Tag Archives: Marlene Zuk

Anthropologist Debunks the Paleolithic Diet

paleo diet, paleolithic diet, caveman diet

Not Dr. Warinner

Christina Warinner has a new TEDx talk on the paleo diet.  Dr. Warinner has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard, so I’ll call her an anthropologist. The written TEDx intro mentions she is a paleontologist, and she mentions “archeologist” in her talk.  Anyway, I’m sure she’s very bright and put much thought into her presentation.  She spoke at my old stomping grounds, the University of Oklahoma in Norman.

Click to view video.

Dr. Warinner is probably addressing the smarter half of the general population, who holds the idea, at least superficially, that the paleo diet is meat-based.  (The dumber half of the public isn’t watching TEDx videos.)  Dr. Warinner doesn’t define “meat-based.”  Is half the plate filled with meat, fish, or eggs?  75% of the plate?  Half of total calories?

I’m not familiar with all the popular modern versions of the paleo diet.  Perhaps some are in fact meat-centric, whatever that means.  But the ones I’m more familiar with, like Dr. Cordain’s and mine, prominently feature vegetables, fruits, and nuts.  You could easily fashion a plant-based paleo diet, filling 80 or even 90% of your plate with plants.  (A vegan paleo diet isn’t realistic.  Cultures not eating animals would die out from B12 deficiency.)

I’d swear I heard Dr. Warinner say “we’re not adapted to eat meat.”  Surely she mis-spoke.

She mostly debunks popular misconceptions of the paleo diet.  Most of us deeply familiar with the paleo diet would have little to disagree with her about.

Here are some of Dr. Warinner’s major points:

  • It’s nearly impossible for most of us to eat a true Paleolithic diet.  Selective breeding has altered nearly all our foods to the point of unrecognizability by cavemen.  Examples are bananas, broccoli, carrots, and tomatoes.
  • There is no single paleo diet.  It depends on regional geographic variations in rainfall, latitude, temperature, etc.  Local populations ate what was available, in season, and often migrated seasonally to find food.

Dr. Warinner suggests we all incorporate three concepts from the paleo diet:

  1. Eat a great variety of foods.
  2. For the highest nutrient content, eat fresh food when ripe, in season.
  3. Eat whole foods.

Steve Parker, M.D.

PS: Miki Ben-Dor, a Ph.D. candidate, had many more objections to Dr. Warinner’s speech.  Paul Jaminet made a few comments about it, too (see middle of his post, after the comments on Marlene Zuk’s PaleoFantasy).  Wendy Schwartz weighs in, too. Angelo Coppola does a good job countering most of Dr. Warriner’s criticisms.

Paleo Diet Advocates Fear Modernity

…according to David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine.

Gee, I hadn’t noticed that fear.  Maybe it’s subconscious.

Dr. Gorski makes some good points along with others I disagree with.  I expect the commentators at SBM will address many of the controversial points.  They’re a smart readership.

One uncommon observation of his is that the “complementary and alternative medicine” believers tend to embrace the paleo diet and lifestyle.  I’ve noticed that also.  To the extent that the CAM folks are often unscientific or anti-scientific, those of us examining the paleo diet from a scientific viewpoint have to be wary of “guilt by association.”

A major point that Dr. Gorski didn’t address is that living hunter-gatherers studied over the last century or two don’t have nearly as much cardiovascular disease and death as modern Western societies.  That’s a common meme in the paleosphere, started by the prominent paleo book authors.  (I’ve not reviewed the original sources.)  I’m talking about lower rates of heart attacks, strokes, hypertension, peripheral arterial disease, and premature death.  Note that the mere presence of atherosclerosis may not correlate with these hard clinical endpoints.

Matthew Yglesias Says “Paleo Diet Is Nonsense Science”

Here’s his brief article at Slate.  Mr. Yglesias was apparently influenced by Marlene Zuk.

Well, now that that’s settled, I can shut down this blog and start another hobby.

Is Marlene Zuk Making Making Fun of Us?

African Savanna: The Cradle of Humanity?

African Savanna: The Cradle of Humanity?

Marlene Zuk is an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota. She has an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education excerpted from her upcoming book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live.  Here’s a snippet:

…it’s reasonable to conclude that we aren’t suited to our modern lives, and that our health, our family lives, and perhaps our sanity would all be improved if we could live the way early humans did. Our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, the reasoning goes, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.

In short, we have what the anthropologist Leslie Aiello, president of the renowned Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, called “paleofantasies.” She was referring to stories about human evolution based on limited fossil evidence, but the term applies just as well to the idea that our modern lives are out of touch with the way human beings evolved and that we need to redress the imbalance. Newspaper articles, morning TV, dozens of books, and self-help advocates promoting slow-food or no-cook diets, barefoot running, sleeping with our infants, and other measures large and small claim that it would be more natural, and healthier, to live more like our ancestors.

To think of ourselves as misfits in our own time and of our own making flatly contradicts what we now understand about the way evolution works—namely, that rate matters. That evolution can be fast, slow, or in-between, and understanding what makes the difference is far more enlightening, and exciting, than holding our flabby modern selves up against a vision—accurate or not—of our well-muscled and harmoniously adapted ancestors.

The paleofantasy is a fantasy in part because it supposes that we humans, or at least our protohuman forebears, were at some point perfectly adapted to our environments.

Ms. Zuk enjoys setting up straw men, then knocking them down.  Decide for yourself.  She’s a good writer.  And men, there’s that picture of Raquel Welch again.