Our Past and Our Present – Understanding Paleo in a modern context

infographicI have never thought of the paleo movement as simply some ‘rules’ regarding nutrition but rather an idea that can provide a template to holistic health. Often referred to as the ‘caveman diet’ ‘ancestral health’ and a ‘hunter gatherer’ way of life,  the principles of paleo come from an evolutionary perspective, a way of living based upon the biology of our bodies – referring to our mental and physical adaptations through natural selection over millions of years.

The idea is to return to the way our ancestors lived before the Neolithic agricultural revolution around 10000 years ago – a period in history where pockets of the human population began transitioning from a hunter and gatherer lifestyle to one of agriculture and settlement. The argument is that our bodies evolved to eat, sleep and move in a certain way.  By returning to a model of our ancestors we shun the foods that factor into diseases of contemporary western society including Type 2 Diabetes, Depression, Obesity and Cancer1,2. This is not to say that the western diet is the sole cause of these illnesses but it unequivocally contributes alongside our sedentary, stressful, sleepless lifestyle. We simply do not see the same rates of chronic illness in other populations. By adopting a primal way of eating and living we can attempt to prevent, alleviate and even reverse some of these chronic conditions.

Where did we all go wrong?

For millions of years humans followed a nomadic existence, wondering from place to place on look for resources hunting game and gathering wild plants. Although there is no consensus on a ratified human diet, the general consensus is that we mostly ate plants and animals, as well as some nuts/seeds, berries, fruits and tubers. There is evidence to suggest that hunter-gathers ate some form of grains (wheat, barley, rye and so on – yes bread) but it is unlikely they were a staple of their diet3. Grains take time to cultivate and must be processed before they are consumed (milled and cooked) – raw grains are at best poorly digested and were probably resorted to as ‘starvation’ food4.

There are many theories as to why humans took up agriculture and settlement as opposed to their previous nomadic existence. Nevertheless the shift towards agriculture fundamentally changed how human societies operated. In brief, settlement allowed for the selective breading of cereal grains, including types of wheat and barley that would have a high yield and lend themselves to retaining an edible seed for longer. This allowed for a surplus and meant settlers could stay put even if there was a draught or an event that would slow crop production. Although the semantics may emphasis the cultivation of crops, animals too became domesticated and selectively bread to fulfil certain roles, that is, dogs (there is evidence to suggest this happened pre-revolution) for herding sheep, cows for milk and so on.  As populations rapidly grew within the settlements, technology evolved and labor roles diversified and specialized. It is from these communities we can trace the beginnings of some of the most detrimental aspects of society for human health2,5,6.  Laboring on these farms was backbreaking work, whereas it is seen in modern hunter-gather populations that a work week consisted of no more than 8 hours7. The rest of the time is spent playing and socializing, the importance of which is often forgot about. Our current western lifestyle is crippling us, mentally and physically. It’s crazy that it is ‘normal’ to work a forty hour work week, pop six pills a day and lose self- sufficiency by the time we’re seventy.

In order to catalyze change, what I believe we can do is work within the systems we live with in – not ditching our jobs to live in the wilderness in a true hunter gatherer fashion (I mean, you can if you want to). We must re-arrange our priorities in order to optimize our health and happiness, without sinking money into ‘Mr Weight Watcher’s’ bottomless pocket. Addressing our health without the need for drugs, surgery or ‘diets’, sustainably improving the quality of our lives. What I am arguing is that we must not forget about our past and the important role the evolution plays in our biological development. Addressing our health without the need for drugs, surgery or ‘diets’, sustainably improving the quality of our lives. This blog aims to track my personal journey and hopefully act as a resource for others, maybe offering some guidance to holistic wellbeing.

  1. http://robbwolf.com/what-is-the-paleo-diet/
  2. https://s3.amazonaws.com/paleodietevo2/research/Evolutionary+Health+Promotion+Consideration+of+Common+Counter+Argument+The+Paleo+Diet.pdf
  3. http://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/
  4. http://thepaleodiet.com/mediterranean-diet-vs-paleolithic-diet-vs-standard-american-diet/
  5. http://michaelgreenwell.wordpress.com/2007/10/22/the-worst-mistake-in-the-history-of-the-human-race/
  6. http://www.economist.com/node/10278703
  7. http://groups.csail.mit.edu/mac/users/rauch/worktime/hours_workweek.html
  8. https://sciencebasedlife.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/ifgjkcxoso8h4.png