“Why don’t you eat grains, sugars, legumes, and dairy? A little bit in moderation (balanced eating) is okay right?” –Paraphrasing a comment by Leslie on our Facebook page.
This simple question requires a book length explanation. In fact Robb Wolf has written one called the Paleo Solution that a lot of people have found really helpful. If my answers spark your interest, I recommend picking it up.
So, knowing I can’t do this question the real justice it deserves, let me give you the Cliff’s notes version. (Does anyone even use Cliff’s notes anymore? Am I getting old now?)
Where we come from:
NOTE: The exact dates are being constantly debated and revised, but the general dates we’re talking about are solid
We diverged from the other great apes (chimps, gorillas, etc.) between 4-8 million years ago
The first fossils we have that are hominid (human like) are Australopithecus from roughly 4 million years ago.
By 2 million years ago we get the first Homo’s (so we’re getting a lot closer to modern day humans here). During and through this time we see an ever increasing brain size. While we don’t know for sure, it’s strongly suspected that this increase in brain size was fueled by greater protein and fat availability, namely the scavenging of dead carcasses and eventually active hunting of animals big and small. The use of fire and cooking is also thought to play a really important role – shooting holes in the all raw food diets popularized as the best diet for humans.
Neanderthals lived from about 400,000 to 30,000 years ago. And modern humans came on the scene about 250,000 years ago.
The data we have on Neanderthals suggest they were top end predators who hunted big game. The data on modern humans is more mixed. We definitely have their cave paintings of large game, a lot of stone tools used for hunting and butchering game, piles of bones around their homes, and isotope work which suggests that the fossils we have at least were active hunters.
Modern humans existed from around 250,000 years ago to present
Agriculture (growing grains which are grass seeds) started somewhere around 10,000 years ago, some estimates say 12-15,000 years ago. Husbandry, the keeping of livestock began roughly 8000 years ago. Note: Again, the exact dates are in question, but the general timeframe is not.
Before agriculture, foods that were available to humans were: meat of all kinds large and small including seafood if they were near large bodies of water, green vegetation, fruit (in season), nuts and seeds, eggs (in season; no chickens so just what you could steal from a birds nest), tubers and roots, honey when beehives could be found, possibly fermented food and drinks (aka alcohol).
Foods that were not available: processed foods (duh!), dairy (no animals to milk) and all dairy products – cheese, yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese, etc., grains (new data suggests that humans would eat grains on occasion but the ancient ancestral varieties made this a lot harder to do and suggest it probably wasn’t done on a regular basis), and legumes (no domesticated plants at this time).
Thus the human animal evolved on a diet of largely: tubers and roots, green vegetation, nuts and seeds, and flesh foods, with fruit in season and honey when it could be found.
THE Paleo diet
Let’s be clear. There is NO ONE Paleo diet. We can identify classes of foods that are early ancestors probably ate (because that was what was available), but the amounts of each category are going to depend on where people lived.
People, like animals, aren’t stupid. We instinctively follow something called ‘optimal foraging theory’ which says you try to get the most calories of food for the least amount of work. So, humans in an area, looked around for what was easily available and gave the most calories and ate that. Thus near the equator they assuredly ate a lot more tubers and roots, nuts and fruits with less meat. In the Arctic, the Inuit ate almost exclusively meat and fat with a smidgen of fruit and other greenery.
What we know is that we are omnivores. We can and DO eat basically everything. As an example the Swahili word for animal, means meat. Anything we can catch, we killed it and ate it. In some areas it made sense to catch small animals (rabbits, birds), in other areas people went after big animals.
When we became agricultural and settled down, it was bad for us as individuals, and good for us as a species. We got shorter because our nutrition was worse, we got more cavities (because our nutrition was worse), we got more diseases (because of more crowding, association with animals, and poor nutrition). We had more kids, and from what we gather, we died sooner.
Over the intervening 10,000ish years some populations have adapted better to a diet that includes grains, legumes, and dairy than others.
This is easy to see with lactose tolerance which exists in certain pockets, primarily Northern Europe and part of Africa, with most of the rest of the world being lactose intolerant.
One issue making it difficult for people to find the ‘best’ diet for them is the fact that as we have become increasingly mobile in the past few hundred years there has been a lot of breeding between populations. So let’s say a more grain/rice tolerant, lactose intolerant Chinese woman marries a more grain/rice intolerant, lactose tolerant Norwegian man, what is the optimal diet for their children? It’s hard to say. Those who have a more pure ethnic background, say a Plains Indian, or a Mayan may be able to look at what their ancestors ate and know what they are genetically adapted for.
We’re talking about grains, but the same idea could be applied to legumes, or dairy or sugar.
Evolutionarily grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar are new-ish to humans. Out of 250,000 years or so, they’ve been with us say 15,000 years or less. In that time, some of have adapted more and some less to eating them. With the blending of populations we can no longer look back at what our distant ancestors ate to know to what degree we might be grain, legume and dairy tolerant.
The Paleo ‘diet’ goes around this confusion by eliminating all or most of those items (strict Paleo eliminates all of them, different variations of Paleo allow things like dairy, some legumes, and potentially some of the least problematic grains like rice)
There is no way that I know of beyond elimination-challenge diets to really get a sense of what works for people.
Does that mean you have to eat Paleo?
Of course not, but it might really improve your health and well-being. The challenge out there (like any elimination-challenge diet) is to avoid all of these foods (dairy, legumes, grain, sugar, artificial colorings, flavorings and other chemicals) for 30 days. Then ask yourself
1. How do I look? Have you lost excess fat, gained muscle? How is your hair and skin?
2. How do I feel? Do you feel better? Have aches and pains or other issues improved for you?
3. How do you perform? How is your energy level throughout the day? Do you have enough energy to do what you want to do?
At the end of 30 days take stock of how you’re doing and start adding those foods back again. Eat dairy? Any change? Eat legumes? Eat grains? If you add in all those things and you look good, feel good, and perform good, congratulations you are genetically blessed and are reasonably, mostly, or completely tolerant of those foods. If not, you may notice that some or all of those things are better avoided.
For many people eating Paleo and avoiding dairy, grains, legumes, and minimizing sugar has led to major health improvements.
Isn’t avoiding those foods causing you to have an imbalanced diet?
Here’s Leslie’s question and the most common question asked by people.
Don’t you need the nutrition in bread and other grains?
Don’t you need the calcium in milk?
This analysis done by Loren Cordain, PhD of a Paleo-style diet built using modern contemporary foods was superior to an average diet in every way.
So, no, the diet isn’t imbalanced. If you are eating plenty of plant foods (vegetables, fruits, tubers, nuts, seeds) along with animal products you are eating a nutrient-dense diet. If the foods you are avoiding: grains, legumes, dairy, most sugar are ‘bad’ for you, then avoiding them is doing you a world of good.
Bottom line (or the Cliff’s notes of the Cliff’s notes)
Humans have spent most of their time on Earth NOT eating grains, legumes, dairy, and much sugar.
In the 10-15,000 years we have been eating these things some of us have adapted to varying degrees to eating them. Many of us have not adapted well to having them in our diet. For those people, removing them results in major health improvements.
Eating a balanced Paleo diet (plenty of produce, good meats) supplies as much or more nutrition than other diets.
Did that answer your question Leslie?
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