Questioning The Paleo Diet
Should we eat cheeseburgers? Throwing that question out to the general population often seems like casting tasty handfuls of herring onto the surface of a piranha tank: We should daily. We should never. We were meant to. We were never meant to. It's immoral. It's Biblical. When questions like this come up, I, as a food writer, tend to back slowly out of the room while murmuring that such inquiries are best left to one's spiritual advisor.
Until I read this absolutely fascinating new book called "Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live" by evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk. The book, at a glance (thank heavens), addresses what people should or should not eat. But it is exceptionally enlightening when it comes to the rosy notions so many of us carry about how things were 10,000 or 100,000 years ago, when humans were hunting, or gathering, or living in caves or desert tents or whatever it was we were doing back then.
For instance, are we "meant" to drink milk? No other mammal, after all, drinks milk after infancy, and certainly not another species' milk. Are we "meant" to eat cake? Bonobos and chimpanzees don't eat cake, and they're our nearest living relatives. But we are not bonobos nor, for that matter, any other mammal, and there are actually many astonishing adaptations in human evolution that have allowed humans to digest milk, and starch, in ways no other species can. Fascinating.
The main thing I took away from the book was that there was no "caveman diet" any more than there was one caveman. It's something we food writers talk about: There's no "Chinese food" any more than there's a Chinese phone number. It's a big country, with people eating very specific regional diets all over. So it was with caves, but a million times more so. The people of Spain ate wildly differently than the people of Peru, who ate differently from the people of sub-Saharan Africa. That said, there's no evidence, evolutionary or otherwise, that people can thrive on any sort of single-item diet, whether it's bamboo or frozen pizza.
So, should you eat cheeseburgers? The herding Maasai people of Africa seem to do quite nicely on a diet of milk and meat, and so did those inland people of Northern Europe who had no other way of getting food in the winter.
That said, reading "Paleofantasy" left me remembering again that people are, above all, adaptable omnivores. So why not vary the cheeseburgers of summer with goat burgers, mushroom burgers, lamb burgers, falafel burgers, tuna burgers, bean burgers and everything else our gigantic human brains allow us to dream up? After all, it's a lot more interesting to explore the world than to argue about it.
What do you think is fantasy versus fact about the Paleo diet? Of the burger alternatives above, which sound worth the flame?