best indicator for health would be average longevity. That would take into consideration medicine, way of life (war, pestilence, famine etc).

The Cordain paper that I listed as a jumping off point above does a pretty good job of explaining why longevity is a bad measure of health. Given that death by causes that are "unnatural," e.g., eaten by a tiger, were much more prevalent for stone age humans, longevity is skewed in favor of modern man. Modern science can detect markers of diseases of affluence indicating that incidence of these diseases that are linked to chronic inflamation are nearly nonexistent in paleolithic populations, compared to similar-aged modern populations.
posted by bfranklin at 11:03 AM on December 9, 2011 [2 favorites]


Postroad is getting at my point, but I wouldn't necessarily judge "health" only by mean or even median life expectancy. You would also have to weigh quality of life. It seems that some of the anarcho-primitive types argue that the paleo lifestyle may have had a higher quality of life, even if life expectancy were less. Not agreeing with that, just pointing it out.

Baniak's point about stress is interesting too- anyone have links to research on that?
posted by Wretch729 at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Not that I'm a fan of processed food (at least in its current capitalism-first incarnation) but I'd strongly recommend challenging Weil and anyone who cites him to explain just what they mean by "healthier" and what their evidence is.
posted by rokusan at 11:05 AM on December 9, 2011


Poor diet is the current most popular lay explanation for Metabolic Syndrome disorders (hyperlipidemia, diabetes, high blood pressure, etc), however biomedical and anthropological narratives are shifting toward physical activity and psychosocial stressors to account for variations in this disease across the global population. There is some work suggesting that seasonal variation in diet offers protection, which means that eating the same exact breakfast 5 or 7 days a week year round is not a good idea. Also, sticking to just the same 5 veggies is likely not going to maximize health.

Dressler done some very interesting work with various researchers to investigate his Cultural Consonance theory.
Jo Scheder has done some great research.

Further, extensive body measurement studies have shown a "natural" variation in body weight throughout the year, and following the seasons. The older "thrifty gene" theory has been debunked disproven.

In all of my extensive reading on this topic for the past 6 months, I found very few "lay explanations" from non-diagnosed individuals or groups. But the few pilot intervention studies I found have suggested that increased physical activity has a very significant impact on metabolic disease prevention.

If you want to read more, I have um, 50 to 75 potentially relevant academic articles. I have not done any reading of this topic in the popular press, because I find they take a buzz sentence from an article and...blow it out of proportion.
posted by bilabial at 11:06 AM on December 9, 2011 [10 favorites]


I believe the best indicator for health would be average longevity. That would take into consideration medicine, way of life (war, pestilence, famine etc).

I think the notion of 'healthy' we're talking about here, where baseline health* in the absence of external considerations such as pathogenic or genetic disease is really the matter of concern, would be better served by looking at median life expectancy and not mean, because the average will get dragged down by the type of events that Wretch729 mentions. I don't know to what extent we have any sort of reconstructed estimates as to the life expectancy of prehistoric peoples, but it seems like that statistic would be the thing to look for.

* This seems pretty intuitive to me -- physical fitness, good immune response, and no nutritional deficits I would think cover most of the bases.
posted by invitapriore at 11:06 AM on December 9, 2011


Baniak's point about stress is interesting too- anyone have links to research on that?
posted by Wretch729 at 2:05 PM on December 9 [+] [!]

Yes, William Dressler
Jo Scheder
Dennis Wiedman

Cultual Consensus Theory
Political Economy theories
Psychosocial stressors

You want to get yourself to an academic library, searching terms like migration, urbanization, and subjective social status (I can't remember who focuses on that last term).
posted by bilabial at 11:08 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


I don't think we can really eliminate all the deaths by violence or accident... dying at age 20 is a really good way to avoid getting heart disease. If the population skews young because people die early of "unnatural causes" then diseases of middle age are going to be underrepresented in that population.
posted by mskyle at 11:09 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


[I wrote this for somewhere else over a year and a half ago, but I think it applies here too, so please indulge my cutting and pasting]

I'm going to put my paleoanthropology hat on for a second and address this from the perspective of evolutionary health:

Setting aside any chance processes (e.g. mutations, etc), evolution boils down to the change in number of certain genes within the total gene pool of the species. You have more kids with your genes -> those kids have more kids with your genes -> etc and the number of those genes increases. Or, you die before you have kids, and none of your genes are passed on, reducing the number of those genes. Having as many children (that survive into adulthood) as possible is the best evolutionary thing you can do, because the more you have, the more of your genes are out there in the gene pool.

So, in evolutionary terms, the move to agriculture has been a stunning success. For the first 100,000-180,000 years of human existence, we hovered below a million humans on earth; in just the past 10,000 years, we've exploded from from a million to seven billion and counting. Yes, there are issues with grain-heavy diets (e.g. dental caries shoot up in frequency in the archaeological record), but as long as people have lots of kids, evolution doesn't care. And with agriculture, food is generally abundant year-round, excepting crop failure and the like, as opposed to the ebb and flow of hunter-gathering, and with modern agribusiness, even regional crop failures aren't that noticeable in heavily industrialized nations. A lot of the issues that the paleo diet people point to correlate not just with a change in diet, but with a general shift to a more sedentary lifestyle. Agriculture arose when people began to settle into villages and cities--it's hard to farm when you're wandering across the landscape--and the division of labor began in earnest. Rather than walking, hunting, foraging, and migrating, people became much more sedentary in both location and labor. In other words, it's not just the diet that changed, but the entire way of living, and to say the diet alone is culpable for health issues is ridiculous.

So is the "paleo diet" "better" than a relatively more grain-heavy diet? Hell no, if we're talking about evolution. There's no way the population would have grown to what it is* without agriculture and grains. And even now, a grain-based (and/or dairy-filled) diet isn't preventing anyone from reproducing and reproducing a lot. The whole "humans haven't evolved enough for modern agriculture" is a canard. If anything, the biggest problems have come in the past 70 years with the addition of non-food to food, like Michael Pollan writes about extensively.

Stripping away all of the pseudoscience, though, the paleo diet folks are saying similar things to Pollan: don't eat processed foods, stick to things that everyone can recognize as capital-f Food: vegetables, meats, even some grains, but not something with partially hydrogenated refined suxose flash-frozen and ready for eating in three minutes. And that's something to get behind, I think**. Avoiding pseudo-food (Tastykakes included, sadly) also keeps super-concentrated, usually high-glycemic-index sources of calories away from us; those go a long way to explaining why we're a bunch of fatties.***

Executive summary: The principles behind the paleo diet are a sham, but it works anyway for other reasons.

*remember: evolution doesn't know^ what "overpopulating" is, because it's always looking backward, never forward.
**I admit I just finished a Trader Joe's frozen Cannelloni.
***Americans particularly, though not necessarily all of us reading this post.
^ Of course evolution isn't sentient, but it's a handy notation anyway.

posted by The Michael The at 11:11 AM on December 9, 2011 [31 favorites]


I think the paleo diet argument is that we should eat a diet that resembles the diet we evolved with. Our ancestors rarely had the opportunity to chow down on a 2500 calorie super-sized McDonald's meal, laden with carbohydrates and sugar and saturated fat, so when you do that to your body you're essentially running outside of the specification of your hunter-gatherer digestive system. Modern diets combined with sedentary lifestyles certainly cause all kinds of problems that would have been rare in primitive man: Obesity, high blood pressure, type II diabetes, alcoholism, clogged arteries, etc.

As others have pointed out, though, modern technology means that we're much healthier on average. I'm also not going to starve to death or be malnourished---common features of ancient diets that the paleo diet folks have been oddly reticent to adopt.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Executive summary: The principles behind the paleo diet are a sham, but it works anyway for other reasons.

While your paleoanthropology explanation does a good job of pointing to how paleo could be confounding issues related to cortisol levels and inflammation, it doesn't really address the benefits to things like insulin sensitivity that come from the diet.

Further, evolution isn't related to just raw number; it's also linked to generations, of which there have been very few (in evolutionary terms) since the agricultural revolution. I think there's room to dismiss certain quackery arguments surrounding paleo as some panacea (I was really hesitant to link Robb Wolf above as I think he skirts the edge of this, despite knowing a good deal of science), but to call the entire concept a sham seems a bit disingenuous based on just the pasted argument.
posted by bfranklin at 11:32 AM on December 9, 2011


Eh, The Michael The, that's all well and good for my genes, but what about me? I agree that a grain-based diet is good for making lots and lots of people, but that's not really my primary goal in life, and I might well prefer a definition of "health" that has more to do with my well-being and less to do with how many healthy kids I can be expected to churn out. (I am typing this while chowing down of fries and a quesadilla, for what that's worth.)

Another thing: I think we often fail to take into account that we have still been evolving during the agricultural/industrial period. For instance lactase persistence (which allows those of us who are not lactose intolerant to digest lactose) evolved probably within the last 10,000 years (probably at least twice, actually), i.e. when we domesticated cattle (or other milk animals).

Also also: although food storage has a lot of complicated effects on our lives, it does (in theory) give us the ability to ride out drought, etc. Even paleo people didn't get to eat the paleo diet all the time. Sometimes they were just starving to death.

As for measures of health - what about QALYs (Quality-Adjusted Life Years)? I don't know how we could assess paleolithic man's quality of life, though. That's a very culturally-determined concept.

I feel like some people want this question to be, "Would a paleolithic person who never came down with any communicable diseases, never encountered famine, and did not suffer from violence or accidents be healthier than a modern person?" But did such a paleolithic person ever exist?

Ultimately I say, who cares whether a paleolithic person would be healthier on this diet? I car about whether *I* would be healthier on this diet.
posted by mskyle at 11:35 AM on December 9, 2011 [6 favorites]


Michael Pollan claims (in Omnivores Dilemma) that aborigines who switched from a bad western diet to a traditional indigenous diet showed dramatic objective health improvements. But I don't have a reference for that claim and I don't know if it is based on peer-reviewed research.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 11:36 AM on December 9, 2011


In fairness to the paleo diet folks, the higher rate of death before age 40 or so is at least partly attributable to the higher incidence of death due to , injury, accidents, childbirth, etc. Most people didn't die because of diseases related to diet, because most people got killed by something else first.

I'm not convinced, though, that proof that our ancestors were healthier is a good argument for the paleo diet. They also lived dramatically different lifestyles (sustained physical activity, more time outside, etc.) than most people today, and the idea that we're unhealthy because we're not living the same lifestyle that humans are "meant to" seems like an uncomfortably woo-heavy interpretation of evolutionary biology.

The paleo diet has shown some interesting results, though most of what I've seen has been anecdotal. There've been a few nutritional studies. All of that is a lot more relevant and compelling (though maybe not more profitable) than the appeal to nature.

I think the paleo diet is kind of cool because it forces you to avoid processed food, which is pretty horrible no matter how you look at it.

The blanket label of "processed foods" always bothers me, the way that "chemical-free bothers me. I know it's evolved into shorthand for a specific kind of thing, but still--bread is processed food. Cheese. Pickles. Any kind of alcohol. And even if we agree to narrow the scope to just modern processing techniques, I think "processed foods" is problematic, because that encompasses a wide variety of things--adding vegetable extracts for color/flavor, adding vitamin C to extend shelf life, adding HFCS to everything--which are not equal in their impact on human health. HFCS isn't unhealthy because our ancestors didn't eat it, it's not unhealthy because it's mass produced (although that ties it in with other environmental and agribusiness issues, and that certainly provides non-health reasons to boycott it), it's unhealthy because it makes your blood sugar go haywire.
posted by kagredon at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


*infectious disease, injury, accidents, childbirth.
posted by kagredon at 11:48 AM on December 9, 2011


Eh, The Michael The, that's all well and good for my genes, but what about me? I agree that a grain-based diet is good for making lots and lots of people, but that's not really my primary goal in life, and I might well prefer a definition of "health" that has more to do with my well-being and less to do with how many healthy kids I can be expected to churn out. (I am typing this while chowing down of fries and a quesadilla, for what that's worth.)

That's fine. I was writing from a strictly evolutionary perspective, like I said in my preamble, because the OP was interested in all kinds of definitions of health.
posted by The Michael The at 12:02 PM on December 9, 2011


I'm not convinced, though, that proof that our ancestors were healthier is a good argument for the paleo diet. They also lived dramatically different lifestyles

Agreed. I'm not healthier than my vegan & vegetarian friends because I eat healthier -- I don't! I'm healthier because I'm much, much more active.

But now that I think about it, there's a good chance I'll die before them because of some of that activity (climbing, motorcycling, diving) so maybe longevity isn't such a great measurement for modern people's health either. Also, people can stay sick for a LONG time without dying these days, which argues against longevity==health.
posted by coolguymichael at 12:05 PM on December 9, 2011 [1 favorite]


Palaeopathology is a fascinating topic, and one of the notable things about it is that there are a relatively limited range of diseases that you can diagnose from skeletal remains. And skeletal remains are all we have for this period. Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cannot be diagnosed from skeletal remains; cancer can only be diagnosed if there are bony metastases. There are significant areas for debate in diagnosis in palaeopathology as well, with interpretations of various bony features argued over. You can go the ethnoarchaeology route and make reasonable extrapolations from modern hunter-gatherer populations, but they are extrapolations and not certainties. So you can say that it's pretty bloody likely that Type II Diabetes was unknown in the palaeolthic, but you can't be as certain as palaeo advocates are.

A forgotten factor here is also infanticide, which is common to almost all human societies (societies based on the Abrahamic religions being the exception, and even then for most of their history it's likely the practice just went underground). You looked sickly at birth - infanticide. Not enough food to go round - infanticide. We didn't just run with natural selection, we actively selected who was going to be brought up to adulthood. Again, that leads to a bias towards being 'healthier' as you only got to live if you looked tough and there was likely to be enough to sustain you.

There are also gender issues; there are numerous societies today in which the lower position of women translates to a lower share of communal calorific resources. This is unproveable in a prehistoric context, but should be borne in mind as a distinct possibility. There are also food taboos - no culture on earth exploits all the calorific resources around it, all having food taboos; especially notable are those around pregnant women. Some of them are helpful, but some are actively harmful to the health of the woman. Again, unproveable for prehistory, but we know our prehistoric ancestors were intelligent and 'cultured', so it's very reasonable to suggest that cultural taboos around food also existed.
posted by Coobeastie at 12:10 PM on December 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


zomg: "to avoid processed food, which is pretty horrible undefinable no matter how you look at it."

Fixed that for you.

No, really. How do you classify what's "processed" food? Unless you resort to only eating whole fruits and vegetables straight off of the tree/vine, everything is being processed to a degree*. Can I chop my onions before adding them to the stir fry? Can I even cook the stir fry?

Paleo is a diet that is based off of emotions, and an interpretation of history that is both misguided and inaccurate.

*And, even then, we've been carefully cultivating crops for thousands of years, so the fruit off of the tree isn't even all that 'natural.' Those plants are the result of thousands of years of human-guided genetic selection.

Now, the Paleo diet might actually be good for you. However, that's probably by coincidence, because the diet's philosophical underpinnings are complete bunk.

There's a good bit of evidence that the diet works for some people. In those cases, it makes more sense to conclude that "Paleo works, and therefore we should try to determine which dietary components of that diet help lead to positive dietary outcomes."

It does not make sense to conclude that "Paleo works, and therefore I should integrate other aspects of the hunter/gatherer diet and lifestyle into my life."

Unless you happen to be a hunter-gatherer yourself, it's logically incongruent to hypothesize that adopting the hunter-gatherer diet will offer you any kind of benefits. Sure, we don't not eat like our genetic ancestors, but our lifestyles are also dramatically different from those of our genetic ancestors.

And, hell. Humans have been an agrarian society for long enough that I would challenge the notion that we stopped evolving after ditching the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for an agrarian one. Our genetic code has also evolved to help enable us to live in an agrarian society. There's strong evidence that humans evolved the ability to tolerate lactose in their diets as recently as 3,000 years ago. This trait evidently proved to be so beneficial to human survival that the vast majority of humans now possess this trait, which is remarkable if you consider the fairly short timespan involved. I would very strongly challenge the popular notion that "we evolved to be hunter-gatherers."
posted by schmod at 12:11 PM on December 9, 2011 [5 favorites]


This trait evidently proved to be so beneficial to human survival that the vast majority of humans

I agree with the gist of this comment, but I think this quote was a misread of the NYT article--the majority of humans descended from regions that depended heavily on dairy (Northern Europe, primarily) have lactose persistence, but the majority of adult humans worldwide have some degree of lactose intolerance.
posted by kagredon at 12:20 PM on December 9, 2011


Now, the Paleo diet might actually be good for you. However, that's probably by coincidence, because the diet's philosophical underpinnings are complete bunk.

The interesting thing is that some of the more vocal people involved with paleo, including the aforementioned Robb Wolf, acknowledge this and are trying to find a way to rebrand, because the while evolutionary biology was the impetus behind a lot of the investigation, it's not at all the point.

More on-topic, this is a long analysis of the history of malocclusion that, if I remember it correctly, cites a bunch of evidence that pre-agricultural man had much better dental health than we do.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:21 PM on December 9, 2011 [3 favorites]


No, really. How do you classify what's "processed" food? Unless you resort to only eating whole fruits and vegetables straight off of the tree/vine, everything is being processed to a degree*. Can I chop my onions before adding them to the stir fry? Can I even cook the stir fry?

The general public rule of thumb is "if your great grandmother could identify it as 'edible', it's food." So a chopped onion, yes -- but a Twinkie, probably not.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:10 PM on December 9, 2011


[Putting on my mod hat, please make sure that your comments at least make an attempt to address the question. ]
posted by restless_nomad at 1:15 PM on December 9, 2011


Look up Weston A. Price's work and the foundation that bears his name. It's not paleo, but it does advocate eating the way old timers did (no hydrogenated vegetable oils, no soy, no processed foods, etc). Interesting stuff.
posted by Neekee at 1:46 PM on December 9, 2011


say that we should eat as our ancestors did because they were healthier than we are today.

There are many places in the world today where eating as our ancestors did is the only option available. They are not known for their general health levels, at least not in a good way.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:24 PM on December 9, 2011


I agree that a grain-based diet is good for making lots and lots of people, but that's not really my primary goal in life, and I might well prefer a definition of "health" that has more to do with my well-being and less to do with how many healthy kids I can be expected to churn out

These may functionally be the same thing, though. You as a modern person may choose to have or not to have the kids, but if you have the same degree of health as someone who could churn out all those kids, you probably are pretty healthy.
posted by Miko at 8:41 PM on December 9, 2011


Oh, another thing to consider: parasites. Before the last century, everybody had 'em fairly constantly. Lice, fleas, worms. Today, in the developed world, not so much.
posted by Miko at 8:43 PM on December 9, 2011


"Maybe what Paleo practitioners are really getting at is that we are living a lifestyle that is different from the lifestyle under which we evolved."

I've noticed that lately it has been quite common for individuals outside of science to fixate on a specific point in time in our evolutionary history. In Evolutionary Psychology, it is called the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness (EEA). Although some use EEA broadly to refer to the general environment, in pop culture, the EEA is generally used in regard to a set point in time, often referred to as 'when we evolved'. There are numerous problems with focusing on the EEA.

1. As schmod notes, we have evolved since the Paleolithic period (we evolve even today). We also evolved before the Paleolithic period. By focusing on this one period, we remain ignorant to the whole understanding on the human condition.

2. The terms Paleolithic and Pleistocene, which are most commonly used when discussing the EEA cover huge spans of change. The Paleolithic period itself ran from 2.6 million years ago to 10,000 BP. Giant changes occurred in technology during those periods. Because these spans of time are so vast, and because we were spread so widely, what we did and ate varies tremendously.

3. Diet varies widely in humans both within populations and between populations. Just look at the diversity in foods in human culture today. Look, also, at how different groups of people have evolved to process different types of food. Some people need high levels of carbs, others don't do well on them. Some can process milk, others can't, etc. I feel that too many diets are based on a 'one size fits all' measure of humanity. I'd love to see more studies done on how different ethnic groups respond to the same diet.

4. Our understanding of much of the Paleolithic resides in skeletons and very patchy remains. We can't exactly look at modern Hunter-Gatherer peoples because many of them live in landscapes that are usable for little else. Furthermore, a lot of modern HG groups have been found to be originally herders or farmers that shifted to HG style sustenance upon traveling to new areas, or when geographical changes made their previous modes of sustenance unsustainable. A lot of diseases cannot be ascertained from skeletons, and age is hard to pinpoint. We cannot judge for certain how healthy a population was in Paleolithic time. We can see a clear increase of cavities and a decrease in height after farming appears, but it is important to note that we also see a huge population boom. That population boom couldn't have occurred unless females were healthier than before, as children are incredibly taxing.

5. schmod also notes that it's very nearly impossible to go back to what humans were eating before. Not only is our fruit sweeter, but our vegetables have much more sugar in them. I've followed around omnivore non-human primates in the wild and sampled much of their fares. They, like us, definitely prefer the fruits that humans have cultivated for our own use (mangoes being the most popular in the species I observed), but most of their wild fare isn't sweet at all by our standards. For the most part, we find it quite bitter.

Of course, the modern amounts of sugar, salt, fat, etc were simply not available to our ancestors. That increased fat reduced the age of menarche in women from around 19 in the Paleolithic to 17 when farming took off. Since the 1850s it has declined until now it is 12 in the US. Is it healthy that most girls in the US are going through menarche before 14? Probably not. Should we try to return it to the age it was during the Paleolithic? We'd end up killing girls.

I think the fact that there are so many more of us alive now is proof that we are healthier now.
posted by PrimateFan at 8:39 PM on December 11, 2011 [5 favorites]


Very much appreciated, everyone. Thank you.
posted by cairdeas at 3:40 PM on December 12, 2011


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