The incredible shrinking man mourns our dietary obsessions

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

Big and bigger cavemen rejoice

If I were a caveman, living 30,000 years ago, I would, in all likelihood, resemble Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1970s and not Woody Allen in the 1970s. That’s because my caveman antecedent (and Arnold) ate meat, eggs, nuts, fruit and that’s about it; whereas Woody and I ate bagels.

I can’t speak for one of my favorite (if diminutive) filmmakers, but Elizabeth Kolbert can. She’s a staffer at the New Yorker magazine. She’s also a former Fulbright scholar and, recently, the author of “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History”.

So, I assume she knows what she’s talking about when she pronounces, as she does in a recent issue of her esteemed organ, “According to a study of human remains from China and Japan, the height of the average person declined by more than three inches during the millennia in which rice cultivation intensified. According to another study, of bones from Mesoamerica, women’s heights dropped by three inches and men’s by two inches as farming spread.”

Indeed, she writes, “A recent survey of more than twenty studies on this subject, published in the journal Economics and Human Biology, found that the adoption of agriculture ‘was observed to decrease stature in populations from across the entire globe,’ including in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America.”

And that’s not all: “Early farmers were not just shorter than hunter-gatherers; they were also more sickly. They had worse teeth – one analysis from the Near East suggests that the incidence of cavities jumped sixfold as people started relying on grain – and they suffered from increased rates of anemia and infectious disease. Many now familiar infections – measles, for instance – require high population densities to persist; thus, it wasn’t until people established towns and cities that such ‘crowd epidemic diseases’ could flourish. And, by living in close proximity to their equally crowded farm animals, early agriculturalists helped to bring into being a whole set of diseases that jumped from livestock to people.”

In fact, according to Ms. Kolbert and her expert authorities, it took thousands of years for humankind to recover its physical stature following the so-called Agricultural Revolution of the Neolithic Age.

To be clear, it took me only 27 months to get to a fighting, palaeolithic, trim weight of 150 pounds (waist size of 30 inches), from a relatively corpulent 180 pounds (waist size of. . .well, let’s just say, capable of eclipsing my view of my shoe tips). I did it by obsessively exercising daily and adjusting my diet and portion sizes.

As a result, my blood pressure is delightfully low (when, not too long ago, it was alarmingly high), my cholesterol is standing where it did when I was a callow youth of 17. I have more energy and enthusiasm for everything (which is fortunate, given that my beautiful daughters and their husbands have, in the past five years, given me four grandchildren).

I still stand only five-foot-nine and a bit on a good day (nothing I can do about that – thanks Agricultural Revolution!). But, generally, I feel pretty good for a man who’s about to matriculate into his 54th year.

But here’s the thing: The so-called paleo-diet fad has conquered the affluent corner of the western world, and to almost fascistic effect.

As Ms. Kolbert writes: “In promoting red meat and rejecting grains, the paleo diet challenges just about every precept that nutritionists have been pushing for the past fifty years. In effect, it turns the familiar food pyramid on its point. This is an increasingly common inversion, if not in academic circles or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture then on the talk-show circuit. In his wildly popular manifesto-cum-recipe book, ‘Grain Brain,’ David Perlmutter, a Naples, Florida, neurologist, maintains that sandwiches are not just hard on the digestive system; they wreak havoc on the mind. ‘Modern grains are silently destroying your brain,’ he writes. ‘Basically, I am calling what is arguably our most beloved dietary staple a terrorist group.’”

Is he joking? Does Woody Allen know about this?

Chill out, doc. The chances are that your inner caveman will appreciate the odd P-P-J on Wonder Bread, if only to prove that the species is just a tad more digestively adaptable than a young Arnold would allow.

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