Why do people fuss so much about paleo life? The population has grown so much since that it’s easy to believe that we’ve evolved a long way from then.
Jared Diamond wrote a paper about rapid evolution on an isolated island. When modern (factory) food was introduced to the island (in the 1940s?), there was a very high rate of diabetes, presumably due to the new food. Since then, the rate of diabetes on the island has gone way down, although they still eat modern food. Diamond took this to be due to evolution (people with diabetes-resistant genes had more offspring), supporting dearime’s point of view.
After the first Ancestral Health Symposium, Melissa McEwen commented how unhealthy many of the top people looked. On the other hand, Tucker Max commented how healthy the attendees looked in general. I agree with both observations. A paradox.
When I was an assistant professor, and wanted to sleep better, I believed wondering about paleo life was unhelpful because (a) we knew so little about it and (b) it must have differed in thousands of ways from modern life. Should I spend an hour trying to find out about paleo life and/or what paleo gurus recommend for bad sleep? Or should I spend an hour trying to find out how ordinary people have improved their sleep? My answer was the latter. I ignored paleo life.
Looking into how ordinary people improved their sleep did help. I eventually reached a non-trivial conclusion: Eating breakfast made my sleep worse. No paleo guru had said that — I had been right to ignore them. Yet it made evolutionary sense. Cavemen did not eat breakfast, I was pretty sure. (No refrigerators.) After that I paid more attention to what evolutionary thinking would suggest. This led to several discoveries: the effect of faces in the morning on mood, the effect of standing on sleep, and the Shangri-La Diet. It is incredibly hard to discover big new experimental effects (such as the effect of morning faces), especially in fields you know little about (my specialty in psychology was animal learning, not mood, sleep or weight control). I was impressed.
The effect of bedtime honey (more generally sweets in the evening) on sleep emphasizes the paradox or puzzle or whatever you call it. I found out about the honey effect by paying attention to what works. No paleo involved. Stuart King told me it improved his sleep. Here are three reasons to look at ordinary experience and avoid paleo theorists: 1. It turned out to help. 2. It’s a huge effect and very easy. 3. Paleo theorists have said the opposite: avoid carbs, avoid sugar. If you followed their advice, you would do the opposite of what helped Stuart and me. On the other hand, I increased my belief in the effect because it made evolutionary sense: 1. It makes sense of why we like sweets. 2. It makes sense of why our liking for sweets goes down when we are hungry (surely due to an evolved mechanism). 3. It makes sense of why we eat sweets more in the evening (presumably due to an evolved mechanism that makes sweets taste better in the evening).
The short answer to dearime’s question is that, in my experience, it is incredibly hard to learn anything about health. There are so many possibilities and evolutionary thinking helps choose among them — decide which to take the trouble to test.