Sometimes my pretty strict outlook on nutrition annoys people a little. I've been far removed from the Weight Watchers mentality of "eat everything, but in moderation" for years by now, and have instead stuck by a low carb version of the Paleo diet. Usually the argument against my beliefs stems from the perspective of no same diet can be good for all, and that through the eyes of anthropology we see that we don’t have all the facts of how closely related our biochemistry is to our ancestors, even though that picture has cleared up significantly over the past 5-10 years. Combine this with the fact that we can’t know exactly what they ate, their precise macro nutrient ratio and that they weren’t all hunters and gatherers (some were scavengers and gatherers, and some simply had different tasks within the group which doesn’t change the diet, only daily movement), and we’ve gots ourselves some Christina Warinner-worthy “debunking of the paleo diet” arguments on our hands :) Not really, but still. It’s worth addressing because these are common misconceptions of this diet, which simply has an evolutionary outlook, while being founded in our biochemistry.
Most of us today subscribe to the idea that our diet and lifestyle affects our health and the development of diseases. This means that most of us also subscribe to the idea that each of us hold power over our own health and even to some extent the expression of our genes. I personally believe we hold LOTS of power over our gene expression, but I’ll stick to the “to some extent” belief here because this tends to be a sensitive claim to make. Right here is where the diet of our ancestors gets interesting, because even though their life expectancy was much shorter than ours is today, they didn’t die from the same diseases we do. Instead, their biggest obstacles to overcome were in the form of lack of shelter from mother nature and bacterial infections. Today, our life threats include obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer or autoimmune diseases, all of which arose with the introduction of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. As did poor teeth health, smaller brains and more fragile bones. Just sayin'.
The paleo diet merely holds an evolutionary perspective, and contrary to popular belief, it's not focused on precisely mimicking the diet of our ancestors. How could it? Our foods today are pretty much hybrids of the foods our ancestors had access to, the same way a chihuahua is a hybrid of the wolf.
The principle point of paleo is to draw inspiration from our stronger, healthier ancestors, and adapt our diet to consume foods compatible with our biochemistry. So far, this has meant that grains, legumes, refined sugars (especially sugar), industrial oils and pasteurized dairy products are all foods we've discovered do more harm than good to our bodies, and should therefore be excluded if we are looking to optimize our own health and well being.
Some argue against paleo via evolution, claiming that the human species has adapted to its current consumption patterns. Unfortunately, evolution doesn't occur that fast. 10,000 years is a very short period of time, and it certainly hasn't been enough time for our digestive processes to evolve adaptive traits that optimize the effectiveness of grain and legume consumption. As a consequence, we are sicker than we've ever been, and the question is, who wants to ride through life not feeling good and healthy when you don't have to? After all, the option of choosing foods that offer efficient digestion and absorption for our bodies is available, though they might look and taste a little different than the foods our ancestors ate.
In terms of not one diet is good for all, well, there's no black and white answer to that question because there are some foods that are definitely good for all of us and there are some foods that pose the same threat to all of us. Although our DNA differs from some of our ancestors, our basic biochemistry is similar enough, and within that perhaps the most important one is blood sugar and insulin response. We developed the insulin response to help store excess nutrients and to take extra glucose out of the bloodstream. This was an adaptive trait that worked well when we weren't eating a grain-filled, carb based diet. Unless you just did a major workout or you lead an over-the-top activity-filled life with movement for the most part of your day, you're probably storing your carbs as fat, which really is just one negative side effect of too much insulin. By now we know that too much insulin is troublesome in many, many ways, but perhaps the most commonly known issues involve insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes (and maybe even type 3 diabetes, aka Alzheimer’s), cardiovascular disease and cancer. So as far as our similarities with our ancestors go and how much it matters...well, it’s true that we are not exactly the same, but we are similar enough. Just like we are similar enough to many other mammals such as our beloved pets, as well as mice; hence why testing on mice actually is efficient and pretty damn accurate, with the reservation that the limitations are understood.
Taking all this evolutionary knowledge and modern science into consideration, it's safe to say that no one is set up to be thriving on grains and legumes. It's a no-go for all, because no one has intestines that can bypass the anti-nutrients found in them. Dairy is very questionable, but that's really a different post. However, this doesn't mean we don't have to look at our individual biochemistry and what it needs. Insulin sensitivity is a little different in each of us (although we can affect it through diet), so some people can handle a few more carbs then others. We also live completely different lives. Some of us are incredibly stressed, some of us are very active, and some very under-active. Some of us suffer from anxiety and depression. Or maybe an autoimmune disease. All of this should be taken into consideration with our diet, and the best way to figure out what works for YOU is to experiment on yourself. How do you feel after eating sweet potatoes? How do you feel eating almost no carbs? How do you feel when you fast? Through trial and error, you will get to know your own body, and become capable of taking charge of your health.
Am I sure that the Paleo diet is the best diet for us? Is the paleo diet the same for all? The obvious answer to the first question is that I am not sure. Nobody can be 100% sure that drawing inspiration from our ancestors is the right way to go. They can't be considered right by default. This is why we need science. So far, all of the good science points us in the direction of our ancestors, but that's all we know today. My answer to the second question is that the paleo diet is absolutely not the same for all, nor should it be, because even though we share the same biochemistry, we are all different individuals with different lives and needs. The main reason for starting and sticking to a paleo-inspired diet should stem from acknowledging the health of our ancestors, combined with utilizing what modern science is teaching us about or bodies, as well as an urge to take full responsibility for our own health. XO