Sunday, November 7, 2010

Paleolithic Postulations

What would you say if you found out that the very foods you have been told would promote good health were actually the cause of your general malaise?  Well, it could be true.  Turns out those whole grains and legumes (beans) aren't necessarily what make a diet healthy, after all.

It's not easy for a nutrition therapist to make a vast generalization like that, since it goes against the "grain" of conventional wisdom.  According to the USDA, our pyramid of food choices should include at least 3 ounces of grains per day for every person, young and old.  The website particularly advises me (5'0", 100 lbs) to eat 6 ounces of grains per day (only 3 of which need to be whole grains), which means I should eat something like 6 slices of bread, 3 cups of oatmeal or 3 cups of rice every day, or some combination thereof.  That would be about 1/3 to 3/4 of my daily caloric intake.  By the way, their website only states how many ounces of everything you should eat.  If someone can find a conversion chart on there that describes what exactly 6 ounces of grains looks like, please let me know.  I had to go here to find out. 

A 160 lb 5'9" man would necessitate a whopping 10 slices of bread, or 5 cups of grains per day.  10 slices of bread alone would equal anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 calories and 5 cups of oatmeal is about 1535 calories.  The point here is that if the government and most dietitians had their way, we would all be pigging out on grains every day.  And sadly, most of us are.

So, why would the government tell you something that isn't true?  Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say that the research they have seen assures them that grains are good for us.  Or let's consider that there is a lot of pull from the food industry that prohibits our government from ever admitting that grains and legumes are two of our civilization's greatest afflictions.  After all, these are the same people and agencies who have outlawed marijuana but not cigarettes, and who condone aspartame as an acceptable toxin to consume liberally.   

Anyway, back to why you should stop eating your most cherished foods.  The theory about grains and legumes is that we didn't start eating them in any substantial amounts until about 10,000 years ago when we started cultivating crops.  The Paleolithic era began about 2.5 millions years ago when we first started using simple tools and ended when agriculture began.  The 10,000 years we've had to adapt to grains and legumes is almost inconsequential when compared with the 2.5 million years we spent not eating those foods.  Those foods are still really difficult for us to digest because of the phytates, lectins and/or gluten they contain, and poor digestion causes everything from fatigue to zits.

Don't believe me?  Try the Paleolithic Diet for yourself.  Just do it for three weeks - don't eat any grains or legumes and see how you feel.  That means no rice, corn, wheat, millet, buckwheat, kamut, spelt, amaranth, teff, oats, barley, rye, beans (black, garbanzo, etc.), soy, or peanuts.  Our ancestors didn't eat many potatoes, sweet potatoes or other tubers, either.  They definitely did NOT eat any refined sugar, which means that table sugar, brown sugar, agave nectar, high fructose corn syrup and any other sweeteners except occasionally honey are out (they only risked being stung by a horde of bees every so often...).  I don't think I need to even touch on fake foods like aspartame, food colorings or hydrogenated fats, but I will.  They didn't eat them.

In general, Paleo people didn't have nuts or seeds in such abundance that they could harvest them, crush them and make oil out of them like we do with sunflower, safflower and sesame seeds.  It would have cost them more calories to do something like that than it was worth, so the only oils or fats they ate were from fruits similar to avocados and olives, nuts and seeds, and animal products.  That means coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, and some nut oils are in.  Eggs were not abundant, but they did find some here and there.  Here's the kicker for me - salt's out.  And dairy's out.  I really doubt that Paleolithic people were dumb enough to sneak up on some unassuming, lactating female mastodon to try and milk her...

If you removed grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, fake foods, most oils and tubers from your diet and added in a bunch of organic (there were no pesticides until 4,500 years ago) vegetables and fruit, and only ate the leanest, wildest animals you could get your hands on, organs and all, you would be on the Paleolithic Diet

A lot of people wonder why we would want to live like Paleo people since they only lived to be like 35, right?  Well, those age estimates could be way off.  And there is overwhelming evidence that modern hunter-gatherer tribes who maintain the diet and lifestyle of ancient Paleolithic people enjoy undeniably long and healthy lives, not to mention well muscled bodies.  They don't suffer from cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, cancer, diabetes or obesity like we do in "developed" societies.

Next week I'll go more into the benefits and difficulties of eating Paleo.  I'll tell you about why we are not built to eat the very things our diets are mostly made up of.  But for now, if you're interested, peruse these websites and the books sold on them:

The Paleo Diet
Mark's Daily Apple
The Paleo Solution

Until next time.


  1. But Neely... I LOVE beans. And what's the stance on coffee? Surely all healthy civilizations need coffee.

  2. The stance on coffee is that it's not technically paleo. They didn't generally get caffeinated hot beverages at their local Starbucks. Paleo purists would say no, but a lot of people just embrace the Paleo diet moderately, so they compromise with things like dairy, chocolate, coffee, beer - whatever their "weakness" might be. You have to ask yourself why you love coffee so much. Is it because your energy levels aren't great, so it's a pick-me-up? Because if that's the case, diet could easily fix that. If it's a taste thing - you adore the bitter flavor - then I wish you luck with that. Here's a good post by Mark Sisson on the topic.