Evolutionary perspectives on modern diets

Paleo” diet? Evolutionary perspectives on modern diets


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Americans today live in an ironic “Food Age.” Despite our relative affluence and increasing choice of foods, national health seems to be in decline. As consumers, we are constantly being bombarded with nutritional advice about what we should be eating to live a healthier lifestyle. Competitive cooking shows are hyped on TV at the very time when few people are growing up learning about the ingredients in food or how to cook for themselves. And all the while food advertisers compete to get us to eat more of their products engineered to “taste good” (sweeter, saltier, fattier, etc.) and sell cheap. What’s a poor student to do?

Over the past few decades, we’ve seen a shift from craze or fad restrictive“diets”—which aimed to limit intake of certain food items or groups—to more discussions on inclusive “diets”—which encourage people to eat as much of “the good stuff” as they want. Regardless of diets specifics, these inclusive diets suggest that the solution to our health dilemma is to turn back the clock and try to eat a diet that is closer to what our bodies evolved to eat—a more natural diet that mimics the nutritional balance of our Paleolithic (Stone Age) ancestors.


This project asks you to:

  • Research one of these controversial diets—“Paleo” “Plant-based” “Vegetarian” and “Vegan” are all decent options—focusing specifically on their hypotheses and arguments.
  • Then, review some aspects of your own diet and lifestyle.
  • And finally,apply a long-term evolutionary perspective on 1 and 2 above, informed by materialsfrom the course readings and lectures.


The resources you’ll need to read and cite are:

  • William R. Leonard’s “Food for Thought” (on Canvas under Files à Materials for Unit Write-Ups).
  • This 2009 Scientific American piece titled “How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer”, which discusses the general question of how adapted modern humans are, biologically, to our modern diets.
  • The food timeline attached the end of this document. [also see James Kennedy’s Infographics on wild-vs-domesticated foods here]


Next, I want you to do evaluate a meal of your own. To do this, you can:

  • Choose a local restaurant that you like to eat at and pick a selection of items from their menu that you might typically choose for dinner (e.g., a main course and a beverage, perhaps dessert, etc.). Find out as much as you can about the types of individual ingredients used to prepare the meal (e.g., if you are eating a burrito, what are all the ingredients in the filling, and what ingredients is the wrap made from?).
  • Alternatively, if you like to cook, prepare a meal from ingredientsas you normally would, but think about where they came from (and I’m not talking “aisle 9” here—I mean where was this grown or processed and shipped from!), and then analyze its contents.


In a report of ~ 1,000 to words, reflect on your meal. You should answer the following:

  • How truly “Paleo” are the diets we are told to follow for our health? Do they closely reflect the diets of our extinct ancestors from 4, 3, 2, or 1 million years ago? What about the diets of later Homo species, including our own?
  • Compare the list of ingredients in your meal to the types of ingredients that your diet resources advocate eating or avoiding. What would you have to change to make it a diet-friendly meal? (e.g., what ingredients or processing techniques would have to be left out… what ingredients would remain? How would the taste compare, do you think?)
  • Finally, using the food timelines on page 3, below—think about the history of food ingredients, and when our ancestors began eating different kinds of foods. Overall, looking at your meal, how did it compare to a true “paleo” diet?
    • Which elements of the meal had the deepest evolutionary roots, and what types of ingredients were added to human diets more recently? [e.g., if your food had any oil components or domestic grains, it wouldn’t have existed as is before about 5,000 years ago. If it had added sugars, processed meat, or preservatives, it wouldn’t have existed even a century ago!]
    • What about the balance of plant and animal foods in our modern diets compared to the diets of our ancestors—for example, is being a vegetarian more “natural” than eating meat?
    • Isthe amount of meat advocated by some paleo-diet enthusiasts realistic, compared to human ancestors from different times in the past?
    • Also, think about the types of plant-based foods in the modern diet, and the role of processing in preparing and refining foods.


Your paper can be a formal essay (with distinct paragraphs), it can be in the form of a bulleted report/memo, or it can be a video submission if you would rather talk than write. Be sure you cite or discuss the readings above and chart below in your submission.






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