Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, it’s impossible for you not to have heard of the Paleo diet. The diet is based on a couple of principles. Firstly, human beings have evolved to eat certain types of food. Secondly, the Paleo diet is based on the principle that in order to stay healthy, we need to avoid the fast-food, processed, GMO trappings of the modern age and stick to the way our ancestors, who were hunter-gatherers, ate.
Now, bear in mind that we humans in our current form have existed for somewhere close to 50,000 years. Before we had evolved opposable thumbs, our ancestors had to make do with eating leaves, insects and certain fruits. Once the opposable thumbs came into the picture, things changed radically. Our predecessors managed to harness fire and create tools and were, therefore, able to gather and hunt more effectively. Thus, the ancestors that the Paleo diet refers to were eating a diet that they foraged through hunting and gathering.
The Paleo diet advises us to adopt the wisdom of our ancestors and eat a diet that consists of animals, animal products, green vegetables, raw nuts, and fruits. This is the textbook version of the Paleo diet. Newer practitioners have been experimenting with the idea of adding certain dairy products and even some legumes.
But why has such a large community of people accepted that our ancestors had figured out the perfect diet some 50,000 years ago? What was so special about their way of eating that has somehow been corrupted by all of the scientific, agricultural and nutritional breakthroughs we’ve made since then? If you’re new to the Paleo diet, it is quite natural for you to ask this question. Let us examine this assumption a little further.
The beginnings of agriculture, it is generally agreed, were around 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors managed to figure out a way to create a renewable source of sustenance, which meant that communities could finally settle down and grow, instead of having to constantly be on the move. Modern civilization, such as it is, owes its success due to the development of agriculture. However, even this 10,000 year period represents but a tiny fraction of the time our species has existed on this planet.
Many people who subscribe to the Paleo ideology are of the opinion that modern illnesses like diabetes, heart diseases, and morbid obesity are a result of the move to a more grain-based diet. This is why they think that we should go back to the wisdom of our hunter-gatherer ancestors and feed ourselves with meat and raw vegetables exclusively.
Foods to Eat on the Paleo Diet
How are the actual hunter-gatherers in the world doing?
We don’t have a lot of historical records to account for how our earliest ancestors fared, other than fossilized remains. But we can take look at the populations that are still hunter-gatherers to see how they’re doing in the present day.
We have the persistence hunters of the Kalahari desert, the Spinifex people in Australia, the Piraha of the Amazon, the Kitavans of New Guinea, and many other tribes that are still hunting and gathering their food. As you would expect, their individual diets are wildly diverse. The Inuit people from the Arctic region have a lot of meat in their diets, while the! Kung tribe of Africa consumes a lot of nuts and seeds.
Their diets are dictated by their environment, as would have been the case for our ancestors. However, there is one common thread that runs through all of their diets. By and large, all hunter-gatherers eat approximately three times more productive than the average person in the modern world. As a result, these hunter-gatherers have a lot more protein, Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, unsaturated fat, minerals, and vitamins in their diet.
In a study performed by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg on the eating habits of the Kitavans of Papua, New Guinea, several interesting revelations came to light. The Kitavans, whose diet is made up entirely of fruits, vegetables, seafood, coconuts, and root vegetables are incredibly healthy. A lot of them smoke, but surprisingly, their population is unaffected by diabetes, obesity, heart diseases, skin disorders, and strokes.
What does the Paleo Diet base its claims upon?
The Paleo diet tells you that eating ‘primal’ is the way to go if you want to have a healthy lifestyle in today’s world. It theorizes that our bodies haven’t really evolved to optimally process the modern, agriculture-based diet, and this is the reason why we are fat and sick.
It does make a few key assumptions though. The Paleo diet assumes that our hunter-gatherer ancestors were a perfect model of health, and barring any injuries or infectious diseases, lived as long as the modern man does. They say that after the shift to the Neolithic era of agriculture, human beings got weaker, had shorter life spans, and were more susceptible to diseases. Based on anecdotal evidence, they claim that modern hunter-gatherer populations are generally healthy and that introducing them to a modern diet deteriorates their health.
Now, while there is some truth to these claims, there are a few caveats to consider. Our ancestors certainly weren’t fitness models who could’ve walked right onto the front page of Men’s Health. As a matter of fact, as part of a study performed for The Lancet magazine in 1997, researchers examined mummies from all parts of the globe to see if any of them displayed signs of atherosclerosis. What they found was that in around 30% of the subjects, there was definite evidence of the arteries hardening. Now bear in mind that these mummies were from different societies, and therefore were representative of farmers, hunter-gatherers, and even foragers. So the assumption that disease is largely a modern condition doesn’t necessarily hold true.
Haven’t our modern eating habits given rise to a whole host of illnesses?
Yes, this much is true. Since most of the modern population doesn’t have to struggle for food anymore, there are a lot of conditions that have become more prevalent. Diabetes, the dramatic increase in heart disease and obesity are all birthed by the comfort modern civilization has given us. Since we’ve become industrialized and more technologically advanced than before, we have created processed foods that are high in sugar and fat. A lot of these are so appealing to your taste buds that they override the satiety signals from the brain. As a result, a lot of us are overeating, and this leads to obesity.
So, is there a definitive “Paleo diet”?
Well, not really, when you consider how diverse the environmental conditions are in different parts of our planet. Our ancestors survived in wildly different conditions, and while they were hunter-gatherers, they didn’t have a standard diet. But you would be correct in assuming that eating a lot of fruits and vegetables is a healthy option.
However, the food we eat today isn’t the same as what our hunter-gatherer friends survived on. Through advances in agricultural technology, we’ve created fruits and vegetables that bypass the toxicity and undesirable traits that their ancestral counterparts possessed. We’ve managed to create fruits that are bigger, more nutritious, and have less harmful components. Likewise, we have managed to create new strains of plants by breeding desirable traits from different species. Even the meat we have today is different. A lot of the meat we eat is derived from animals that are herded and grown specifically for the purpose of harvesting meat. This is in stark contrast to ancestral times when the animals were in the wild.
So there is no definitive answer for whether our meat, vegetables or fruits are better or worse than the ones that our ancestors ate – they are just different. Therefore, you cannot unequivocally claim that eating a diet rich in these components is healthier than any other alternative.
What about grains? They’re supposed to be bad for you, right?
If you were to believe the Paleo purists, they would suggest grains should be avoided like the plague. However, new research performed for Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has concluded that our tryst with grains may have begun well before the dawn of agriculture. In fact, the studies show that our ancestors might have been eating grains long before the Paleolithic era, which would put the timeline at least three million years. Needless to say, this puts the 10,000-year figure to shame. Additional findings also show that our ancestors might have been converting grains into flour more than 30,000 years ago.
In light of these revelations, it’s fairly safe to say that our bodies being unable to process grains is pretty much a myth. However, the Paleo diet also advises you to stay away from beans and legumes. In a paper published in The American Journal of Primatology, researchers found that chimpanzees, who share ancestry with both apes and humans, actually had a diet that was rich in legumes.
The Paleo purists argue that legumes have large amounts of anti-nutrients, which makes them an obvious candidate for exclusion. Most of their theories conveniently fail to mention that cooking actually eliminates a majority of these anti-nutrients. In fact, lectins, which may be bad for us before cooking, actually can work in our favor after they’ve been cooked. Lectins have been shown to inhibit the growth of tumors. The protease inhibitors present in legumes begin to act as anti-inflammatory agents after they have been cooked.
Grains have also been blamed for causing inflammatory responses and other conditions. The research doesn’t support this argument. For the 1% of people with celiac disease or the small percentage of people who have acute gluten sensitivity, eating grains may cause health problems. But for the rest of the population, grains do not pose a threat. In fact, it has been shown that eating refined grains increases inflammation while eating whole grains actually decreases it. Therefore, it is the processing that is to be blamed and not the grains themselves. Several studies have shown that adding legumes and whole grains to your diet offers a whole host of benefits such as lower chances of heart disease and optimal blood lipid and blood glucose levels.
Does the evolutionary argument of the Paleo school of thought hold up under scrutiny?
A lot of Paleo literature claims that we haven’t really evolved much in the last 10,000 years. This is quite frankly an ignorant assumption considering the gigantic changes that have occurred on the face of our planet in that time period. When the ecosystem changes, the organism evolves — that is how evolution works.
For example, consider the fact that modern humans are able to process lactose in a much better manner than ancient humans could. While it is true that some people are intolerant to lactose, the number of people who aren’t is larger than it has ever been.
Our digestive systems and gut bacteria would similarly have to evolve to cope with the massive changes in dietary habits that have occurred since the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. If the colonies of bacteria that reside in our gut were a replica of the ones found in ancient humans, none of us would be able to process ice cream, pizza, and fizzy sodas. While we don’t really have an accurate picture of the kind of bacteria that resided in our ancestor’s guts, it’s pretty safe to say that it would be different to our own microbial colonies. Bacteria evolve much faster than human beings do, and we should be thankful for that.
The Human Microbiome project and other research initiatives of its kind have vastly improved our knowledge of the trillions of microorganisms that inhabit our bodies. We now know that every single meal you eat changes the kind of bacteria that reside in your gut. When you look at the effects of a few weeks of a new diet on the residents of your GI tract, the changes are astounding.
This diversity in the microbial colonies in our body is one of the main reasons why there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ diet. It simply doesn’t exist. Even though we share close to 99% of our genetic material, different people respond differently to certain diets.
In summation, a lot of the theories that the Paleo diet is based on crumble under the weight of scientific data and evidence. However, there is a lot of good advice on the Paleo diet. For example, eating lean protein, lots of green vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, and unsaturated fats is exponentially better than the processed nonsense that most of us put into our bodies. In addition, eating a Paleo-themed diet has been shown to improve immunity and reduce the occurrence of several diseases. The simple act of being mindful about what you put into your body is incredibly helpful when it comes to being healthy and fit. When you realize how much unhealthy food you’ve been eating, whatever choices you make will be better for you in the long run.
Before you make a choice, consider that a lot of the evolutionary assumptions that the Paleo diet is based on, such as the hate for grains and legumes and the supposed healthiness of our ancestors aren’t true. The Paleo diet itself isn’t immune to evolution, as we are seeing in recent times. Any kind of diet that is firmly restrictive usually doesn’t have a high rate of adoption. The newer, more evolved Paleo diet allows for the occasional glass of red wine, chocolate, and even certain dairy products.
If you’ve been on the fence about the Paleo diet, you will have a lot more clarity now. Consider for a moment the reasons unrelated to diets that explain why our ancestors were healthy. For one, they didn’t sit in chairs for half of their lives. They were constantly on the move, exercising their bodies and putting themselves through strenuous activities to survive. Before you consider adopting the Paleo diet or any other diet that appeals to you, make a vow to spend more time outdoors and actually move your body. Even the best diet in the world won’t help you much if you’re sitting on your couch all day.
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