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Annals of Alimentation July 28, 2014 Issue

from The New Yorker.


Stone Soup
Annals of Gastronomy

How the of
The End Paleolithic
Food life style got trendy.

By Elizabeth Kolbert
Books

Good Greens
he rst day I put my family on a Paleolithic diet, I made my kids fried eggs and
T sausage for breakfast. If they were still hungry, I told them, they could help
themselves to more sausage, but they were not allowed to grab a slice of bread, or
toast an English muffin, or pour themselves a bowl of cereal. This represented a
reversal of the usual strictures, and they were happy to oblige. It was like some weird,
unexpected holiday—Passover in July.

The Paleolithic diet—“paleo,” for those in the know—represents a new, very old
form of eating, one con ned to the sorts of food available in pre-agricultural days.
These foods, as it happens, were not many. According to Sarah Ballantyne, the
author of “The Paleo Approach,” a paleo diet consists of “meats, sh, eggs,
vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.” According to John Durant, the author of “The
Paleo Manifesto,” even seeds are suspect and should be avoided. (A genuinely
Paleolithic diet, Durant concedes, probably ought to include human esh; however,
he does not advise this.)

The list of foods that are not paleo, meanwhile, is a great deal longer; it includes
cereal grains like wheat, corn, and rice; pseudo-cereal grains like amaranth and
quinoa; legumes, dairy products, most vegetable oils, sugar, and anything that
contains corn syrup or arti cial coloring or avorings or preservatives, which is to
say, just about everything a contemporary American consumes. Most days, my kids
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pack their own lunches, but since I had banned the standard ingredients, starting
with the bread for peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, I gured I was obligated to
step in. I rolled up some turkey slices and arranged them in a plastic container with
some cut-up avocados. Then I gave each kid a banana and some paleo “cookies” I had
made using ground-up almonds. The cookies looked like little hamburgers and
tasted like sawdust.

There are, of course, lots of ways to resist progress. People take up knitting or
quilting or calligraphy. They bake their own bread or brew their own beer or sew
their own clothes using felt they have fashioned out of wet wool and dish soap. But,
Read
both in the scale of its ambition andmore
in thegreat
scopewriting
of its anachronism, paleo eating
fromOur
takes things to a whole new level. The NewAge
Stone Yorker.
ancestors left behind no menus or
cookbooks. To gure out what they ate, we have to dig up their bones and study the
Annals of Gastronomy

wear patterns on their teeth. Or comb through their refuse and analyze their
The End of Food
prehistoric poop. And paleo eating is just the tip of the spear, so to speak. There are
passionate advocates for paleo
Books tness, which starts with tossing out your sneakers.

There’s a paleo sleep contingent, which recommends blackout curtains, amber-tinted


Good Greens

glasses, and getting rid of your mattress; and there are champions of primal
parenting, which may or may not include eating your baby’s placenta. There are even
signs of a paleo hygiene movement: coat yourself with bacteria and say goodbye to
soap and shampoo.

The result is a small library of what might be called paleo literature—how-to books
that are mostly how-to-undo books. Such is the tenor of our time that the ultimate
retro movement is lavishly represented on the Web. From a site called Paleo Grubs, I
downloaded recipes for Delicious Paleo Carrot Cake Muffins and Paleo Apple
Nachos, and from a site called Nom Nom Paleo I got instructions on how to make
Paleo Krabby Patties and Civilized Caveman’s Apple Cinnamon Cookies. (All of
these dishes rely heavily on ingredients—including “ our”—made from coconuts, a
quirk that reminded me of “Gilligan’s Island” and its many coconut-shell
contraptions.)

Three days into my family’s experiment in Stone Age eating, my sons were still
happily gorging themselves on sausage and grass-fed steak. My husband was
ruminating on the tenuousness of existence, and, probably true to the actual
Paleolithic experience, I found that I was spending more and more time preparing
the few foods that we could eat.

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griculture was “invented” several times, in different parts of the world, by people

A making use of the plants they found growing wild around them. The rst time
was probably about ten thousand years ago, in southeastern Turkey, when early
farmers began cultivating einkorn wheat. The crop was a big hit, and, at least by the
standards of the day, it spread rapidly. (This is sometimes referred to as the Big
Agricultural Bang.) Wheat was being sown in Greece around eight thousand years
ago, in the Balkans and in Italy seven thousand years ago, and in India and
Scandinavia ve thousand years ago. Meanwhile, around nine thousand years ago, a
group of proto-farmers in southwestern Mexico began cultivating maize. It, too,
quickly caught on, and was being grown in Panama seven thousand years ago and in
Read more great writing
Colombia six thousand years ago. Also sometime around nine thousand years ago,
from The New Yorker.
rice was domesticated in the Yangtze Valley.
Annals of Gastronomy

In the standard account ofThe


human
End of history,
Food agriculture represents the ur-
breakthrough. The domestication of plants and animals allowed people for the rst
time to build up surplusesBooks
of food. This, in turn, allowed them to think about
something besides feedingGood
themselves.
Greens They became merchants and priests and
artisans and bookkeepers. They built villages, towns, and cities. Every subsequent
innovation—metallurgy, writing, mathematics, science, and even paleo Web sites—
could be said to owe its origin to those rst farmers scratching with sticks in the dirt.

VIDEO FROM THE N YORKER

Unearthing Black History at the Freedom Lots

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Agro-revisionists also regard the Neolithic Revolution as a critical event. They, too,
believe that without it modern society wouldn’t exist. What they’re not so sure about
is whether it was a good idea.

“The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life,
was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered” is Jared
Diamond’s dour assessment, offered in an essay titled “The Worst Mistake in the
History of the Human Race.”

Read early
Like Stone Age hunter-gatherers, morefarmers
great left
writing
little behind—just some burnt
fromown
grain, mud foundations, and their The NewBut
bones. Yorker.
that’s enough to reveal how
punishing the transition to agriculture was. According to a study of human remains
Annals of Gastronomy
from China and Japan, the height of the average person declined by more than three
The End of Food
inches during the millennia in which rice cultivation intensi ed. According to
another study, of bones from Mesoamerica, women’s heights dropped by three inches
Books
and men’s by two inches asGood
farming spread. A recent survey of more than twenty
Greens
studies on this subject, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, found
that the adoption of agriculture “was observed to decrease stature in populations
from across the entire globe,” including in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South
America.

Early farmers were not just shorter than hunter-gatherers; they were also more sickly.
They had worse teeth—one analysis from the Near East suggests that the incidence
of cavities jumped sixfold as people started relying on grain—and they suffered from
increased rates of anemia and infectious disease. Many now familiar infections—
measles, for instance—require high population densities to persist; thus, it wasn’t
until people established towns and cities that such “crowd epidemic diseases” could
ourish. And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals,
early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped
from livestock to people.

“The adoption of agriculture,” Diamond notes in his most recent book, “The World
Until Yesterday,” provided “ideal conditions for the rapid transmission of microbes.”
According to Daniel E. Lieberman, a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard
and the author of “The Story of the Human Body,” “farming ushered in an era of
epidemics, including tuberculosis, leprosy, syphilis, plague, smallpox and in uenza.”

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It took thousands of years for human bodies to recover; Lieberman reports that “it
wasn’t until the twentieth century that Europeans were the same height as cavemen.”
And, almost as soon as the stature gap closed, new problems arose. People began to
grow not just taller but also wider. During the past several decades, rates of obesity,
hypertension, fatty-liver disease, and Type 2 diabetes have soared. The increases were
rst noted in the United States, but, now that French fries and Coke have gone
global, nations ranging from Mexico to Mauritius have seen similar—indeed, in
some cases, worse—surges. Today, the highest prevalence of diabetes is in Tokelau, a
territory of New Zealand in the South Paci c, where nearly forty per cent of adults
are afflicted. Lieberman calls conditions like Type 2 diabetes “mismatch diseases.”
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Our ancestors hunted and gathered; we drive to Shake Shack and Domino’s. The
from The New Yorker.
result is a “mismatch” between our genetics and our life styles.
Annals of Gastronomy

“I don’t think it is possibleThe


toEnd
overemphasize
of Food just how important mismatch diseases
are,” Lieberman writes. “You are most likely going to die from a mismatch disease.”
Books

Good Greens

MORE FROM THIS ISSUE

July 28, 2014

Book

Brie
Profiles Shouts & Murmurs Fiction

Mean Girl Deniers Last Meal at Whole


Foods
By Kelefa Sanneh By Ian Frazier
By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh

Paleo may look like a food fad, and yet you could argue that it’s really just the
reverse. Anatomically modern humans have, after all, been around for about two
hundred thousand years. The genus Homo goes back another two million years or so.
On the timescale of evolutionary history, it’s agriculture that’s the fad.

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31/03/2019 How the Paleolithic Diet Got Trendy | The New Yorker

uring our week of paleo, I made several trips to the nearest Stop & Shop, a
D hangar-size affair that sells something like forty thousand different items. In
the store’s vast midsection, which is given over to processed confections, there’s aisle
after aisle of salty snacks, soft drinks, sports drinks, and breakfast cereals, followed by
more aisles of sugary snacks, candy bars, packages of multiple candy bars, and
cookies. One afternoon, as I was pushing my cart along, searching for shredded
coconut, it occurred to me that my Paleolithic ancestors would have had a hard time
recognizing anything in these rows as food.

Probably they would have had an easier time over in the produce section, but here,
Read to
too, they would have found plenty more
bafflegreat
them.writing
What we know as apples, from the
from The
tree Malus domestica, are the products New Yorker.
of hundreds of generations of careful breeding
that started with the tree Malus sieversii,
Annals of native to Central Asia. The author Michael
Gastronomy

Pollan once described theThe


fruit ofMalus
Endof Food sieversii as tasting like “a tart potato,” or,

alternatively, like a “Brazil nut sheathed in leather.” Avocados, a staple of many paleo
menus, have similarly beenBookstrans gured. The originals consisted of just a thin layer of
Good Greens
esh surrounding a giant seed.

And what goes for apples and avocados also goes for broccoli, bananas, and Brussels
sprouts. (It’s also probably true of coconuts, though by now domesticated coconut
palms have been so widely cultivated that there are hardly any truly wild ones left.)
Similarly, the meat cases in our supermarkets are stacked with bits and pieces of
animals reshaped by human appetites. Beef cattle—and dairy cows, too—are
descended from aurochs, which were much larger and ercer animals. Aurochs, for
their part, are no longer to be had for the same reason that moas, mammoths, and
mastodons are unavailable: our ancestors hunted them to oblivion. As Marlene Zuk,
a biologist at the University of Minnesota, puts it in her book “Paleofantasy: What
Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live,” “The reality is that
we are not eating what our ancestors ate, perhaps because we do not want to, but also
because we can’t.”

Paleo practitioners are well aware of this fact. The diet, they say, is not meant to
replicate so much as to translate, and, just as we wouldn’t expect an English version
of the Iliad to be rendered in dactylic hexameter, we shouldn’t expect paleo dieters to
run down game or dig up and consume grubs.

“Eating a Paleolithic diet is not about historical re-enactment,” Durant writes in


“The Paleo Manifesto.” “It is about mimicking the effect of such a diet on the
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metabolism with foods available at the supermarket.” According to this way of


thinking, our metabolism was designed to deal with foods that approximate aurochs
and wild avocados. It wasn’t designed to deal with toast.

In promoting red meat and rejecting grains, the paleo diet challenges just about
every precept that nutritionists have been pushing for the past fty years. In effect, it
turns the familiar food pyramid on its point. This is an increasingly common
inversion, if not in academic circles or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture then on
the talk-show circuit. In his wildly popular manifesto-cum-recipe book, “Grain
Brain,” David Perlmutter, a Naples, Florida, neurologist, maintains that sandwiches
Readsystem;
are not just hard on the digestive more they
greatwreak
writing
havoc on the mind.
from The New Yorker.
“Modern grains are silently destroying your brain,” he writes. “Basically, I am calling
Annals of Gastronomy
what is arguably our most beloved dietary staple a terrorist group.” In “The Big Fat
The End of Food
Surprise,” Nina Teicholz, a New York-based journalist, rises in defense of lard. She
advises readers to “eat butter;
Books
drink milk whole, and feed it to the whole family.
Stock up on creamy cheeses,Goodoffal, and sausage, and yes, bacon.”
Greens

Though the paleos, the anti-glutenists, and the lard-ons are not exactly anti-
vaccination or Area 51 types, they are, by necessity, conspiracy theorists. There must
be some reason that the U.S. government has kept the dark truth about spelt and
tofu hidden from us. Durant blames “the vegetarian lobby.” Teicholz suspects “olive
oil money.”

or almost as long as people have been eating, they’ve been imposing rules about
F what can and can’t be consumed. In tribes or clans with totem animals, the
totem is off limits. The Jews have the laws of kashruth, which, in addition to
disallowing pork and shell sh, also forbid the consumption of reptiles, amphibians,
and most kinds of insects (though there are some species of kosher locusts). Islamic
dietary law divides foods into halal and haram; to the latter category belong pork,
dog, cat, and monkey. Hindus do not eat beef, and many eat no meat at all. The
Moru of South Sudan allow only children and old people to eat chicken and eggs,
and some groups of Cushitic people in northeastern Africa avoid sh. (“Speak not to
me with a mouth that eats sh” is a taunt recorded in Somalia by the nineteenth-
century British explorer Richard Francis Burton.) The Yazidis, a group of ethnic
Kurds who live mainly in Iraq, will not eat lettuce, and Jains eat no onions or root
vegetables.

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“Food taboos are known from virtually all human societies,” a survey that ran a few
years ago in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine observed. Such taboos
must ful ll some deep—you might even say primal—human need. And this may be
the best way to understand the paleo diet: as a set of food prohibitions for the
Internet age.

Both on their Web sites (which usually offer an array of “transformational” products
for sale) and in their many, many guidebooks (“Paleo for Beginners,” “Practical
Paleo,” “Your Personal Paleo Code”), proponents of the paleo diet make all sorts of
claims for its efficacy. Some contend that it cures autoimmune diseases, others that it
Read more
reverses diabetes. Durant maintains that itgreat writing
cleared up his acne. “I used to nearly
on theThe
always get a gigantic zit right from sameNew Yorker.
area of my nose,” he writes. The most
common assertion is that Annals
it’s good for losing weight, which I can believe. I spent
of Gastronomy

most of my week on a paleo The diet feeling


End of Food as if I’d swallowed a wildebeest. Meanwhile,
nearly every paleo dish I prepared, beyond straight-up meat and vegetables, was a
op. An attempt at pancakes Booksended up mostly in the compost, as did a batch of
muffins. (As the ProfessorGood Greens there’s only so much you can do with
discovered,
coconuts.)

Paleo adepts will doubtless argue that a week is not enough to experience the diet’s
full bene ts, and that I did not approach the enterprise in the right spirit. I must
confess that they are right.

The last time most of humanity followed, by necessity, a paleo diet, there were
maybe ve million people on the planet. Yet already they were having a big impact;
it’s been theorized that one of the impetuses for the development of agriculture was
that large, easy-to-kill prey were becoming harder to nd. As grain-growing spread,
it produced what’s been called the “ rst population explosion.” Farmers can wean
their children at a much younger age than hunter-gatherers can—they have foods
like porridge to feed them—and thus can produce new ones more quickly. As a
result, the sicklier agriculturists were able to outbreed the more robust hunter-
gatherers. More farmers then needed even more land, which further reduced the
resources available to foragers.

Whether or not agriculture was the “worst mistake in the history of the human race,”
the choice, once made, was made for good. With a global population of seven billion
people, heading rapidly toward eight billion, there’s certainly no turning back now
(even if paleo does, in fact, prevent zits). Pound for pound, beef production demands
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at least ten times as much water as wheat production, and, calorie for calorie, it
demands almost twenty times as much energy. Livestock are major sources of
greenhouse-gas emissions, not just because of the fuel it takes to raise them but also
because they do things like belch out methane and produce lots of shit, which in
turn produces lots of nitrous oxide. One analysis, published in the American Journal
of Clinical Nutrition, concluded that, in terms of emissions, eating a pound of beef is
the equivalent of driving forty- ve miles. (Grass-fed beef—recommended by many
primal enthusiasts—may produce lower emissions than corn-fed, but the evidence
on this is shaky.) Eating a pound of whole wheat, by contrast, is like driving less than
a mile. All of which is to sayRead
that, from
moreangreat
environmental
writing standpoint, paleo’s “Let
from The New Yorker.
them eat steak” approach is a disaster.

With this in mind, I decided that


Annals I would cook liver for my family’s last paleo
of Gastronomy

supper. In spite of the week’s culinary


The End missteps, my sons seemed to be taking all too
of Food

well to carnivory, and I thought perhaps a serving of offal—another favored paleo


Books
food group—might set them straight. They devoured it cheerfully. The next day, I
Good Greens
asked them what they’d learned from the week’s experiment.

“We should eat more liver,” one of them said. ♦

Elizabeth Kolbert has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999. She won the 2015
Pulitzer Prize for general non ction for “The
The Sixth
Sixth Extinction:
Extinction: An
An Unnatural
Unnatural
History.” Read more »

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