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The Paleo Postulate

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Cassie Rowe, MS, RD, LD/N

A co-worker the other day asked me about the Paleo Diet and I had a moment of clarity: “Aha! That’s what April’s first blog will be about!” As I began writing, I wondered just how popular this diet is, so I typed “Paleo Diet” into my Google search bar. I’m wowed with over 10 million hits, but not really all that surprised. After all, we’re a nation of weight watchers—whether we’re conscious of that fact or not.

For anyone who is unaware, the Paleo Diet is promoted as the “healthiest” way to eat, allowing you to exude your own inner caveman (or cavewoman) and it’s based on the idea that you’ll be healthier eating a diet composed only of the foods to which our ancestors would have had access. Foods that are excluded include beans, nuts, dairy, grains, and seeds. Talk about restriction! That definition raises an important question (or maybe it’s just the nutrition nerd in me that finds this question important): what exactly did cavepeople eat? Luckily, a recent article was published that explores this very topic.

From the scientific standpoint, the prefix “paleo” only means “very old”. Okay… that’s a great starting point for a diet. So far I can conclude that this diet is based on “very old” cavepeople, what a concept! Does it matter who we talk about? Sure does! If we consider Homo sapiens (that’s us) very old cavepeople, we need to keep in mind that they first made an appearance 200,000 years ago—in Africa. But, maybe by ‘paleo’ we actually mean Homo erectus—the first of our ancestors to walk upright. These guys originated in Africa 1.8 million to 300,000 years ago. Or, perhaps we are talking about Australopithecus who inhabited Eastern Africa 4 million years ago. Don’t you think that if we’re going to formulate a diet based on our ancestors, we’d better pinpoint exactly who we’re trying to emulate?

Let’s talk about cavepeople’s diets. Homo sapiens began to experiment with farming about 12,000 years ago. During this time, and even before that, diet varied depending on geographical location. Someone who lived in the Pacific Northwest region of North America would no doubt have eaten lots of seafood, whereas somebody who called the middle of Africa “home” probably didn’t have access to much salmon. In my quest for knowledge, I discovered that Homo erectus and Australopithecus both had human-like foraging strategies, but their diets consisted mainly of the meat that came from the animals present at that time (I’m talking mastadons, mammoths, cave lions, and some other animals I can’t even pronounce). So I pose this question to all the Paleo Diet promoters: when is the last time you tried a wooly mammoth sirloin?

In the end, after much research, I have come to the following conclusions:

1. It's not like we're stuck in caveman bodies, we are still evolving. Need proof? Do you know someone who can drink and tolerate milk as an adult? That person has evolved within the last 10,000 years to have a gene that allows them to digest milk past their toddler years. We are the only species who can do that. Yes, perhaps some people have issues digesting milk, but why is it necessary to tell everyone they should avoid it?

2. The Paleo diet shuns grains, seeds, nuts, and beans. I find this rule pretty entertaining, because in the last 10 years many scientists have reported the remnants of seeds and grains on fossilized humans’ teeth and on their cooking tools. Yep, that means your ancestors… my ancestors… everyone’s ancestors… ate grains. Shucks, there’s even evidence that they were grinding it into crude flour and using it to make something like grilled pita bread. Pure culinary artisans, they were!

3. Paleo food just doesn’t exist today. Okay, I’ll admit that my comment above about the wooly mammoth sirloin was an exaggeration, but the point is still valid. For example, Native Americans grew corn before Europeans arrived, but back then it looked like grass that had gone to seed and was called teosinte. Far different from corn today. The grass-fed beef you buy from your local supermarket is different too, because humans have selectively bred the animal for “desirable” characteristics like fat marbling, ability to survive in specific climates, and overall size. Even apples have changed substantially in the last thousand years or so. The ancestors of the modern-day apple were small, sour and quite un-tasty. Don’t underestimate the degree to which we humans have changed our environment!

I’m not saying that someone can’t eat the Paleo Diet and be healthy—I’m simply trying to squelch the belief that people will get a modern-day disease if they choose not to eat that way. If the goal is to eat healthfully, the answer isn’t creating a fantasy about what we think cavepeople ate and consuming only those foods. Instead, let’s take a look at today’s science (something that has evolved right along with us) and combine that with what we truly enjoy eating. Life is too short for such confusing, hard-to-follow food rules anyway.

Happy April everyone! After a very busy month of March (after all, it was National Nutrition Month), I’m back in action. Please leave comments here—I love to reply!

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