You Are What Your Ancestors Ate
diet fitness health paleo primal weight loss
First of all, I use the phrase Paleo to describe how I eat because there is an accepted definition that approximates what I'm trying to do, even though my approach is more complex. Loren Cordain published a book called The Paleo Diet a while back which set out an eating plan that sort of approximated how hunter gatherers ate back in the day. The diet he recommended was based on eating a nutritional profile similar to the diets of our ancestors. The idea was that our bodies evolved eating certain kinds of foods, and adapted to work best with those foods over millions of years. Since we don't always eat those foods in modern times, our bodies are forced to compensate. It would be like feeding a carnivore bread; it will survive for a while, maybe a long while, but it will pay for it with its health and vitality.
The foods espoused by the Paleo diet are: no sugar, little starch, some fruit, lots of meat, and as many veggies as possible. Originally, Paleo meant lean meats and only certain kinds of fats, but it has been revised to include fatty meats and now excludes mainly seed oils (corn, canola, soybean). This basic profile (a vehement avoidance of sugar and a reliance on fat rather than carbs as the main source of energy) underlies a few other diets such as The Zone, the Primal Blueprint, and many traditional ethnic diets (according to Sally Fallon and the Weston Price Foundation).
Some common arguments against this form of eating:
- Modern science/nutritionists/food companies/my doctor said that meat is bad for my health. This is true. Modern meat is bad for your health. But modern meat is nothing like ancient meat. Ancient meat ran around in vast prairies, ate totally pesticide-free, in-season pasture, and lived a fairly stress-free life, minus the occasional chase. Modern meat is subjected to constant stress and cruelty, fed unnatural and pesticide-ridden food, and pumped full of antibiotics. Thus, modern meat has tons of bad chemicals, and bad fats in it.
- Everyone knows that saturated fat is bad for you and we should all be eating corn and soybean oil. Modern saturated fat is bad for you, for the reasons given above, but the reason it is bad is because the animals from whence it comes are fed a steady diet of corn and soybeans. Thus, their fats are largely composed of fatty acids from corn and soy. If you've heard of Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, you probably know that Omega-3's are the good ones. Almost all fat we Americans consume is Omega-6, which originates in corn and other seed oils. Animal fats naturally have higher levels of Omega-3's, but because we feed them exclusively corn, they now have higher Omega-6's. The other reason polyunsaturated fats (vegetable seed oils) are bad is because they are unstable at high temperature, and break up into free radicals, which are carcinogenic. So, if you must use seed oils, don't cook with them.
- The amount of fat in the Paleo diet is ridiculous, and most calories should come from carbohydrates. I can (and have) argued until blue in the face for why fats are a better source of energy, but the best I have to go on is my personal experience: when I ate mostly carbs for energy, I got hungry every two hours, had considerably less energy most of the time, was chronically underweight (some people have this response, rather than weight gain, which is more common) and susceptible to mild illnesses. Since switching over to fats, I have energy whenever I need it, do get hungry but without any effect on my mood or energy, can go much longer without getting hungry, gained 20 lbs of muscle, and almost never feel ill, much less actually get sick.
- We have no evidence that our ancestors were healthier, and actually know they had a lower life expectancy. While there is actually archeological evidence suggesting that hunter-gathers were very, very healthy, and the life expectancy numbers are based on population averages including high rates of infant death from trauma (not health problems like obesity), I think the best evidence is simply this: it works. Eating lots of veggies, good proteins, and plenty of fat actually works. I've seen people lose pounds in months. It also makes sense logically; if you eat one kind of food for millions of years, your body is probably good at using it. If you see a raft of health problems approximately coinciding with the start of industrialized food systems...well, maybe you ought to think about the new foods that just showed up.
- I just crave bread. Keep in mind that the transition from a carb-dependant to a fat-dependant metabolism took a few weeks, and that most Americans are carb-addicted. You'll crave carbs if you stop eating them, but eventually, you're body will get the idea and start using fat (which is known to be the most bio-energetically dense, and hence most efficient energy source).
- Fruit is a sugar, but you Paleo-folk eat that. This is true, fruit is a sugar. In fact, fructose, the kind in fruits, is the worst form of sugar as far as fat-gain and metabolic stress is concerned. But it pays to remember that our ancestors only ate fruit when it was in season (and again, modern varieties of fruit are bred for sweetness). So don't think we eat much fruit (thought probably more than we ought...).
So, you can see most critisicms of why Paleo is wrong stem from the realities of modern food sources, not the underlying logic of "eat as your body was meant to eat."
Now, that logic doesn't necessarily mean, "eat like hunter gatherers did." I actually don't follow a strict Paleo diet. If there is sugar in a food for example, I'll still eat it as long as the total sugar content per serving is very low (10 grams or less). I try to apply the principles of conscious eating without necessarily being too strict about it. Most high performance diets that work (Zone, Paleo, traditional ethnic) are pretty low in sugar, and either low-carb or they find a way to assist in the digestion of carbohydrates through fermentation or sprouting. So this track seemed worth looking into. But I didn't make any assumptions, and I didn't just take peoples' word for it. I experimented and listened to my body. I've found that fermented dairy, in the form of yogurt, works very well for me, even though it's not technically Paleo.
My main point is that our diets should be the product of our own life experiences, not dictated by commercial and political interests. At no point in history did humans successfully subsist on a diet of boxed cereals and fast food. So even if you don't agree with a low-carb, high-fat diet, I challenge you to ask yourself why that is. Is it because you've heard that a high-fat diet is bad for you, or because you're attached to your sugary cereals and flavored coffees? Or is it because you have the body you want, and feel great all the time on your current diet? If you could stand to lose some weight, or want to feel better, or get over a chronic disease, I'd urge you to first look at the most fundamental aspect of your existence: what you are made of, aka, your diet.
And don't just take someone's word for something being healthy. Every cereal box out there says it's got added vitamins and minerals for strong kids, but if you honestly believe that Fruit Loops are as good as Cheerios are as good as oatmeal, you are simply delusional. Just because something says it's healthy doesn't mean it is. Only you can determine that. See what works for you. I know vegans who are in great shape, healthy, energetic. That doesn't mean I'm wrong, or they are. It just means they do better on vegan food. But you'll never know unless you actually do something different.
I hope I've opened up a can of worms. Tear me apart in the comments.