The Paleo Diet…does it work? What is it really? There have been a number of books devoted to the subject, and it has a dedicated following and a number of gurus and proponents.
The appeal seems justified enough…obviously the highly processed diet that is sometimes called “The Standard American Diet” — rightly SAD by acronym! — is not what we were meant to eat. We look around as see collectively we are not flourishing on such a diet.
So what do we eat if we want an ancestral diet? Whom would we turn to for answers. Logically biology.
Enter Rob Dunn, a biologist and writer at North Carolina State University. He takes on the subject of the “paleo diet,” in a lengthy and fascinating article, “Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians,” for Scientific American that goes into some great depth about the human digestive system and how it has changed over thousands of years and what are the implications for dieters today. Here’s just a sampling.
. Although “Paleolithic” diets in diet books tend to be very meaty, reasonable minds disagree as to whether ancient, Paleolithic diets actually were. Fortunately, new research suggests answers (yes, plural) to the question of what our ancestors ate.
The resolutions come, in part, from considering the question of our diets in a broader evolutionary context. When we talk about “paleo” diets, we arbitrarily tend to start with one set of ancestors, our most recent ones. I want to eat like Homo erectus or a Neanderthal or a stone age human, my neighbors testify. But why do we choose these particular ancestors as starting points? They do seem tough and admirable in a really strong five o’ clock shadow sort of way. But if we want to return to the diet our guts and bodies evolved to deal with, perhaps we should also be looking our earlier ancestors. In addition to understanding early humans and other hominids, we need to understand the diet of our ancestors during the time when the main features of our guts, and their magical abilities to turn food into life, evolved. The closest (albeit imperfect) proxies for our ancestral guts are to be found in the living bodies of monkeys and apes.
And in another passage, he has this to say:
“Which paleo diet should we eat? The one from twelve thousand years ago? A hundred thousand years ago? Forty million years ago? IF we want to return to our ancestral diets, the ones we ate when most of the features of our guts were evolving, we might reasonably eat what our ancestors spent the most time eating during the largest periods of the evolution of our guts. If that is the case, we need to be eating fruits, nuts, and vegetables—especially fungus-covered tropical leaves.”
You can read the article in its entirety here. You can learn more about the author, Rob Dunn at his official Web site robrdunn.com. I found it a comprehensive and informative look at what our ancestors and what they ate might tell us about ourselves. The answer — or answers plural, as he points out — do not easily fit in the buzz and hype of the “paleo diet.” As you might imagine, the article has brought forth numerous comments and some online discussion, so typical of the “diet wars” as I call them. But still, if we are willing we can avoid succumbing to dieting hype and find the real diets that work, that have a long track record of success. That’s why we see so many who have made major changes after watching the landmark documentary Forks Over Knives.
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