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May 2013

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Paleofantasy

Written by , Posted in Reviews

“A simpler life with more exercise, fewer processed foods, and closer contact with our children may well be good for us. But we shouldn’t seek to live that way because we think it emulates our ancestors.” – Marlene Zuk, Paleofantasy

There are a lot of different diets out there, some couched as providing quick weight loss, others purporting to be full-on lifestyles. We’re likely all familiar with South Beach and Atkins, as well as some of the old-school fixes (cabbage soup, cayenne lemonade ‘cleanse’). But one that’s gotten a lot of coverage lately is the Paleo or caveman lifestyle. The basic foundation of these recent movements is that we haven’t evolved for this life (eating dairy, sitting at a desk, consuming refined grains), so we need to adjust our diet to get back to the time when we were best matched to our environment: the Paleolithic era.

I try to reserve judgment of people if they are not hurting others. If what you choose to do works – either because of placebo effect or otherwise – then yay for you! I’m not, however, a fan of people promoting certain actions for reasons that can’t be supported with facts. If I tell you that a car will go forward when you step on the gas pedal, I’m correct; if I tell you it goes forward if you step on the gas pedal because of magical fairy dust in the trunk, I’m wrong. Even if the outcome – you trusting me that pushing on the pedal will make the car go – will be the same, the supporting evidence matters to me.

Paleofantasy

That’s why I found this book to be SO fascinating. Dr. Zuk is interested in exploring the claims many people seem to be making about what evolution can tell us about how we should be living our lives. It was a bit of a challenging read, but certainly manaegable if you have a basic understanding of biology. She’s great at explaining things, although there were definitely areas that I had to re-read twice.

The purpose of the book is to explore in detail the oft-cited claims that we haven’t evolved for this life we’re living. She spends time building her case by talking about evolution of other species – including a really fascinating discussion of how quickly some crickets evolved to stop chirping because the chirps attracted some deadly flies – before addressing some of the main claims those who promote a Paleo lifestyle make. She tackles the dairy argument by providing evidence of how many of us HAVE evolved to process dairy (and why!). She looks at the caveman exercise model by pointing out that while the need for activity itself is supported, the idea that it needs to mimic chasing a mammoth is unsupported. She even takes aim at the “agriculture changed everything for the worse” argument. It’s fascinating and different from what seems to be pushed on a regular basis by many people who are promoting a specific agenda.

She also examines non-diet evolutionary biology issues, some of which she sees having support (attachment parents will like that part of the book) and some she does not (people who think women evolved to be monogamous and men did not may want to skip chapter seven). Those sections are especially interesting because those arguments – especially the ones around men and women evolving to be better suited to performing certain tasks – find their ways into daily life. Even political arguments from some conservatives (who ironically often don’t believe in evolution) are often based in this misunderstanding of how we have evolved.

My biggest take-away from reading this book is that there is not ‘perfect’ time that we’re best suited for, and evolution can happen much quicker (relatively speaking) than some Paleo proponents suggest. Dr. Zuk is NOT suggesting that, for example, eating fewer processed foods, or eliminating dairy, is bad; she’s just saying that the evidence for why it might be good to eat more whole foods or be more active is not necessarily found in how we lived 15,000 years ago.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who is interested in science, evidence, reason, and biology.

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