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The Paleo Diet: A Brief Rationale and Critique by guest writer Arthur Haines

Let us assume that we are the managers of a zoo that is interested in the health and well‐being of our resident animals. We have recently obtained two chimpanzees (though it could be any animal). As this species is new to the zoo, we are unsure what to feed them. In order to determine what their daily menus will be, we have several approaches. We could fabricate a menu based on one or more dietary principles and observe the response (i.e., feed them food from this menu and see how their health, reproduction, and child development progresses). This fabricated diet may be unlike any diet experienced by chimpanzees before. The types of food, its texture, the amount of processing, the depth of nutrition (and so on) may be very different from their original diet in the wild.

At this zoo, we have some funding available for nutrition studies. Therefore, we decide to take an alternate route in determining a health‐giving diet for our chimpanzees. Rather than fabricate a diet, we decide to go find healthy, vital chimpanzees in the wild and study what they eat. During our study, we can observe the interconnectedness of the chimpanzees to their landscape and note how their bodies are adapted to acquiring nutrition from it. Their taste buds are designed to identify nutrient‐dense and medicinal foods from the environment. Their dentition and jaw muscles are perfectly suited for chewing this food. Their digestive systems are designed to break down and extract nutrition from this food. Every aspect of their life, including producing vibrant chimpanzee babies, is based on this food. As zoo managers, we take good notes of what they consume and now have another choice in front of us.

We can harvest wild food (the same wild foods that the native chimpanzees are still consuming and have consumed for many generations) or we can attempt to mimic the wild diet using cultivated plants. If time and money are unlimited, and assuming there are places left to harvest from, we could hire zoo technicians to gather seasonal foods from the forest to feed to our chimpanzees. If we have limitations on our resources, we will find cultivated foods that closely mimic the chimpanzee’s wild foods, and construct a diet based on those plants. Any other diet we create for the chimpanzees is an experiment, and will require generations to determine its impact on chimpanzee health.

Now how does all of this relate to human nutrition?

Understand that humans (and their hominid ancestors) have been consuming wild food for almost their entire existence. Many people realize that the cultivation of plants first began about 10,000 years ago. But this early cultivation did not eliminate all wild food from people around the planet. In fact, at first, early people used cultivated plants to augment their diets that were still rich in wild plant and animal foods harvested from their landscapes. It took time to develop complete crop packages that would ultimately replace wild food. We often believe that we have been eating exclusively cultivated foods for hundreds of generations, but this isn’t true. We don’t have to visit isolated parts of Africa or Asia to find recent reliance on wild food by contemporary people. Consider that in the late 1800s, as much as 20% of the diet of rural Spain and Italy was comprised of the fruit of the oak tree (i.e., the acorn). Even in the 1930s, there were people living in the United Kingdom that were still utilizing wild food staples (in this case, ocean fish). Here in
the United States, it was common place to gather wild greens, including common dandelion and white goosefoot, up until the last few decades.

It may be helpful at this point to illustrate some of the differences between wild plants and cultivated plants.

There are four important differences…

  • First, wild plants are, on average, more nutrient dense. 

This includes both vitamins and minerals. These results have been borne out in numerous nutritional comparisons. Consider that some vitamins are antioxidants that help prevent cancer and premature aging, including pro‐vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E. Consider also it is estimated that wild people received ten times the fat soluble vitamins and four times the water‐soluble vitamins than we currently receive in our diets. This helps explain (in part) the many deficiencies we see in our health.

  • Second, wild plants are richer in beneficial phytochemicals.

This includes a host of plant‐based compounds that promote health—antioxidants, anti‐inflammatories, immune modulators, antivirals, cancer fighting substances, etc. For example, multiple studies show that wild grown fruits are higher in antioxidants than similar cultivated species.

  • Third, wild plants show a more beneficial ratio of essential fatty acids. 

We realize now that contemporary people suffer from a highly altered omega 6 to omega 3 fatty acid ratio. For what it is worth, if you eat a modern diet—whether you are a strict vegetarian or omnivore— you likely have a highly elevated intake of omega 6 fatty acids, which suppresses the immune system, promotes inflammation, increases blood viscosity, and encourages arrhythmias.

  • And fourth, wild plants have fewer calories per unit mass, which means they have more fiber.

Modern plants have often been genetically modified (through breeding) to increase sweetness, volume, and moisture content. All of these changes lead to foods that are more calorie dense but less nutrient and fiber dense.

Has our reliance on cultivated foods affected our health, including our ability to produce healthy children? The answer is a clear yes. Many of the chronic diseases that plague our societies were unknown in isolated people living on their traditional diets (i.e., diets that did not utilize highly processed grains, refined sugars, cage‐reared and grain‐fed animals, and canned foods). Long‐lived people were observed as recently as the 1930s free and clear of chronic ailments. All of these cultures consumed, to some extent, wild food (and many were still living exclusively as hunter‐gatherers). There are several studies from different parts of the world that have examined skeletal remains of a given people prior to the cultivation of plants and after the cultivation of plants.

The results post agriculture are nearly uniform:

  • people shrank in size (including their brains),
  • had a higher incidence of dental defects and cavities,
  • suffered more frequently from certain infections,
  • and had a lower intake of certain minerals.

In some cases, the average life span also shortened from the hunter‐gatherer to the early agricultural people. All of these facts indicate the nutrition that early‐agricultural people received was insufficient and their health suffered.

If anyone thinks that contemporary people are free from this dilemma, please understand we are not.

  • One in three children born in the United States in the new millennium will develop diabetes (7th leading cause of death in the US).
  • One in 16 people suffers from coronary heart disease (leading cause of death in US).
  • Two in five will contract cancer in their lifetime (2nd leading cause of death in the US).
  • Neurovascular diseases (such as stroke) are also common (4th leading cause of death in the US).

All of these chronic (i.e., preventable) diseases were virtually unknown in isolated populations living on traditional diets. Again, it does not matter whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore. Even in countries where the diets are predominantly plant‐based, people relying on modern versions of food suffer from coronary artery disease, diabetes, and cancer comparable to the United States. Note that modern versions of plant foods would include processed grains, vegetable oils, and the like.

We like to think that we represent the peak of nutritional fitness. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. One way this can be illustrated this involves our teeth. Analysis of hunter‐gatherers and people living on traditional diets showed that they have wider palates than we do. This creates a distinctly different face— broader, more rounded, with room for all of the teeth. This was seen everywhere people ate traditional foods (including Europe—find images on the web of the Sami people while they still herded reindeer). People living in civilized countries frequently show crowded and/or crooked teeth, and frequently have one or more of the wisdom teeth impacted (i.e., the tooth can’t emerge because there is no room for it). This crowding of teeth occurs in one generation from leaving a wild or traditional diet. In other words, if the parents consume refined sugars, highly processed grains, cage‐reared and grainfed animals, and canned foods, then the children will show altered dental form due to a poorly developed palate. This occurs due to a deficiency in fat‐soluble vitamins and their cofactors. And this is not limited to humans. Dogs also show altered dentition compared to their wild ancestor (the wolf). Our very faces are evidence of nutritional deficiency and it is so common we do not see it for what it is. In fact, we often prize extremely slender faces for their beauty.

So where does the chimpanzee story come in? Remember that our zoo managers had three choices of food to feed the primates: new foods, cultivated foods that mimic wild foods, or wild foods.

The new foods are analogous to several modern diets (e.g., strict vegetarian, fruitarian, Atkins diet, western diet).

Cultivated foods that mimic wild foods—this is the current expression of the Paleo Diet. The Paleo Diet draws on archeological studies (and to some extent anthropological studies) to identify the foods that early humans (and their genome) evolved to. If one could travel around the world when indigenous populations could still be found on all the continents, they would identify a number of similarities. All people ate a variety of food, including plant and animal foods. All people ate food prepared in a variety of manners—some cooked and some uncooked. People ate a large variety of plant foods, including berries, nuts, seeds, tubers, bulbs, leaves, shoots, legumes, and grains. Those living in temperate or warmer climates often consumed over 100 species of wild plants. People ate only cage free animals (of course) and utilized a larger proportion of the animal for food than many people today. They consumed the fat, marrow, muscle meat, and organs. They often sought out specific foods for expecting mothers to ensure healthy children. They ate 100% local. And, perhaps most important, they were not dogmatic about their diet (again, it was diverse). There are, of course, different factions within this diet. For example, dairy did not exist because wild animals had not yet been domesticated; therefore, strict adherents to the Paleo Diet avoid dairy (for what it is worth, there have been isolated people living in Europe and Africa that utilized grass‐fed, raw dairy as a major food source and experienced excellent health).

Unfortunately, most Paleo Diet authors are not ethnobotanists and do not understand the differences between cultivated fruits and vegetables and their wild ancestors (e.g. in previous paragraphs).

For wild people around the world there were no seedless grapes. The eggplant didn’t exist. Corn was a grass with two rows of kernels concealed inside very hard fruit cases. And watermelon (its ancestor) was a small, seeded, extremely bitter fruit about the size of a lemon. The point is that these foods aren’t ancestral foods and represent an agricultural food—foods that have been genetically modified through breeding and subsequently possess altered nutrition. Some Paleo Diet authors also exclude foods that were in fact consumed by indigenous people, such as nightshades, certain grains, and salt. I would argue that the current Paleo Diet (as perceived by the public) is beneficial (especially through eliminating foods that detract from health) but has many areas for refinement.

You may still be thinking that you get enough nutrition from cultivated plants (and domesticated animals) and that you needn’t look any further. Understand that you genome, the exact sequences of nucleotides, is almost identical to people living 50,000 years ago. But clearly something has changed, and that is the expression of genes. The food you eat has a profound effect on genetic expression (the turning on and off of genes that code for proteins). In fact, as much as 30% of the expression of your genome is affected by the plants you eat (through tiny structures called micro RNAs). If we add up the sum total of food’s effect on our genome, it is even more substantial. Therefore, it seems prudent to consume foods that have a long history of positively impacting the functioning of our genetic machinery.

Probably the Paleo Diet’s largest shortcoming is that is doesn’t strongly advocate for wild food. Browse any popular Paleo Diet book or website and you will find recipes for pumpkin smoothies, zucchini cakes, and apple sauce (note: none of these fruits existed in their current forms until quite recently and all of them show altered phytochemistry compared to their wild progenitors). I’ve yet to see a Paleo Diet book that shows people how to process acorns (a former staple on four continents). Few authors discuss the merits of wild, seeded fruits. And no one puts together a realistic view of the seasonality of foods. For example, many health‐conscious people assume eating fresh salad greens year‐round is an important part of a healthy diet. However, fresh greens were not available to people living in temperate regions (or colder) for much of the year. Yet, ultimately, the health of the people living on these wild diets was not compromised. Our idea of seasonal foods is highly skewed by long‐distance transportation that delivers food from around the globe.

So what do I advocate? Limit the consumption of new foods or old foods processed in new ways. Remember, you are experimenting on yourself when you consume such foods, and the intergenerational effects of a new diet are hard to initially determine. Go beyond what the Paleo Diet is espousing. Eat actual wild food—as much as you can (not simply things that mimic wild food). Understand the changes that have occurred to cultivated plants. When you purchase cultivated plants, seek out forms that more closely resemble their wild ancestors (e.g., blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, seeded grapes, ground‐cherries, mulberries, mustard greens, whole grains from more ancient species, yucca root). Avoid large, super‐sweet, seedless forms (forms that couldn’t even exist without our care because they have lost the ability to defend themselves from herbivores). Follow the seasonality of foods more closely. If you live in a region that receives a lot of snow, your plant foods should be very different that time of year than what you consume during the growing season. Learn to appreciate stronger flavors, including bitters and resins. These indicate the phytochemistry of the plant is intact and the medicine is still present (i.e., it has not been bred out). Learn to derive nutrition from your local landscape (when possible) using indigenous methods. Your health, awareness, and self‐reliance will increase in extraordinary ways. Your impact on the planet will diminish. Finally, be creative and resourceful (i.e., adapt). It is the hallmark of wild people.

Plant Foods of the Paleo Diet

Paleo Diet Myths

About: Arthur Haines ~ He is an acclaimed research botanist, Author, Teaches foraging and aboriginal skills, New England Wild Flower Society and curator, Delta Institute of Natural History Herbarium.

For more information visit The Delta Institute Website

Additional Resources:

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Purchase foraging books:  http://www.arthurhaines.com/ancestral_plants.html

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