Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
3 Apr

Is It All Just a “Paleofantasy”?

PaleoFantasySo this is my review of the new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live. It’s been making the rounds for a few weeks now, and although some other people have already weighed in, I’ll add my two cents. At the outset, I’d like to make very clear that I actually agree with a decent portion of Marlene Zuk’s individual arguments. Though it may surprise you to know that Mark Sisson agrees with the most prominent paleo debunker du jour on several topics, I’m not saying I support the overall product or her final conclusions. In fact, Paleofantasy is an odd, meandering book whose ultimate purpose I’m not really sure I truly understand.

There are two main problems with the book, as I see it. First, she’s working against a straw man. Many of the arguments she debunks, like “eyeglasses aren’t paleo” or “the paleo diet was carnivorous,” seems to have been dug up from some random Internet commenter or drawn from fringe camps. In other words, they aren’t arguments people like Robb Wolf, Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, or me (or our readers) are making. Second, many of her counterarguments or “nuanced approaches” are the very same ones we’ve been exploring at length for years! After reading the book, John Durant tweeted “Paleofantasy shouldn’t have been a book in 2013, it should have been a blog post in 2010,” and that’s as good a description as I can think of.

It’s all very uncontroversial:

There is no one paleo diet.

Who’s saying that? Humans have spanned the globe for millennia, surviving and even thriving in environments ranging from tropical to temperate, from arctic to near-aquatic, all the while subsisting on the wild foods available to those regions. Same basic diet of animals and plants, different configurations.

Evolution doesn’t just stop and humans didn’t just reach a state of perfect adaptation back before agriculture from which we’ve never progressed.

Sure. I talked about how we’re still “evolving” last year, even mentioning Zuk’s favorite topics – lactase persistence (35% worldwide, which is far from 100%) and amylase production. She discusses a few more recent changes, like malaria resistance, adaptation to high altitude, and earwax differentiation, but that’s it. If she wanted to, I’m sure she “could keep adding to the list” and mount an overwhelming case for widespread genetic adaptations to grain consumption, chronic stress tolerance, and sedentary living, but she’s saving up material for the next book. Or something. Either way, I’m not very convinced by her “list” of rapid evolutionary changes, especially considering most of them have little to do with the mismatches we discuss in this community and none of them are even present in a majority of humans.

Zuk is also quick to misrepresent “our” arguments so she can swoop in and take the sensible position – positions the ancestral health community has long occupied!

In her exercise chapter, she characterizes paleo exercise proscriptions as “short and intense” and “literal-minded,” mimicking activities like “having to run down a rabbit for dinner.” We type away at our computers on caveman forums, spend a little while lifting weights and running sprints, and sit back down. Then, Zuk explains that contrary to our reenactment fantasies, the real problem and the real divergence from our past is that modern humans sit too often. It is our inactivity, our hours and hours spent doing nothing physical that hurt us. What we should be doing is lots of slow moving, steady low-level activity like walking, hiking, gardening, yard work, house work, rather than sitting all day and trying to make up for it with a hard gym session. Hmm – where have I heard that kind of stuff before? Why hasn’t the ancestral health community addressed this pernicious force in our lives?

Later, she rightly claims that paleo authors are suspicious of endurance training, mocking my position that the idea that “natural selection redesigned our simian shapes to run the Boston Marathon is… ludicrous.” As support for her claims, she cites Louis Liebenberg’s persistence hunting studies (PDF) with the Kalahari bushmen of Botswana where men would go on hunts lasting “two to five hours, with an average running speed of 6.3 kilometers (about 4 miles) per hour.” Those are fifteen minute miles. If you were running the Boston Marathon at a 15 minute-mile pace, you’d finish in six and a half hours (roughly). That’s an easy run (fast walk?), especially for someone who’s reasonably fit. You could hold a conversation at that speed. You could get up and do it again the next day at that pace. That’s not chronic cardio. That’s not a competitive time for an endurance athlete – the dogged pursuit of which is precisely what I’ve always warned against. It’s easy aerobic activity, the kind I promote!

Even when she acknowledges the potential utility of an evolutionary approach to analyzing health or current environmental “mismatches,” they are glossed over or relegated to a single sentence buried in a paragraph. Zuk spends an entire chapter explaining how traditional child-rearing, with its extended family members available for childcare, extended breastfeeding, co-sleeping, baby-wearing, parental “indulgence” of crying babies, is likely the biological and evolutionary norm for human infants, citing Dr. James McKenna’s extensive research on the benefits of the aforementioned methods… and then ends the chapter by saying “most children grow up fine” so let’s not bother with it. Let’s just keep on keepin’ on.

In response to the idea that limiting artificial light at night and getting plenty of natural light during the day might improve sleep and preserve our circadian rhythms, she asks “is this really the solution to our health problems?” She creates an argument that we are all apparently positing – that smashing light bulbs and waking up at dawn are the cure to all our health problems – and then proceeds to dismiss it, to laugh it off. And yeah, it’s ridiculous to say that unnatural light is the cause of all our health ills… but who’s saying that? Who’s making this argument but her? And on that note, what about the negative effects of artificial light at night? Aren’t they worth investigating? Isn’t the data we already have fairly compelling?

(If you notice me asking a lot of questions in apparent exasperation, it’s because I’m puzzled and exasperated and driven to inquiry by some of these “arguments.” Forgive me.)

A worrisome theme starts to emerge: that the past is murky and we need more data so let’s not make any sudden changes to the way we live, especially not if they’re couched in evolution. I disagree. Whatever most people are doing isn’t really working for most people, whereas whatever we’re doing (whether it’s a paleofantasy or not) seems to be working.

To her credit, Zuk doesn’t throw out the idea of evolutionary mismatch altogether (although you could have fooled me). She just rails against “denouncing modern living as unsuitable to our Stone Age genes,” calling for research into “just what parts of that life send us too far out of our evolutionary zone of tolerance,” as if she’s stumbled upon some revolutionary concept. Really, though, we are exploring and identifying the specific aspects of modern life that trigger a mismatch. We are gathering data. Academics and scientists and bloggers and lay individuals are figuring out, in fits and starts and lurches and self-experiments and clinical trials and study analyses, just what works about modern life and what does not work. We’re not resting on our laurels, on our assumptions.

So we kind of agree, even though it appears she doesn’t know it.

I don’t necessarily blame Marlene Zuk for her failure to comb the ancestral health community’s tomes, read all the blogs, study the comment sections (although she seems to have a fondness for anonymous blog commenters), attend the symposiums and conferences (although much of the material is available online for free), and explore the message boards. There’s a lot of material to cover. It’d probably take years to really do a thorough job. But if she hoped to publish a relevant critique of the community, she probably should have understood its actual claims instead of erecting a straw man for easy defeat.

In John Hawks’ favorable review of the book, he says that we must “play with hypotheses, explore their predictions and try very hard to falsify them.”

I completely agree. I think Zuk agrees, too, and I think I may have divined her ultimate goal with this book. In her 2009 NY Times piece on the same subject, she said “we shouldn’t flagellate ourselves for having modern bodies, and we shouldn’t assume that tweaking our diets or our posture will rescue us from all our current ills.” She thinks people are rushing headlong into such dangerous lifestyle changes as giving up grains, sugar, and seed oils without doing their due diligence.

You’ll have no arguments from me. Assume nothing, test/tweak/research everything. It’s not like I’m sitting here typing away, conjuring up fantastical stories about the past and making big lifestyle proscriptions based on said stories. Those success stories are actual success stories from actual people. Those studies cited are actual studies from real journals. I suppose you could make the argument that all these folks losing weight and gaining muscle and getting off meds and regaining their lives after adopting a Primal way of eating, living, and moving cannot definitively establish the lifestyle was the precipitating factor. They can’t “prove” it works. It could all be a big dream.

A big paleofantasy. I could be making this entire world up in my head as I go along, a lonely brain in some amniotic sac with electrodes attached, my entire history and the blog and the books and my relationships all constructs of my mind. I don’t think I am, though. I think this is real, flesh-and-blood stuff.

Are improved blood sugars, better blood lipids, a hundred pounds of weight loss, newly emergent abs, steady midday energy, improvement of autoimmune disease, and new leases on life paleofantasies? No.

Are sitting in front of an LCD screen until 2 AM, spending zero time in nature, living off of Cheetos and Coke, walking under a thousand steps a day, and working 20 hour days at a miserable job evolutionary mismatches with drastic health consequences as shown by current science (and hinted at by anthropology)? Yes.

And that’s what it comes down to in the end: results. We got ’em, and people recognize that.

Have you read Paleofantasy? What do you think? Let everyone know in the comment board, and thanks for reading!

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Was going to post a simple comment and ended up writing a blog post of my own. Great rational review of the book and great blog!

    grant wrote on April 4th, 2013
  2. The paleo lifestyle has helped me tremendously over the past 1 1/2 years. No more hypertension medications(3 per day) coupled with significant weight loss. I’m now showing muscles I didn’t even know I had.

    I have enough energy to run as far and as fast – and – to play as long and as hard as I want. I just feel better.

    I feel compassion for those who do not/cannot embrace this lifestyle.

    Dave wrote on April 4th, 2013
  3. You go Girl!!! Great reply.

    Nocona wrote on April 4th, 2013
  4. Yeah, this lady is way off the mark.

    This is a really great critique of some “paleo” diet issues from an archaeologist. A very good read!

    For the record, I think Mark Sisson is one of the good guys in paleo. Not a tuber pushing idiot. Someone that acknowledges that we don’t “need” starch and that some people will need to limit carbs for life.

    Rachel wrote on April 4th, 2013
  5. My main issue with the book is that every time I see the title, that awful Bad Company song starts playing in my head… “It’s all paht… of my Paleo Fantasy… It’s all paht… of my Paleo Dream….”

    Curse you for that, Marlene Zuk!

    BobG wrote on April 4th, 2013
  6. Good summary.

    BillP wrote on April 4th, 2013
  7. It seems that Zuk is trying to say, “I know something too, listen to me, please Mommy, listen to me, I am so smart and pretty, too, Mommy.” She sets up strawmen and courageously knocks them down, when the school of thought called paleo have gone way past those ideas. Then she in the end agrees with us.

    But she is doing damage. Many people may think that this here scientist just said that paleo is bunk. Hopefully they will notice that she agreed with the paleo premise all along. I fault TED for putting her on. My respect for TED has dropped quite few notches.

    Roger Bird wrote on April 4th, 2013
  8. I saw the book a bookshop in Park City as I was over skiing for 10 days from Sydney in Deer Valley. I’ve been following paleo eating for a few years and thought I’d read it to get another point of view.
    After the first chapter I flicked through and couldn’t work out what she was trying to say.
    My bags fairly full so this book will stay behind for someone else to try and work out the point of the book

    Cathie wrote on April 4th, 2013
  9. The book is obviously not worth reading. I’d rather live in a Paleo fantasy than in the gruel reality I lived before, eating grains, growing fatter, sicker, hungrier and more desperate all the time.

    Margit wrote on April 5th, 2013
  10. Europeans have been smoking tobacco for some 500 years. In the Americas, tobacco has been cultivated for some 3,500 years and smoked probably for far longer. Are we adapted to it? Perfectly? Is it even healthy? Possibly healthier than not smoking?

    The dishonesty of these “assessments” of Paleo has become borderline insane.

    Txomin wrote on April 5th, 2013
    • nobody needs to think in terms of evolution to show that tobacco is bad for us. just like nobody needs to think about evolution to show sitting around eating heaps of carbs is gonna make you unhealthy. basic stuff, people, no need to get into evolutionary psuedoscience. zuk might not be as concise or satisfying to read as punchy, answer-driven diet books – ones that are written to sell. but she’s a scientist. and so is warriner. listen up folks.

      ellie chalmrs wrote on November 14th, 2013
  11. Mark, great, concise paragraph on Chronic Cardio and the Bushmen Studies. More fuel to lay in front of the glucose burning friends who feel exercising their hearts at a faster pace than normal will protect them. Tell that to Jim Fixx or their fat doctor who approved and recommended it. That’s because his son is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee replacement and his brother is in cardio thorasic…baby needs new shoes!

    Andre Chimene wrote on April 5th, 2013
  12. I didn’t want to read the book, expecting it to be full of straw man arguments and similarly weak nonsense, but I got it any way. If you work in the field or if you get asked about this stuff often I think it is necessary to familiarize yourself with the criticisms and claims so you are prepared to respond more helpfully when people ask questions about it.

    I am only about half way through, and my extraocular muscles are getting DOMS from the near constant eye rolling it has caused.

    Drew Baye wrote on April 5th, 2013
  13. She should have addressed real paleofantasies, such as the notion that our paleolithic ancestors all died out at about 35 years of age, cavemen dragged their women back to the cave by their hair, life was nasty and short and the horizon was always a source of horror, etc.

    Aaron Blaisdell wrote on April 5th, 2013
  14. I read the review of this book, and thanks for the giggles. I will be reading this book, out of curiosity,(and for more giggles) and as soon as the local library gets their newly-ordered copies. Note: it won’t be wasting a single hard-earned cent, to read a library book.

    Second note: I did spend hard-earned money on Loren Cordain’s brilliant book and intend to buy Robb Wolf’s and others when I can.

    The proof of the Paleo lifestyle, as I prefer to call it, is in the results. Skin conditions, my eczema that was chronic, cleared up almost immediately. The backs of my hands especially used to crack and bleed, and irritated my wife so much she said I looked like a monkey, scratching at it. To look at my hands-gone-primal, there is no sign of it. You’d never know I had eczema. I dropped weight and feel better.

    I am prone to seizures, resulting from a long-ago concussion, and I can say happily that seizure activity has been very quiet for weeks or months since I gave up wheat and started giving my body what it really needs.

    Pity the people who will read this book and believe it.

    Shane wrote on April 5th, 2013
  15. How do we explain the old yogis like BKS Iyengar a vegetarian by ancestry, never did cardio, ate meat, eggs, or organic as certified, practised only yoga all.his life and still going at 93 plus. And just published an awesome book last year…
    And live in a severely polluted part of India?
    How would Paleo define a master like that? A rare evolution of a man?

    jacquie wrote on April 5th, 2013
  16. Actually, hes 94 plus, born Dec 1918….

    jacquie wrote on April 5th, 2013
  17. Ms. Warriner brought up vitamin C but obiously she didn’t do her homework. The Inuit and Eskimo ate very little plant matter, some lemon grass and berries in the summer, no plants in the winter. They got their vitamin C from the blubber of seals and whales, which they ate raw. (That’s right you can’t cook it, because it degrades and destroys the vitamin C.)

    The artic explorer, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, live among the Inuits for several years. Ninety percent of their diet was meat and fish yet they were perfectly healthy. When he made these claims publicly he and another artic explorer did a one year experiment eating only meat. At the end of the year they were perfectly healty. Scroll down to “Low-carbohydrate diet of meat and fish.”

    Of course, Mr. Stefansson was only eating pasture-raised, organic beef. This was before pesticides, herbicides and confined feeding operations with corn and soy.

    She also missed the fact that our stomachs produce hydrochloric acid, needed to digest meat proteins.

    D. M. Mitchell wrote on April 5th, 2013
    • Okay, I wasn’t quite done and I was going to delete that last sentence. Herbivores also produce acid in their stomachs. But from my research and waht all of you should know, humans are omnivores. We can eat plants and meat.

      D. M. Mitchell wrote on April 5th, 2013
  18. I wonder who is financing her. Arguments like “more research is needed” remind me of Big Sugar’s guerilla warfare tactics in defending the claim, that sugar is not unhealthy. Just try to spread as much doubt as possible, so that the majority never tries the thing out and never finds the truth. Those of us who know where the truth lies – she can not fool (Wow, that’s Yoda’ish). But the rest of the population is free game. I would not read the book, because to me calling Primal/Paleo/PHD into question is like trying to argue that 2+2 does not equal 4. I write you off as crazy. And everytime I meet a person who is trying to undermine my authority on the subject, I tell them, “OK, let’s take down our T-Shirts and see who will be laughing at the cost of who!” Up untill now, this meant the end of discussion every single time. Because if you want to convince me about something, you’d better have very solid arguments. You must look like what you preach at least to the extent I do. And that is hard to beat :-)

    einstein wrote on April 6th, 2013
  19. Last night (before reading this), I just renamed my diet throwing “Paleolithic-influenced” in front of it, as in “Paleolithic-influenced, low-carb, high-fat diet”.

    Hardly a big deal, but it shows how I and I think most of us think about it. We’re not trying to re-enact the Paleolithic era; we’re trying to use certain genetic realities of human beings as shaped through evolution to recreate a more healthy diet and lifestyle, more in tune with how we evolved … while still enjoying most of the benefits of modern technology and society.

    Why so many people find this concept hard to follow is a mystery to me.

    By way of analogy, if I observed that one thing the military does to stay fit is exercise — push-ups, chin-ups, running, etc. — then I can use that observation to inform my activity choices without necessarily invading my neighbour’s patio.

    Christoph Dollis wrote on April 6th, 2013
  20. Just a small word quibble, Mark. A “proscription” is something one advises people NOT to do. It’s the opposite of the word you want: “prescription.”

    (That’s all a medical prescription is, for example: something that is recommended for a patient.)

    Jeanette wrote on April 7th, 2013
  21. Interview from WPR

    Is it really better to eat and exercise the way our caveman ancestors did? Joy Cardin speaks to an professor of evolution and behavior about the belief that we should live the way our ancestors did, and why she says this belief is a “paleofantasy.” Guest: Marlene Zuk (ZOOK, rhymes with BOOK), author of “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live.” She’s a professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the University of Minnesota. She joins us from St. Paul, MN.

    Dean wrote on April 8th, 2013
  22. For the cough, fill a tea cup full of hot (but not boiling hot, if boiling let it sit 2 min first) water and add 1/2 tsp honey, a good shake of cayenne pepper, a shake of ginger, and a tsp of apple cider vinegar.

    Take a swig and gargle each time for 20-30 seconds before swallowing. Repeat until all gone. Takes care of a sore throat as well. I drink this exact thing if I’m about to feel sick at all and I don’t get sick.

    George wrote on April 8th, 2013
  23. Stuff like this fires me up… a sense that I am so incredibly grateful someone lived out paleo before me and I finally was willing to be taught. I will never go back. Love clean eating, love REAL food and cooking, love great workouts—love TRUTH. Good stuff. Thanks!

    Vicki FREDERICKSEN wrote on April 9th, 2013
  24. Totally agree with Emily! There are just too many ‘experts’ out there these days coming out with new theories on how we should eat, or why this will work and that won’t work blah blah blah…Unfortunately, for many like us who are ACTUALLY interested to have healthier bodies, mind and greater energy, this can lead us to analysis paralysis. People should just experiment with different lifestyles and stick with one that is actually making them live and feel better.

    Steve M wrote on April 15th, 2013
  25. Great topic. Whenever I am confronted (with anger) by detractors, I have to bite my tongue, because their ignorance is soo very obvious (to me at least- perhaps they don’t look in the mirror)and I refrain from saying (thanks Doc Phil) “So how is it working for YOU??? And it is obviously not because they are fat sorry obese – sometimes morbidly obese.
    And me – I am admittedly about 8 Kilograms over what I should be – my goal as advised by my heart surgeon. AND I am still working on it – gradually but slowly I am reducing my excess baggage(because of heart condition) and have removed 25 kilograms over about 18 months since my heart operation- so I smile and just look at them (okay I pointedly survey their ample proportions – well I am not a saint).
    PALEO makes sense to me (and my body – I am not increasing my mass at 70 yrs old). I am fairly active and exercise daily with an ever increasing goal to lift more weight and do more intensity training. Slowly does it. Sadly.
    Last week I read an “international authority on celiac disease” burble on about
    the “dangers of cutting a whole range of foods out of a diet” LIMITING the variety of foods (and nutrients) available for consumption.
    HA! And she said that when “the people cut grains/carbs and dairy from their diet they put on the pounds. Crikey has she had a look at all the people who do eat that stuff and see how they are (fat, obese and morbidly obese – here in Bundaberg Qld Australia (the fatest town in Australia).
    And since I have totally wiped grains and dairy from my eating plan (it’s here to stay) I have discovered a HUGE RANGE OF VARIETY IN FOOD STUFFS all healthy, all unprocessed and delicious.
    So far I have refrained of answering that article, I am just astounded that a PROFESSIONAL medico should say such ignorant things. But then I do not hold with dietitians (all the ones I have met have no idea of nutrition – most of them are overweight and pudgy looking themselves or are so scrawny ).
    The general population is struggling with all these opposing comments and sadly are not able (through lack of education perhaps) to understand and research this topic. They blindly believe everything they are told by the health professionals (who are often severely overweight themselves – not a good look – and does not promote confidence in their knowledge of nutrition).
    SO THANK YOU MARK for your very informative website – and your PALEO eating plan. It is working great.
    I am getting fitter and healthier as I am going along the Paleo way.
    Thank you, Cheers Peggy

    peggywh0 wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  26. I lost 100 pounds and dropped a bunch of meds (put my fibro into remission) by going what I call modified paleo. I eat what works for my body, I now listen to it instead of my doctor. Much better results I must say. No gluten (some oats and rice otherwise grain free), no corn, no soy and no dairy. I have also found that foods packaged in BPA make me ill as well. I eat way more veggies especially greens now than I ever did, and with no dairy I have to get creative with my cooking instead of just dumping cheese all over it. Raw nuts and grass fed meats are high components of my diet now as well.

    fitmtnmom wrote on April 22nd, 2013
  27. I have not read the book but watched her lecture on the subject. Every piece of evidence she presented on genetic adaptation is correct scientically but flawed when interpreted as fast adaptations in us as a species. These are adaptations of restricted populations to local factors. A population evolved to digest lactose may develop celiac disease by consuming gluten etc.

    Poiu Trew wrote on June 6th, 2013
  28. Acceptance of evolution provides “instant equality” for all humans since whether or not they survive, how well, or how poorly, must then be embedded within how any peoples throughout history have managed their cultural, social, and economic hierarchies, and the “power-forces” driving those “traditions.”

    Failure to accept evolution is the Devine right of Kings, the Devine right of the Pope, or to somehow adjudge that Darwin’s method of the fittest determines survival for humans much as it does for animals – through violence.

    Once the concept of Imperialism and Empire, or religious dictate is debunked as stacked, moulded, and padded prerogative, mIntIned by artifice, and artificial construction, it is possible to view the world as the fragile planet it is, subject to the justification of its global bullies as fantasy to attempt some form of global dominance over resources. Can humans live with reality as it is, or must it be spoonfed fantasy that drives his opinions?

    Pat Ross wrote on August 26th, 2013
  29. If your diet and exercise plan makes you lose weight and feel better about yourself, then that should be reason enough to continue it. Yes, exercising regularly and eating a diet that is high in fiber and protein will help you lose weight. Losing weight and exercising regularly does indeed lessen the risk for heart disease and diabetes. But the claim that the primal diets are better than every other diet because they’re based on evolutionary science is dubious and what’s even more dubious is the claim that it will cure everything from autism to autoimmune disorders.

    So maybe you went on the paleodiet and your eczema went into remission. That, in and of itself, doesn’t prove that the grains were the cause of your eczema. Autoimmune disorders often do go into spontaneous remission and it’s hard to pinpoint what the cause of any remission is unless it’s specifically being controlled. What’s more, the elephant in the room that a lot of people are ignoring is that the most chronic diseases (like cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, cataracts, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer’s) are all associated with aging. From a strict, evolutionary standpoint, such diseases post little to no threat to a species because they don’t interfere with reproduction.

    Janyce Hunter wrote on October 7th, 2013
  30. All Paleolithic diet writers are also motivated by money, including Mark. So, too, all diet writers whatever the diet they’re trying to push might be.

    If they weren’t, and they just wanted to make everyone skinny and healthy, they wouldn’t be charging money for their books, vacations, vitamins, and clothing – they’d be giving them away for free.

    Mylenda Caron wrote on October 7th, 2013

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