It’s just not way wrong, it’s astoundingly, embarrassingly wrong.
The story goes like this. A long time ago, in a land far far away, folks like Loren Cordain and S. Boyd Eaton got together and did a study.
…Because the hunter-gatherer way of life is now probably extinct in its purely un-Westernized form, nutritionists and anthropologists must rely on indirect procedures to reconstruct the traditional diet of preagricultural humans. […] Our analysis showed that whenever and wherever it was ecologically possible, hunter-gatherers consumed high amounts (45–65% of energy) of animal food. Most (73%) of the worldwide hunter-gatherer societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from animal foods, whereas only 14% of these societies derived >50% (≥56–65% of energy) of their subsistence from gathered plant foods. This high reliance on animal-based foods coupled with the relatively low carbohydrate content of wild plant foods produces universally characteristic macronutrient consumption ratios in which protein is elevated (19–35% of energy) at the expense of carbohydrates (22–40% of energy).
Sound familiar? Isn’t that representative of the basic paleo narrative since forever? What if it’s all wrong? Anyone hear anything about this research below—available since early in 2016—in any of your favorite paleo channels? I plugged around and couldn’t find any.
The foraging and food sharing of hunter–gatherers have provided the backdrop to several different evolutionary hypotheses about human life history. Men’s foraging has often been characterized as primarily targeting animals, with high variance and high rates of failure. To the best of our knowledge, however, there are as yet no quantitative studies reporting the amounts of food that men eat while foraging, before returning to their households either empty-handed or with foods. Here, we document this under-reported part of forager’s diets—men’s eating while out of camp on foray. Our dataset consists of 146 person/day follows (921 hours total) collected over a period of 12 years (from 2001–2013, including 12 camps). Hadza men consumed a substantial amount of food while out of camp foraging. Men did more than just snack while out of camp foraging, they consumed a mean of 2,405 kilocalories per foray, or approximately 90% of what is estimated to be their mean daily total energy expenditure (TEE). The characterization of men’s foraging strategies as “risky”, in terms of calorie acquisition, may be exaggerated. Returning to camp empty-handed did not necessarily mean the forager had failed to acquire food, only that he failed to produce enough surplus to share. Surprisingly, the vast majority of the kilocalories eaten while out of camp came from honey (85%). These observations are relevant to evolutionary theories concerning the role of male provisioning. Understanding primary production and consumption is critical for understanding the nature of sharing and the extent to which sharing and provisioning supports reproduction in hunter–gatherers.
Quite a contrast. Basically, you’re dealing with the idea that everything consumed was consumed in camp, and the archeological record of campsites tell that story, vs. what really happened; which is, for the men, most food was eaten out of camp and it was pretty high-carbohydrate.
Alex Leaf, blogging at Superhumanradio, did a breakout of the full tex of that study. One important aspect of the study methods is that there were no interactions between the Hadza and the researchers, in order to minimize the observer effect. At any rate, the research did take place over a span of 12 years and covered all seasons and, of course, many variations in year-on-year variability. In other words, this is no mere snapshot.
According to Alex’s review of the full text, “[t]he Hadza walkabouts lasted anywhere from 30 minutes to nearly 13 hours in duration, but the average was about 6 hours long with 90% lasting more than 2 hours.” And, “[t]here was tremendous variation in the amount of calories eaten while on a walkabout, with a range of zero to 22,000 kcal eaten by a single individual. Men consumed more than 1,000 kcal in 55% of the walkabouts, less than 500 kcal in 45%, and zero kcal in 20%.”
Here’s how it breaks out in a chart.
While there are differences in small game vs. large game seasonally, there sure is one constant: honey, and in no small quantities. Says Alex:
When looking at the various foraged foods in terms of the ratio consumed on the spot relative to the total amount acquired, berries (99%), honey (84%), and baobab (63%) were the highest. The average percentage of meat from a kill that was immediately consumed by the Hadza men depended on the animal, being about 55% for small game vs less than 1% for large game.
Overall, ~80% of the game animal acquired were small game. The larger the small game, the more that was eaten on the spot. Similarly, the more honey that was acquired, the more that was eaten on the spot. Interestingly, walkabout duration and the age of the male were not associated with the amount of calories eaten during the walkabouts nor with the percentage of acquired food that was eaten on the spot.
So, remind me about this Paleofantasy, low-carb, high-fat, big-game hunting, again. It’s really dismal, when you consider the astounding enormity of how far off they were, and how profoundly it has shaped the thinking, the advice, the products…literally everything! Virtually all of it is based on utter falsehood, in my view, and nobody within the community appears to care enough to even address it.
Of course, you may surely still argue that the current reenactment of “paleo” is healthier than what true hunter-grather Hadza actually do, but you’re making a new argument, then, and it’s not based on any particular valid observational data. You can revert to the Inuit, a people not particularly noted for pristine longevity and health—nor would you reasonably expect it. They live at the extreme–it’s an example of resilience and survivability. Why would you want to base your dietary habits on extremes, and especially when you do have lots of data on populations that enjoy profound longevity: Blue Zones? And if you look deeper, you’ll find that the actual, real, observed Hadza diet is a lot closer to those diets than to Inuit diets.
And of course, the Hadza diet is not going to represent every population’s diet on Earth, throughout history. However, in a behavioral sense, it does suggest that carbohydrate is not at all shunned in favor of the big fatty game fantasy. Rather, it is highly prized and sought after, both as sugar and as starch. Accordingly, it would be a big surprise if there were populations with access to carbohydrate, but eschewed it. That would constitute a cognitively dissonant fantasy.
Let’s conclude with Alex’s summary, emphasis mine:
Based on previous calculations of energy expenditure of the Hadza tribesmen, it can be estimated that they consume roughly 90% of their total daily energy expenditure (on average) while foraging outside of camp. Of course, there is significant variation in these values, with one-fifth of the forages resulting in no acquired food. Still, up to this point, researchers have represented the Hadza diet using only in-camp data, which is going to be inaccurate in light of their foraging habits.
These findings compliment other Hadza research showing that men consumed little of the food they brought back to camp themselves, instead sharing it with their kin. This sharing now makes sense, because the men have already eaten while out foraging and can therefore spare the food. Indeed, it may be that Hadza men’s foraging is driven by the goals of getting enough calories to eat themselves, and only potentially provisioning their families. The fact that the energy-dense foods such as honey and ripe berries are eaten on the spot almost entirely may simply be a strategy to both feed themselves and pursue riskier food types (i.e., animals) that have a higher chance of failure upon pursuit. Thus, coming back empty-handed may not always represent that food acquisition failed, but rather that it failed to produce a surplus to share.
The current study makes clear that the Hadza diet is strikingly different outside of camp than inside camp. With only 16% of all acquired honey brought into camp and contributing 85% of the calories consumed while foraging (depending on the season), it is likely that honey consumption in the Hadza population is underreported, meaning that carbohydrate and sugar consumption is underreported as well. In fact, a recent study using a large cross-cultural database showed that most hunter-gatherers in warm climates exploit honey, suggesting that the Hadza tribe may not be the only hunter-gatherer tribe to have a significantly higher carbohydrate intake than we were led to believe.
Another interesting observation is the difference in nutrient and caloric density of the Hadza men’s and women’s diets. The women eat primarily within camp and thus focus their consumption on the tubers they gathered in combination with any game that was brought into camp. Additionally, 80% of the game is small and therefore lean. Thus, the women’s diet is likely focused on starchy carbohydrates and protein, whereas the men’s diet is sugary carbohydrates and protein. Either way, these certainly were not low-carbohydrate diets.
Will anything come of this? I predict that it will certainly be completely ignored, shrugged off, or otherwise dismissed in the entirety of the paleo community. It’s just too inconvenient. Too much is already invested in the fantasy status-quo. Better to pretend it doesn’t even exist. We’ll see. Hope I’m wrong.