Paleolithic diet

Review – Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk


Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live was an enlightening, if expansive, book for me.  I don’t think I read the subtitle before buying the book on, or I may have been a tad bit less surprised by the evolution and anthropology lessons I received.  I expected more of a straightforward discussion of the Paleo-type diet – they say eat these foods, Marlene Zuk says eat these foods.  Diet books often play out this way.  Paleofantasy is so much more than a diet book, however.  It is a series of lessons behind many of the concepts in evolution, with studies cited to explain certain points.

The chapters are:  1) Cavemen in Condos, 2) Are We Stuck?, 3) Crickets, Sparrows, and Darwins — or Evolution before Our Eyes, 4) The Perfect Paleofantasy: Milk, 5) The Perfect Paleofantasy:  Meat, Grains, and Cooking, 6) Exercising the Paleofantasy, 7) Paleofantasy Love, 8) The Paleofantasy Family, 9) Paleofantasy in Sickness and in Health, 10) Are we still Evolving?  A Tale of Genes, Altitude, and Earwax.

Zuk does a great job of staying neutral, addressing the misconceptions and assumptions that many Americans have about our Paleolithic ancestors.  Instead of trying to make a specific case (stop doing this, do it this way instead) she just wants to set the record straight.  She addresses everything from the idea of cavemen needing to spread their seed for the survival of our species, to our paleolithic ancestors’ ability to consume grains and evolution of the digestion of grains, to barefoot running.  Paleofantasy is filled with the usual inconclusive terms of science Americans hate to hear, such as “it is hard to know for sure” and “this is more complicated than it seems”.

As you can imagine, in a book that takes an entire chapter to discuss a human’s ability to digest milk, there is a huge amount of information presented.  I was listening to this on audiobook, and at some points I felt like it was too much to be hearing rather than reading on the page.  I listened to some chapters twice just to absorb their info.  Some Goodreads reviewers mentioned, and I agree, that this is “just the facts” journalism, not dressed up in a more pop non-fiction style like many current non-fiction books that aim to create a more vivid experience.

The only thing that stood out as completely incorrect in Paleofantasy was the source of Zuk’s paleo-fan quotes.  She seemed to repeatedly quote commenters from paleo chat boards or blogs.  This seemed a bit odd to me – it felt like lazy journalism in a book full of studies from researchers at various universities, and felt like picking out the most purposefully uneducated members of a community (let’s be real – message boards aren’t known for the breadth of their knowledge base).  There are a ton of highly educated and respected Paleo people out there, who have published books and speak regularly and would have been much more logical and worthy opponents to address.

Another thing I would have liked to hear more about, and I realize this may have been out of the scope of Zuk’s book, was a theory of what psychological motivation is behind the Paleo movement at this time in our society.  I think Paleo is more a backlash to our current culture than anything else.  People are uncomfortable with processed foods, pervasive and rapidly developing technology, desk jobs, television, media and pressures of a passive consumption culture — all of these modern developments that don’t feel right.  Whether or not it scientifically makes sense, a group of folks out there are yearning to be more like our ancestors (disconnected from elliptical machines, eight hours a day behind a computer screen, the pervasiveness of the internet, processed food).  I see this yearning coming from a place of unhappiness with the status quo, a feeling that we aren’t going down the right road.  I think Paleo is an odd reaction to the massive level of technoshock we’re all living through.  So many of us struggle to know simply how to eat, so many Americans struggle just to move regularly – there is something appealing about becoming more animalistic, getting in touch with our natural history, and listening to our instincts more.  Returning to nature has its appeal- regardless of current or past evolution.  In a way Zuk’s ability to look beyond her science here might have been interesting, I would have liked to hear her insights.

Zuk also only briefly mentions the Paleo diet’s ability to help people visualize the elimination of processed foods from meals.  Processed foods are often the least nutritious, and choosing to eat what our ancestors ate before the food industry developed easily eliminates an entire range of junk foods (not to mention beverages) from a diet.  Of course there are other ways to do this, such as just realizing processed foods are unhealthy and avoiding them (I think Michael Pollan suggests not to eat anything your great-grandma wouldn’t recognize as food), but I think people like to have a bit more of a story than that around their diets.

This book affirmed my faith in the advice Michael Pollan:  “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants”.  Pollan often talks about how little we truly know about the food we eat and what happens to it inside our bodies, he talks about how limited the science of nutrition and digestion is today.  Paleofantasy illustrates we don’t know much, and we have a long way to go before finding the “best” way to eat, move our bodies, and be with each other.

Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk at