So you’ve decided to lose some weight this summer. Maybe you’re trying one of the popular diet trends, like the Paleo diet. It’s a protein-rich, low carb regime that, besides being touted for weight loss, has a major claim to fame?it drove the huge leap forward in human brain power some 800,000 years ago. The problem? The latest science shows that carbs and cooking actually played a major role in our intelligence evolution.
The Paleo diet, like any other trend, has a few variations. But essentially, it’s big on meat and tuber vegetables and avoids dairy, processed grains, beans, and legumes. The logic is that our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t suffer from many of the modern lifestyle diseases caused, in part, by diet?things like Type 2 diabetes, obesity, and hypertension. And since those Paleo people (presumably) ate lots of meat, root vegetables, and no dairy or farmed grains, then it must be good for modern humans to do the same. Some sites, like Paleo Leap, even claim that the Paleo diet “has the potential to cure a good part of those conditions that are quite new to us,” such as Crohn’s disease and multiple sclerosis.
Then, of course, there’s the correlation between brain size and protein. As this Telegraph article notes, a basic tenet of the Paleo diet is that “it was a protein rich regime that fuelled massive brain growth for early humans.”
With a pedigree like that, it’s no surprise that Paleo-diet books, videos, and seminars have grown in popularity. But before you ditch that whole-grain pasta and reach for a steak (and your wallet), you should probably take a closer look at whether science really backs up those claims.
First of all, even if we knew exactly what the typical Paleolithic-era person ate, it would be almost impossible for us to duplicate it. It’s one thing to say that they ate meat and vegetables. What’s easy to forget is that a wild, uncultivated steak or onion that existed during the Paleolithic?a period, by the way, that extends from some 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago?wouldn’t have much in common with our modern equivalents. Thanks to selective breeding, the size and nutritional value of everything from cows to cucumbers has changed, sometimes significantly (like the Belgian Blue, a breed of cow that weighs over a ton).
The other thing that’s evolved since Paleolithic times is your modern human digestion. For instance, this NPR article explains that human adults only developed the enzyme for lactose tolerance around 8,000 years ago. Which means that even early Holocene meals had started to look significantly different than Paleolithic ones did.
Still, what about the claim that lots of meat and vegetables will help you avoid modern lifestyle diseases like Type 2 diabetes and atherosclerosis? Well, a diet high in refined sugar and salt obviously doesn’t help, but Discovery reports that a high-risk gene for Type 2 diabetes “was apparently inherited from Neanderthals.”
And researchers in another study found that “atherosclerosis was common in four preindustrial populations including preagricultural hunter-gatherers.” Out of 137 mummies, evidence of the condition was found in 47 of them, just over a third.
But what about boosting brain power? Surely the Paleo diet was responsible for building our relatively large brains. Not entirely. It was the addition of cooked starch to those ancient diets that played a key role in the evolution of our big brains. That’s the word from evolutionary geneticists at University College London, as The New York Times reports.
Obviously, the claims behind the Paleo diet aren’t the only ones that don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. There’s been the raw food diet, the hCG diet (extreme calorie restriction coupled with injections of human pregnancy hormone), and the cabbage soup diet.
The Paleo diet might not be as extreme as some of those, and it does eliminate unhealthy options like highly processed junk foods. But the fact remains that any diet restricting you to one or two food groups comes at the cost of other nutritional benefits. In this case, things like Vitamin D and calcium.
The bottom line? Whether you’re looking at a new diet to lose weight, gain energy, or improve health, check out the science before you start. Then be sure to weigh it against the sales pitch.
S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.