First popularized by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin, the Paleolithic diet is an interesting topic. The Paleolithic diet is based upon commonly available modern foods, but reducing grains, beans and potatoes. When our ancestors were living in the Paleolithic era, they were hunter/gatherers. Our nomadic forefathers lived off the land extruding as much caloric value as they possibly could through foods like meats, nuts, fruit and eggs. Grains, beans and potatoes did not play into this diet. Why? Because when not cooked, they are highly toxic. In fact, it is their toxic properties that made them so suitable for sedentary life. Huh? That's right poisonous starches...
Grains, beans and potatoes contain enzyme blockers and lectins. Enzyme blockers act as natural pesticides. They keep these foods in their mature state longer but also make them difficult to digest when raw. One horrible belly ache is all it took to stop animals and cavemen humans from casually grazing on them. Lectins, found in seeds, beans and cereal grains, are proteins that slow growth. Lectins prevent rotting - holding these foods in kind of a suspended animation, but they can also have adverse effects on our insides.
Enter fire. In the Neolithic age, it was discovered by our great predecessors that cooking grains, beans and potatoes significantly reduces their illness-inducing properties. Hello carbohydrate-rich diet! Early man’s ability to eat formerly poisonous foods led to great strides. These foods were easily stored, contained huge amounts of calories for their size and were able to support large populations living in smaller quarters. Plant a few trees, domesticate some animals, and suddenly our species did not have to work so hard to survive. Humans could now focus on the aspects that set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, honing our crafts and exploring our craftiness. Fast-forward about 12,000 years and voila! Here you are!
But, is this healthy? Scientists suggest that as we’ve adapted to growing and importing foods that would not otherwise be available year-round, our stomachs have adjusted as well. A strong argument to support our gastrointestinal progress is the fact that humans are the only mammals that have evolved to develop enzymes capable of digesting dairy after weaning. Many societies in our modern world today live largely on the Neolithic foods of grains, beans and potatoes. We love to use carbohydrates to energize us before working out. Sugary flour treats are used to mark special occasions. Try and convince Italians that pasta is not a suitable dietary staple… Our eating habits have certainly changed since our paleolithic days!
I love the idea of eating locally and according to seasonal availability, and this is what a paleolithic diet at its most basic level is all about. Living in China for a year, it was interesting to eat differently as the seasons changed. Even though I was not gathering produce myself as paleolithic people would have done, it was nice to know that the money I was spending on fruits and veggies was going directly to the hands of the person who picked it, or a first-degree family member thereof.
However, growing up in the affluent western world, I have been spoiled in a city where feta cheese, salsa, sushi and curry are all available with the touch of an iPhone and could be delivered to my door within thirty minutes. I cannot say that I am an expert on the subject, but after doing some research, I am not at all surprised that many of us today are plagued with conditions like lactose intolerance, gluten allergies, IBS or chrons. It seems with modernization, we have moved further and further away from what is safe and natural for our bodies to eat.
It is of great debate whether a Paleolithic diet is healthier than a Neolithic one. As human life evolves and develops more complicated technologies and ways of controlling our surroundings, so too do we develop mutations within us to deal with these changes. Is it possible that our developing super enzymatic intestines are contributing to increases in heart disease, obesity and depression in our time? Maybe. Try out a Paleolithic diet for a month, and see how you feel.