A paradox of the modern age is that the average person in the West knows more about the natural world than the most learned man of prior eras, but people remain as superstitious and irrational as ever. This is true even in the human sciences, where doctors continue to tell patients that they should make sure to eat plenty of vegetables and avoid fatty foods. Much of what people experience as medicine is the same old oogily-boogily that has been with us since forever.
The carnivore diet is the latest bit of nonsense to make the rounds. Search the topic on YouTube and your recommendations will suddenly be packed with videos of men wearing lab coats or standing in front of dry erase boards, explaining how this diet is based on the science of cavemen. They claim that humans are made to eat meat, not bread or vegetables, so we should only eat meat. This will cure the things that ail you in the modern age, like obesity and unhappiness.
This is pure nonsense. Modern humans are the product of a long process that continues to this day. That process is called evolution. The ancestors of modern humans survived on what they could find. We know that species that can survive on a varied diet are more adaptive than species hooked on a narrow diet. If you can eat anything, you can live anywhere. If you can only eat bamboo shoots, then the only place you can live is in a Chinese zoo.
Modern humans inherited this ability to eat just about anything, which is why modern humans were able to spread across the globe. Anyone who says humans were designed to eat meat is either ignorant or crazy. Humans certainly adapted to the food that was available, but the reason they could do this is our ancestors were able to eat just about anything. In some areas, humans lived primarily on fish, because there was a reliable supply of fish for them to eat year-round.
Adaptation is important. Gregory Cochran and Henry Harpending argued in their book, The 10,000 Year Explosion, that as humans settled down and learned to cultivate animals and plants, adaptation accelerated. As grains became a bigger part of the diet, people adapted to the new food and lifestyle. If our caveman ancestors were meat eaters, it does not matter because our direct ancestors evolved to be omnivores living mostly on grains they made into bread and beer.
Now, this does not mean you cannot lose weight or lower your glucose levels by changing your diet. People in the modern age get fat for the same reason people got fat in the Middle Ages. They consume more calories than they need to perform their work, so some of the excess is stored as fat. That is another useful adaptation of humans that gets treated like magic. Storing fat is what helps us be so adaptive. Carrying emergency food around under our skin is a huge advantage.
This is why being fat was looked upon as a sign of success. Look at old photos of rich people and they are often quite fat. Women dressed in a way that made them look plump, even if they were slender. Fat people had extra food and time to eat it, which meant they were prosperous. Skinny people spent their days laboring thus burning lots of calories, but they had only the food they needed to keep laboring. In this age, Indians still regard tubbiness as a sign of prosperity.
Modern Americans, of course, view fat people as moral failures because they cannot control themselves at chow time. Chris Christie is an object of scorn mostly because he is a big fat slob. He even had his mouth stapled shut in an effort to lose weight and give his family some peace and quiet. Somehow, he managed to get around it and he remains a big fat noisy slob. In this age, the only fat people we like are the fat comics who make fun of their own fatness.
This probably explains the superstition around diets. The sales pitch of the carnivore diet is no different from what preachers during the Great Awakening were selling or social reformers of this age are selling. The subtext is always the same. We have strayed from the proper path, and we must return to it or else. In the case of diet, it means returning to some imagined time when we ate a different way. In the case of social reforms, it is getting back to the righteous path.
It is not just fad diets where we see superstitions about food. Many YouTube videos are sponsored by companies selling some sort goo in a jug that is supposed to give you energy and vitality. “Hey, you are a busy and important person, who just happens to be laying on the couch watching YouTube videos. You don’t have time to have a proper meal, so have a jug of green slime instead. It will not only give you the electrolytes plants crave, but it will also give you energy to watch more videos.”
These companies selling meal replacement and ready-to-cook meals delivered to your door are not really selling food. These companies are selling lifestyles. They are no different from the people selling perfume or ripped blue jeans. The people selling gourmet food kits are promising you a lifestyle if you adorn yourself with the accoutrements of the people who supposedly live that life. Fashion is a cargo cult and food fashion is not an exception.
Of course, the root here is happiness. The leisure classes in ancient Egypt had codes of conduct that were designed to give meaning and purpose to life. Cicero and Ovid wrote guides on how to live happy lives. People in comfortable lives have time to worry about abstract things, so there are people there to supply them with satisfying answers to the vexing questions of existence. Idle hands do the Devil’s work and the buying and selling of self-help books keeps those idle hands busy.
Getting back to food superstitions, not all of it is nonsense. If you are a big fat slob like Chris Christie, the carnivore diet will result in weight loss. It may put cows on the endangered species list, but that is a different issue. Cutting out carbohydrates does funny things to the body. It is why people feel like they have the flu for the first couple of weeks on all of these no-carb diets. Lacking carbohydrates for energy, the body begins to burn fat for energy, which takes a couple of weeks.
Weight loss comes mostly from the reduction in calories. If you eat a big fatty ribeye steak, you will not be hungry in a few hours. If you eat five donuts, you will be starving before the next mealtime. You consumed the same number of calories, but one was fat and protein and the other was all carbs. People who go on no-carb diets end up eating far less than they used to eat, so they lose weight. If you are a fat person, the trade-offs, at least in the short term, probably make sense.
In the end, the cold logic of things like the carnivore diet are no more appealing than the cold logic of fashion. Imagine ads selling ripped jeans that say, “go in debt for these and you will feel better until the credit card statement arrives.” Instead, these diets are sold to people as magic elixirs. The sales pitch works, because we are not so far removed from our primitive past that we are immune to abracadabra words that promise to make the gods happy and therefore make us happy.
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