Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Nutrition Debate #18: Paleolithic Nutrition and the Archevore Diet

“The modern dietary regimen known as the Paleolithic diet…is a nutritional plan based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that various human species habitually consumed during the Paleolithic” era, according to the Wikipedia entry. A fundamental precept of this Way of Eating is that it “ended…with the development of agriculture” and animal domestication at the advent of the Neolithic era. Hence, the “contemporary Paleolithic diet consists mainly of meat, fish, vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts, and excludes grains, legumes, dairy products, salt, refined sugar, and processed oils,” quoting from Wikipedia but with emphasis added.

“Paleolithic nutrition is based on the premise that modern humans are genetically adapted to the diet of their Paleolithic ancestors, and that humans have scarcely changed since the dawn of agriculture, and therefore that an ideal diet for human health and well-being is one that resembles this ancestral diet.” From the time of the onset of our hunter-gatherer stage of evolutionary development some 2.5 million years ago, hominids have been carnivorous animals. We ate whatever we could hunt or catch or forage. We fed, and then we fasted until the next kill or catch or gather. We also most likely ate the whole animal, including organs, blood, fat and bone marrow, before we put the hide and bone to use.

“The ancestral human diet is inferred from historical and ethnographic studies of modern-day hunter-gatherers as well as archeological finds, anthropological evidence and application of optimal foraging theory,” again quoting Wikipedia. Today, a Paleo diet would of course include cultivated plants and domesticated animal meat as an alternative to foraging and hunting. However, the Industrial Revolution led to the large scale development of mechanized food processing techniques for these cultivated plants. Refined cereals, refined sugars, and refined vegetable oils have become major components of Western diets [such as the Standard American Diet (SAD)]. Intensive livestock farming methods produce fattier (corn fed) meat (from cattle); while selective breeding has produced leaner pork and poultry with greater amounts of white meat. Selective breeding also resulted in larger, sweeter fruits. Modern transportation systems provide year round availability for almost every sort of food stuff. The Paleo diet rejects some of these newer foods as “Neolithic agents of disease,” in the words of Dr. Kurt G. Harris, author of the Archevore (formerly PāNū) blog.

These modern-day developments are described (and deplored) in Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” where he slams the industrial production of corn-fed feedlot beef and cooped-up chickens. He followed up with “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “Food Rules,” where he defined “real” food and enumerated some twenty-odd rules of thumb on how to identify it. I am in complete accord with Pollan, insofar as his definition of “real” food goes. However, to hone my approach to Paleo eating, on my blogroll at, I subscribe to the thinking of Dr. Kurt Harris. Dr. Harris developed his interest in health and nutrition after reading Gary Taubes’s “Good Calories-Bad Calories.” More recently, Taubes is the author of “Why We Get Fat: And What To Do About It.”

“Archevory refers both to a dietary approach which strives to focus on essentials without superfluity, but also to the yearning to consume or learn about essential principles in general,” Harris says at Harris explains, “The Archevore diet and approach to health is centered on a simple idea – that the diseases of civilization are largely related to the abandonment of the metabolic conditions we evolved under – what I have called the “evolutionary metabolic milieu” EM2. “I believe we can make sense of many of the diseases prevalent now and relate them to some simple but profound changes that have occurred with the introduction of agriculture and the more recent industrialization of our foodways. These changes are related to how the food environment, including its availability, interacts with the metabolic environment of our bodies.”

Harris says his conception of the “evolutionary metabolic milieu” is “not derived from a single science or field of inquiry, but draws first on medical sciences like biochemistry and endocrinology, and only then looks back with history and paleoanthropology. It is becoming clear now that many of the diseases afflicting humanity are not a natural part of the aging process, but are side effects of technology and other powerful cultural changes in the way we eat and live that have occurred since the dawn of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago. These changes seem to center largely on the sequential introduction of what I call the Neolithic agents of disease – wheat, excess fructose, and excess linoleic acid.”

Dr. Harris’s “12 step program to remove the Neolithic agents of disease in an efficient and practical manner” will be the subject of the next installment in this series. I have a keen, if peripheral, interest in this ascendant eating program.

© Dan Brown 4/17/11

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