In this world of processed foods that give us diabetes and heart disease, wouldn't it be better to go back to the original diet of our ancestors who roamed the plains and hunted mammoths? Paleo diet is based on very romantic notions. Are they based on good science?
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While many think of the paleo diet as a fad, it is not new: the foundation book, entitled The Stone Age Diet, was published in 1975. Paleo lifestyle owes its present form mostly to Dr Loren Cordain, a professor at the University of Colorado.
In short, the proponents of paleo suggest to eat only what our Paleolithic ancestors ate before the invention of agriculture. That means no grains, no sugar or added salt, no legumes or potatoes, no dairy or refined oils, and of course, no processed. Such a lifestyle is not easy to sustain, but the supposed reasons to switch to Paleo are many:
- The theory goes that our genome hasn’t changed since the Paleolith: we are ill-adapted to eating grains etc. and don’t digest these foods well;
- The root of prevailing obesity, atherosclerosis and other modern chronic diseases lies in the food that we eat: presumably, our ancestors were much healthier;
- Modern humans consume far too much sodium (which, as many studies show, leads to hypertension) and sugar, while nitrates in processed meats are linked to cancer.
While it is defintely true that we should all try to eat less packaged foods and ideally give up artificial cheese and sweet breakfast cereals altogether (as we have written in an earlier articles, cornflakes are not good for you), the underlying logic of the paleo diet has some gaping holes.
What’s wrong with Paleo?
Evolutionary biologists find many issues with the paleo diet, ranging from possible health risks to pure illusions about how our cave ancestors lived.
It is simply not true that our genetic code has not evolved in the past 10 000 years; we now produce lactase all our life, which allows us to digest dairy; plus, our intestinal flora evolved with us to help us digest whatever we eat (more info on ancient nutrition here).
It is not known precisely what and how much our ancestors ate; however, they surely started eating grains long before they started cultivating them, and dairy production can be as old as 7500 years.
Modern meat, chicken, and vegetables are nothing like their wild ancestors: animals were skinny, apples sour, and bananas full of seeds. A true caveman diet is simply impossible.
Paleolithic people were not necessarily healthy: analysis of human remains shows that, apart from generally dying before the age of 30, our ancestors suffered from atherosclerosis, parasites, and a variety of bacterial diseases.
Finally, eating too much meat can be detrimental for your health; and cutting out dairy – the main source of calcium – and legumes (a great source of protein) is not wise, either.
In conclusion: our Paleolithic ancestors were hightly adaptive omnivores, who survived on whatever they could find, and so are we. Sure, modern diet is far from perfect. But the things to cut out are not potatoes and yogurt, but rather artificial packaged foods that do not benefit us in any way.