The Truth About the Paleo Diet

National Geographic has been running an eight month series since May on the subject of food. It's an excellent series of articles that have focused on subjects such as hunger in America, industrial farming, organic farming, food security and more. The September issue looks at the Paleo diet. As I'm sure that most of my readers know, the Paleo diet is almost the exact opposite of the whole food, plant-based diet. Rather than focus on plant-based eating, it focuses on eating meat, which advocates say is how our ancestors ate before there was farming.

Well, it turns out that there are ways to study how our ancestors might have eaten, and one of those ways is to study existing hunter-gatherer societies. Yes, there are some that still exist in the world, and National Geographic found them. While existing hunter-gatherer societies do tend to favor meat, they have a problem actually eating much of it. And that problem lies in the fact that animals are really hard to catch -- especially in the days before rifles and bows and arrows were invented. Many times, the hunters go out and come back empty handed. Meanwhile, the gathers or the foragers, generally the women of the tribe, bring in the food that comprises most of the tribe's calories. For example, the Hadza of Tanzania actually get 70% of their calories from plants and the basis for the Kung diet is tubers and mongongo nuts. Along the Congo River, the Aka and Baka Pygmies are reliant on yams while along the Amazon River, the Tsimane and Yanomami Indians eat plantains and manioc. Australian Aboriginals feast on nut grass and water chestnuts. The exception to these more plant-based diets is the Intuits in the Arctic where no plant food grows. They end up with 99% of their calories coming from seals, narwhals and fish.

But what this really shows is that there is no one single diet that we can say that our ancestors ate. Those who lived in the Arctic where plant food was rare relied almost exclusively on fish and meat, but those who lived in areas where plant food was more abundant tended to rely more on plant food than they did on meat. Therefore, no diet can lay claim to being the original diet of mankind or to being the diet that man was designed to eat.

So, rather than base our diets on what we think our ancestors ate or how we were designed, I would suggest that there are better bases for what our diet should be. They are:
  1. What diet gives us the best health, and
  2. What diet is most sustainable
In that regard, I would argue that the whole foods, plant-based diet wins hands down. Look at how people in the blue zones eat, where longevity and good health are well documented. Overwhelmingly, the diets are plant-based. There is some meat eaten, but it's generally an accompaniment or a rare holiday treat. It's not the center of anyone's meal, and it's not a daily occurrence. 

Couple that with the research of Dr. T. Colin Campbell and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and you have a very powerful argument for whole food, plant-based diets providing the optimal health for an individual.

But what about sustainability? In that regard, I look again to the September issue of National Geographic. There the following statement is highlighted: "A diet that revolves around meat and dairy will take a greater toll on the world's resources than one based on unrefined grains, nuts, fruits and vegetables." As the article points out, we will be feeding two billion more people by 2050 than we are feeding now. And not mentioned in the article is the fact that in addition to those two billion more people, there will also be more people from third world countries coming in to the middle class. As that happens, they are going to have more money and more desire to eat westernized diets. And that, in my opinion, is not sustainable (or healthy for that matter).

Some might argue that more food processing, more GMO foods and more factory farming can meet this need. But the one diet that we know for sure is not healthy is the western diet that has resulted in a significant increase in western diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity. It seems to me that the only viable diet for personal health and for sustainability is the whole food, plant-based diet. 

So, don't look backwards at how you think our ancestors might have eaten. Look at what's best for your health today and at what's best from a sustainability standpoint. That, to me, is the real measure of what makes a good diet.