Eaten Magazine | Ancestral Eating
For a whole month in early 2017, I gave up sugar, alcohol, legumes, soy, and dairy as part of the “Whole30,” a clean eating plan focused on whole foods and inspired by – and stricter than – the wildly popular paleo diet. My reasons were unoriginal. I wanted to reset my relationship with what I ate, characterized by cravings and emotionality, re-learn to appreciate the natural tastes of unprocessed food, and recognize that diet was, above all, about sustenance.
I wanted, in other words, to go back to my culinary-evolutionary roots – as Whole30, in this case, defined them.
The Roots of the Paleo Diet
According to Elizabeth Berger, a bioarchaeologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that studies historical diets, my interest in ancestral eating was normal. “Almost everyone would agree that our modern diet is dysfunctional in some way, though we can’t always agree on what is wrong with it.” Some of the obvious culprits include large portion sizes, high sugar content, and inadequate nutrition, but beyond this, the amount of conflicting information is staggering.
And so, when a charismatic evolutionary nutritionist tells us that he has discovered “the one and only diet that ideally fits our genetic makeup,” people pay attention. This is what happened with Loren Cordain’s 2001 best-seller, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat. Cordain recommends that the modern eater avoid dairy, beans, and cereal grains, which were introduced after agricultural production emerged and which, as a result, we are unevolved to eat.
This means yes to lean meat, seafood, fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds, and healthy oils, and no to cereal grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, or anything processed. Cordain was not the first proponent of eating according to evolution. The roots of the paleo diet date back to a scientific paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985, “Paleolithic Nutrition” by Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner, which was highly influential to Cordain. In 1988, they expanded on the paper with a well-received book The Paleolithic Prescription, but still, it didn’t kick off the paleo movement as we know it today.
For that, we have Cordain – and the internet – to thank. In a forthcoming chapter in Evolutionary Studies: Darwin’s Roadmap to the Curriculum, historian Hamilton Stappell, writes that the “hundreds of paleo success stories on the internet” reinforces individual adherents’ commitment to paleo, which provides “a model to be emulated by others.” In other words, the internet allowed paleo dieters to do what people on the internet do best: broadcast their lives, find like-minded people, and grow community.
Meanwhile, other writers also contributed, attracting new audiences to the movement. John Durant’s 2013 The Paleo Manifesto: Ancient Wisdom for Lifelong Health, which emphasized primal fitness, was perhaps most responsible for paleo’s later association with shirtless bros. (Or, perhaps, this was a result of Durant’s persona himself: he worked at a tech startup before “moving to New York City and becoming a ‘professional caveman’," as he put it on his website, huntergatherer.com.)
The combination of these, and other, forces – advice from an evolutionary nutritionist, the power of online community, and the charisma of a convert from tech – tapped into something powerful in the American zeitgeist. In 2013, according to the annual Google trends list – the ultimate judge of zeitgeistiness – “paleo diet” had claimed the title of most searched-for diet of the year. The caveman – or a version of his food, at least – was back.
Our Dietary Roots
Agriculture is, relatively speaking, a new invention. For most of history – 2.4 million years, (or 84,000 generations, says Stappell) – humans were hunter-gatherer-fishers, depending on their local environments for their sustenance.
This diversity was key, says Alyssa Crittendon, a biological anthropologist who has studied the Hadza hunter-gather peoples of Tanzania for the past 13 years. “There is no single ‘Paleolithic diet’ – it has always been Paleolithic diets (plural) depending on the foods available in a given ecology.”
With the advent of agriculture, roughly 10,000 years ago (or, writes Stappel, 350 generations), humans gained a level of control over what and how much they consumed. This allowed them to birth more babies that survived to adulthood; form larger settlements, which led to more complex social structures; and, to continue to sustain all of this, develop more advanced technologies.
This self-supporting circle meant that, essentially, agriculture gave birth to civilization. Millennia later, agriculture in its modern, industrialized, and monoculture form continues to dominate our global food system, allowing the human population to balloon to over seven billion people. Meanwhile, hunting and gathering societies, once the norm, have been pushed, literally, to the margins of the world, with rapid development and changes to their ecosystem threatening their traditional ways of life – and their traditional diets.
Meanwhile, in the West, the paleo diet – or “paleo lifestyle,” as Jonathan Angelili, a holistic personal trainer and Manhattan–based adherent, calls it – has become, if not mainstream in terms of numbers, certainly an influence upon the mainstream. As he explains, paleo is about far more than just his eating: “I don’t eat processed foods, I don’t love processed music, [and] I don’t consume highly processed, inauthentic experiences.”