Paleo and woo

I stumbled on a fascinating post from Respectful Insolence at titled Paleo and woo: Bad company until the day they die.

Now, I know I’ve been a little hard on Paleo these last few posts, and I apologize. In my defense, all the articles that have run across my desk have been science heavy, reasonable, and related to heart health. Exactly my preferences. 🙂

But I digress.

Here’s something that jumped out at me:

But how does one determine what the prevalence of cardiovascular disease was in the ancient past? Time and the decomposition it brings are brutal on the flimsy meat of which we are made, and it is uncommon to have access to anything other than bones, much less bodies intact enough to be examined for signs of atherosclerotic disease. Even so, however, there have been indications that the idea that ancient humans didn’t suffer from atherosclerosis is a comforting myth, the most recent of which is a study published a week ago online in The Lancet by Prof. Randall C. Thompson of Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute and an international team of investigators entitled Atherosclerosis across 4000 years of human history: the Horus study of four ancient populations. Basically, it was a study of 137 different mummies from four different geographic locations spanning 4,000 years. The areas spanned included ancient Egypt, ancient Peru, the Ancestral Puebloans of southwest America, and the Unangan of the Aleutian Islands.

Hmmmm. So, the meat heavy diet wasn’t necessarily heart healthy? Go figure. But, what about cave people?

A related site is called CaveMenMeds. Although it features rather strong support for the theory of evolution, unfortunately, it also misuses evolution in much the same way that Cordain has done (as discussed in this very post) and in parallel make the same sorts of fallacious arguments about placebo effects that we’ve discussed many times before here. Basically, it couples myths about how paleolithic humans lived with a typical “integrating” of ideas that range from the sensible to the pseudoscientific to discuss disease. This is just the most direct link between CAM and paleofantasies that I came across in my web wanderings. There are many more less direct links to be found.

But, how are the mummy findings and paleo thought connected?

Zuk detects an unspoken, barely formed assumption that humanity essentially stopped evolving in the Stone Age and that our bodies are “stuck” in a state that was perfectly adapted to survive in the paleolithic environment. Sometimes you hear that the intervention of “culture” has halted the process of natural selection. This, “Paleofantasy” points out, flies in the face of facts. Living things are always and continuously in the process of adapting to the changing conditions of their environment, and the emergence of lactase persistence indicates that culture (in this case, the practice of keeping livestock for meat and hides) simply becomes another one of those conditions.

For this reason, generalizations about the typical hunter-gatherer lifestyle are spurious; it doesn’t exist. With respect to what people ate (especially how much meat), the only safe assumption was “whatever they could get,” something that to this day varies greatly depending on where they live. Recently, researchers discovered evidence that people in Europe were grinding and cooking grain (a paleo-diet bugaboo) as far back as 30,000 years ago, even if they weren’t actually cultivating it. “A strong body of evidence,” Zuk writes, “points to many changes in our genome since humans spread across the planet and developed agriculture, making it difficult at best to point to a single way of eating to which we were, and remain, best suited.”

Zuk, in this instance refers toMarlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist and author of Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. To make matters worse, it turns out that paleolithic people got cancer, too. Dang it.

As much as I wish all the Paleo promises were true, it looks like they’re not all they’re cracked up to be.


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