EDIT: I’ve written a followup to this post here.
Today, to kick off my triumphant return to writing, we’re going to talk about the so-called “paleo” diet. At least four people I know have “gone paleo,” as they annoyingly insist on calling the decision to eat this particular way. It’s all very new-age and exciting, like yoga or crossfit or gluten-free or whatever the fuck tickles your fancy and makes you feel superior to the people you once called friends.
Also similar to crossfit, the people who have “gone paleo” are all too eager to tell you about how great they feel now and how they’ve really gotten rid of their toxins in a way they didn’t previously realize that toxins could be gotten rid of.
I’m not going to address crossfit in this blog, because explaining that you’d have to be a goddamn idiot to think that an empty concrete warehouse with a pullup bar and a kettle bell is worth $135 a month is beneath me. What I will address is the paleo diet.
I was going to do one of those section headers where I ask “What Is The Paleo Diet?” and then I explain it to you, but I’ll let that chiseled paragon of manliness do it for me. He apparently does the paleo diet. Or he’s a stock photo of a muscular man that someone decided to use to make their point. I don’t know, he’s from Google Images. Whatever. Anyway, I’ll let thepaleodiet.com explain the premise to you, as they seem to consider themselves the experts.
The paleo diet is based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors. The following seven fundamental characteristics of hunter-gatherer diets will help to optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight.
In case you’re not good at words, the “paleo” part of the diet comes from the word “paleolithic,” which spans a period of time from about 2.5 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. Right away, you should be furrowing your brow in the way that I’m sure you all furrow your brows when you’re skeptical about something you’ve been told. The problem with saying “we should eat like we did in the Paleolithic Era” is that the Paleolithic Era covers a preposterous amount of time. At the most recent end of that time period, our ancestors were slightly shorter than we are and had just invented irrigation and beer, and at the far end of that time period our ancestors looked like chimps and had just invented hitting things with rocks. They did not have the same lifestyles. But the problems with the paleo diet go much deeper than that. Let’s break them down.
1. Paleo People Weren’t Any Better Adapted Than We Are
A common thread in the defense of the paleo diet is that humans haven’t evolved fast enough to catch up to the foods we eat nowadays, mainly referring to agriculturally raised grains like wheat and corn. But evolution does not go in steps. People a hundred thousand years ago could just have easily said that their bodies weren’t evolving fast enough to eat domesticated animals or walk upright or not eat feces. And so on. I quote Discover Magazine:
As evolutionary and genetic science show, humans, like all other living beings, have always been a work in progress and never completely in sync with the natural world. If we’re going to romanticize and emulate a particular point in our evolutionary history, why not go all the way back to when our ape ancestors spent their days swinging from tree to tree?
Animals evolve to adapt to their foods and environments, and they eat new things to adapt to their ability to do so. There is no point in human evolution, nor has there ever been, at which we have “caught up” to our diets. But even if there were…
2. We Don’t Digest Our Own Food
This one might sound weird at first, but it’s true. The vast majority of the cells in “your” body are bacteria, to the tune of 100 trillion of them in your intestines alone. That’s ten times as many as the number of actual human cells in your entire body. Their main job is to get energy from carbohydrates by the process of fermentation. And they reproduce like crazy. E. coli, for example, reproduces roughly every 20 minutes. According to studies of infant gut bacteria, the entire system can be recycled in less than 48 hours.
That means that while humans have only gone through roughly 225 generations since the Pyramids were built, the bacteria in your intestines have gone through twice that many generations since this time last week. And each time they reproduced, their genetic material was imperfectly replicated — the fundamental flaw in biology that makes evolution possible. So while you may argue that human evolution isn’t fast enough to keep up with our change in diet, your bacteria have gone through a few dozen generations since your last meal.
Want an example? In 1975, some Japanese scientists found bacteria in a pool containing wastewater from a nylon production plant. Upon closer examination, it turned out that the bacteria were eating nylon byproducts. Not only were the byproducts inorganic, but those particular synthetic molecules had not existed anywhere until the invention of nylon in 1935. The enzyme that the bacteria used to break down the nylon byproducts also didn’t exist anywhere else in nature, and when tested were found not to work — where “work” means “metabolize for the extraction of energy” — on anything else. So not only had these bacteria evolved to eat something that didn’t exist before, but they invented a new chemical to do so. In 40 years. And yet the proponents of paleo would have you believe that our gut bacteria can’t evolve enough to switch from metabolizing nuts and leaves to metabolizing grasses and seeds, given only a million fucking years to do so. That’s like conceding that humans have learned how to use iPhones, but arguing that we don’t yet have the sense to clothe ourselves.
But even if the bacteria also had trouble “keeping up,” warranting a need to eat paleo…
3. You Can’t
That’s right. You can’t eat paleo. Because just as humans have evolved, so has our food. The food that we eat today has virtually nothing in common with its ancient ancestors. Everything you eat has been selectively bred to be bigger or sweeter or fattier or to make more of itself faster. Every. Single. Thing. For millennia, at first inadvertently, humans have been growing stuff, keeping the ones they want, and getting rid of the rest. Let’s say you grow tomatoes. You have a few plants, and you treat them all the same, but one of them just doesn’t grow tomatoes as well as the others. They’re smaller, harder, slightly more bitter. When it comes time to plant some of your tomatoes to make more tomatoes, are you going to plant seeds from the good ones or the shitty ones? The good ones, obviously.
You don’t have to know anything about genetics or mutation. All you have to know is that tomatoes make more tomatoes. Dogs make more dogs. Cows make more cows. If you want bigger dogs, let the big ones have sex and kill the smaller ones. If you want bigger tomatoes, plant the big ones and feed the smaller ones to the pigs. Humans didn’t need any scientific knowledge to figure that out — and they didn’t have any — and so they’ve been altering the things they eat for so long that they’re not the same any more.
Take corn for example. Here’s a picture of what changes corn has gone through since humans started growing it on purpose.
On the left is what’s called teosinte. It’s basically just another grass with seeds, like wheat or barley or anything else you might find hiking in the fall. There are more than 10,000 species of grass in the world and they all have seeds on the end of stalks. Until Mesoamerican humans came along, this was just another one. But then selective breeding made it bigger, fatter, sweeter, and juicier. Know how long that took? 6,300 years. So if you want to eat paleo, you sure as shit can’t eat corn, even if we go with the most recent edge of the paleo period: 10,000 years ago. Now, obviously corn isn’t on the list of paleo foods, but my point is that there are no ancient foods left, because they’ve all been changing for millennia. So if that’s what’s happened to all the food we eat in only a few thousand years, what the hell are paleo people suppose to eat? That brings me to my next point. Not only are paleo people unable to eat ancient foods…
4. They’re Not Even Trying
This is a screenshot of the Facebook account of a guy I used to know. We haven’t spoken in over a year because he used to be an uncontrollable angry drunk, and that’s not my kind of people. That’s why I’ve blurred out his name. Since then, he has apparently “gone paleo.”
Try not to pass out at the sheer quantity of bro-ness happening in the comments and let’s just look at the ingredients. First, the superfood smoothie. “Superfood” is another buzzword that means absolutely nothing, and I don’t know what’s in the smoothie, so I’ll let it go. Whole wheat toast? Unacceptable. Yes, whole wheat is healthier than white bread, but wheat wasn’t cultivated until what is now Iran, roughly 9,600 years ago, so that’s out. Sorry.
How about eggs? Eggs come from all manner of reptiles and birds, so it’s likely that early hominids figured out that those smooth little spheres contained a disproportionately large amount of protein. Hell, howler monkeys have been seen eating bird’s eggs, and that’s an animal whose name comes from the fact that it’s literally too lazy to defend its own territory, so it just sits in the middle and screams bloody murder to let other monkeys know it’s taken. They’re not exactly intellectual heavyweights is what I’m saying, and they figured it out.
But those are chicken eggs, and you can’t eat chicken eggs unless you’ve domesticated chickens. So when did that happen? Let’s ask the all-knowing Wikipedia.
It has been claimed (based on paleoclimatic assumptions) that chickens were domesticated in Southern China in 6000 BC. However, according to a recent study, “it is not known whether these birds made much contribution to the modern domestic fowl. Chickens from the Harappan culture of the Indus Valley (2500-2100 BC), in what today is Pakistan, may have been the main source of diffusion throughout the world.”
Oh, would you look at that. 2,500 BC. You know what’s older than that? Pottery. Dams. The harp and flute. Linen. The plow. Beer. FUCKING SKIING. That’s right. There is archaeological evidence of skiing from as far back as 6,000 BC. Chickens are less ancient than winter sports, so you are most definitely not allowed to eat their eggs in your fucking paleo diet. Next.
Is that sliced avocado on that plate there? You bet your ass it is. Let’s have a quick look and see how old avocado is. It turns out that the oldest evidence of avocado is around 10,000 BC in Mexico. That’s right on the recent end of the paleo period, but I’ll let that one slide.
Now for my favorite thing: bulletproof coffee. “What,” you may be asking yourself, “in the actual fuck is bulletproof coffee? Does it stop bullets? Does it cause me to be able to stop bullets?” No. It does not. Let’s look at the website of bulletproofexec.com.
I start the day with a cup of Bulletproof coffee. I learned about the power of butter at 18,000 feet elevation near Mt. Kailash in Tibet when I staggered into a guest house from the -10 degree weather and was literally rejuvenated by a creamy cup of yak butter tea. The biohacker in me asked, “why?” and that was the genesis of my recipe below, which is widely heralded as a cognitive enhancing recipe.
Reading this closely, you may notice that this man is a douchebag of unprecedented proportions. He also demands, for his recipe, that you use his particular brand of coffee because otherwise you’ll get toxins or some shit. I’d show you a screenshot, but his website sets off all kinds of malware warnings so never mind. Anyway, bulletproof coffee is made of two things: coffee and unsalted butter. Why? Something about easily accessible fats, kickstarting the metabolism, long-lasting energy, etc. I don’t even care, for the sake of this blog, whether it’s healthier for you. If you haven’t caught on, we’re going to Google things and see if paleolithic people could have eaten them. First, butter. The history of butter is somewhat complicated, but the oldest references to it are Indian, from only 3,000 years ago. Strike one. Now let’s check on coffee.
This is where it gets really infuriating. According to Wikipedia, “the earliest credible evidence of coffee-drinking appears in the middle of the 15th century in the Sufi shrines of Yemen.” That one stopped me in my tracks. The FIFTEENTH century. I mean forget prehistoric. Forget ancient. Coffee is AS RECENT AS THE FUCKING PRINTING PRESS, AND YET THESE PALEO FUCKWADS HAVE THE AUDACITY TO JUDGE OTHERS FOR THE WAY THEY EAT. That’s what really pissed me off when I was looking into this. That was the last straw. These people preach on and on about how important it is to only eat food that paleolithic hominids would have eaten, and then they summarily ignore that advice because they feel like it. And lest you think I’m setting up a strawman based on the breakfast of one person whom I already said I don’t like, it’s not just this one guy’s breakfast. If you go to ultimatepaleoguide.com, you’ll find a list of foods in the ideal paleo diet. I picked a few out, along with how old they actually are.
- Turkey: 2,000 years
- Chicken: 2,500 years
- Pork: 13,000 years
- Shrimp: 2,500 years
- Lobster: 2,500 years
- Asparagus: 3,000 years
- Avocado: 12,000 years
- Carrots: 1,100 years
- Broccoli: 2,500 years
- Eggplant: 1,500 years
- Apple: 2,300 years
- Peach: 4,000 years
- Mango: 5,000 years
- Watermelon: 3,500 years
- Banana: 10,000 years
See how many of those foods were around before the agricultural revolution? Not a goddamn one. Except pork and possibly avocado. And while the Good Times Spicy Bacon Guacamole burger is delicious, it doesn’t count.
And that’s not even counting the technological advances that we’ve made in that time. Remember, for the majority of human history, we died when our teeth rotted out at about the age of 35. Now we brush, but what about paleo people? Are they allowed to brush? Why should they be? Why are they allowed to cook their food, when our ancestors couldn’t? Why are they allowed to boil water? Or refrigerate things? Or take antibiotics? Or smoke weed (3,000 years)? The hypocrisy is simply crushing. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that even if my asshole friends were able to eat “paleo” foods…
5. Paleo People Didn’t
Yes. This whole diet is based on the idea that we should eat like our two-million-year-old ancestors did. In most cases, this refers to avoiding agricultural carbohydrates. But how do we know what our ancestors ate anyway? The answer lies in isotope analysis.
You see, plants using C3 photosynthesis like trees, shrubs, and herbs — the “ape” diet of fruits and nuts — use both carbon-12 and carbon-13, so the amounts of those isotopes in the skeletons of animals that eat that diet will roughly reflect the amount present in the environment. Plants that use C4 photosynthesis like grasses — the modern diet of grains and grasses — use mostly carbon-13. What this all boils down to is that you can examine the fossils of ancient hominids, find out what flavor of carbon is in their bones, and thus determine where they got their plant intake from. Then you can find out when humans left the comfort of the trees to wander the plains, eschewing fruits and nuts for grains and grasses. So when did the C3-C4 split happen? Well, according to this journal article from the National Academy of Sciences, that transition had already been made by Australopithecus afarensis, well over three million years ago. That’s hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions, before the paleolithic era. Here’s what that ancestor looked like:
A. afarensis was about four feet tall and covered in hair like a chimp. His brain was a quarter the size of a modern human’s. The anatomy of his joints suggest that he still spent a fair amount of time swinging from and climbing trees, and may have walked on his knuckles. The most advanced technology he possessed was stone tools, and evidence even for that is sparse. He wouldn’t discover fire for almost another three million years. He was not, by any modern standard, a human being. And even he didn’t eat paleo.
I’m not saying that the paleo diet, such as it is, is unhealthy. It’s probably good to cut down on artificial sugars, overly salted and processed meat, and so on. But you don’t have to name every goddamn foible and dietary preference in order to brag to people how smart and healthy you’re being, and you certainly shouldn’t name it after a pretense that you don’t have a prayer in hell of sticking to, even if you were trying, which you’re not. And paleo people will not shut the fuck up about doing it, either. I don’t care how you eat. No one cares how you eat. Eating like shit will make you fat and unhealthy, and I give absolutely zero fucks if you’re fat and unhealthy. There is literally nothing in this world that concerns me less than your personal cholesterol levels, or how you got them there.
Would you like to know what I eat? NO YOU WOULD NOT BECAUSE YOU GIVE NO FUCKS.
Your body is not the same as mine. It is not the same as your parents’. It is not even close to the same as your ancestors’ millions of years removed, and to pretend that it is is fucking stupid. But the most important thing to remember, no matter how you choose to make dietary choices, misguided or delusional or whatever, is this:
Shut your goddamn cramholes about it.