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.
You may wonder why I, as someone who does not consume milk, would care about The Raw Milk Revolution. But this book has important implications for anyone who eats outside the mainstream. While I do consider raw milk a relatively risky food, I think it should be up to individuals to make the choice whether to consume it or not. As far as the argument that children can't make that choice, are we going to prosecute every parent that feeds their child potentially deadly food? I don't think the government has enough money to go after all the parents who feed their children massive amounts of sugar. Besides that, this book makes the point that illness from raw milk is very very uncommon. Why is the government spending massive amounts of money going after small farmers and not the large companies that poison millions every year?
- Charcuterie: producing good sausages is hard unless you have lots of money because it has to be made in licensed commercial facility with an approved recipe. Some lucky people are able to get it illegally.
- Lungs and thyroid tissue. I ate these foods in Central Europe and they were nutritious and delicious. They are illegal despite the fact that there are methods of slaughter that completely mitigate the risks associated with them.
- Wild game, well unless you know a hunter. The venison at the store is farmed and often fattened on grains. You can buy true wild game from Scotland, where it is legal to sell, from D'artagnan. Sweden also allows the sale of wild game and it's not like wildlife has disappeared there.
If you think of any more, please email me at mgmcewen @ gmail . com
Last night I heard a lecture by Jennifer McLagan, author of the book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient With Recipes. The audience members were mostly foodies, who have really embraced fat in the past few years, but Jennifer gave an impassioned lecture on why they should embrace even more fat and throw out industrial oils. She talked about how the government, lobbied by industry, encouraged people to substitute "healthy" oils and margarine for animal fat, but how our health since has gotten worse, not better.
She revealed how many vegetable oils are so highly processed that you can't even tell if they are rancid or not, and she said most of them are. It makes sense, as in processing they are exposed to heat, and then stored in clear bottle so they are exposed to light. Heat and light are the agents of rancidity. Consuming rancid oils is highly linked to inflammation and to make the deal worse, most of the oils are high in omega-6, which is also inflammatory. She told us to use animal fats from pastured animals, which hold up well to cooking and have a ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 appropriate for humans.
Jennifer talked about the least appreciated animal fats, suet and tallow, and how we are missing out on hearty flavorful foods featuring them. Personally, I just discovered tallow and it's harder to cook with than lard because of its strong flavor. However, when used in a way that accents and offsets that flavor, it is absolutely delicious.
I was shocked to hear that milk laws in Canada, where she lives, do not allow for the production of artisan butter! Jennifer talked about the wonderful complex flavors in grass-fed butter and how much our health has declined since we have discarded it in many baked goods for oil and more sugar to offset the loss of flavor.
What can we do to bring fat back? Jennifer said we all have to lose our irrational fear of animal fat and start cooking with it. She said the loss of home cooking is what has really destroyed our diets, making us serfs of companies that simply use whatever is cheapest. Most people don't know what tallow is and they certainly don't know how to use it.
It's a little distressing in the paleo community how oil still reigns. Even if it's the healthier oils, coconut and olive, they still wouldn't have been a part of our ancestor's diets. Learning how to render and use these fats is something everyone on any diet can benefit from. Her cookbook is a wonderful resource for overcoming fat-phobia. It's also wonderfully appropriate as a gift for friends. It's not preaching a diet, it's just celebrating the wonders of fat.
What's also true is that E. coli only showed up so prolifically in the guts of cows since they've been fed corn in the last 50 years or so. A starchy food the grass-eaters didn't evolve to consume, corn produces an acidic mess in their stomachs that E. coli bacteria apparently loves.
I just realized today that you could totally rewrite that sentence and it would still be true.
What's also true is that E. coli only showed up so prolifically in the guts of human since they've been fed so much corn in the last 50 years or so. A starchy food the meat and vegetable eaters didn't evolve to consume, corn produces an acidicmess in their stomachs that E. coli bacteria apparently loves.
It's not just acidic stomachs of cattle that E. Coli love, it's acidic stomachs of humans too. The amount of food poisoning cases attributed to pathogens that aren't big fans of acid, like salmonella, has dropped. Well, except for in the other extreme end up acidity, which is the growing population treated with drugs like Proton Pump Inhibitors that reduce acid too much, thus leaving them susceptible to other nasty types of food poisoning.
All that is clear is that in the US our stomachs are a mess. We should make an effort to get them back to normal by elimating both grains and acid-reducing drugs.
Someone on a forum was going on and on about grains being A.O.K. because traditional societies like the Japanese or some of Weston A. Price's healthy cultures ate them and were not obese. I think he misses the point, but also underscores a very annoying misconception. Many of my friends have told me that they have no need for anything like the paleo diet because they are skinny and always have been.
But last time I checked skinny does not equal healthy. There are all kinds of health problems a skinny person can have and new studies show that within a single person insulin sensitivity may vary. Skinny programmers chugging Mountain Dew might be lucky enough to have belly fat tissue that is not insulin sensitive, but they might still be damaging other organs.
A paleo diet is about avoiding diseases of civilization. Obesity is just one of those diseases. I think well-planned veganism can do wonders for improving weight, cholesterol, and other basic measures of metabolic syndrome, but I do not believe it is the diet that brings out the best in the human body. I did raw grain-free veganism for time and like many people I initially felt good, probably because of all the wheat and dairy I wasn't eating, but eventually I just felt diminished. I alternated between fruit-induced sugar highs and extreme fatigue. I mainly just felt hungry. I realized that vegetables just don't have many calories and you have a choice of eating massive amounts of sugar from fruit or massive amounts of omega-6 fatty acids from nuts. I feel the paleo diet has the optimal amount of nutrients, in the best ratios, and in forms that are easily utilized by the human body (bioavailable). That's important, because many of us have damaged our bodies with junk and we need to do more than avoid obesity, we need the nutrients to repair.
Many other raw vegans, including The Raw Model, a popular raw blogger, have found that their health has improved dramatically since they added animal products.
Societies like the Japanese avoided many problems by eating a diet low in total calories, but they did not reach their potential for height and bone development until fairly recently (incidentally as consumption of meat and fish has increased). It's the same with many agrarian societies: they aren't obese, but they aren't completely healthy either. There is plenty we can learn from peasant diets, but we can do better than peasants who worked a backbreaking day on very little in the way of calories.
I think a sugar-free vegan or agrarian diet is certainly a step in the right direction and an agrarian diet can be made optimal with the careful addition of small amounts of meat and fish and by the fermentation of grains, dairy, and legumes. But the animal component of the diet has to be foods like liver and sardines, not skinless boneless chicken breast.
In the end people can go on and on about fruits and vegetables, but that's not where the calories are. The big question is where you are going to get the calories and whether you want to burn sugars or fats. Plants might enhance your health, but your fuel is going to make a bigger difference. I encourage anyone who hasn't read Good Calories, Bad Calories to get a copy or at least check out the detailed notes.
Interested in seeing the blogs of Swedes eating paleo, I did a search for stenåldersmat, which roughly translates to Stone Age Food. A good word to know in case you have to explain your diet to a Swedish person for some strange reason.
Chicken meatballs, eggs, mango, avocado
I found this blog, the pictures are really lovely and even if you don't know Swedish, the meals look great. The title of the blog in English is Wellness with Stone Age Food.
Sweden is home to both Paleo diet researcher Staffan Lindeberg and low-carb maven Dr. Annika Dahlqvist. Annika is like the Swedish Dr. Eades and you can read her blog in weirdly translated English here. Incidentally, she has also used the diet to treat IBS.
Swedes discuss the paleo diet at www.paleodiet.nu
Sweden also has a large population of celiacs, so gluten-free (gluten-fri) is well understood by most restaurants and every grocery store has a wealth of gluten-free products. While soy and oat milks are popular, almond and other nut milks are unheard of.
This blog discusses the major obstacles to eating paleo in Sweden: godis (mixed candies, typically gummies and licorice), fried snacks, and the popularity of carby alcoholic drinks.