It’s Paleo-diet versus Big History


We have to eat. It’s a biological imperative.  But there is little in our lives which is not also ruled by culture.  Yes, we eat.  But we have fashions and fads.  Eggs were splendid until they become demonized as cholesterol engines..  Most recently, however, eggs have been exonerated. Eggs are healthy! Really!!

Enter the Paleolithic diet.   The “New Yorker” published Elizabeth Kolbert’s article “Stone Soup”(July 28, 2014) to clarify this new food regime.  In a nutshell, the paleo diet consists of only those foods available before the transition to agriculture.  This includes, of course, nuts, but also meats, fish, eggs and various plants. The radical aspect of paleo is the exclusion of all “domesticated” plants, i.e., grains like wheat, rice or maize.

Why exclude these block buster grains? The paleo enthusiasts reason that we are anatomically adjusted to the paleo diet and that farming produces foods for which we are not designed. Ergo: lactose intolerance, diabetes, colitis are the consequence of the last ten thousand years of foods produced by the agricultural revolution. Add obesity to the evils of “modern” foods.

The tag line of Kolbert’s article reads “On the timescale of evolutionary history, paleo enthusiasts note, agriculture is a fad.” The ideal foods are those that fed 200,000 years of healthy, robust Stone Age hunters and gatherers. Evidence? Paleoanthropologists note that farmers were physically smaller and, once they started living cheek to jowl with their domesticated animals, the farmers were also sicker.

There is a new twist to history: Big History. Those of us who are gravitating toward this approach are interested in profound eras of time. We start with planetary formation, examine the impact of plate tectonics, and study the dramatic climate changes on the planet. Big History teachers focus on the rise of mammals and the branches of hominid evolution.  The two hundred millennia of the Stone Age and the lives of hunters and gatherers are of intense interest. So is the transition all across the planet into agriculture about ten millennia ago.

Back to the paleo diet proponents. Do they have a decent argument? Was the transition to agriculture “a catastrophe from which we have never recovered” in Jared Diamond’s pungent phrase? Here is a term straight from the farm yard:  “hogwash!”

Agriculture appears independently across the globe. Farmers didn’t imitate other farmers. Farming didn’t spread via cultural diffusion.  Farmers in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China and Mesoamerica created farming again and again.  Farming in not some “fad,” some cultural trope that has infected the society of Homo sapiens sapiens. It is a profoundly human endeavor.

Demonizing yet another category of food—food produced by agriculture—may well be an action that psychologists label as displacement. Susan Sontag made that point that whatever is going on, something else is going on, too.  What is the real argument of the paleo proponents? What is their subtext?

The search for some “paleo food” ideal can be interpreted as an attempt to escape the complex culture of the city and the state, to reject the tension of living on a planet with perhaps seven billion other souls, to refute the level of technology which dominates our lives. The Paleolithic diet trope is an expression of anxiety.

However, rejecting the farmed food is a fraudulent response to the anxiety for the health of people and the health of the planet after ten thousand years of agriculture. Big History notes that yes, humans got smaller and sicklier, in towns and villages. But they also created cities, religions, literatures, as well as a new outlook on life. The Greeks called this attitude “cosmopolitan,” that is, at ease within the whole world. People recovered size and stature. There was another hit:  people in cities once again got smaller after the impact of the industrial revolution just three centuries ago.  We have again recovered.

The focus of much of paleo dieters is on those grains. However, the true culprit in many modern diseases is not gluten, but sucrose.  Sugar has been flooding the world and stressing out our pancreases for just the last four hundred years.  And, yes, we will recover.  But not by returning to some imagined Edenic past of our early ancestors.

Big History has no illusions about the “good old days.” Those 200,000 years produced glacial rates of change as stone axes and knives butchered animals for the Paleolithic diet. Big History also has no illusions about the difficulty of sharing a planet with billions of other humans. As Kolbert points out, we should work to reduce the environmental impact of raising methane belching beef cattle.  The planet will be better off if we eschew good Paleolithic grilled beef for farmed grains and the bread they produce. And have an egg.  It’s not really harmful, after all.


About Dr. Ewa Bacon

Dr. Ewa Bacon is a professor emerita of history at Lewis University. Her areas of expertise include the Holocaust, Auschwitz, concentration camps, Russian history and Central European history (especially Germany and Poland).

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