As I’ve indicated before, I think that, in the absence of perfect information, an awareness of evolution is a useful guide for making decisions about your health. This is particularly true when the difficult question of what to eat emerges: If you knew nothing about the harmful effects of high glycemic foods, chronic inflammation, or gluten but applied an evolutionary guideline to your diet, you would be making the right choices anyway.
This diet, known as the Paleo Diet, is supported by some compelling facts. Our species began experimenting with agriculture only about 10,000 years ago, but has been anatomically modern for about 200,000 years. Agriculture lead to some major shifts in our diet. We moved from a diet of great variety to reliance on a small number of starchy crops with plentiful calories but with less nutritional density. In the brief period since then (from an evolutionary perspective) our bodies haven’t had much chance to adapt.
While it is common to believe that the development of agriculture was unquestionably beneficial for us, the truth of the matter is more complicated. Jared Diamond (author of the excellent and oft-discussed “Guns, Germs, and Steel“) has even gone so far as to say that this was the worst mistake in the history of our species. In addition to pointing out many social ills that agriculture gave rise to, he points out examples of adverse effects on our physical health such as the following:
Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunger-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5′ 9” for men, 5′ 5” for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B. C. had reached a low of only 5′ 3” for men, 5′ for women.
Of course agriculture supported the development of civilization which has brought us at least as many blessings as curses. But having developed our civilization we need not carry on all the habits and sacrifices of our more recent and physically diminished ancestors by eating their unhealthy diets.
So what does a Paleo Diet look like?
The simple answer is that a Paleo Diet consists of the kinds and proportions of foods our paleolithic ancestors would have had access to. More specifically, adherents of the Paleo Diet emphasize the importance of vegetables, lean meats, fish, shellfish, healthy natural fats, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The diet eschews grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, sugar, and dairy.
I recommend reading “The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet” by Robb Wolf for more detailed information and guidance. I also recommend using the Paleo Diet as a guideline to which you adhere 90% of the time. Occasionally it’s just fine to indulge in some post-agricultural treat like dark chocolate.
A Word On Meat
It seems that some people take the Paleo Diet as an excuse to eat lots and lots of meat. While there are populations that survive primarily on animal products my inclination is to aim to eat meat in moderation. There are conflicting findings about diets that include large portions of meat, especially red meat. However, there is no such confusion about vegetables. There is resounding consensus on the benefits of a diet high in fresh vegetables.
In addition to potential health concerns about excessive meat consumption there are serious questions about sustainability and ethics. I normally would not delve into the non-health questions on this blog, but I think these merit some consideration and I have great respect for vegetarians and vegans for considering these issues. I will say, though, that I think both of these issues are at least partially addressed if you take care to consume meat that has been raised on a diet that that animal evolved to eat and living in a manner similar to how it evolved. I would rather eat a healthy animal that got a chance to live a decent life than a sick animal pumped full of drugs in a factory farm.
Thanks for reading. Be well!