Would the real Paleo diet please stand up?

When the Paleo diet started popping up in mainstream media, I was really intrigued. I really appreciate the approach of looking at the human as an animal that has an evolutionary history and a diet to suit. Based, of course, in science fact. I dove right into the literature and read some really interesting stuff. I read the Paleo Manifesto by John Durant, and was fascinated by his theories of dental development and his discussion of our decline in health caused by the agricultural revolution. A bit less impressed with how he dealt with the argument for eating meat… but can’t win them all! I’ve continued reading everything I can, Mark’s Daly Apple is a favourite.

I really love the idea of getting back to the simple foods, cutting the processed muck from our diets, and getting in touch with the cycles of the Earth. But to say it is based on an ancestral diet is BS. I think the key, as in all things, is to continue questioning and read from a variety of sources. There are some parts of the Paleo diet that make so much sense, and there are parts that don’t make sense. Anything that encourages people to eat less crap though has to be a good thing!

What one Paleolithic tribe ate was soooo different depending on where they lived. Diets were highly seasonal, and we would have foraged all day for the food we did find. Many of the vegetables that we eat now never existed in that period! ... yum....

Meat eating was opportunistic. We are built to be persistence hunters. Those other animals might be faster, but we can run them down and tire them out. But it requires so much effort on our part. I appreciate that the Paleo diet prefers wild and lean meats and encourages nose to tail eating. Not only game meats better for us, but a wild life is a kinder life. Nose to tail eating means less waste and that we get all the nutrients that the life of the animal had to give us. I seriously hope that bone broth is not a fad that will disappear – it uses the bones that would otherwise go to waste and provides us a whole host of minerals in a highly digestible and usable form. And it’s so yummy! Organ meats though make me all…. how did you do it, Daenerys?

Our ancestors did not eat animals from factory farms, and they did not eat vegetables covered in pesticides. They didn’t eat manufactured, soft, brown food at each meal. They ate food that was wild, hard to chew, and came with nutrients as well as biological defences. They varied their diet which maximised nutrients and minimised toxins (I discuss this in more detail in the Winter Greens section of the Winter Seasonal Guide).

Bare survival year to year is now not a concern for us. We have choices about what we eat: we have science to tell us what is nutritious, and the opportunity to avoid that which does not digest well (as based on self observation). Survival of the planet is however a concern for us now. And nowhere else in our patterns of consumption is this more starkly realised than in the consumption of animal products.

The WWF in their Living Planet Report tell us that eating and energy use are the two areas which contribute most to our ecological footprint (read a little more in my  post – Don’t doubt that you DO make a difference). A recent study called Food choices, health and environment: Effects of cutting Europe’s meat and dairy intake, which is based on UN data, says the following:

[custom_blockquote style=”grey”] By using biophysical models and methods, we examined the large-scale consequences in the European Union of replacing 25–50% of animal-derived foods with plant-based foods on a dietary energy basis, assuming corresponding changes in production. We tested the effects of these alternative diets and found that halving the consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs in the European Union would achieve a 40% reduction in nitrogen emissions, 25–40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and 23% per capita less use of cropland for food production. In addition, the dietary changes would also lower health risks. The European Union would become a net exporter of cereals, while the use of soymeal would be reduced by 75%. The nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) of the food system would increase from the current 18% to between 41% and 47%, depending on choices made regarding land use. As agriculture is the major source of nitrogen pollution, this is expected to result in a significant improvement in both air and water quality in the EU. The resulting 40% reduction in the intake of saturated fat would lead to a reduction in cardiovascular mortality. These diet-led changes in food production patterns would have a large economic impact on livestock farmers and associated supply-chain actors, such as the feed industry and meat-processing sector. [/custom_blockquote]

In short – reduce your meat intake and improve your health, lower your ecological footprint, improve air quality, improve agricultural land. I’m really interested in how such a change would affect farmers, and will be talking to some industry peeps in a short while. I hypothesise that demand for premium product would result in better treatment of the animal (not factory farmed, organic, fed better quality foods), which would be better for the farmer (less pressure to produce, being paid a fair price for their product), and better for those who choose to consume the meat (healthier product), and everyone else (lower demand on health system, lower demand on environmental resources). Ah, the beauty of market forces at work. Adam Smith would be proud! And meat eaters… YOU DON’T HAVE TO GIVE IT UP. Just eat less.

I keep saying that if you look after yourself first, you will lower your ecological footprint. This is major example number one.

Now, I’m not an Archeological Scientist. Nor am I nutritionist. But I do get a bit shitty when claims are made ‘science’ that is either not right or non existent. And I think we modern humans have so much more to think about than what our ancestors ate. We cook and clean our food for a start, and have bred our veggies to be more palatable and digestible. And less toxic!

I think that the way we eat has to be a constant enquiry, and looking at our evolutionary history is the perfect place to start.

Here’s a fabulous talk by Prof. Christina Warinner, an Archaeological Scientist, discussing the Paleo diet from an evolutionary perspective. it’s called “Debunking the Paleo Diet”, and was screened at TEDx (which if you’re not into, get into it!). It’s great! Loved it.

When you’re done with that, here’s a retort  from Rob Wolf which discusses some of the points she makes from a Paleo diet point of view. The comments are a very interesting discussion.

Let’s continue the discussion and investigation and keep it based on science and observations on how our own personal biome digests the fuel we place into it.