A new survey by anthropologists calls into question the scientific and historical justification for the paleo diet. Early man, they say, was an opportunist, not a nutritionist or dieter.
By now, most people have heard of the paleo diet. The popular diet is named for the Paleolithic Age, the expansive period of prehistory characterized by so-called cavemen and primitive stone tools. Its followers forgo grains and processed foods in favor of meat, fish and vegetables.
Its emphasis on protein and whole foods isn't without merit, but its genesis is based on the idea that humans were at their physical and nutritional best some 10,000 and 2.5 million years ago -- before the modern diet was corrupted by the advent of agriculture.
While the new scientific paper -- compiled by researchers at Georgia State University and published in the Quarterly Review of Biology -- doesn't attack the paleo diet's nutritional validity, it does question the logic of attributing any single nutritional philosophy to ancient man.
"Based on evidence that's been gathered over many decades, there's very little evidence that any early hominids had very specialized diets or there were specific food categories that seemed particularly important, with only a few possible exceptions," anthropologist Ken Sayers said in a press release.
Sayers and his colleagues say early man ate what he ate based on availability. The percentage of protein included in the diets of paleolithic peoples (and other other nutritional details) likely varied from place to place, depending on climate and geology.
Furthermore, Sayers argues, today's fruits and vegetables are entirely different than the types of things people were finding in the fields and forests thousands of years ago.
Most scientists agree that assuming ancient man was in any way healthier than modern man is misguided. Paleolithic people had short lifespans, never living long enough to become susceptible diseases like cancer and other so-called "diseases of affluence."
"Throughout the vast majority of our evolutionary history, balancing the diet was not a big issue," Sayers said. "They were simply acquiring enough calories to survive and reproduce. Everyone would agree that ancestral diets didn't include Twinkies, but I'm sure our ancestors would have eaten them if they grew on trees."