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Michael Pollan: 5 Reasons the Paleo Diet Is B.S. — And How to Eat Right

The celebrated food author dishes on how to eat well: less meat, more microbes, and cook it yourself.
 
 
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The following article first appeared on Mother Jones. For more great Mother Jones content, subscribe here. 

The paleo diet is hot. Those who follow it are attempting, they say, to mimic our ancient ancestors—minus the animal-skin fashions and the total lack of technology, of course. The adherents eschew what they believe comes from modern agriculture (wheat, dairy, legumes, for instance) and rely instead on meals full of meat, nuts, and vegetables—foods they claim are closer to what hunter-gatherers ate.

The trouble with that view, however, is that what they're eating is probably nothing like the diet of hunter-gatherers, says Michael Pollan, author of a number of best-selling books on food and agriculture, including Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation. "I don't think we really understand…well the proportions in the ancient diet," argues Pollan on the latest episode of the  Inquiring Minds podcast (stream below). "Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate—I think they're kind of blowing smoke."

The wide-ranging interview with Pollan covered the science and history of cooking, the importance of microbes—tiny organisms such as bacteria—in our diet, and surprising new research on the intelligence of plants. Here are five suggestions he offered about cooking and eating well.

1. Meat: It's not always for dinner. Cooking meat transforms it: Roasting it or braising it for hours in liquid unlocks complex smells and flavors that are hard to resist. In addition to converting it into something we crave, intense heat also breaks down the meat into nutrients that we can more easily access. Our ancient ancestors likely loved the smell of meat on an open fire as much as we do.

But human populations in different regions of the world ate a variety of diets. Some ate more; some ate less. They likely ate meat only when they could get it, and then they gorged. Richard Wrangham, author of  Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, says diets from around the world ranged greatly in the percentage of calories from meat. It's not cooked meat that made us human, he says, but rather cooked  food.

In any case, says Pollan, today's meat is nothing like that of the hunter-gatherer.

One problem with the paleo diet is that "they're assuming that the options available to our caveman ancestors are still there," he argues. But "unless you're willing to hunt your food, they're not."

As Pollan explains, the animals bred by modern agriculture—which are fed artificial diets of corn and grains, and beefed up with hormones and antibiotics—have nutritional profiles far from wild game.

Pastured animals, raised on diets of grass and grubs, are closer to their wild relatives; even these, however, are nothing like the lean animals our ancestors ate.

So, basically, enjoy meat in moderation, and choose pastured meat if possible.

2. Humans can live on bread alone. Paleo obsessives might shun bread, but bread, as it has been traditionally made, is a healthy way to access a wide array of nutrients from grains.

In Cooked, Pollan describes how bread might have been first created: Thousands of years ago, someone probably in ancient Egypt discovered a bubbling mash of grains and water, the microbes busily fermenting what would become dough. And unbeknownst to those ancient Egyptians, the fluffy, delicious new substance had been transformed by those microbes. Suddenly the grains provided even more bang for the bite.

As University of California-Davis food chemist Bruce German told Pollan in an interview, "You could not survive on wheat flour. But you can survive on bread." Microbes start to digest the grains, breaking them down in ways that free up more of the healthful parts. If bread is compared to another method of cooking flour—basically making it into porridge—"bread is dramatically more nutritious," says Pollan.

 
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