The Paleo diet. I’ve been presented with this as the new medical fad three times recently, by people who I had previously thought rather conscious about their diet and the planet. It is, I’m afraid, a load of bunkum. Several large studies of modern alternative diets placed it bottom of the ranking in terms of health benefits and ease of following.
Essentially the paleo diet, for those who don’t know, is the concept that humans ate healthier before agriculture came along, and didn’t die of heart attacks and obesity-driven diseases. In an attempt to reconstruct such a diet based on existing indigenous peoples, the assumption is that there was a very high level of animal protein in such diets, though from organic-type sources; i.e. the hunters who did a bit of gathering. The modern Inuit for example who live almost entirely on animal protein. I have a sneaking suspicion this is taking off in Cape Town because we still have an issue with weaning ourselves off that old hunting story – it’s part of being a real South African, right?
Two flippin’ obvious errors in this, from my perspective. Firstly, the Inuit live in a highly marginal area of the globe, as do most indigenous peoples who still survive where the average Westernised person will not go. They don’t represent the average paleolithic eater in the distant past, most of whom, for a start, lived in Africa and were much more likely to forage primarily for plant foods.
Secondly – yes, there have been huge issues with processed foods and agriculture since the Second World War, with chemical and genetic changes in the foods we eat leading to huge increases in obesity, diabetes, heart attacks etc. etc. But what on earth is wrong with returning to pre-war agriculture, rather than throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Eating healthy, mostly plant-based and organic produce was the order of the day then. And there is no doubt that humans generally had adapted genetically by 1945 to high levels of lactose and gluten tolerance. It’s our modern methods, destroying traditional methods of dairy and cereal production, that have an undoubted causal relationship to the health issues mentioned above. Millions of Indians lived healthy, long, diabetes-free and vegetarian lives for centuries using the technologies of cereal, pulse and dairy agriculture.
Yet the biggest cause for concern in all this is the fact that, even if our ancestors had mythically survived without diabetes because of all that animal protein (rather than the rather more obvious fact of not eating refined carbs and sugars), there were many, many less of them than there are of us. Until the Second World War, most people, in most parts of the world, lived mostly vegetarian diets – meat was a luxury to have perhaps once a week as a Sunday roast, for example. The relationship between land use and food cost was still shown in the consumer price before the import of chemical and biological weapons into the farming world (literally, since pesticides and fertilisers were produced originally from excess stocks of chemicals produced for the war). Meat production, organic or not, is an extremely wasteful use of land, since 1kg of beef uses massive quantities of drinking water and as much land to produce as 10kg of soya beans. (It doesn’t even have the highest sources of protein, incidentally, as fundis of hemp seeds and quinoa, for example, will know). And yes, fish might be a less immediately wasteful source of protein, until you look at the state of the world’s fisheries.
The bottom line stark fact is, unless we as a species reduce our intake of animal protein sharply, we will not have enough agricultural land to feed ourselves. Very soon. Perhaps sooner than it will take for you to die of a heart attack because of failing to eat a modern paleo diet. Please, paleo dieters, (who I know are mostly conscious people trying to sort out their attitudes to food after several generations of food abuse…) wake up and shake off the animal eating fetish. Your grandchildren will thank you.
And in the mean time you could just take a look at this piece on meat marketing. The conscious organic-meat-seeking paleo dieters would like you to see this, just as much as this confirmed vegetarian.