The Paleolithic Diet : Is it relevant today?
Blog by Juliet Schaffer, Nutritionist, Evolve Nutrition
The paleolithic (paleo) diet, also commonly known as the caveman or hunter-gatherer diet, dictates a nutritional eating regimen based on the presumed eating habits of our earliest human ancestors 20-30,000 years ago. The diet concentrates on grass-fed free range meat, wild fish, vegetables, fruit, seeds, egg, fungi, herbs and spices and excludes dairy, grains, legumes, refined salt, refined carbohydrates and processed oils. Paleolithic proponents argue that our DNA is encoded on the blueprint of our ancient ancestors and our body systems are therefore only able to healthily digest, absorb and utilise food which was available at that time. They argue that grains and dairy have only become commonplace in our diet since the industrial revolution and are a fairly recent addition in terms of our evolutionary history and therefore our DNA is not primed to processing these in a healthy way. Similarly, refined salt, carbohydrates and processed oils are also relatively new additions, and are therefore incompatible with our DNA blueprint. Conversely, legumes were in existence in paleolithic times, but are deemed anti-nutrients by paleo proponents predominantly due to their relatively high lectin and phytic acid content which binds minerals and prevents the body from absorbing them.
There are a number of discrepancies with the paleo rhetoric which are worth highlighting.
1) The paleo diet places a large emphasis on meat and insinuates that our ancestors ate large quantities of it. However, analysis of human remains reveals bones which contain a high plant content; furthermore our physiology suggests greater compatibility with plant foods due to the long length of our intestines (approx.. 30 metres) which favours plant nutrient absorption. In fact, the reality is that the amount of meat content in the paleolithic diet varied by region – for example, in the arctic region our ancestors would have consumed a high concentration of meat whereas our ancestors living in the tropics would have enjoyed a more plant-based diet due to the wide variety of plant species available.
2) Importantly, our ancient ancestors did eat grains evidenced by the remains of pestle and mortar type stone relics which were used to grind seeds and grain. Furthermore, the dental calculus of our ancestors also reveals grain and legume consumption dating from prehistoric times.
3) Another important point to note is that the food of today has changed massively from that of our ancient ancestors. Fruit and vegetables have become domesticated whereby their naturally occurring pesticides (e.g. latex in wild lettuce and solanine in tomatoes) have been cultivated out to make them suitable for human consumption. Furthermore, the majority of our meat supply is now mass produced in factory farms where animals have little or no access to freely roam and pasture outside engendering a high fat content in the meat. In contrast, our ancestors preyed on free roaming wild animals which would have produced lean nutrient-dense meat.
In her YouTube lecture, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8) Christina Warinner from Zurich University emphasises that there was no single paleo diet since it very much depended on what part of the world our ancestors were living in. The paleo diet was thus regionally variable, i.e. the arctic diet was very different to the tropical diet. It was also seasonally variable – the food cycle dictates that plants seed and ripen at different times of the year, birds and fish migrate, and animals hibernate. Our ancestors were constantly on the move with the changing seasons and availability of food. Finally, the foods that were eaten were wild and unprocessed, and included naturally occurring toxins together with many phytochemicals bringing health-promoting benefits.
It is unrealistic to try to emulate the hunter-forager diet of our ancestors since we, as a species have evolved, and so has our food supply. However, we can learn several important lessons from our ancestors’ diet :
a) Diversity is key – we require a wide variety of nutrients to fulfil our daily metabolic needs, therefore a colourful varied diet is essential for good health
b) We evolved eating fresh foods when ripe and in season which is when they naturally contain the highest nutrient value. They were also free of man-made chemicals.
c) We evolved eating fresh wholefoods which were complete without anything removed, for example fruit was eaten in its whole form providing fibre and pectin which is missing from today’s processed fruit juices.
Thus the main lessons to learn from the paleo diet are :
Diet Diversity, Fresh Foods, and Wholefoods
For further information on a healthy diet and/or weight management, please book a nutritional consultation with Evolve Nutrition:
Juliet Schaffer, Nutritionist, Evolve Nutrition