The Oldways Common Ground conference I was privileged to co-chair with Walter Willett last November had no shortage of riveting moments, as the recent posting of conference videos reminds me. But one really stood out.
Boyd Eaton is arguably the founding father of our modern understanding of, and preoccupation with, the Paleolithic diet. He shares credit with a very short list of others, among them his frequent co-author, Mel Konner. But there is no question that Boyd is on that short list. You can be confident that whoever provides you guidance on the Paleo diet concept gets their guidance from someone who gets their guidance... from the work of Prof. Eaton. His work is all but universally recognized as part of the bedrock of our understanding.
What stood out, then, was Prof. Eaton's call for people to eat less meat. Not none, necessarily, although that's an option; but considerably less.
Let's be clear, Prof. Eaton is in no way "anti" meat. He readily acknowledges his own taste for it. He feels that all humans share that taste, whether they choose to indulge it or not -- or even acknowledge it. And, he argues, rightly, that we are constitutionally, adaptationally, physiologically -- omnivorous.
But after allowing for all that, Prof. Eaton says, in essence: too bad! There are two basic reasons for his position, one the lesser, one the greater.
The lesser issue is the nature of the meat in question. That mammoth is no longer a choice is a given. Is modern meat like the meat our Stone Age ancestors ate?
The work of Prof. Eaton and his colleagues provides a very clear answer: not much. I have noted before that people routinely wave the "Paleo" banner as an excuse for eating pastrami, and that's -- well, baloney. Prof. Eaton agrees. For the rather dramatic nutritional and compositional differences between the modern meat that prevails, and the meat our Stone Age ancestors are thought to have eaten, I refer you to Dr. Eaton's original papers.
Those trying to have their side of beef and eat it, too, often talk about narrowing the gap between modern meat, and the kind of meat we "should" all eat. Pure meat. Ethically raised, free to range, well fed, organic, and all that. The trouble, of course, is that there simply isn't enough free range on the surface of the planet to raise enough animals that way to feed 8 billion quasi-carnivores. Mass production conspires against all of the very methods the "as long as it's pure" crowd espouses.
So, if you advise everyone to eat meat, but then add provisos about the purity of the meat, only one of two things can ensue. Either everyone ignores you, in which case your advice was rather pointless. Or people listen, in which case the demand for meat you've now fostered decimates the production methods you claim to favor. The production methods that supplant them give us meat nothing like that of our Stone Age ancestors.
The greater reason is, quite simply, the global human population and its impact on the planet. The Stone Age was home to scattered, isolated bands of Homo sapiens. There are now ever closer to 8 billion of us. Prof. Eaton states quite categorically that 8 billion Homo sapiens cannot have a meat-centric diet without ravaging the Earth; period.
This by no means makes our Paleolithic adaptations irrelevant; they still help define who we are, and inform what we need. Prof. Eaton's papers present estimated intake ranges for many nutrients, which may provide guidance toward optimal levels by clarifying native levels.
Dr. Eaton commented to me that the Paleo model advocates a higher protein diet than do many nutritionists, especially for children and teenagers --at least until full height is attained. There is lively debate in this area, in part because what was optimal for a physically demanding, 4-decade life span may or may not be so for a generally less strenuous but far longer life. Either way, Dr. Eaton goes on to say that we should get our protein, at whatever level, predominantly from plant sources now. (He noted in addition that the very well planned meals at the Oldways conference proved to him how delicious a plant-based, high protein meal could be.)
All too often, discourse on diet devolves into ideology when it should be bound to epidemiology. All too often, we approach dietary proclivities with nearly religious fervor, and fail to separate church and plate. All too often, some label like "Paleo" ignites fierce passions, and our imaginations, and we follow both into fantasy land. This is a reality check, from a uniquely qualified authority.
The modern reality is that we aren't in the Stone Age anymore. We can certainly learn from our Paleolithic experience, but we cannot replicate it in the 21st century, among our billions, and Tweet about it. When one of the world's foremost authorities speaks out on the implications of that, everyone waving the Paleo banner should set down their smartphone for a moment, and pause to listen.
N.B. -- This column was reviewed and approved by Dr. Eaton before publication. Both Dr. Eaton and Dr. Melvin Konner are members of the Council of Directors of the True Health Initiative.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Founder, The True Health Initiative