My Paleo Eating Journal

Traditional Foods

Posted on: October 3, 2011

When people discuss the health benefits of certain diets they often refer to the centuries or even millenia of history behind them. Of course, generally they refer to specific cultural groups. For example, the Mediterranean diet is based on the traditional diet of people living around southern Italy and Greece. Vegetarianism is largely associated with parts of India, although apparently other cultures followed this diet as well. What I found interesting about the article I just linked to is that it appears these diets were part of a spiritual or religious observance. Since religious practitioners seem to thrive on the denying of earthly pleasures, I’m not certain this can truly be considered an example of an unrestricted diet that evolved naturally based on optimizing nutrition. People tended to base their diets on what they could easily obtain in their part of the world. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, seems to have been taken up in cultures where meat or fish was available, but it was deemed undesirable due to spiritual/metaphysical beliefs.

Nevertheless, some of these cultures are centuries old. This seems to be evidence enough for many people that these diets were Good For You. After all, the so-called Western Diseases – the triad of heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes – are relatively modern. Surely if long-lived cultures could sustain themselves on such diets, and do so in the absence of these illnesses, then that must be proof enough of their value as a way of eating. The problem I see with this approach is that over the last 10,000 years or so, since the Neolithic Revolution, there have been huge variations in diet among different cultures. There are those who sustained themselves largely on coconuts (South Pacific), or root vegetables (Central Africa), or animal protein (the Inuit). Diets vary so widely across time and place that it is difficult to figure out which diet to choose from based on the “logic of centuries”. Why not go Ethiopian and eat a diet based on teff (an ancient grain) and legumes (note that this diet was developed due to religious practices that forbade eating meat most days of the year)? Or go Inuit and enjoy blubber and seal blood? How does one decide which culture, at which time in history, had the “right” diet?

However, if we recognize that the period from the Neolithic Era to “modern times” is merely a drop in the bucket of evolutionary time, then the varied diets across the globe and time could be thought of as a period of dietary experimentation. Sure, you can live on a diet that is based on root vegetables and virtually no animal protein, but is this the Optimal diet for humans? And if not, how would we know? If we can all agree that the Western Diseases didn’t show up anywhere until the last two or three centuries (and that may be stretching it) then surely that can’t be useful as a marker when speaking of cultures that are many centuries old. And yet even a few millenia are not enough for the possibly deleterious effects of diet to manifest in terms of evolutionary success.

Coming from an evolutionary perspective, which I find useful for answering many questions about human health and behaviour, it is the diet that constituted the first 150,000 years or so of our existence as a species that really holds the weight of proof. During the Paleolithic Era there were at least a few different species of Homo that arose from the earliest members of this genus, and Homo sapiens developed as a species in its own right during this time. By the dawn of the Neolithic era, we were the only ones left standing. Seems to me that the diet consumed by a species over the vast majority of its evolutionary history is more likely to be indicative of fitness than one adopted for a mere few centuries. As various evolutionary pressures exerted themselves on members of the Homo genus, our little branch would have evolved in the context of these pressures, including what was available to eat at the time. We are omnivores, and have been so since long before our twig on the evolutionary tree branched off from other omnivorous primates. So it is of no doubt to my mind that humans ate meat and animal products whenever and wherever they could obtain them, and didn’t bother themselves with trimming the fat and throwing it to the dogs. It’s really almost comical to imagine that, which I think says a lot about how removed most of us have become from our food and our natural place in the world.

And then came the Neolithic Revolution when our species made the switch from a hunter-gatherer existence to that of pastoralists. Growing crops certainly provided a host of new opportunities in terms of developing culture, specialization of tasks, etc. But it isn’t the wonderful time of salvation that many historians have traditionally painted it to be. From a nutritional perspective it was a huge blow, one that we are only just finally catching up with in our modern age with its almost limitless availability of food (in the First World, at least). As Jared Diamond wrote in his best-selling book Guns, Germs, and Steel (confession: I’m a huge Jared Diamond fan):

“The adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered.”

Moving to an agricultural lifestyle took a serious toll on human health. As described in this article, anthropologists have long understood the dramatic change in nutritional status brought on by this “advance”:

“Hunter-gatherers had better bones, had no signs of iron-deficiency anemia, no signs of infection, few (if any) dental cavities, fewer signs of arthritis and were in general larger and more robust than their agriculture-following contemporaries.”

Being someone who enjoys reading popular science type books and have, over my many years, engrossed myself in a number of topics this wasn’t really news to me. I remember reading about this many years ago in some “history of our species” books. I recall even as recently as a couple of years ago doing a report for a client about congenital spinal diseases and reading a fascinating paper by an anthropologist that described, among other things, the devastating effect that the manual and repetitive labour involved in farming had on our spines and joints following the “agricultural revolution”.

When it came to feeding my babies I didn’t look to culture to answer my questions. Reading Our Babies, Our Selves by Meredith Small convinced me that much of cultural practice around child-rearing was so steeped in old-wives’ tales and superstition that it was no objective way to approach the problem. Instead I looked at human development and our evolutionary history and the answer was clear that breastmilk was the optimum food for human babies. So when it comes to feeding myself, I’m similarly wary of using any particular “modern culture” (and by that I mean any culture within the last 10,000 years or so) as an objective measure. Instead, I look at the course of our development and it seems obvious to me that we evolved to eat the sorts of foods we were eating as we evolved. Optimal nutrition doesn’t involve trimming the fat off our cuts of meat, or choosing the “lean parts” of the animal. Nor does it involve freaks of modern food-processing technology like the Tofurkey. In conclusion, when one is pursuing the Optimal human diet, being the one that results in optimal human health, we must look beyond the recent “food experiments” of the agricultural era. Choosing any one culture’s diet as The Best for human health means depending on an experiment that is still ongoing. I know where I’m placing my bet.


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The Basics

My way of eating is based on a Paleo/Primal diet and is comprised mainly of saturated animal fat (grass-fed meat, pastured eggs, butter), nuts and seeds (almonds, pecans, macadamia nuts, coconut, pumpkin seeds) and their oils (coconut oil, avocado oil) and lots of vegetables and fruit. I eat virtually no sugar (other than that contained naturally in fruit), potatoes or sweet potatoes, beans or legumes, and no grains or grain products.

Weight Loss Tracker

Start date: May 13, 2011
Total weight loss (updated every Sunday): 19.5 lbs

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