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Is the Popular 'Paleo Diet' a Bunch of Baloney?

The Paleo diet might be more successful in generating profit for its proponents than producing health for its followers.

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Let’s look at the actual food eaten by a hunter-gatherer societies in the recent past and then examine the elements of the popularized paleo diet one by one. In San Diego County and south of the border into Mexico, the Kumeyaay were hunter-gatherers until recent times and their diet is well recorded. Some foods and traditions are even maintained today. Their dietary staple was the acorn, which they gathered in the fall and stored. Once dried, around February, the acorns were ground into flour, leached to remove the bitter tannins, and eaten as a staple food called shawii. In addition to acorns, they ate wild game (deer, bighorn sheep, and rabbits), fish, seeds, seaweed, prickly pear cactus, greens, and wild fruit.

Much of their food was seasonal. During the winter rainy season, they could count on greens like miner’s lettuce. Around March and April, they harvested yucca and agave. Over the summer, they gathered seeds, including chia seeds and a wild grain, juniper and manzanita berries, mesquite beans (a legume), and pine nuts. Fruits included berries, prickly pear fruit, palm fruit, and some stone fruits. They dug edible roots, tubers, and corms from wild plants as well. And they had a source of salt, which they included in their diets.

The Kumeyaay were hardly vegetarians, but they did obtain protein from plant sources as well as animals, including from both grains and legumes. They did eat an enormous variety of foods throughout the year, but during some periods they might have been limited to a rather narrow range of foods simply because nothing else was available. Some of their foods are delicious, but you might not wish to eat some unless your only other choice was starvation. And, it’s likely that sometimes, that was the choice they were making.

One example does not make a rule, but the Kumeyaay diet blows through several claims made by paleo experts like Cordain. They ate salt, they ate grains, and they ate legumes. Logic tells us that our ancestors absolutely ate grains and legumes elsewhere in the world too. How do we know that? Because our ancestors ultimately domesticated grains and legumes and cultivated them as food on farms. What are the odds that an ancient people found an entirely inedible seed and began planting it and selecting it for desirable traits, trusting that eventually, perhaps in decades or centuries, it would evolve into an edible grain or bean?

It’s true that grains and legumes can be inedible in their natural forms. Acorns are too. But the Kumeyaay solved this problem through technology. For acorns, they found a way to remove the bitter tannins before consuming them. For grains, they toasted them over a fire and then ground them into a flour which was eaten as a dish called “pinole.” South of the border in Mexico, indigenous peoples there figured out how to make niacin in corn bioavailable by treating corn with lime in a process known as nixtamal. This allowed them to constitute complete protein with grains and beans and to avoid the disease pellagra that is caused by niacin deficiency.

“All humans do is transform their foods,” says Milton, commenting on the human ability to turn inedible substances into healthy foods with technology. “That's what being a human is. People only evolve in response to selective pressures. Many different very important foods are not digestible and humans transform them through culture.”

Cordain dismisses grains, calling them “nutritionally inferior foods compared to fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and seafood.” He adds that, “most grains in the U.S. are consumed as fiber-depleted refined grains, and as such represent one of the greatest dietary contributors to the ubiquitous high glycemic load in the U.S. diet, which underlies numerous health issues including obesity and the metabolic syndrome.”

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