It seems unfathomable that the primitive paleolithic man had access to blanched almond meal or coconut nectar. And it’s even less likely that they imported their Celtic sea salt from their club-bearing cousins in northern Europe, just so they could whip up a batch of blueberry muffins. So why, then, have we been drawn so easily in to the paleo diet’s mythology?
“We haven’t evolved to digest grains,” my friend a paleo devotee once told me. I swiftly changed my breakfast order from the bowl of oats I’d been readying myself for. “They cause inflammation,” was the follow up statement, one that is suggestive of heavy research on the topic but is in fact just a line plucked from the blogosphere.
Let me pause for a moment to say that I am not challenging the health benefits of paleo or at least, not entirely. For the most part, it is a collection of good eating practices: it helps stabilise blood sugar and insulin release, a huge factor in lifestyle related disease; it challenges our out dated attitude towards fats; and it promotes a high intake of nutritious whole foods. I myself, along with most of my wellness orientated friends and colleagues, eat a diet that resembles paleo in many ways.
My concern then, is that these healthy habits have been wrapped up in a story, supported by falsified or at the very least exaggerated scientific claims, and spawned yet another fad diet, creating a culture of food shaming and dietary cliques.
‘Paleolithic’ itself is a very vague term that spans a time period of some three million years, and is distinguished by the use of stone tools. It also suggests that there was only one diet during that time, ignoring the fact that the foods available in their environment ultimately determined the diet of paleolithic man. With populations distributed far and wide from our birthplace in eastern Africa, all the way through Asia and Europe, diets between paleolithic populations varied. What’s more is that around thirty thousand years ago, these people were already grinding grains for food, using the exact same stone tools that defined the ‘paleo’ prehistory.
So with the fiction pulled away, what fact remains behind?
Fact: it is the excess, but not the presence, of starches and sugars, especially refined ones that results in disturbance in insulin activity, leading to weight gain, diabetes, and metabolic syndrome.
Fact: these refined carbohydrates also feed gut infections and trigger digestive upset in many people, when consumed in quantities too large for our digestive capacity.
Fact: fats are not the bad guys anymore, and can be eaten in moderation.
Fact: for good health, the vast majority if not all of our diet should be made up of whole foods: vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, meats, eggs, and some whole grains. If in doubt, stick to the perimeter of the supermarket.
Paleo’s biggest risk, though, is the number of very nutritious foods that it casts aside and brands “unhealthy”. Oats, to come back to my unfairly discarded breakfast, are a prime example of an overlooked super food. They lower ‘bad cholesterol,’ promote gut health, and the carbohydrate content helps maintain healthy levels of serotonin our ‘happy hormone’ in our brain. I feel like paleolithic man would have been pretty happy with that.
Photography by Arnaud Domange