THE PALEODIET

THE PALEODIET

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The palaeodiet is a new diet but it is actually the most ancient diet in the world. In fact, it is the diet primitive cavemen followed in the age before the discovery of agriculture, about 10,000 years ago. For about two million years man had been a hunter-gatherer and he survived thanks to the food he could find: fruit, berries and honey as his source of carbohydrates. Instead, his needs for fats and proteins were covered by seeds, nuts caterpillars, slugs, insects, eggs, fish, shellfish and above all by the internal organs and brain of animals, while the raw meat of muscles– very rich in connective tissues – was much harder to digest. Only with the use of fire, about 300,000 years ago, the muscles of hunted animals could become more edible. Meat could be roasted and so could legumes, thus becoming digestible. Man, who was inevitably nomadic, collected food where he could find it, and even ate carcasses. He went fishing and hunting also following the transfer of his preys. This life-style shaped our precursors through genetic selection for over a million years, even though it seems that the consumption of wild grain among the populations of hunters and gatherers could date back to about 100,000 years ago. In fact, some archaeologists of the University of Calgary have recently found in a cave in Mozambique some finds dating back to the beginning of the ice age. They are the evidence of how wild sorghum – ancestor of the main cereal which is still eaten nowadays in Sub-Saharan Africa – was worked.

Then, about 10,000 years ago, with the discovery of agriculture, man became more sedentary and he even started breeding animals not only to eat them but also to produce milk and its by-products. Thanks to this change, man’s diet got rich in carbohydrates (above all grain) to the detriment of proteins. However, raw grain is not edible: it requires cooking. And even so, it is still more difficult to digest than the food which can also be eaten raw. The introduction of grain and this unbalance between carbohydrates and proteins led to significant consequences in man’s life. In the Palaeolithic, the average height was the same as it is today. Instead, the average height of a Roman legionary soldier was about 165 cm. Life expectancy in the Neolithic decreased as men got ill more easily. When carbohydrates exceed proteins, our body reacts with insulin resistance and inflammation, which are responsible for the majority of chronic and degenerative diseases. As for milk, we have to bear in mind that man is the only animal which keeps drinking milk even after weaning. Whereas mother’s milk  is the only and best nourishment for the baby, it is not certainly the same for cow’s milk, which has a different percentage composition of macro and micronutrients. As for the irreplaceable nature of milk and its by-products as sources of calcium (important for the development of bones and teeth), we must admit that the bones and teeth of Palaeolithic men were strong and bore no sign of osteoporosis, as fossils show us. Of course, a diet rich in fruit and vegetables created an alkaline environment with protective effects for bones and health in general. On the contrary, grain and dairy products are acidifiers and favour the loss of calcium from bones. Besides, a great amount of calcium can be found in all kinds of nuts, in raw seeds and vegetables. One of the most common limits of this diet is that it is a high-protein diet. Actually, it is not so. Carbohydrates were widely used even before, not as grain but as fruit and vegetables. Percentages were not fixed, they could vary depending on the availability of food, and according to the weather and seasons. The carbohydrates range went from 20% to 40%, the proteins one from 20% to 35% and the one of fat from 30% to 60%. Therefore, it was at some time a hyper-lipidic diet. However, we must consider that the majority of fats was healthy, that is, they mainly came from fish and nuts. Also, the fats deriving from the brain and flesh of game were particularly rich in Omega 3. The reason of this was that the brain had a lipidic structure, and the animals mainly ate fresh grass, so they grazed instead of being stabled or fed with forage, as in farming. Of course, one of the limits of this diet is its lack of convenience and organoleptic properties. The point is not that we cannot easily get used to eating brain, worms and berries. However, we could use some useful devices for our health. By taking many small meals rather than few and rich ones, we could diminish insulin stimulation. We could as well limit grain consumption to two days a week. If we practise sports and we need more carbohydrates, then we can also introduce non-Palaeolithic food such as potatoes (alkalisers) while if we introduce grain the best choice is gluten-free grain with low-glycemic index such as Basmati rice or the so-called pseudo-grain like quinoa, amaranth and buckwheat. It can also be useful to eat sprouts of grain and legumes. In this way, anti-nutrients are strongly reduced. In this case, they become real vegetables rich in pre-digested starch, and lacking phytic acid – which contrasts the intestinal absorption of various minerals. Obviously, coffee, salt and alcohol should be cut off, too. As for salt, our need of sodium should be balanced by the amount contained in food. And as for alcohol, some maintain that perhaps also Palaeolithic men occasionally ate fermented fruit. Therefore, for us alcohol consumption should be only occasional. Also milk and its by-products should be cut off or at least reduced, and obviously we should cut off corn and seed oil as they are too rich in Omega 6 fatty acids which have an inflammatory effect. Trans fats – that is, hydrogenated fats contained in margarine and in many ready-made products – should be avoided, too, since they are very dangerous for our health. Unfortunately, 55% of the western diet is based on food our ancestors did not know of: grain, dairy products, ready-made food, salami, refined flour, sweeteners and hydrogenated fatty acids. The results of this new “enriched” diet is premature ageing and the increase of degenerative diseases such as cardiovascular pathologies, tumours, arthritis, diabetes and obesity, as well as the new “metabolic syndrome”.

One could object that man gradually underwent genetic changes which allowed him to consume dairy products and grain. Yet, the large spread of lactose and gluten intolerance leads us to think the opposite. Actually, since the appearance of Homo Sapiens, about 35,000 years ago, less than 1% of our genetic heritage has changed. However, if we want to have evidence of this, Nutrigenomics is now available: by means of a DNA salivary test it is possible to identify the biochemical nutritional profile of individuals. But this is another matter.

New Parma / january 2010

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