There is a nugget of truth to the Paleo diet claims. Obviously humans did not evolve for most our history with access to grains and refined grain products. Likewise, humans didn’t (or so we think) eat beans or potatoes or other plant products that require cooking. I’m a little skeptical of the second claim as we’ve had access to fire for hundreds of thousands of years, cooking for nearly as long, and I’m sure someone figured out how to roast tubers and or use inflatable bags made from intestines/stomach to boil things in. Then there is the fact that the Jamon people in Japan were making advanced pottery by at least the end of the last ice age. But, we can more or less agree that humans would have typically had access to meat (mammal, fish, insect protein, lizards, amphibians, birds…), seasonal fruits, herbs, nuts, honey, and some leafy greens.
The Paleo diet is big on the leafy greens, and hey, that is a good thing. Problem is that most of these leafy greens are the invention of intensive selection, breeding and agricultural techniques. A majority of our veggies are derived from a single genus, Brassica–brocolli, mustard greens, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, brussel sprouts, kolrhabi, rutabaga, bok choi, and oil sources like canola and rapeseed. Your wild Brassica looks like a weed. I don’t think people were chomping on them like salads. Its one of the amazing advances in human history that some geniuses shaped an unimpressive weed into so many different types of edible plants. My point here is that most of what we consider our green veggies would not have been recognizable as such during most of human evolution. If there were big leafy things growing big herbivores would have eaten them before we got to them. So we evolved occassionally munching on a juicy weed at best.
I would think a great deal of our diet pre-agriculture was a lot of insect protein, scavenged meat, rotten fruits, nuts, and the occassional starch rich tuber. It wasn’t some grass fed bovine and a bowl of blueberries. Oh yeah, the Paleo guys go on and on about berries. Yeah, berries are great. Ever seen a wild strawberry? Nothing to write home about. And they taste like crap. Again, berries are mostly the result of agriculture. We certainly had a varied diet but not varied like taking a stroll down the produce isle and having access to 40 or 50 varieties of modern veggies and fruits.
There is another problem with the Paleo diet hypothesis. I’d be willing to wager that there was hard selection on human populations during the transition to agriculture. 10,000 years is not a lot of evolutionary time for a large mammal. That said, we’ve had rudimentary agriculture basically since about the end of the last glacial period and civilization didn’t really appear until, oh, maybe 6,000 years ago. If we assume the roots of agriculture, e.g. simple horticulturalists, began at the end of the glacial period, that’s about 5-6,000 years of experimentation with agriculture. Obviously there was a learning curve involved because we didn’t get big cities until what, like 4000 B.C. or thereabouts. You get big cities because you get good at agriculture. I would think there was then both humans selecting on the right plants to grow and how to grow them and, essentially, plants selecting on humans that could live on them well. Say 6,000 B.C. you would still need to be in good shape to survive. Metabolic disorders, food allergies and the like would have a survival cost in an environment where physical fitness was at a premium. Which is my roundabout way of saying that grains, while potentially problematic, are something we’ve had over 10,000 years to adapt to. And really, an oat is no more foreign in that sense than a blueberry or brocolli.
The bottom line is that the Paleo diet, while based on some sound dietary principles (e.g. high protein, low simple refined grain carbs, high complex vegetable carbs and fibers, high in fruits, healthy fats), is based on a Luddite fantasy wherein our ancestors had access to arugula and spinach salads, walnuts, flax seed, salmon, blueberries and apples. In reality they were eating rotten fruit when they could find it and termites and termite eggs. Sometimes bird eggs. Nibbled on some fresh herbs and maybe figured out how to cook a tuber for some starch. The argument that we ought not eat rice or oats or corn because they are unnatural doesn’t hold water since nearly everything we eat today (including all the animals we eat) are the result of thousands of years of agricultural selection.
Oh yeah, lastly, these Paleo guys often point to how much bigger and healthier people were prior to agriculture. I think this is a bit misleading, though someone with more of a background in anthropology is welcome to correct me. Yes, agriculturalists with no protein in their diet are smaller, no doubt. So, sure, there was a marked decrease in size from hunter-gatherers to some poor agricultural societies (with exceptions). But I believe a lot of skeletons used for comparison are really hunter-horticulturalists (people that maintain small seasonal garden plots). I can’t imagine anyone being big on the sort of subsistence diet that was available for most of human history. Also, it ought to be noted that the biggest, or at least tallest people in the world, are the Masai in Africa, and they subsist largely on cow’s milk and blood (that’s a lot of protein). And the Inuit, of course, subsist entirely on fish and marine mammals. I think humans are a bit more flexible in our diets than we’re given credit for (and I’d say the average Masai or Inuit is pretty tough–though the Masai I believe practice ritualized homosexuality for most of their adolescent and teen years, so lets not go crazy with any Masai diets…).