Going back to the basics may sound like a good idea, but should we take our diet back way beyond the Stone Ages?
The basic premise of the Paleo diet is that the way humans ate in the Palaeolithic era was better than the way we do now. The Palaeolithic Era began about 2.5 million years ago, and lasted up to the last Ice Age which was about 10,000 years ago. What followed was the Neolithic Era, where humans ceased being nomadic, put down roots, and started developing agriculture.
Paleo proponents espouse the good of eating more like a hunter/gatherer than farmers, as they say our bodies have not sufficiently evolved to consume foods produced in the relatively newer agricultural way. The Paleo diet also claims that Palaeolithic humans did not suffer from ‘modern’ diseases such as heart disease and diabetes because of the way they ate.
Since the diet hinges on how we perceive hunter-gatherer eating patterns to be, it prescribes eating things that you would hunt or gather in the wild. So this means lots of lean meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds. Understandably, packaged and processed foods are definitely a no-no, but you would also have to avoid dairy products, cereal grains (such as rice and wheat), salt, sugar, and legumes (such as peanuts and beans). There appears to be some debate about whether tubers like potatoes are okay, with more stringent dieters swearing off these as well.
The one consensus most dietitians and nutritionists have regarding the Paleo diet is that cutting out highly processed foods is definitely a good idea. As much as we love our potato chips or even white bread, these processed foods contain less nutrients, and some include preservatives which can increase the risk of heart disease and cancer.
What did cavemen eat?
Since we have yet to invent time-travel, the closest archaeologists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists can do is study excavation sites – but there’s only so much one can learn from mummified remains and shards of pottery. Even then, these scientists are discovering new findings as their work progresses with technological advances.
Since there has been ample evidence of butchered animal bones, and fishing along shorelines, it might make sense think that meat was the cornerstone of the caveman diet – but it might not be necessarily true.
One theory of why we tend to picture ancient cavemen vigorously hunting down woolly mammoths rather than munching on roots, is because of what is more commonly found at dig sites; the butchered bones of wild animals. Plant remnants just do not preserve well enough to be discovered.
Earlier this year, a team of scientists published a paper in the Nature journal, sharing their findings from analysing plaque samples from Neanderthal remains found at two cave sites; Spy in Belgium and El Sidron in Spain. The report noted that dental plaque trapped microorganisms that lived in the mouth – as well as bits of food stuck in the teeth – preserved DNA through thousands of years. And this DNA revealed that the Neanderthals studies had a plant-based diet.
In 2015, a study published in The Quarterly Review of Biology found that plant-based carbohydrates and meat were both “necessary and complementary dietary components” for the evolution of mankind. Researchers found that, through examining fossilised teeth as well the sites where ancient man lived, indicated that they were eating tubers and similar starchy vegetables.
The researchers posit that as the brain grew, man needed more energy, which likely came from carbohydrates; hunting for meat would use up this energy, and too much protein can be toxic to the human body. They also noted that women past child-bearing age would gather tubers for younger women, saying that such starches would have supported “improved reproductive functions”, such as providing extra calories for lactating mothers.
Evolution and change
Paleo proponents claim grains are bad because post-Palaeolithic humans have still not evolved to eat them properly. Another Paleo belief is that grains and dairy products (from domesticated animals) are among the main causes for the current wave of diseases such as obesity and diabetes. While most scientists are still wary about cutting out entire food groups from your diet, it is an undeniable truth that modern day eating habits — with its excess of junk food, and high calorie intake — is a cause of so-called ‘lifestyle’ diseases.
In reference to the concept of evolution however, this misconstrues the theory a bit. Humans, by nature, have been adapting and evolving to their changing environments; all for the sake of survival. If we could only live in the exact scenarios as our ancestors, we probably would not have lasted very long as a species. Plus, there is increasing evidence that the human body can evolve relatively fast.
An example of this is the way many of us have adapted to consuming dairy. Usually, the gene encoding an enzyme named lactase — which breaks down lactose sugars in milk — shuts down after infancy. However, as dairy became prevalent, many people evolved a mutation that kept the gene active throughout life; and subsequently passed on that ability to subsequent generations.
Additionally, the food sources our ancestors ate have also evolved themselves. In her 2012 TED talk, researcher Christina Warinner of the University of Zurich aptly summarised that just about every other species of fruit, vegetable or animal consumed today is “drastically” different from its Palaeolithic ancestor.
For sake of efficiency, we humans have shaped the evolution of what we eat; from breeding cattle and poultry which provide the most meat, milk and eggs, to cultivating plants that produce the plumpest and tastiest fruit, along with the least amount of natural toxins.
Simply put, even if we wanted to go back to prehistoric eating habits, modern equivalents of ancient foods (if we’re looking at the genetic makeup of things) simply do not exist anymore.
Additionally, while some of our Palaeolithic ancestors managed to make it to their 40s, archaeologists says that the average lifespan of cavemen was much shorter; many children were estimated to have died by the age of 15. More recent studies suggest that even among those who lived longer, it was unlikely that they were immune to some of our more ‘modern’ diseases.
A study in the Lancet, published in 2014, looked for signs of atherosclerosis – where one’s arteries get clogged up by cholesterol and fats – in over a hundred ancient mummies from farming, foraging and hunter-gatherer societies around the world. A lack of exercise and a diet high in saturated fat, both of which increase levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol in the blood, are thought to increase the risk of plaque building up. The researchers set out to test this, and found evidence of “probable or definite atherosclerosis” in 47 of 137 mummies studied – a level of disease equivalent to modern societies.
In the end, like many other diets, eating more fresh vegetables, lean meat, and less processed junk is definitely a good idea. Not because it’s the way our ancestors supposedly ate, but because it’s a healthy way to live your life in the present.