We're all familiar with the landscape of our lives. I'm not speaking in a metaphorical sense; rather, I am speaking in terms of the many eateries that overwhelm us on a daily basis. The donuts, the burgers, the sodas, even the so-called “healthy” options at many restaurants bear down upon us and confuse the issue of what is truly a healthy and balanced diet. Between the noise from the vegetarians, the vegans, the low-carbohydrate camp, the high-protein camp, and every fad detox plan on the market, reaching a true consensus as to what exactly is the right kind of fuel for your body is nearly impossible.
However, as Dr. Loren Cordain explains in his book, The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat, knowing what foods are good for you is simple when you understand how evolution has designed humans. According to Cordain, “The Agricultural Revolution began 10,000 years ago – just a drop in the bucket compared to the 2.5 million years that humans have lived on Earth. Until that time – just 500 generations ago – everyone on the planet ate lean meats, fresh fruits and vegetables.” Humans evolved while eating a diet free from the toxins that most of us now ingest on a daily basis: starches, legumes, grains, refined sugars and hydrogenated oils. But in the same way that we would not expect a car to run well if it needed gasoline and was instead given milk, we cannot expect our bodies to function correctly when we fuel them with food so vastly different than what they require.
Dr. Patrick Clarkin, an anthropologist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, studies biocultural and evolutionary models in anthropology, particularly in human nutrition growth and development. When asked about the modern day diet, he explained that “the stuff that we're eating today is mostly grains: corn, wheat, rice.” But why is this wrong? What exactly did these paleolithic ancestors of ours eat? The answer is really fairy simple: lots of lean meats, fresh vegetables, fruits, and occasionally some nuts and honey. It's pretty logical when you think about it; our hunting and gathering ancestors didn't have Monsanto Round-Up Ready soybeans, cows that were tame enough to milk, or the chemical engineering knowledge necessary to create the spray dried egg white peptides needed to produce processed foods. They ate what they could hunt and gather, and because of this, they were free from our modern day ailments such as high blood pressure, obesity and diabetes. And yet, here is the inherent paradox of the Agricultural Revolution: the agricultural methods that allowed civilization to flourish allowed us to develop the technology to test high blood pressure, to engineer the foods that have contributed to the rise of obesity and diabetes, and to write articles like this one. Simply put: we have the ability to criticize our diet today only because we are not constantly hunting our next meal.
Yet, we have paid a great price for our rise into civilization. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2006 heart disease was the leading cause of death in the United States. And yet hypertension, a leading risk for heart disease, is almost unheard of in the few indigenous hunter and gather populations still in existence today. Cordain explains further: “The Yanomamo Indians of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela, to whom salt was unknown in the late 1960s and early 1970s, were absolutely free from hypertension. Their blood pressure didn't increase with age and remained remarkably low by today's standards.” Though animal products have been demonized by many medical experts as a major contributor to heart disease, among modern day hunter and gather societies, a diet centered around these foods is the norm. Cordain highlights a research study with Greenland Eskimos, where “not one death from heart disease – or even a single heart attack – occurred in 2,600 [people] from 1968 to 1978.” To fully understand this astounding data, Cordain elaborates: “For a similar group of 2,600 people in the United States over a ten-year period, the expected number of deaths from heart disease would be about twenty-five.” Clearly, those groups that still adhere to the nutritional principles of their paleolithic ancestors are in far better health than their “modernized” human counterparts.
In order to fully comprehend just how destructive our dietary changes have been to our bodies, it is necessary to understand how our DNA structure has changed since the dawn of the Agricultural Revolution, only some 10,000 years ago. By analyzing the fossil record, such a comparison is possible. As Cordain writes, “DNA evidence shows that genetically, humans have hardly changed at all (to be specific, the human genome has changed less than 0.02 percent) in 40,000 years.” And yet, the human diet has changed drastically within the last 10,000 years, and even more drastically within the last hundred years, thanks to the advent of modern food science and agriculture. It may be odd to think of the fossil record and your dinner plate in the same context, but these two are completely intertwined. Clarkin elaborates on this disconnect: “I think a lot of people feel as if evolution is this obscure topic, where it actually has utilitarian principles. It's not just a theory. I mean, trying to reconstruct a diet is difficult, especially when we're talking about 40,000 years ago. But we can make some educated guesses.”
But even with those educated guesses and proof of medical benefits, the paleolithic way of eating simply isn't sustainable for today's world. The Agricultural Revolution came about, and allowed humans to reproduce with greater success, and now there simply isn't enough to hunt and gather to feed our massive numbers. When I asked Dr. Clarkin if he would ever consider switching to a paleolithic diet, he replied with a laugh. “I do try to stay away from simple sugars. I think about what we supposedly have evolved to eat. [The Paleolithic Diet is] too radical for me, and maybe I'm just lazy. It would be great to just pull away from society, but there are almost seven billion people on the planet now, and hunting and gathering is now a complete impossibility; there's no place to go.” Again, the inherent paradox of the Agricultural Revolution is present. The same food that triggers allergic reactions in my body, the same food that increases my risk of hypertension, the same food that leads to obesity and chronic illness – this is the same food that my neolithic ancestors ate on their path to develop the intellect, technology and infrastructure that made the writing of this article possible today.