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

Humankind has come a long way from caveman days.

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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 appears in the 12 October 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled

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