Eating Like a Caveperson

April 23, 2013 in Foodland Chronicles, General, Health Claims, Nutrition by Joyce Bunderson

I’ve been thinking that the general public would probably not fall for the Paleo diet; but it looks like there’s always a draw to try something new, weird or different. There is little or no valid research showing that the Paleo diet can solve the challenges of modern man; but it appears that some are convinced of just that. Thus, today, I’ve decided to point you to an excellent article, an interview with Marlene Zuk, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota.  She has also authored a new book Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live.

If you are considering the Paleo diet, my best advice is to read the short published interview by Nutrition Action Healthletter in April 2013. You can subscribe for about $10 per year, but you may be able to purchase just that one article. Among the interesting facts that this expert brought forward in the published interview are:

  • That it’s really fantasy to try to construct what early humans were eating. Early humans were eating different diets in different locations throughout the earth.
  • Zuk makes a point that scientists have discovered traces of seeds and grains on the teeth of fossilized early humans; in addition, they have found remnants of grains on stone cooking tools. The significance of this is that the Paleo diet shuns all grains as if primitives had no access to them.
  • My favorite of the points brought forward by Zuk, is her argument that it is not really possible to eat like early humans, because the foods that the early humans were eating are not available today. She says that we underestimate how much human beings have affected everything in their environment.  In North America we can’t eat Mastodon anymore, or giant ground sloths, and even Bison are hard to get. You need a license to kill deer, and we’ve modified cattle and pigs through breeding for centuries and centuries. Then we put cattle in feedlots and stuff them with corn, which is the cheapest calories we can get. But the cattle get sick eating it, so we stuff them with antibiotics. Who knows what our meats, and processed meats, would do to the innards of savages who had never eaten them.
  • Not only meats, but also fruits and vegetables have been cultivated to have the characteristics desirable by man. As an example of the largest crop, corn has been genetically modified to resist weed-killing poisons, and to enable corn stalks to grow very close together to increase yield. All plants are bred for yield and convenience in processing and preparation.
  • The article even points to the co-author of The Paleolithic Prescription in 1988, which was one of the early works of the Paleo movement.  It’s so incredibly interesting the he says that he eats a “soft version,” which includes whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and wine (all are forbidden on a strict Paleo diet).

There’s a imposing body of well-designed research that has yielded results that eating more plant foods and less animal foods offers the nutrients that lead to a healthy body. It’s very disturbing to me that the Paleo Diet suggests 8 servings of Meat, poultry, or fish (that’s about two pounds per day). It is not even valid to say that this much meat is what the savages ate. (They had very short life spans and hard, brutish lives, why are they our ideal?) Hunting does not provide meats daily. You can dry meats, but gathering of grains, fruits, even growing some of you own, are staples in primitive diets studied to this day. Meats are special treats. The paleo prescriptions are indeed fantasy.

Having said that, I will say that the human body has evolved to have an amazing ability to survive and exist on a wide array of diets, including even those, which we absolutely know to be deficient. Let me be extremely clear, I am not advocating for substandard diets like the Paleo Diet. I am just trying to make a point that we can stay alive, even when we are fed imbalanced diets; even when we are malnourished, we can live for quite a while. Heaven knows, eating burgers, fries, soft drinks, and donuts is not ideal – but many subsist for decades, losing their health only slowly, progressively. Human beings are resilient and can survive many challenges to health – for a while.

The point is, however, do we want to increase the chance that we can live longer, healthier lives? If yes, then we should look to the research that guides us to realize that eating a variety of real, whole foods – especially plant foods, hold promise of a healthy body. I’ve written quite a few, research-based articles about eating excess of red meat, so I won’t say more about the dangers today. But that would be a huge red flag for the Paleo diet – way too much meat.