It’s nearly impossible to do an actual Paleo diet today. Twenty thousand years ago, cultivated food plants and domesticated livestock didn’t exist. Pre-domesticated food contained marginal quantities of essential fat, carbohydrates and protein; therefore, you had to eat a lot of it to survive.
Try it sometime. Gather your buckskins, knife, trusty bow and arrow, and head out into the woods for a week or two with Mother Nature. Plan on being hungry a lot, and spending every moment of every day collecting food. You’ll be leaner and in better physical shape by the time you get back, if, that is, you don’t get eaten by something.
But nobody doing the paleo diet today is going to that extreme; so, paleo “style” might be a better description. That being said, there are benefits. Today’s paleo is restricted to foods that prehistoric people would have hunted or gathered; vegetables, fruit, nuts, berries, meat, seafood, and fish. It does not include any grains or beans. But again, even the foods that are allowed are not anything like prehistoric food. Even so, it does exclude all the processed foods that get most people in trouble. If you avoid using paleo as an excuse to gorge on corn-fed meat, like so many do, it is far superior to the average American diet. In addition, the paleo lifestyle gets people outside, off the couch and away from the television.
Possibly, however, you do not have to go back quite so far or be so restrictive. The real problems with our food supply started only about 75 years ago. Extensive hybridization and massive production of monoculture crops have created foods that are very unnatural for the human body. I call it manipulated food. The chief offenders are wheat and corn. Wheat has been extensively hybridized for the sole purpose of appealing to all of our cravings. Genetically and structurally different than wheat from a hundred years ago, it does have addictive properties; almost drug like. A true hazard, it is a major contributor to the epidemic of diabetes and poor health that Americans experience today (white flour or whole grain, it doesn’t really matter). An offender not far behind is genetically-manipulated modern corn, for its use in processed food products, but possibly more importantly for its use in fattening up livestock in a very unnatural way. Potatoes and sugar cane are two other monocultures that can get you into trouble, too.
Specific evidence for how we should all be eating does exist, but it doesn’t support the Paleo diet. There are no fossil records of primitive humans living beyond the fifty year mark; most were clobbered or eaten well before then. But we do have concentrations of people living to a hundred and beyond in our world today. Several investigators have described isolated pockets of centenarians living at different places around the world. Common denominators of all of these groups include diets derived from natural (but cultivated/farmed) food sources, low stress, low toxins, positive social interactions, and consistent moderate exercise. They all eat lots of vegetables, but also grains and beans are primary staples. Meat is on the menu, but small amounts derived from livestock raised locally, not the corn-fed grocery store varieties. Manipulated grains and processed foods typically comprising most modern diets are specifically absent.
Another common denominator found among these long lived populations is routine use of medicinal herbs. Precultivation plants used for food were calorie sparse, but contained high concentrations of antioxidants, antimicrobial, anticancer and other life-enhancing substances. They were there to protect the plant from disease, but also provided protection to any creature that consumed the plant. When humans started cultivating plants to produce food, the tradeoff was decreased production of these life-enhancing substances. Humans learned to compensate for deficiencies in food plants with regular use of natural herbs. Plants classified as medicinal herbs offer almost no food value, but do contain all the life-enhancing substances necessary for optimal health. In America, about 70 years ago, we traded natural foods and healing herbs for convenience food and pharmaceuticals. Health in America has been declining ever since.
It’s not necessary to look to our distant descendants for healthy eating tips. We only have to go back to the time before big food and big agriculture. A balanced lifestyle, devoid of processed foods with moderate exercise is all it takes. So, give the fad diets a break and just stick to common sense.