Cavemen Ate Only Bronto Burgers and Other Paleo Diet Myths

News that a Paleolithic diet–themed restaurant opened in Berlin reminded me just how wack the paleo diet is.

Followers of the Paleolithic diet—a.k.a. paleo, Stone Age, hunger-gatherer, and caveman diet—eschew dairy, grains, and sugars in favor of lean meat and vegetables; they believe we should all be eating a diet as close as possible to the one we surmised our heavy-browed forebears to have eaten. Or something like that, since the diet is characterized by a wide swath of gray area.

Some paleo dieters eat raw dairy or unrefined sugars like maple syrup; some argue that only raw food is acceptable; others consider beef bourguignon perfectly paleo. And what about the otherwise nostalgic hunter-gatherers who make exceptions for coffee, salt, and Sriracha?

The Paleolithic diet has been simmering around the edges since the mid-'70s, when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin wrote The Stone Age Diet. Paleo grubbing got a major boost in 2002 with Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet and his 2005 follow-up, The Paleo Diet for Athletes.

But as anthropologist and university professor Barbara J. King observed last week on NPR's blog, one of the central claims for the paleo diet—that humans are genetically designed to eat this type of food—is utterly false. Ancient humans ate different things depending on where they lived. Those near water ate fish; those who lived in grasslands, by golly, they ate grain. Anyone who lived among lots of wild animals, they killed them and ate those. In short, early humans' genes did not "design" their food habits. Environment did.

"People learned what worked in local context for survival and reproduction, and surely, just as in other primates, cultural traditions began to play a role in who ate what," King writes. "In short, there was no single hunter-gatherer foraging strategy, and genes no more 'designed' our eating behavior than they designed our language or our ways of relating between the genders."

So what is it about a romanticized caveman diet that appeals to postindustrial humans? Says King: "The lure of a good story may play a role. It's a mighty powerful image: our ancestors roaming over the landscape, perfectly in tune with their bodies and the environment. Some of my anthropologist colleagues refer to this pining for a pristine past as a paleo-fantasy." A fantasy fueled by endless plates of meat you don't have to feel guilty about eating.

Image source: Flickr member Nicobobinus under Creative Commons