It’s one of the biggest fads in hipster cuisine: the Paleo diet. Followers attempt to recreate the eating habits of our Paleolithic forefathers by eschewing grains, sugar and starches in favor of more “authentic” options, which, judging by how they discuss their diet, basically makes them better people. Aside from the question of whether cavemen were actually healthier, eating like one is further complicated by the fact that we don’t really know what they ate.
Various celebrities including Kobe Bryant, Miley Cyrus, and Uma Thurman, as well as millions of less famous people (maybe even you) have pledged their allegiance to the diet, sharing the common aim of returning to our roots. Another thing this diverse group has in common is being naïve enough to subscribe to a diet based on, at best, shaky scientific foundations, and attempting to enjoy the perceived benefits of a Paleolithic lifestyle without any of the drawbacks such as persistent hunger and having to forage for food. An article in Scientific American called the principles of the diet into question as early as two years ago, stating it was based more “on privilege than on logic.”
It is becoming increasingly clear that the Paleo diet wasn’t quite what we think it is. Contrary to today’s ostensibly savvy eaters, cave dwellers seem to have actually chowed down on loads of carbs. In an article in the September issue of The Quarterly Review of Biology, scientists claim that the addition of cooked starches to our diet was just as important as meat to the evolution of our bulky brains.
Previously, scientists on the whole believed that the development of larger amounts of amylase, the enzyme that helps break down starch into glucose, coincided with the rise of farming. This study indicates that the process is likely to have started much earlier, with the use of fire and cooking, helping people to digest tubers and other starches in order to stay alive and fuel the growth of our brains. As starches don’t generally run away when chased, they were probably a very enticing option to the energy-efficient hunters-gatherers.
More evidence that we may have evolved to digest starches comes from the comparison of our DNA with that of our simian cousins. While chimps have only 2 copies of the amylase gene, humans have many more, with some people having as many as 18. This indicates that we humans are much better at converting starches into energy.
So, your Paleo diet might help you fit in with the hip crowd, and perhaps indeed make you morally superior to mere mortals that enjoy liberal servings of carbs, sugars and starches. Some studies even indicate that it might be helpful in losing weight and staying trim. However, it seems increasingly unlikely that it will help you eat like a caveman.
Originally published Aug. 2015