The Paleolithic Diet: Lessons From the Past, Go Grandma, Not Caveman

Here’s the new kid on the block in food trends: the Paleolithic diet.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I am not a fan of this fad, since I don’t believe that following diet trends leads to lasting lifestyle change. But this diet has some particularly troubling features. In claiming to take you back to your “true” roots, it may actually take you further from your own identity – and your own best interests.

Put simply, the Paleolithic (or “Paleo”) diet attempts to recreate the diet of our pre-agricultural ancestors. That means unlimited meat, root vegetables, fruit and nuts, but no dairy, refined sugar, legumes – and no grains. This is what got my attention. Because the reality is that even Paleolithic man probably didn’t follow the Paleo diet!

Recent research found residue of grains in the teeth of skulls from some 9,000 years ago. Moreover, eating like our most distant ancestors ignores – even disrupts – the food cultures we’ve spent the last several thousand years developing. Each of us comes from one or another of these cultures, and by looking to them we can get a good sense of how to eat healthily. There are many wonderful traditional food cultures – Italian, Spanish, Vietnamese, my own beloved Peruvian – that partake of a wide range of foods (including grains!), and that can be healthily eaten. But we might want to think about eating them in a less modern way.

If you want to go back to the past for nutritional guidance, it’s better to look to your own traditional culture, and think about how your own agricultural ancestors might have eaten. People of the past didn’t eat as much meat as either an ordinary modern diet or the current Paleolithic fad would suggest. Before factory farming, people had to catch or, later, raise what they ate, and so they ate meat less frequently, and all the parts of the animal. There was no waste – and they didn’t just eat the filet mignon.

This is a feature of many traditional food cultures. In Perú, where I’m from, we cook every part of the cow, and every bit of the chicken, including the feet. Earlier versions of many now-familiar cookbooks had recipes for squirrel! (Cuy) So by counseling eating meat every day, and eating mostly large mammals, the Paleo diet gets away from the truth of how even your grandparents ate, let alone our distant ancestors.

Instead of looking back to some false idea of how people may (or more likely, may not) have eaten 10,000 years ago, take a look at how your great-great-great-great-grandparents ate. They ate what was available, and ate it frugally (smaller portions, eating the entire plant or animal).

They ate seasonally. They ate locally. From these habits rose the great food cultures of the world – cultures that we should celebrate. Instead of cutting out the grains, cut down the portion sizes and eat leaner meats. We don’t live 10,000 years ago – we have evolved, one way or another.

We don’t live like Paleolithic man – and it won’t work to eat like him, either.  But on the other hand, we probably also shouldn’t eat like modern man. Perhaps it’s time to eat like our true ancestors, and preserve the food cultures they developed. That’s why I can’t wait to eat arroz con pollo for dinner – exactly like my mother and her mother before her used to make.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program).  He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online.  Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of two consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.

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