I just spent a week in a tropical paradise. When visiting places where I could live happily with little to no clothing or shelter (i.e., palm hut, naked on the beach) I fantasize about what it would be like to have lived in the way-back, before 7-11s or spa cuisine before the Zone Diet, even*. Not just idle entertainment, this thought experiment offers some guidance for anyone wishing to be healthy in the 21st century.
There's a trend evolving in food world, based on the notion that in order to make a dent in the incidence of the lifestyle diseases (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity etc) we should emulate those who lived before we got too civilized for our own good. Evidently, the dawn of the agricultural age was a turning point for while it increased the availability of foodstuffs, it also inaugurated a bunch of diet-related health problems which plague us in an
advanced form today because we have not had time to genetically adapt to them yet.
Popularized by a book called The Paleo Diet by a Dr. Loren Cordain from Colorado State University, the science suggests (with footnotes, even!) that because we evolved before the advent of either animal husbandry or agriculture, we are genetically ill-designed to handling the sorts of foods that we've been consuming since those things developed oh, ten thousand years ago. (Just because you can put something in your mouth and chew and swallow it does not
mean that it is "food.")
Based on the fossil record1 and observation of the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies on the planet, a modern hominid eating like a Paleo would be eating lots of protein, animal flesh foods mostly like 55% of your calories each day. The bulk of the remainder would be from vegetable/plant foods (excluding beans and grains, both of which require cultivation) that were seasonally, locally available2
greens, roots, fruits. Throw in some nuts for healthy fat3 , and there you are pretty much. Different but elegantly simple.
Dairy food would not have been present in a Paleo diet. According to Dr. Cordain, "due to the inherent difficulties in capturing and milking wild mammals," (I get a great visual on this) anything made from non-human milk is genetically foreign to us. Based on the presence of dairy fats on pottery shards, dairying dates only to 6000 years ago; these foods that are challenging to us biologically. I must say, taking dairy food out of the diet can be a miraculous
intervention for people with digestive problems, allergies, and joint pain. Lactose intolerance is part of this; many people get gas when they drink milk, because they're probably not supposed to. Some people can tolerate goat milk but not cow since goats were domesticated first.
There is no sugar in the Paleo diet except for the stuff that naturally occurs in fruits which as you remember, in most places except tropical paradises (paradii??) are only seasonally available. Small amounts of honey only, again, when it is in season. There's good evidence for a genetic basis for diabetes risk combine those genes with high-fructose corn syrup and voila! The diabesity epidemic and everything that goes with it. As a clinician, this aspect
alone makes the Paleo concept pretty exciting. Could you live with only fruit for sweets? Could you make that a goal, at least?
I'm not ready to go all the way with this Paleo idea but it is appealing in a variety of ways. I am reminded of how at an herbalism workshop years ago, the last experience of each day was to go "pick salad." Like, in the meadow and around the farmyard. No plastic bag from California involved: this salad included flowers and it was gorgeous. I still feel that salad singing inside me, it was so yummy and rich and full. Besides being simpler and comfortingly
ancient, a Paleo-style program will reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating a lot of industrial food processing, which in turn will kick up the nutrients available from your food. Reducing sugar and grains would be a big step for many but these foods hit the body hard, even under the best of circumstances. Keep an eye open to the "civilization footprint" of your nutritional style and when things start to sprout in your yard (unsprayed of course) consider going backwards
in order to move ahead.
*One thing I think about is beds. I mean, really, a pile of leaves covered with animal skins? No room service?
1Our pre-agricultural ancestors were pretty lean and healthy in general. Their bones were in pretty good shape not like ours; I like science that's based on looking at bones.
2I must say I have seen surprising things when people start eating "closer to the Earth" minimizing the steps it takes to get the food from its origin into your mouth. Plucking a tomato from your backyard garden would be, um, one step. Opening a can of Italian plum tomatoes would be several steps and a couple plane flights.
3Interestingly, even though there's a lot of meat in this diet, there's not so much saturated fat because most of the meat is lean. The high-saturated-fat foods that are among the scourges of the Western diet are a byproduct of modern animal husbandry and bizarre unnatural animal feeding practices, like giving corn to cows, which makes them sick but very fat first the trick is to kill them before they die of what
they were fed. The Paleos did not eat grains because they did not have them certainly not in the quantities we tend to have them in today.