Revisiting the “The Paleo Thing”

Paleo, Diet, Movement, Daily

Hunting appears to have defined us, but it is only part of the (pre)history.

Since writing the “Let’s do the Paleo Thing (yeah!)” post a couple of weeks ago, I came across a highly relevant article from National Geographic.

So I thought I would share the link, and cherry-pick some of the key passages to save you time. It is well worth the read, so I urge you to not just read this post.

Now, although the article was actually published before I wrote my blog post, I must insist that I had not read it.

It just so happens that the article makes pretty much the same arguments I did, only with more smart people being quoted in the process:

1) The Paleolithic is defined by more than what humans ate, and the main problem is the change in lifestyle, not what we eat:

“Studies suggest that indigenous groups get into trouble when they abandon their traditional diets and active lifestyles for Western living. Diabetes was virtually unknown, for instance, among the Maya of Central America until the 1950s. As they’ve switched to a Western diet high in sugars, the rate of diabetes has skyrocketed. Siberian nomads such as the Evenk reindeer herders and the Yakut ate diets heavy in meat, yet they had almost no heart disease until after the fall of the Soviet Union, when many settled in towns and began eating market foods. Today about half the Yakut living in villages are overweight, and almost a third have hypertension, says [biological anthropologist William Leonard of Northwestern University]. And Tsimane people who eat market foods are more prone to diabetes than those who still rely on hunting and gathering.”

“Many paleoanthropologists say that although advocates of the modern Paleolithic diet urge us to stay away from unhealthy processed foods, the diet’s heavy focus on meat doesn’t replicate the diversity of foods that our ancestors ate—or take into account the active lifestyles that protected them from heart disease and diabetes.”

2) Knowing exactly what our ancestors ate is nigh-impossible:

“But is it true that we all evolved to eat a meat-centric diet? Both paleontologists studying the fossils of our ancestors and anthropologists documenting the diets of indigenous people today say the picture is a bit more complicated. The popular embrace of a Paleo diet, [paleoanthropologist Peter Ungar of the University of Arkansas] and others point out, is based on a stew of misconceptions.”

3) While meat was indeed part of the diet of our ancestors, the use of fire to cook food was perhaps more important in the greater scheme of things, and we definitely were eating plants, including grains, to survive:

The real Paleolithic diet, though, wasn’t all meat and marrow. It’s true that hunter-gatherers around the world crave meat more than any other food and usually get around 30 percent of their annual calories from animals. But most also endure lean times when they eat less than a handful of meat each week. New studies suggest that more than a reliance on meat in ancient human diets fueled the brain’s expansion.”

“So how do hunter-gatherers get energy when there’s no meat? It turns out that “man the hunter” is backed up by “woman the forager,” who, with some help from children, provides more calories during difficult times. When meat, fruit, or honey is scarce, foragers depend on “fallback foods,” says [paleoanthropologist Alison Brooks of George Washington University].”

““There’s been a consistent story about hunting defining us and that meat made us human,” says Amanda Henry, a paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. “Frankly, I think that misses half of the story. They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.””

“If [Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham] is right, cooking not only gave early humans the energy they needed to build bigger brains but also helped them get more calories from food so that they could gain weight.”

Oh, and by the way, we have kept evolving, as can clearly be seen by looking at the various populations around the world, and things like lactose tolerance into adulthood:

“All humans digest mother’s milk as infants, but until cattle began being domesticated 10,000 years ago, weaned children no longer needed to digest milk. As a result, they stopped making the enzyme lactase, which breaks down the lactose into simple sugars. After humans began herding cattle, it became tremendously advantageous to digest milk, and lactose tolerance evolved independently among cattle herders in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Groups not dependent on cattle, such as the Chinese and Thai, the Pima Indians of the American Southwest, and the Bantu of West Africa, remain lactose intolerant.”

“What’s more, she found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, which suggests humans may have been eating grains, as well as tubers, for at least 100,000 years—long enough to have evolved the ability to tolerate them.”

In conclusion (because this is already getting long):

“We have gotten so good at processing foods that for the first time in human evolution, many humans are getting more calories than they burn in a day. “Rough breads have given way to Twinkies, apples to apple juice,” [Wrangham] writes. “We need to become more aware of the calorie-raising consequences of a highly processed diet.””

“It’s this shift to processed foods, taking place all over the world, that’s contributing to a rising epidemic of obesity and related diseases. If most of the world ate more local fruits and vegetables, a little meat, fish, and some whole grains (as in the highly touted Mediterranean diet), and exercised an hour a day, that would be good news for our health—and for the planet.” (Emphasis mine.)

Reference:

The Evolution of Diet, by Ann Gibbons, National Geographic, September 2014, p. 35-53

Picture from Pixabay.

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