The evolutionary diet of our ancestors is usually referred to as the Palaeolithic Diet (PD) referring to the Palaeolithic or Stone Age era. The basic principles of PD are that for millions of years, humans have eaten meat, fish, fowl and the leaves, roots and fruits of many plants and our genes are now coded for these as we have evolved around them. No doubt we are now moving further and faster away from this traditional diet and it is suggested that this is underpinning much of the degenerative non contagious diseases that are now responsible for the majority of premature deaths in developed societies.
The Neolithic (new stone age) Revolution was the first recorded revolution and was an agricultural developmental phase – the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering communities and bands, to agriculture and settlement, which occurred in various independent prehistoric human societies ten to twelve thousand years ago. The term refers to both the general time period over which these initial developments took place and the subsequent changes to Neolithic societies associated with, the adoption of early farming techniques, crop cultivation, and the domestication of animals.
The invention of agriculture started with the cultivation of wild grasses for their large seed heads which, over time, were domesticated into what are our modern grains today. This allowed for storage of nutrient dense seeds (grains) which gave the population some protection from the cyclical famines that had up until then decimated society. The use of fire to cook foods that had hitherto been difficult to digest, or were toxic when eaten raw, further transformed man’s diet. Around 3,000 years later the domestication of wild ruminant (grazing) animals began (mainly sheep and goats, expanding to pigs and cattle much later) for meat and milk, and this was the final piece in the farming revolution that allowed the mass expansion of mankind and at last, some small protection from the scourge of humanity; climatic disturbances, plant death, animal death and human famine and or death.
Advocates of PD suggest that grains, beans and potatoes did not form part of our evolutionary diet and therefore should be excluded along with, their products such as rice, bread, pasta and noodles. They also disallow all dairy products, sugar and salt and most processed foods. Instead the idea is to consume only foods that contributed to our evolutionary make up: meat, chicken and fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables (not including potatoes or sweet potatoes), nuts (except peanuts which are a bean), berries and organ meats such as liver and kidneys and heart.
Whilst the principle of the Palaeolithic Diet is probably sound, the question is, is it reality today? Considering the vast benefit to mankind that food technology has brought over the millennia (saving millions of lives and allowing the expansion of the species) and bearing in mind that if you were 40 years old in pre-modern times you were ancient, yet now we expect to live until 80, is there a case to answer?
The early technological advances in agriculture are perhaps the most significant advancements in the history of mankind; and they have stood the test of time. Furthermore, is it realistic to suggest dramatic lifelong dietary elimination of mainstream foods for most people? If most people find it hard to make small dietary modifications (reduction in fats and sugars) is it likely that they could adopt long term (for the rest of their lives) the wholesale changes required to satisfy Palaeolithic Diet?
Perhaps we can all take something from the PD and adopt some of the more established beneficial components such as considerably less processed sugars and fats, eating more fruit and vegetables and avoiding too many refined and processed grains, as well as trying to buy better quality animal foods and products; this would indeed benefit us all.
These adjustments however simply reflect many of the healthy eating messages provided today, but the PD may offer an underpinning rationale for change which for some people may represent a refreshing new concept for change rather than just another wagging forefinger. All in all, it is about finding the right balance for each person. The ideas above may well help some to move away from highly processed foods and towards the natural foods that have sustained us through our development into the highest order living organism in the known universe, in which case this is indeed reason for celebration.
Alan Jackson MSc is the Founder of Discovery Learning and Weight Management centre in London. These organisations are educational training establishments dedicated to health, fitness and personal wellness.