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The very name Paleo is taken from “Paleolithic era”. We eat like cavemen because that’s what we are adapted to it evolutionarily. It’s simple. If a caveman lived till 5 years old and also managed to avoid getting killed in war, they could live a very long life.

Wikipedia has a horribly written article on Paleo Diet, which I will not link due to disrespect. There is an unfortunately common near non-sensical “claim” that humans could have evolved better digestion since 10000 years ago to match their diets, therefore they must have evolved better digestion.

It’s pretty sad sight to see stuff like this on wikipedia, not just because it’s a bad argument, but partly because it perpetuates misunderstandings of what “evolution” actually is.

Let’s talk evolution 101. Evolution is change of genes frequencies in a population over time. Evolution is *not* humans collectively deciding to learn some new skill, nor should it be modelled as a “progress” or “regress” towards a point. Evolution works by some people dying more or less than others and having kids more or less than others. Inequality in outcomes is what drives change. Change has a directionality of “being more adapted” to the environment, however it does not have to have other directionalities, such as more “moral” or “happy” people.

It could, but doesn’t have to. Evolution isn’t a nice process, nor is it a mean one, it merely is.

if we suppose that a particular genetic dietary ability is in the process of “evolving” in humans, that means this ability is going from “rare” to “less rare” through conferring some sort of advantage to people who have it. Or, by conferring some sort of disadvantage to people who don’t have it, such as being poisoned by the food in question. So, if an ability to digest a particular food is in “evolving” in humans, that means either

1. the food is so incredibly valuable and able to give nutrients you can’t get elsewhere to people who can digest it

2. The food is actually poison to people who can’t digest it, but they are eating it for some reason anyways.

Now, explanation 1: food good is plausible really only for a strange situation when the food that not everyone can digest is capable of providing something that humans simply can’t get through foods they *can* digest. This can happen during famines or serious changes in food availability.

"Explanation 2: food bad" is a plausible explanation in times of higher food availability, but stronger cultural pressures to eat things that are bad for you.

However, "Explanation 2: food bad" is just the argument FOR the paleo diet, not against IT. Since “we are evolving towards being able to digest some food” is actually *evidence* FOR this food being poison for a large portion of the population, not *against* it. However, it’s easy to get strangely caught up in the “positive” affect of the word “evolution” without realizing this “evolution” might mean you dying from eating shitty food.

There is actually an interesting example of a food that is in the Explanation-1. It’s milk. Ability to digest milk has actually become far more common in Europeans in the last 10000 years. It’s not as common in other peoples. This actually presents a little bit of an evolutionary puzzle as to why milk is so valuable, especially since cheese and other milk by-products have less lactose and are thus easier to digest even without this ability. Also, if it is so valuable, why is it more valuable for Europeans? One guess is that likely Vitamin D is harder to acquire in Europe than other parts of the world. Another guess is that milk was cleaner from bacteria compared to water.

Still the ability to consume milk, or lactose tolerance is still not genetically 100% despite the surprisingly massive, but not yet understood advantage. Lactose intolerance still exists and likely is less hurtful if one can get both clean water and vitamin D from sunlight or supplements.

The important thing to understand here is that milk is an exception not the rule. There are well understood genes affecting it. The protein for digesting milk has always been present in people, it’s just that its production has been turned *off* in adulthood. One can imagine that evolutionary changes that merely turn a feature *back on* are simpler to acquire than ones responsible for a brand new protein. Lactose tolerance conferred a significant advantage in one part of the world, but not others and it still remains a mystery of why it evolved so quickly.

Other non-paleo foods do not share the same path. If we take celiac disease, for example, which might seem like clear potential negative, we find a hugely surprising “The genetic variants behind celiac disease seem to be just as common now as they've been since humans began eating wheat.”

This may be surprising to you because effectively a large portion of the population is *not* adapting to eating wheat and doing perfectly ok despite it. In reality, “Celiac disease” is likely called a disease by mistake. A more precise name is an auto-immune disorder, but I suspect it’s merely an immune system with a more aggressive Self-Other distinction. This likely confers massive advantages when not eating wheat to compensate for the dis-advantages. Ability to digest foods doesn’t come for free, it may require down-tuning one’s immune system to not recognize certain things as enemies. I wouldn’t actually be surprised if the genes coding for this actually became more prevalent in today’s world which has a large variety of both foods and hostile parasites.

If we take a lot of other foods that Paleo prohibits, we find that they are actually quite recent and certainly did not have the 10000 years that milk had. Not that there is a guarantee they would become more digestible if they did.

Sugar Cane arrived in Europe in the 13th century. Potatoes and sunflower didn’t arrive in Europe until 16th century. Soy in Europe was even later, however it has been cultivated in China for thousands of years. Gluten content of wheat has also risen in the last century, making it quite different from what it used to be.

It worth noting that different groups of people have had different foods for the last 10 000 years and likely in the years prior as well. You might be more adapted to eating the foods your particular ancestors ate, but this isn’t a guarantee.

The big picture here is that we didn’t adapt to eat many of the foods outside of the Paleo List. Milk is the exception, which some Paleo people approve and others don’t. Some foods are too new and some, like wheat contain gluten which is too similar to in profile to hostile chemicals.

However, this version of justification for the Paleo diet is too strict for some people. Europeans are more adapted to eat tomatoes than potatoes even though they were introduced to Europe at the same time. Some foods are natural and are able to be digested due to being similar enough to other foods, despite being new to a particular group.


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