This blog is about the intersection between evolutionary biology and food. But also about practical applications, sustainable agriculture, and general tasty things.
Over the years I've been involved in this community, I've met many many people who have seen their health improve when they eliminated wheat gluten from their diet. But I also see it as part of a worrying trend that relies all too much on self-experimentation and self-diagnosis. Often when I meet these people they are noshing on a burger without a bun at a regular restaurant or ordering a salad a restaurant like Hanna's Bretzel where gluten-free ingredients are laid side by side with non-gluten free ingredients.
If these people actually have celiac disease, this is probably not an acceptable behavior. To be clear, celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder, is an extremely serious disease. Any gluten in the diet can contribute to long-term health problems and even cancer.
Scary stuff. Scary enough that celiacs need to seriously consider cross-contamination at places like restaurants. Fries that are fried in the same oil as breaded chicken nuggets, eggs cooked in a pan that was used to cook French toast, salad made from lettuce served with tongs used to pick up croutons, these can introduce damaging gluten into a celiac's system. So it's not acceptable to just go to a regular restaurant and order a burger with a bun and some fries. Doing so might mean subjecting yourself to chronic damage. Senza, which is the gluten-free restaurant I reviewed recently, does not allow any gluten at all in its building ever. That is the level of strictness required to achieve remission of damage in most celiacs.
It's not surprising to find that in our culture where eating out is so common, many celiacs still present with intestinal damage years after initiating a gluten-free diet.
I've asked many of these people who eliminated gluten from their diets and saw an improvement why they do not get tested for celiac. Sometimes it's a financial issue. They feel they cannot afford the tests. Other times they are concerned because a true diagnosis by intestinal biopsy requires that they eat gluten for some time before getting the test. I'd say that a month of feeling sick is worth it in order to avoid years of chronic damage. The alternative would be to commit to a truly strict gluten-free diet and stop eating at the local Irish pub.
Which is think is totally unnecessary and silly for those of us who are not actually celiac. There is growing evidence non-celiac wheat sensitivity exists, but none that show that trace gluten could cause the kind of damage seen in celiac. It is likely it is more similar to lactose intolerance, which is dependent on dose (few lactose intolerants can truly never tolerate any lactose ever), than an autoimmune condition like celiac.
I'm completely against strictness when it is unnecessary. For me it absolutely is. I was able to avoid a biopsy because I did a genetic test that showed I completely lack any of the genes related to celiac. Through the FODMAPs elimination diet, I found out it was the fructans that were causing trouble for me. I do occasionally consume wheat products, primarily fermented wheat and those made with heritage grains. They are not a staple for me because I don't think they are particularly great for you (that doesn't mean they are "bad") and they require quite a bit more effort than just making a meal with fresh meat and vegetables. I will continue to eat whatever I can get away with on special occasions and when traveling unless I see conclusive science that says any gluten ever is bad for anyone.
But if you have the genes, that doesn't mean you have celiac, it just means it's possible for you to have it and you should pursue the matter further. I created this chart once to explain it to a friend:
Yes, it's crappy to have to go through all that to get a diagnosis and it can be hard to find a doctor that cares, but I truly believe it's worth it to know. Especially since celiac is becoming more and more common. I'm not a fan of Wheat Belly, (also see Dr. Deans' review) which essentially took a blog with some interesting ideas, and I suspect the publisher said "find everything that could possibly be bad about wheat and mention it without any nuance whatsoever." You can write such a book about almost any food. It reminds me of Whitewashed, which is about milk. I'm still waiting for the book about how evil shrimp is because some people are allergic to it.
Shrimp is Actually EVIL SEA BUGS THAT CAUSE LEAKY GUT- the book
On that note, a professor associated with the grain industry recently published a critique of the book. There are some good points there on Davis' hyperbole, misuse of studies (not citing the follow-up that disproves his theory, irrelevant in vitro studies, studies on genetically engineered mice) and use of the same tactics that plant-based zealots use (acidification! AGES! glycemic!), but right off the bat I spotted a bunch of mistakes. One of the most obvious is that the author mentions the Joe Murray study on historical blood samples. It says "the analysis shows that 0.2% of recruits had the gene in 1950 compared with 0.9% of recent recruits." And then it goes on to say increase prevalence might be due to better identification and awareness. But that study specifically refuted that, as it was not even studying genes, it was studying antibodies. It was an important study in pointing to increased prevalence, which should surprise no one who studies autoimmune diseases, most of which have increased in prevalence.
“This tells us that whatever has happened with celiac disease has happened since 1950,” Dr. Murray says. “This increase has affected young and old people. It suggests something has happened in a pervasive fashion from the environmental perspective.”
Dr. Murray lists several possible environmental causes of celiac disease. The “hygiene hypothesis” suggests the modern environment is so clean that the immune system has little to attack and turns on itself. Another potential culprit is the 21st century diet. Although overall wheat consumption hasn’t increased, the ways wheat is processed and eaten have changed dramatically. “Many of the processed foods we eat were not in existence 50 years ago,” Dr. Murray says. Modern wheat also differs from older strains because of hybridization. Dr. Murray’s team hopes someday to collaborate with researchers on growing archival or legacy wheat, so it can be compared to modern strains.
Murray's team also used those blood samples to show that the undiagnosed airmen were more likely to have died young, possibly as a consequence of undiagnosed celiac. Undiagnosed celiac is frankly dangerous, particularly since it takes so little gluten to cause damage. There is still an argument about whether or not gluten is bad for everyone, but we aren't going to win over the medical profession if we use hyperbole instead of saying "hey did you consider whether or not your patient with diabetes/ibs/osteoporosis/arthritis/etc. might have celiac or wheat sensitivity?"
So if you suspect that wheat is an issue for you, I strongly recommend taking time to get a firm diagnosis so you can know if you need to be 100% gluten-free.
I've seen the idea that there are no primates adapted to eating grains, but actually there is a primate that is better adapted to such a diet than any others. It's the gelada (Theropithecus gelada), which lives only in the Ethopian highland grasslands. The gelada is the only living member of genus the Theropithecus. Several larger gelada species once roamed most of Africa, including the terrifying giant gelada, which was around the size of a modern gorilla. But now there is just one, which is also one of the few primates that endures sub-freezing temperatures, which occur at night in the highlands.
The gelada is also quite interesting because it is a grazer, relying mainly on grass. It prefers the seeds of the grass, which are yes, grains.
This is unusual for primates. Some, like anthropologist Clifford Jolly, have speculated that hominids once occupied a similar niche. But this was mostly in the 1970s and this model for understanding human origins has fallen out of favor. Some extinct lines on the family tree (Paranthropus for example) were thought to have eaten similar diets based on low-quality plants, but more recent evidence has cast doubt on this theory. Frederick Szalay's reply to Jolly's paper in 1975 noted that as climate changed, hominids and the ancestors of gelada may have both moved into the grasslands.
But as hominids rose, the Theropithecus genus fell, backed into a corner by adapatations to eating grass that seem incomplete and inefficient. Geladas require very high quality grass, not the low quality grass that started to dominate as Africa warmed up again.
The gelada and related baboon line seems to have a longer history of consuming starchier foods than the frugivorous lines that led to us. One piece of evidence is that baboons and geladas have higher salivary amylase expression than even humans cultures adapted to high starch diets.
Unfortunately, it seems that particular this genus adapted itself into a corner, with adaptations not good enough to compete with animals like zebras for the increasingly low-quality grasses in the warmer low-altitude grasslands, but complete enough that grass-eating was probably obligatory. Primates with an ability to consume a more flexible diet, like our ancestors, rose, while most Theropithecus died out.
Why such big scary teeth on a grass eater? Big scary teeth are about more than food, they are also the hallmark of territorial species where males fight for domination of harems of females as seen in this video of a gelada male battle.
While geladas were busy chomping on grass pretty much all day, there is some good evidence our ancestors were scavenging large animal carcasses, developing a taste for meat and perhaps spurring us to eventually hunt and develop tools to acquire more protein this way. The geladas went the route of low-quality protein, while the hominids went the route of high-quality protein, protein that may have allowed us to develop large brains and free up time from foraging to develop advanced culture. Geladas probably got less intelligent due to their overspecialization, while hominids and their closely related baboon cousins used their intelligence and flexibility to thrive in a variety of habitats.
Later, our niches would cross again as humans developed our own way to extract energy more efficiently from grass through technology and selective breeding for grain yields. Not surprisingly, geladas are thrilled to munch on such high quality grasses. While they are not a big as their ancestors, they are still a formidable pest ,as this Human Planet video shows:
Researching geladas might give us valuable clues to understanding our own species. For example, looking at the adaptations geladas have to eating their diet could tell us something about the kind of challenges a grain-eating primate faces and we could compare them to our own physiology to see how well we have adapted or not adapted to similar dietary challenges. However, geladas eat wild uncooked grasses, whereas humans have an entire culture of complex preparation that alters the structure and composition of our food significantly through grinding, fermenting, cooking, and other technology.
I've written before on how the typical "paleo" paradigm didn't fix my digestive problems. That's because paleo divides things into good and bad in a somewhat arbitrary manner. The reality is that good and bad are relative to the functioning of your body and your individual biology. As Dr. Ayers said in his latest post:
This suggests that the problem is somehow in the intolerant person, even though there are no genes for food intolerance and very few cases of food intolerance result from an immune reaction. Food intolerance is actually the inability of an individual's incomplete gut flora to digest certain types of food.*
The question becomes whether or not you can figure out which foods you are intolerant of and then whether or not you can become more tolerant. Your malfunctioning gut bacteria probably don't care about whether or not a food is "paleo" or not.
This becomes clear now that an army of paleo cookbooks have been published that contain nut and coconut flours. My family has discovered the hard way that these flours can be quite harsh on the digestive system. My mother told me she reacted terribly to some coconut flour baked goods she made, but not to plain old bread. I found that I reacted to both about the same, which meant that both seemed to lead to cramping and bloating. That's not really surprising, since it seems fructans are my main enemy.
Almond and coconut are "paleo" ....why? Because they are not seeds (actually, they are technically seeds, which is pretty hilarious that people don't think of them as such) and grains? Even though there is ample evidence for seed and grain consumption in the actual Paleolithic. And almond and coconut share many of the properties that some "paleo" advocates claim are the problem with grains, such as high levels of phytic acids and potentially-reactive lectins and other proteins.
For example, Robb Wolf tweeted that he didn't think grains could be a "safe starch" because there are some papers on various immune-system reactions to them. But I can find papers on very similar reactions to our sacred cow. I'm sure in some parallel vegan circle-jerk twitterverse, Dr. Dean Ornish is tweeting those papers to confirm his follower's various biases, but as I wrote about sialic acid from meat, not everyone reacts this way. And in particular, I don't think healthy people are as likely to have such dysfunctional immune responses to food, but Westerners raised on crap in a "hygienic" environment are very vulnerable.
My mantra is that a sick person can react to ANYTHING. And a very healthy person can tolerate a lot of terrible things. I always like to remember the story of Mithridates VI of Pontus, who was so paranoid about being poisoned that he took small doses of various poisons in order to accustom his body to them (hormesis perhaps). When he was defeated by Pompey, he tried to commit suicide by poison, but couldn't because he was immune to what he had on hand. So he had to have his bodyguard execute him by sword. He is immortalized in an excellent poem by A. E. Housman
There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.
– A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad
I love the line "the many-venomed earth" and it's one that has struck with me often as I study science, along with Tennyson's "Nature, red in tooth and claw" from In Memoriam.
Interestingly, through self-experimentation I've found that I do not just OK, but much better eating things made with rice and certain pseudograins. My skin improves when I eat finely sifted fermented buckwheat (a pseudograin) and I have much more energy and digestive stability when I have some rice in my diet.
I also think some of these gluten-free grain-free things are pretty much torture to cook, requiring all kinds of fruit/vegetable purees or five million eggs to produce something even somewhat appetizing. And I don't have any particular interest in eating things that are only somewhat appetizing unless they are exceptionally nutritious.
Sometimes I get asked what my diet is like and that's a hard question to answer. I'll go through periods where I cook some particular ingredient over and over again, and then I kind of forget about it for awhile. It's like that with buckwheat for me. Perhaps the craving has something to do with buckwheat being particularly rich in magnesium?
Lately, one of my favorite meals is buckwheat pancakes with delicious toppings. My method for making buckwheat pancakes is that I sift the flour and then soak it for a day in sour whey or sour cream. Then I mix in an egg and cook it in fat of some sort. This one I topped with bacon-wrapped elk, REAL lingonberries (not the jam from IKEA, I bought them frozen at Erickson's Delicatessen and they are very sour, so they work very well with savory dishes), and seaweed.
* I also agree with Mat Lalonde that reactions to specific proteins can be an issue, though the two things are somewhat interconnected
When humans started transitioning towards agrarian ways of life around 10,000 years ago, it wasn't just the types of food that changed. It wasn't just about more reliance on grains and less on meat, but about a fundamental change in the food system. True hunter-gatherers literally live day to day, not storing any food for later use. Horticulturalists started manipulating the forest so that they could have living stores of certain things like cassava and also started fermenting various plant and animal foods. As the human species moved into the arctic (LATER ON in our evolutionary history, contrary to some polar pushers that are popular "paleo diet" authors) and started living in more marginal areas in general, we developed smoking and salting as methods of preservation.*
But with agrarianism came the widespread processing and long-term storage of foods, particularly grains and legumes.
This opened up humans to all kinds of new vulnerabilities from rancidity, molds, and bacterial contamination during storage. We've largely forgotten about these things because science has eliminated so many extreme acute examples. When was the last time you heard about someone getting ergotism? Ergotism is caused by a fungus that grows on rye. In the past, a contaminated harvest could terrorize entire towns. A lovely description from 857: "a Great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death."
While antinutrients and rouge plant proteins tend to get a lot of focus in blaming such foods for the poor health of ancient agrarian populations, such contamination also probably played a role. In developing countries, aflatoxins, a type of mycotoxins, still remain a serious health issue. They are something to always be aware of when parsing epidemiological data from agrarian cultures.
While few people in the US seem to be suffering from gangrene because of mold, whether or not even low levels of contamination and rancidity are an issue remains debatable. Regulatory agencies have different standards for what is spoiled. In Europe, the standard for Patulin, a toxin produced by P. expansum that shows immune system damage in animal products, is 10 μg/kg for children's apple juice. The action level for the US FDA is 50 µg/kg.
In terms of rancidity, I notice a lot of industrial food producers are adding antioxidants like Vitamin E to oils vulnerable to oxidative damage, so someone is aware that it's a bad thing. But I think a lot of restaurants even exhaust the antioxidant additive's abilities by using the oil to fry stuff over and over again. In animal models at least, feeding oxidized fat is a great way to induce inflammation. There is mounting evidence they are a health threat for humans.
And possibly because such types of spoilage is relatively evolutionarily novel, most humans seem to be unable to detect it simply by taste or smell. This is made worse when one is used to consuming sub-par food. The Chicago Tribute today had an article that noted that many immigrants find US peanut butter tastes rancid, but to most of us it tastes delicious. Also a study showed that 44% of Americans actually preferred the taste of rancid olive oil.
Many people I've talked to report that they feel fine eating "bad" foods in Europe. I've had that experience myself and it's very interesting. It's perhaps a testament to the EU's higher standards.
When I think about the diet I eat now vs. the diet I ate in the past, one thing that stands out is that almost all of my food is now in the fridge or freezer rather than in my cabinets. My cabinets are actually just full of tea and underused ktichen appliances. Of course, solve one problem and another one pops up- there is a hypothesis that Crohns could be caused by bacteria that thrive in fridge temperatures.
*which have their own particular health risks that could make up an entire post
Grains are evil. The people in the paleolithic didn't eat them. Amirite? Unfortunately, that hypothesis is contradicted by archeological evidence, but now there is genetic evidence that rice may have been domesticated earlier than thought.
Asian rice, Oryza sativa, is one of world's oldest and most important crop species. Rice is believed to have been domesticated ∼9,000 y ago, although debate on its origin remains contentious. A single-origin model suggests that two main subspecies of Asian rice, indica and japonica, were domesticated from the wild rice O. rufipogon. In contrast, the multiple independent domestication model proposes that these two major rice types were domesticated separately and in different parts of the species range of wild rice. This latter view has gained much support from the observation of strong genetic differentiation between indica and japonica as well as several phylogenetic studies of rice domestication. We reexamine the evolutionary history of domesticated rice by resequencing 630 gene fragments on chromosomes 8, 10, and 12 from a diverse set of wild and domesticated rice accessions. Using patterns of SNPs, we identify 20 putative selective sweeps on these chromosomes in cultivated rice. Demographic modeling based on these SNP data and a diffusion-based approach provide the strongest support for a single domestication origin of rice. Bayesian phylogenetic analyses implementing the multispecies coalescent and using previously published phylogenetic sequence datasets also point to a single origin of Asian domesticated rice. Finally, we date the origin of domestication at ∼8,200–13,500 y ago, depending on the molecular clock estimate that is used, which is consistent with known archaeological data that suggests rice was first cultivated at around this time in the Yangtze Valley of China.
13,500 is older than what many people consider to be the end of the paleolithic, though many consider the paleolithic era to be relative to the region and would characterize a culture eating rice 13,500 years ago to be mesolithic.
The molecular clock also has its share of controversy, as it is based on statistical modeling, but no more than other evidence we have used to build the concept of the paleolithic diet.
I have written about my success with rice and hope to write more about it soon. Maybe I should just start calling my diet the mesolithic diet...
Great, a new pop-sci treatment of an anthropology paper that your Aunt Maude will forward to you with the implication that you should eat her whole wheat pancakes next time you visit. The article portrays this as some kind of ground-breaking research that totally changes our view of the paleolithic.
So what's the deal with this study? Now that I'm wormed my way into academia again somehow, I read the paper. They found something that looks like a mortar and pestle with some evidence of starch residues.
The title says flour, but that's not the good old white flour your Aunt Maude is thinking of. Of the nine species mentioned, one is a seed, the rest are roots and rhizomes. That ground starch has been used by humans since the upper paleolithic is not really news. Famous anthropologist Richard Wrangham who wrote Catching Fire has been writing about the role of cooked starch in the Upper Paleolithic for quite some time. In the Upper Paleolithic it might have spurred population increases that eventually led to early settlements like Gobekli Tepe. There has been selection for genes like AMY1 which allow for better starch digestion.
I think isotope studies are a little more accurate than a few as the paper admits "poor preserved" plant remains. And the evidence is that the protein in the paleolithic diet was mostly animal protein.
Find the whole wheat...
I've had cattail and it's not bad, though a pain in the ass to gather and process. If you want something similar chestnuts are another starchy paleo-ish food, which by coincidence I ate today. So if it makes you feel more accurate have some yams or chestnuts alongside of your steak. But steak is king.
A reader left an interesting comment:
I'm a Polyface intern and CrossFit enthusiast. Polyface has a pretty amicable relationship with the Weston A. Price Foundation, which has a lot in common with Paleo. The difference, however, is that WAPF espouses traditional diets that often include grains. The crisis in nutrition didn't start with the introduction of grains 10,000 years ago, right? It started with the maturation and confluence of the food and marketing industries and the flight from agrarian areas to cities. This was mere decades ago. Traditional diets are the answer.
A Paleo diet seems to me to be ultimately fundamentalist and impossible to follow. There is no way we can know what hunter/gatherers 10,000 years ago actually consumed. It makes much more sense to follow human culture and eat traditional diets like we have been for millennia, including sprouted grains!
I tend to be very sympathetic with the idea that agrarian diets are good. But there is simply no escaping the fact that
1. Grains are not necessary to be healthy
2. Despite that fact that many agrarian populations are health compared to us, archaeological evidence shows that they are shorter, have smaller crania, and sometimes have worse teeth. Of course agrarian populations vary quite a lot. I find it quite odd to see people like Matt Stone and other starch-pushers extol traditional potato-based diets. Yes, those people were not obese, but they were very short and when immigrants from these populations move to the US the height gains in their children are quite dramatic. Traditional grains and starches might not be "bad," but are they the best foods to pick when you have access to plenty of easily-digested nutritious meat and fish?
As for the Paleo diet being fundamentalist and impossible to follow, I actually don't think it is. I eat at normal restaurants and shop at normal stores. I am a fan of the WAPF and eat some agrarian foods. Ironically it's THOSE foods that require me to engage in illegal activity, order stuff online, spend hours grinding grains, planning ahead to ferment them. I LOVE idlis and buckwheat pancakes, but I almost never make them because they are too much of a pain. I run my own consulting business and it's much easier for me to just throw a bunch of meat and vegetables into a pan and eat it. I think WAPF is a good diet, but I'm not sure it's the best diet and I'm positive it's not the easiest.
You are right, I don't know exactly what hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago ate. They didn't leave any recipe books. But paleo isn't reenactment, it's about nutritional principles: fat is good, animals are the perfect food, and grains should be limited are the main principles I live by.
* as for shortness being a bad thing, it's only an indicator of a less than optimal diet if people aren't acheiving the max height possible for their genes. There is plenty of evidence from immigration that a lot of people in agrarian cultures don't reach that max height. Caries in agrarian populations are well documented, with some having very high rates (mostly corn based) and others low (milk and rice based).
What is the most common non-paleo indulgence? In my experience, it seems beer is the vice of choice. Don't get me wrong- I love beer and it was one of the hardest things to give up, especially since craft beer was one of my big hobbies in college. But in the end, I did notice that the effects of it on my digestive health were very negative. But there is something else about beer.
It's funny because no paleo dude would be caught dead with a carton of soy milk or a tofutti cutie, partially out of fear of soy phytoestrogen.
Mmmm would you like some omega-6 and a bucket of sugar with your estrogen?
But did you know that hops have even more phytoestrogen? "We have identified a potent phytoestrogen in hops, 8-prenylnaringenin, which has an activity greater than other established plant estrogens." Ouch... so much for some foods being intrensically manly. Conspiracy theorists blame the church and say that the Reinheitsgebot beer laws that mandated hops in 1516 (and similar laws in other countries) were to suppress the sexuality of men. It's true that in the past it was common to use other bittering agents. But the truth is that beer made with hops simply keeps better.
BUT this does highlight the fact that it is possible to make beer without hops. If gluten doesn't bother you, they might be worth checking out. Dogfish Head has been making some ancient beers recipes lately, one of which I tried before giving up gluten. Midas Touch is a recipe recovered from analysis of residues of clay vessels from the 8th century BC and is unusual, but richly flavored. I've also heard good things abou the Finnish Sahti made with Juniper berries.
Another set of beers I've tried are these Scottish historic ales made by Williams Brothers. The hop-less options are Fraoch made with heather and Alba made with Scots Pine (my favorite). Both are dark flavorful malty beers that anyone who enjoys craft beer will appreciate.
Man-boobs not included
The history of beer as a healing herbal elixir is explored in Sacred and Herbal Healing Beers, which you should check out if you want to brew your own.
Whenever an article about the paleo diet is published in a major newspaper, at least one commenter expresses dismay that paleo dieters don't realize that humans are adapted to grains and milk. That's a misconception on several levels. First of all, plenty of us are educated enough to know that genetic adaptations can occur rapidly. I remember in high school when I first read The Beak of The Finch, which is about the finches in the Galapagos islands and how their populations genetically respond rapidly to changes in the environment. It takes down the myth that evolution is slow and can't be observed.
In that case, why are we still talking about what our ancestors eat as if it matters? Well, so far the evidence is that some adaptations have occurred in some populations response to neolithic food. Genetic evidence shows that most of the population in modern societies is descended from agriculturalists who had been farming for several thousand years. Clearly, our ancestors were very much able to survive on diets of grains and dairy.
I was just reading this scientific paper, Demeter's Legacy, which is free online and a fascinating read. Yes, there are two major genetic adaptations in agriculturalist populations. One improves the digestion of starch and the other of dairy. Great, we can eat these foods and reproduce. Yay, but it doesn't mean that we are completely adapted to them. There are plenty of foods that are digestible for everyday needs, but damaging in the long term. It's up to us to do the research and figure out if foods are really worth it. I ate bread for most of my life and felt OK, but life for me is not just about surviving, but about thriving. It's important to remember that even though adaptations have occurred, the vast majority of our genes were forged before agriculture.
And for people descended from more recent hunter-gatherers, neolithic foods are even more devastating.
I created a list that I am currently still adding foods to which outlines some pros and cons of various foods from the paleo viewpoint. I think foods should be judged on their merits and there is no "one true" paleo diet...there can't be, since last time I checked I couldn't get wild antelope at the grocery store. It's about learning from the wisdom of the past and choosing food based on those principles, not reenactment.
If you want to see some beautiful photos of traditional fish eating in a Gwich'in camp, look here, though keep in mind that at the time these pictures were taken, this tribe was eating modern foods.
Lately health blogger Matt Stone has been creating a bit of a controversy in paleo circles by blaming thyroid issues on low carbing. There is no question that many long term low carbers and paleo dieters suffer from thyroid issues . Why? Arctic cultures like the Inuit, Koyoukon, Yupik, Sami, and many others have a traditional diet that is very low in carbohydrates. Many people have written about how healthy they are despite following a diet that's not exactly the USDA food pyramid.
I think it's pretty clear that the problems people are having are not due to a lack of cornbread. What all the healthy arctic people had in common was that they consumed a wealth of marine foods ranging from seal liver to seaweed. Marine foods have nutrients all of us could benefit from. Traditional cultures not only ate fish, they ate whole fish: fish eyes, liver, and bones. This stuff is a hard sell to those of us who grew up eating the typical American diet, but it's definitely worth getting used to eating, as the arctic explorers did.
Until I was twenty seven I had the belief about myself that I could not eat fish and felt certain that its taste was obnoxious to me. I thought it an interesting peculiarity and assumed that everyone else would think so and there were few things I told about so often as the fact that I was peculiar in that I could not eat fish. I think I might have lost the notion sooner if it had not formed such an excellent topic of conversation
I've said it many times: if your paleo or low carb diet is a bunch of ground meat and some chicken breasts, you probably need to rethink things. As far as the carb controversy, it's a rather old one. The Weston A. Price Foundation has been criticizing the paleo diet for not including traditional dairy and fermented grain/legume products. In his books food ecologist Gary Nabhan recounts how Native American tribes like the Pima never suffered from obesity on their traditional high carb diet. Born To Run recounts the impressive athletic fears of the corn-loving Tarahumara tribe. The yam eating Kitavans don't have too many problems either.
But the paleo diet is about more than just not being obese. Plenty of people follow it to heal from autoimmune conditions and damage from eating the Standard American Diet. Others follow it to improve athletic performance. The truth is that while traditional agrarian cultures didn't have type II diabetes epidemics, the healthiest bones that anthropologists have found were those of coastal foragers. As Dr. Kurt Harris says "tolerated is not optimal."