A lot is being written and said about the blessings of the “Paleo Diet”, aka Stone Age Diet, Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Caveman Diet. Supporters claim that this is what we evolved to eat and that this is the path to follow, if we want to lead a long and healthy life.
So, what is the “Paleo Diet”? The idea is, in a nutshell, that our genes haven’t had time to adapt to a diet based on agricultural product. We evolved as hunter-gathers, and the foods available to us for millions of years were meat, fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and occasionally wild honey. With the advent of agriculture, grains and dairy were added to the human diet and have become staples, meat from domesticated animals largely replaced game. However, if we squeezed the history of humans into 24 hours, agriculture has only been around for mere minutes.
It makes sense then, that going back to the roots, relying on fresh meat, fish, seafood, eggs, fruit, veg, nuts, and seeds, will do us good. And indeed it does: A lot of research has been done on the Paleo Diet, and the results sound promising. Subscribers to the Paleo Diet reportedly feel great, and many have been able to improve chronic conditions or even reverse disease. It seems that the Paleo Diet has a lot going for it.
But (of course there’s a ‘but’) I have a few issues with it – before even going into whether or not the health benefits are real (I think they are, but that’s beside the point). Because the thing is: It is not sustainable. Even now our planet is struggling to provide the huge amounts of meat we are asking for. Even now, while many cultures around the world have a diet that is not based on meat – largely because they cannot afford it -, and even with factory-farming and mass-produced meat, Earth is struggling. If we were all to switch to the Paleo Diet, as allegedly we are designed to, this planet would definitely not be sufficient to feed us. For now though, this is the only planet we’ve got.
At the moment, of course, we’re ok. Rich Westerners can afford all the meat they want – but for how much longer? And isn’t it rather selfish to adopt this ‘natural diet’ at the expense of everyone else and ultimately the future of the planet?
These were the thoughts that were on my mind when I first read about Paleo. Although the concept sounded convincing, it also sounded all too simple. Did hunter-gatherers really eat meat every day? Where they always lucky enough to catch something? Did everyone, no matter where on Earth they lived, eat a similar diet? I was thinking of the Inuit today, whose diet is very low in fruit and veg, but high in meat and fish, because the Arctic climate doesn’t have much else to offer. Surely, the diet of mountain tribes would have differed greatly from those living in coastal areas
As it turns out, there never was one paleolithic diet. And even if we decide to go Paleo, it is impossible for anyone today to recreate the Stone Age Diet.
1) What they ate does not exist anymore
Everything available to us today is a product of agriculture, perhaps with the exception of game (even that is not necessarily as wild and un-tempered with as it was then). We have enhanced the size, shape, flavour and nutritious value of fruit and veg through cultivation and lately genetic modification. We get our meat from domesticated animals that are largely grain- or soya-fed, which has an impact of the fatty acid composition of the meat. We have to rely on fish from polluted oceans, we pasteurize honey.
2) We reject large parts of our ancestors’ diet
When it comes to food we – especially us in the Western world – are incredibly spoiled. We can go and buy what we want, when we want. And we can afford to reject what we don’t want. 50,000 years ago, humans would first have to catch something. They would then eat all the edible parts of the animal – including the intestine, thus enriching their own gut microbiome. If they weren’t able to catch anything, they might have had to rely on the scavenging of whatever the lions left behind or on meat from animals that had just died. They would have picked insect larvae from behind tree bark, and dug up bugs from the ground. None of that appeals very much to us today (although insects are coming back into the shops now).
3) They did actually eat wild grains and pulses
Stone tools – mortars and pestles - have been found that are 30,000 years old. Fossilised plaque from teeth shows abundant evidence of plant matter, including starches from fruits, grains, barley, tubers, and pulses.
4) There never was the Stone Age Diet
Just like I assumed before I read up on it, there were indeed multiple diets, as people had to make do with what they found wherever they lived. Our great advantage as a species is our flexibility and adaptability, which allows us to thrive on all sorts of different diets.
What’s the bottom line?
There is no doubt that the paleo diet has its merits, particularly for people suffering from chronic illness, especially auto-immune diseases. If you are sick, it is worth a try and it can be very beneficial. But it certainly is not the only road to good health: Studies find again and again, that people on vegetarian and vegan diets are at lower risk of chronic diseases. The Mediterranean Diet, too, gets very good reviews and results, especially – but not solely – in the prevention of heart disease and high blood pressure.
What those diets have in common is that they all rely on natural, whole foods – or at least as natural and unprocessed as they can be in this day and age. It is important to eat a varied diet with as many different foods as possible. The wider your variety of foods, the wider the range of nutrients you are getting from them.
Eat fresh! The whole point of preserved foods is to prevent bacterial growth. Might such foods then have an impact of the good bacteria in your gut? They may well do.
All of these diets – paleo, vegan (or even ‘pegan’, a combination of the two), vegetarian, Mediterranean or other natural, wholefood diets – are rich in fibre. Low-fibre diets are associated with digestive disorders, diabetes and obesity.
Yes, the paleo approach works, but it isn’t the only one that works. If you need to eat paleo to be healthy, then by all means do it, but you may not need to. You may be able to live a long and healthy life on a diet that the planet will be able to deliver. For ALL of us, not just the rich countries, and FOREVER, not just now.
For more on the real paleo diet, watch this TED talk by archeogeneticist Christina Warinner.