I often advocate a return to the diet of our ancestors. No, not our parents or grandparents; not even our great-great-great grandparents. Not even ancient history. (The Greeks and Romans had it wrong.) I’m talking way, way back.
If that sounds like the Paleo diet, well, there’s a lot about that diet that I agree with. But I don’t follow it, or advocate it, because it’s tough to apply in modern times. And many popular interpretations of the paleolithic diet, I disagree with.
Besides, we do live in the modern world, and there’s no need to be that strict. Our paleolithic diet may be better for us, but we don’t need to be perfect. Especially when the world around us just doesn’t cater to that lifestyle.
But generally, I think we should return as much as possible to the foods humans ate before we invented the Twinkie. Before we invented agriculture. Before we tamed fire for our personal “benefit.”
There are two main reasons. The first is, experiments on my own body. Now, these experiments aren’t perfect, because it’s tough to know what impact a diet has on my body. I can’t test things like cancer or heart disease risk during a three week trial period in my home. I don’t have sophisticated blood or urine analysis technology in my kitchen. But I can test things like weight, or regularity, that may be heavily correlated to the healthfulness of a diet. The fact that I’m 7 to 10 pounds lighter on the raw diet, for instance, than I am even on a vegan (and no-refined-carbohydrate) cooked-food diet or a pure Atkins diet says something to me. And its effect on my regularity does, too. My body does way better on foods we ate, raw, during the paleolithic period.
But it’s the second reason I believe in the diet of our ancestors that I want to talk about here: when it comes to diet-related diseases, our ancestors appear to have been much healthier than we are.
And the reason I want to talk about this is the profuse opposition I get when I make this claim to people. “Oh, but our lifespans are so much longer. Would you want to die at 30?” “Our ancestors were sick all the time; so many died in childhood!” “The only reason we have more cancer and heart disease today is that we live past the age of 40!”
There’s some truth in these claims. Lifespans back then were horrifically short. People got sick and died with astonishing regularity. Few lived long enough to see the maladies our older generations see now.
But look at why they died. Much of the problem was infectious diseases, which medicine has since gone a long way toward eradicating. Once we learned what germs were, developed antibiotics, sterilization, vaccines, infectious diseases nearly disappeared from the developed world. This shows up most powerfully in the remarkable decline in infant mortality but plays a role throughout our life cycle.
People also did crazy things like hunt animals, get attacked by wild animals, war with neighboring tribes, drown in floods, get sick from excessive cold or heat, starve from terrible seasons of hunting and gathering. For the most part, we’ve solved these problems.
So our lifespans have increased dramatically, but this has nothing to do with our diets. (Except perhaps the greater reliability of food.) And our changed diets have done little to stop the increase. Sure, we more or less invented lung cancer with cigarettes. Medicine will probably recognize soon that we’ve created (or increased the incidence of) many more cancers due to our diets, and our many uses of chemicals in food production and processing. And incidence of heart disease is much higher even among people who do live past the age of 40 than it was several hundred years ago.
Arthritis, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, autism, food allergies, Parkinson’s. We never tracked (or even recognized?) these in olden days, but there’s powerful evidence that these too are correlated to the bad parts of our modern diets.
But these diseases do little to shorten the average man’s life. Because we’ve gotten very good at treating them. Chemo can extend your life quite a bit. (But how good is that life?) Statins, stents, bypass surgery and even a transplant can keep your heart running. (But how well does it run, and what side effects to these drugs or procedures have on your body?) Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s don’t kill very fast, nor, typically, do ADHD, autism or food allergies.
So our lifespans continue to march upward. But (aside from avoiding starvation) I’d think this is in spite of our diets, rather than because of it. Advances in drugs, surgery, prosthetics, therapy all keep us alive, longer and longer. But our diets seem to only lower that quality of life.
At bottom, it’s tough to prove that our paleolithic ancestors who lived into old age had lower rates of cancer, heart disease and the other “diseases of civilization.” Even the statistics from a couple hundred years ago aren’t great; and we of course don’t have any statistics from our cave-dwelling predecessors.
But do our diets really seem to be making us healthier? Certainly obesity, diabetes and heart disease have risen sharply even over the past thirty years. Did that much change in our lifestyles in the past thirty years, other than our increased consumption of sugar and heavily processed foods? I’m not so sure. I doubt we’re inherently lazier, or more prone to gluttony. And I don’t think we’re exercising less. What do you think causes the change?
Though it’s tough to prove, it’s tough for me to escape the conclusion that the further away from our prehistoric diets we go, the worse we make our health. We may live longer, but couldn’t we live a lot better?