I would hate for people to think that the paleo diet is about recovering some "paradise lost." Just because peasant agriculture was miserable for most people doesn't mean foraging was a walk in the part. Almost every foraging culture studied has a wide range of remedies for illness and medicine men are revered. Hunter-gatherers suffered from malaria, tuberculosis, parasites, wounds from wild animal bites, and all sorts of horrendous infections.
The preferred medicine against diarrhea was clay, kaolin-like powders or pulverized bone ash while bee larva, certain tree barks and the fruits of two trees were eaten to relieve constipation.
But many detractors of the paleo diet point to studies of more modern hunter-gatherer cultures to draw out evidence they were ill. We have to remember that what is left on that lifestyle is people who were able to survive on the worst lands not coveted by farmers. The Inuit or the San diet might be healthier than most American diets, but neither is really similar to the diet of paleolithic people.
In Innu mythology, Matshishkapeu (literally the "Fart Man") is the most powerful spirit—even more powerful than the Caribou Master, Kanipinikassikueu. He proved himself when the Kanipinikassikueu refused to give the Innu any caribou to eat. Matshishkapeu was so angry that he cursed the Caribou Master with a painful case of constipation.
It's even possible we could do better. For example, both the high and low fiber diets of hunter-gatherers are touted as solutions to digestive problems, but digestive ailments clearly still plagued cultures eating both diets. Personally, I try to eat the vegetables that work for me and I don't worry about counting fiber. I'm pretty such that if I ate the bazillion grams of fiber the San eat, I would feel pretty sick. Maybe that's what anecdotes like this convey: there is lots of learn from hunter-gatherer and ancestral diets, but imitating their fiber consumption with BRAN4LIFE bread is on the same level as imitating snake bite wounds by keeping your own pet PALEOvipers.
Despite all that hunter-gatherers suffered, the paleo diet is about avoiding diseases of civilization, and it seems they did that well. We should eat like them, but still with an eye to the fact that they ate what they could to survive.
Postscript: I think many of the stomach problems attributed to hunter-gatherers were probably post-infectious or in the case of the Inuit, because of a lean time...literally...Vilhjalmur Stefansson found that without ample amount of fat, stomach issues ensued.
Are you still putting your leftovers in Tupperware or old plastic takeout containers? Well, you are not alone and that just mystifies me. When I see someone putting their short ribs into a scratched container that they got when they ordered Chinese food ten years ago, I want to tell them about Ball jars...and how they are ballin'
You see, plastic isn't all its cracked up to be. It scratches, possibly getting plastic into your food and leaving a nice little home for bacteria. Many plastics also leech cancer-causing toxins, especially when put in the dish washer or god forbid, the microwave. Tupperware is probably the safest, but some contain the dreaded BPA and have they really done studies on long-term use?
I always hated how difficult it was to get grease off of plastic containers anyway and I eat plenty of grease.
Luckily, one day out of the blue I was given a large amount of small wide-mouthed Ball mason jars. I started putting everything in them and they are awesome! They don't scratch and you can easily put them in the dishwasher. We can all agree that glass is just about the safest thing you can put things in.
But don't they shatter if you even look at them the wrong way? Nope, I have the visual acuity of a naked mole rat and the grace of a hippo and I have carried them on the subway, on horses, and pretty much everywhere and I have never broken one ever.
Anyway, I think jars are awesome and I scavenge them greedily, trying to stay ahead of my main competitors: the sugar-loving canning crew. I have bought some awesome ones too, mainly large ones from the dollar store that now proudly hold lard and bone stock.
There is plenty to learn from traditional cultures, but it's also important to remember that they didn't know everything and there are plenty of traditions that are foolish in the light of modern science. I thought of that because of an article I was just reading about malnutrition in Vietnam in Fast Company called Find A Bright Spot And Clone It adapted from the upcoming book Switch. Apparently many poor children were malnourished, but not all; these were the "bright spot kids". What made the healthy kids different? Apparently, what their mothers fed them:
The healthy kids were eating different kinds of food. The bright-spot mothers were collecting tiny shrimp and crabs from the rice paddies and mixing them in with their kids' rice. (Shrimp and crabs were eaten by adults, but they weren't considered appropriate food for kids.) The mothers also tossed in sweet-potato greens, which were considered a low-class food. These dietary improvisations, however strange or "low class," were doing something precious: adding sorely needed protein and vitamins to their children's diet.
In many ways the paleo diet is about tradition, but it does better than that by adding in the scientific and analytical aspect. Seaweed isn't traditional Southern food, but by bucking Southern traditions I've provided myself with a good source of iodine.
This might come to shock you, but when I first started the paleo diet I almost never cooked. I had two technology jobs, a full courseload, and the only kitchen appliances I had in my closet-like apartment were a micro-fridge and a microwave.
But I still managed to get healthier simply by making better decisions while eating out. I think cooking is a great way to bring a paleo diet to the next level in terms of eliminating all vegetable oils/gluten/sugar and eating nutritious and inexpensive foods like home-made stock and bone marrow, but it's not required! Especially in NYC, many people have jobs that pay well, but leave them little time to cook. Eating out is a reality in NYC.
Fortunately, there are plenty of nutritious options. Since I've been saving money by packing a lunch, I can't say I know all of the, but here are a few good medium-priced (if you have a job that leaves you unable to cook, I at least hope you can afford to eat medium-priced) meals I've had:
- Chipotle was a major staple for me when I did eat out in college. The meat is high-quality, though they never give you enough. Order a salad topped with meat and their delicious veggies.
- FreefoodsNYC is a good choice too, especially given the raw options. I ate there recently and had wild salmon, roasted root vegetables, a flax pizza with vegetable pate, and a marinated mushroom topped with cashew cream.
- The Pump Energy Food recently put out a funny commercial that starts out well enough with a skewering of cereal, but then goes downhill with a misguided criticism of fat. Their menu is a little lower in fat than I'd like and they do have some crap artificial sweeteners and soy protein. Salads can be topped with bison, braised beef, or several other lean meats, then some vegetables like balsamic-marinated mushrooms, and some spicy sauces. Unfortunately the only option they have for "good fat" toppings that is half way paleo is guacamole. When are people going to realize that lard is a good fat?
- It sounds like newcomer 4Food will offer some low-carb options and have grass-fed beef.
- Sushi places usually have sashimi as an option.
- In Koreatown you can easily get such delicacies as short ribs and pork belly at numerous little delis, though the quality of the meat tends to be mixed.
- Eat on the street! Food cart Schnitzel and Things offers bratwust and some delicious beet salad. I also enjoy the Taiwanese food at the cart NYC cravings, though I find they get disgruntled if you try to refuse rice. And of course, Hallo Berlin, which has even more delicious Bratwurst!
On the more expensive side, I think it's even easier. Fine restaurants usually accept food limitations with grace and NYC is currently awash in love for fatty meaty foods. Momofuku is a favorite of mine and the Eating Paleo in NYC group recently had a meetup there where we dined on fatty pork wrapped in lettuce leaves. I also hear The Breslin is amazing.
Breakfast at The Breslin
On some level it's also about learning to say no. When the breadbasket comes to the table, it seems ungracious to send it back, but sometimes health comes at a price.
Another nutritious food that is banned in the US is haggis, the traditional Scottish sheep offal delicacy. There were some reports this week that the ban had been lifted, but alas, these were squashed.
The sheep offal delight had been banned in the United States since the ‘80s due to BSE fears, but now Scotland’s most famous dish is back on the American dinner table. (Via Andrew Sullivan) Update 3:01 p.m. PT: Sorry, haggis fans. A representative from the Department of Agriculture writes, “At this time, haggis is still banned in the U.S. The APHIS rule covers all ruminant imports, which includes haggis. It is currently being reviewed to incorporate the current risk and latest science related to these regulations. There is no specific time frame for the completion of this review.”
Sheep lungs are not legal for consumption in the US and unlike wild game, which is legal to import providing you follow a ridiculous number of rules, you also can't import it. That doesn't mean that lungs are completely off the menu. If you live in a major city you can usually find them in ethnic enclaves.
Gene Expression has a facinating post on the transition from foraging to agriculture and how it affected human welfare. The graph Razib drew is interesting:
Thinking about it in a dietary context, I added a green line. Of course it is a rough approxamation. It would certainly be interesting to do a really well-researched version of this graph taking into account the archeological evidence, but this graph does show some important things. We in the modern era (well, some of us in 1st world countries at least) are lucky in many ways, as mortality is pretty much lower than its ever been. We don't have to worry very much about ourselves and our children getting felled by a random infection or being eaten by wild animals. But the so-called diseases of civilization really keep us from living up to our full genetic potential.
Where on this timeline do you want to eat? There are actually several good choices that seem to allow one to avoid diseases of civilization.
- The paleolithic diet, emulating hunter-gatherers.
- The mesolithic diet, emulating peoples who would have eaten small amounts of agricultural products, but also would have supplemented with wild foods. I think some diets that are similar to this would be the acorn-based diets of some Native west coast cultures or the reindeer-herding Sami. Many foraging cultures that survived beyond the paleolithic, don't really eat a diet that would be considered paleolithic. Reliance on nuts as a major food source, for example, seems to start after the paleolithic period.
- and traditional nutrition, which emulates the diet of healthy peasant societies. The modern Weston A. Price society aims for this diet.
I suppose it all depends on that dotted line from this graph on Demeter's Legacy. Certainly, there are both cultural (soaking and fermenting grains) and genetic adaptations that make agricultural food less harmful to humans. Eliminating the basic poisons of the Industrial Revolution like refined sugars and grains is often enough to restore health. I suppose it is up to you as an individual to decide if you are experiencing maladaptation from an agricultural diet. The cause of maladaption could be genetic, but it also could be that the illnesses developed on an inappropriate diet require going back to the basics. I feel that is certainly the case for me.
I admit it, sometimes I crave snacks. When it's movie night and everyone is eating popcorn (and yes, corn is a grain), being paleo can mean feeling left out. Of course there are nuts, but I like to watch my consumption of those because while they have lots of nutrients, they can also mess up your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 if you eat too much.
Lately my new favorite snack is kale chips! In Brooklyn, NY Naturals sells a raw vegan version with a zesty flavor that I love. They are popular with vegans, but they are a great choice for cavepeople (or whatever we are calling ourselves these days) or low carbers in general.
While I prefer the texture of kale chips made in a dehydrator, you can also make them at home as well. Here is a standard oven recipe. I make a variant using coconut oil instead of olive oil and my own handground spice mixture of cumin and coriander. If you do dairy, they are pretty delicious with just a little grated Parmesan.
The Fast Runner trilogy is available free online. The films are made by Inuits and for Inuits and are a great window into a way of life that few of us are truly aware of beyond "Eskimo" stereotypes.
"All animal carcasses shown in the film were used properly, for food or for their hides." The Inuit have been devastated by Western foods, but remain relatively healthy compared to other First Nations tribes like the Pima in the US, probably because hunting traditions still persist. But they have to fight to keep their lifestyle and foodways legal in the face of Western opposition to hunting.
This paper explores the diets of gorillas and uses it to recommend a diet for humans low in fat and high in dietary fiber. This is a common mistake. Dozens of vegetarian groups say that because the great apes are vegetarians (which they aren't...but animal food intake is fairly low) that humans are also naturally vegetarians. The most extreme groups say we should eat only fruit because, as primates, we thrive on sugar.
But read the paper carefully. The gorilla diet is very very high in fiber, but that fiber is getting converted into free fatty acids. This conversion is vital for gorillas, providing them with 57% of their calories. That leaves 15.8% of calories from carbohydrate, making the gorilla a defacto low carber! Humans claiming to emulate ape diets by eating lots of fruit aren't able to get the same nutrition. Fruits that are palatable to humans are much higher in sugar and lower in fiber than what the great apes eat. Furthermore, the human colon is tiny in comparison to great ape colons, so even if we did eat high-fiber fruit we wouldn't be able to process very much of it into free fatty acids.
Here is why a fruity "ape" diet is bird-brained:
- There is some fermentation of fiber into FFAs in humans, but much less since our colon is only 17% of gut volume. In apes it is typically around 50% of gut volume.
- Since apes are basically converting most of their food into FFAS, they are basically low-carbers. Humans gorging on melons are eating an amount of sugar that no ape in the history of the world has ever eaten.
- Humans are a fairly unusual species. Contrary to popular misconception, gorillas and chimps are our relatives, not our ancestors. Re the latest fossil evidence "indeed, the new evidence suggests that the study of chimpanzee anatomy and behavior—long used to infer the nature of the earliest human ancestors—is largely irrelevant to understanding our beginnings." It also means that comparing our digestive system to lions and cows is pretty pointless since we are a unique clade.
- Humans are the longest lived primates. A diet high in sugar cannot support this longevity. Without modern dental-care, humans eating high sugar diets would not live very long because they would lose all their teeth. Our "natural" diet would not be the one that makes our teeth fall out. Apes experience tooth decay in the wild, but it matters less since they don't live as long.
- Our brains require nutrients like iodine and DHA that simply can't be found on a diet of forest foods. Furthermore, our brains are big and hungry for calories. While modern fruit eaters can survive because of the wealth of sugar-rich fruit at the grocery store, there is no evidence that a homo sapien could survive by foraging for only wild fruit. In fact, there is strong evidence that homo sapiens could not survive in a forest environment at all without access to cultivated foods.
Let's get real about chocolate. First of all not paleo: it requires advanced processing and the addition of sugar to make it edible. If you found the raw fruit growing on the tree it would taste pretty gross.
Second, it's one of the hardest foods to give up. It is admittedly tasty and has a powerful flavor. The problem is that many of us are addicted to it. I used to study alongside a bag of almond chocolate kisses and by the time my term paper was done, I had eaten ALL of them. I was ashamed, but I couldn't stop myself.
Looking back, I had to wonder if it's the mixture of chocolate and either soy or dairy that makes it powerfully addictive. Casein, a major protein in milk, can break down into an opioid that may be addictive. Some people have shifted towards dairy-free dark chocolate bars, but almost all contain soy.
Either way, modern technology and ingredients have made cacao into a food way more addictive than when it was originally used by the Mayans. The Mayans drank the bitter concoctions for religious purposes and it was forbidden to women and children.
My personal experience is that it is best to phase out consumption of chocolate because of the sugar content. I personally started by only consuming "raw" chocolate, which is the least-processed edible form. It's a treat that can teach you to respect the bitter qualities of the substance, while still allowing you to enjoy its culinary virtues.
I eat these treats occasionally:
Artisana Cacao Bliss is made with pureed coconut and just a spoon of this rich concoction satisfies!
Fine & Raw chocolate bars are made with the highest quality full-fat cacao and fully display the complex flavors inherant in the cacao plant.
Or make your own. I made this truffle using a Swedish recipe that is known as Ice Chocolate. Simply mix raw chocolate powder with coconut oil and honey to taste! Roll pureed berries in nuts in the chocolate coconut oil mixture to make truffles.