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The food bore told me he was “going Paleo” – what’s the point?

Humankind has come a long way from caveman days.

The paleo bore and I crossed paths at a work lunch, when he helped himself to all of the sashimi from the communal platter and then explained, as I bleakly contemplated the vegetarian maki rolls, that he never touched carbs – “I’ve gone paleo.” Adopting the diet of our stone-age ancestors had apparently lost him two stone and gained him a “hot chick” half his age – at which point I stopped listening and sought solace in a tempura prawn.

The rationale behind the puzzlingly popular paleo diet is that “for optimal health, modern humans should go back to eating real, whole unprocessed foods that are more healthful than harmful to our bodies” – which seems to make sense. But “real foods” in this context means the foods available to “our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors” – so no dairy or processed grains, no legumes such as peanuts, lentils and beans (full of “antinutrients”, apparently), no sugars apart from honey, and no seed oils or alcohol of any kind, which seems unfair given that, as any monkey knows, fruit ferments naturally. Instead, adherents are encouraged to eat grass-fed meat, and fish, vegetables, eggs, animal fats and “healthful oils”, and fruit in moderation.

There are several problems with the caveman plan. For a start, it’s impossible to source the same ingredients as those our bodies are alleged to have evolved to thrive on: you may think you’re fine tucking into a salad, but wild lettuce contains copious amounts of mildly toxic sap, as well as being tough and prickly; wild tomatoes are the size of berries and twice as sour; and wild avocados have just a couple of millimetres of flesh on them.

Agriculture may apparently be to blame for all ills, but it has gifted us a wide range of nutrient-dense and delicious fruit and vegetables, as well as year-round access to eggs (wild fowl lay seasonally) and abundant sources of protein that don’t require days of exhausting chase across the savannah to catch.

The assumption that our ancestors didn’t eat grains is also incorrect: an ancient grinding tool discovered in a cave in southern Italy shows that Palaeolithic people produced flour from wild oats, possibly for use in a flatbread or porridge – both dishes off limits to the committed paleolista.

Little attention, too, is paid to the differences between Palaeolithic communities. The diets of modern hunter-gatherers – from the Inuit, who consume as much as 95 per cent of their food in the form of meat and fish, to the !Kung of southern Africa, whose diet is comprised of up to 62 per cent seeds and nuts – confirm that the menu would have been both monotonous and highly opportunistic.

Leaving aside the – flawed – premise that we stopped adapting to our environment 1.6 million years ago (adult lactose tolerance took only about 7,000 years in European populations), there’s little evidence our Palaeolithic ancestors were healthier than us. Atherosclerosis, or clogged arteries, is not uncommon in mummies from ancient hunter-gatherer societies, and life expectancy was about 35.

Had I known all of this, I would have been delighted to inform the bore that of course “going paleo” leads to weight loss – as would any diet that cuts out processed food and sugar – and can apparently make you quite dull too; but it doesn’t mean you’re eating like a caveman. Small mercies, I suppose – a true caveman would probably have polished off the sushi too.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia