Christina Warinner, Ph.D. had a fascinating TED talk this past January 2013. She is a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma. Ostensibly, she was debunking the “Paleo” diet as described in popular culture. She had some very valid points that she could back up with some good science.
She pointed out that most of the food available to modern people is a modern agricultural construct. Boccoli, almonds, tomatoes, chicken eggs, etc. did not exist in paleolithic times. The paleolithic versions often were very small, they were seasonal, and they contained toxins that limited consumption. Many foods that could support a small population of hunter/gatherers cannot support a modern, large, static population. A solution for modern people has been that the current food supply is often full of preservatives that inhibit bacterial growth. What does that do to the healthy bacteria that needs to live in our systems? We don’t know.
What do we know about real paleolithic diets and people? The available resources varied widely throughout the world. It was fresh. It was the whole food. Generally, it was not highly processed. It often had a high level of fiber. They ate very lean meat. They also ate the bone marrow and the organs. Many populations ate some grain and legumes but it was limited to the time of year and not a large quantity. They ate much, much less simple sugar. She pointed out that one 32 ounce soda contains approximately the same amount of sugar as 8.5 feet of sugar cane. A paleolithic person couldn’t possibly eat that much.
Most paleolithic people ate a diet that was very diverse. It was also seasonal. People today eat a large portion of their diet focused on three species, corn, wheat, and soy.
The conclusion she finally came to was that we can learn from what paleolithic people ate but we cannot possibly duplicate it. What I heard from her is that the premise of eating what our ancestors ate in concept is correct, but the popular interpretation, the “cave man diet”, is a distortion. High diversity, high quality lean meat, high fiber, whole food, with a low carbohydrate content is consistent with what is known about paleolithic diets and what is known to be healthy.
Photograph by Dave Hutt, www.dmddigitalphoto.com