I mentioned advocates of paleolithic nutrition a few days ago and note that they have been featured in The New Inquiry. These are people who believe that we should eat the foods that hunter gatherers were munching on before the Neolithic: meat, fish, nuts, vegetables and fruit. All the products of agriculture, they suggest, are alien to our bodies and downright toxic.
It is a concept that appeals to the human and especially the male ego: the supposed manliness of meat consumption allying itself to the purity of eating a natural diet and the nonconformism of defying mainstream health advice. As with most ideas that attach themselves to evolutionary theory it also has the air of radical empiricism. I am unconvinced, however, by its actual claims.
What allowed our prehistoric ancestors to live successfully does not seem as interesting as what allows people to live successfully today. Whole grain consumption has been associated time and again with healthy weight management. It has been inversely associated with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and hypertension. This or that grain will more or less tolerable to different individuals but speaking broadly if you claim that they are unhealthy you are going to have to devise a notion of false consciousness.
Legumes are also shunned by contemporary cavemen. Specific complaints against them have been answered by this industrious vegan sceptic but let’s look at the big picture. A study in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at countries where citizens live to ripe old ages and compared their food cultures. Legumes united them: “the Japanese eat soy, tofu, natto, miso, the Swedes eat brown beans and peas and the Mediterraneans eat lentils, chickpeas and white beans.” The quality of one’s life is at least as important as its actual length but I see no reason to believe lentil-munchers lose out. Here is a list of Europe’s most obese nations, for example. Sweden and Italy do not even make the top twenty and, indeed, legumes seem to aid the regulation of blood sugars and increase satiety.
I am sure a lot of Paleo promoters are convinced by the science and the effect of the diet on themselves. What they do with their own bodies is their own business. I see their ideas being promoted on a lot of influential outlets, though, and remain dubious about the bases of its rise. Alternet loves it. Boing Boing are fans. io9, Gawker’s futurist outlet, quotes one caveman as saying that besides “obtaining cheap sugar calories, there is absolutely no reason to eat grains”. Eliding “sugar calories” feels like poisoning the well. I ask you: if you ate brown rice or drank coca cola which would leave you feeling full? It is true, though, that grains are not packed with nutrition. So? It is good to have a source of calories that is efficient to produce and cheap to purchase, as well as being a toothsome vehicle for more nutritious foods that contain less energy.
The other option, disregarding the banana scarfing crowd, is to obtain the bulk of your calories from animal foods. I am not convinced that the effect of such a diet on our insides would be beneficial: according to the latest reviews of trials of saturated fats the opposite is liable to be the case. I will admit to having an ethical interest, though. Advocates of the lifestyle often emphasise that they care for animals and buy ethically sourced meat. This might be true, but they are advocating meat-based diets to people who are often considerably poorer and, sometimes, less conscientious than they are. Should a great deal of people adopt the lifestyles they promote they will choose flesh from animals that were tortured in pens and barns in the great industrial eradication that serve first world appetites.
As someone who objects to the manner in which creatures are raised and slaughtered rather than the raising and slaughtering of animals in principle I am aware that my stance may appear to both carnivores and vegetarians as a sad compromise. It may be inadequate, perhaps, but it is not absurd. Animals feel sensations of pleasure and pain. I do not think sensations of pleasure make for a meaningful life. It is the ability to reason, which allows us to comprehend our environments; form distinct relationships and devise and pursue ambitions that make our lives fulfilling. Most non-human animals have nothing that approximates this and their deaths do not seem tragic. Sensations of pain, however, can make for a very bad life. One does not have to reason to appreciate the unpleasantness of being cramped, diseased, mutilated and deprived of air. Promoting a meat-based diet perpetuates these agonies – and, indeed, a system that bears as much relation to our prehistoric past as a drone strike has to the wars of hunter gatherers.
My other problem with the lifestyle is conceptual. I am not one of those people who believes that evolution has served no purpose beyond making us appear less ape-like and irritating Christians. There is much that we can learn from studying the manner in which it has shaped our species. It is also possible, however, to succumb to romantic illusions and reductionist assumptions about human minds and bodies and this obscure our understanding of ourselves. We did not evolve to eat grains and legumes. Again – is this all that important? I will grant that I am no more a biologist than I am a nutritionist but are our anatomies so sensitive that they panic when they encounter anything unknown to them? Our bodies tend to be robust and supple things; capable of dealing with that which they had not been briefed for. I know one thing: we did not evolve to have the six packs that a lot of these guys are after.