If you’re someone who prescribes to an eating regimen designed on the basis of the dietary practices of our Paleolithic ancestors, then chances are you’ve come across people whose demeanor and expressions clearly reveal that they are skeptical of your nutritional approach, perhaps perceiving it as odd or dubious. If you’re someone who eats a “normal” diet that largely conforms to the standard nutritional doctrines of the day, on the other hand, then your dietary behaviors have probably received relatively little scrutiny and you’ve most likely never found yourself in a situation in which you’ve had to defend your food choices.
Typically, the burden of proof is placed on the people who adhere to and/or promote the former way of eating, whereas those who conform to or uphold current nutritional norms are largely left in peace. This appears unreasonable in light of what we know to be true about the evolution of the human diet.
It’s somewhat absurd that the diet that we humans have been eating throughout more than 99.5% of the time our genus has been around is regularly in need of a good ‘lawyer’ that can defend and validate it, whereas the diet that we have been eating for less than 0.5% of the equivalent time is largely given a free pass
Several years back, as I was studying Public Nutrition in school, one of the most visible proponents of low-carbohydrate dieting here in Norway came by and gave a talk about the Paleo diet as part of a nutritional seminar we – the students – had arranged. One of the things I remember from his talk and that really resonated with me is that he argued that it’s the “new” diet that we should be skeptical of and that needs to prove that it can stand up to scientific scrutiny. The “old” diet, on the other hand, has already demonstrated that it works. Millions of years of human evolution speak to that fact.
This is not to say that we don’t need to check to see how the latter diet performs under contemporary conditions or that a hunter-gatherer type diet is ideal in every situation that demands for a nutritional intervention; however, it prompts a radical shift in how we approach nutrition. By acknowledging that the Paleolithic diet is the original/default human diet and the sole diet of sustenance throughout the vast majority of our evolutionary history, it immediately becomes clear that it makes absolutely no sense to label that diet as a wacky or aberrant diet. It’s obviously also irrational to call it a ‘fad diet’.
If anything, it’s the grain-based modern diet that’s a fad. At the very least, that’s the diet that we should be the most skeptical of, as it is the diet that we have the least evolutionary experience with (by far), and hence, the diet that natural selection has had the least time to adapt the human biology to. The burden of proof is arguably on it, in the sense that it has to demonstrate that it’s better, or at least equally good, as its predecessor.
This isn’t the way most people perceive things though, which is clearly highlighted by the fact that evolutionary dieters are called upon to defend their food choices a lot more frequently than people who eat a diet based on mainstream nutritional advice. Even people who eat mostly junk tend to face less scrutiny than the folks who’ve decided to follow in the footsteps of their Stone Age ancestors, which is kind of hilarious, considering that the former are both messing up their bodies and supporting a noxious industry through their food purchases.
We may want to reconsider the way we as a society approach nutrition
The reason I’m raising these points is not that I’m covertly trying to deflect the criticism that has been raised against the Paleolithic nutrition concept because I feel the concept isn’t strong and solid enough, with respects to its scientific bearings, to stand firm in the face of that criticism. As I’ve repeatedly outlined in my articles, the notion that we – contemporary humans – can benefit from adjusting our modern diet so it more closely resembles the diet that our Pleistocene ancestors ate is supported by a wealth of scientific data, including data derived from randomized controlled trials, studies looking into the evolution of the human oral microbiome, and examinations of contemporary hunter-gatherers, including their cardiovascular fitness, body composition, and susceptibility to cancer.
Rather, the reason I bring up the aforementioned points is that I think the way we as a society approach nutrition is illogical and that a change is warranted. Instead of starting from the conception that current nutritional norms constitute normalcy and a standard by which we should compare everything else, we may be better off pushing our baseline back in time. Personally, I made that shift in my head many years back, and I think I’m better off for it.
It’s important to recognize that other factors besides ones directly related to our genetic heritage have to be taken into account when individual dietary requirements are to be elucidated though. For example, it’s well established that the requirements of individuals who’ve recently undergone major surgery or suffer from a serious infection and/or illness differ from those of healthy folks. This is something I’ve repeatedly pointed out here on the site in the past, largely because I’m trying to get across the message that it’s important to listen to one’s body, as opposed to slavishly following a particular set of nutritional principles pretty much irrespective of how one feels. Personally, I’ve certainly found that to be important.
Up until not so long ago in our evolutionary history, all humans on this planet were effectively hunter-gatherers who subsisted on a diet composed of wild plants and animals. It’s somewhat absurd that this primal diet is now frequently perceived as being aberrant and dubious, given that it has been with humanity from its inception and supported the evolution of man for millions of years. From a Darwinian point of view, it seems a lot more reasonable to ask whether the diets that have taken hold and spread in recent evolutionary times are as healthy for us as their preagricultural antecedents, than to be suspicious of the diet that has been with us for more than 99.5% of the time we humans have been around.