Just Eat Real Food – the JERF Principle
In Michael Pollan’s excellent book, In Defense of Food, he presents several important principles for eating a healthy diet. One of them is that we shouldn’t eat anything that our great-grandmothers would not have recognized as food.
Under this principle, Snackwells, Cheetoes, and other franken-food products are out. Whole foods are in. This simple rule has a lot of cogency, and it just makes intuitive sense that most modern packaged foods, with 15 ingredients I can’t pronounce or understand, would not be as healthy as real food.
Good so far?
Diet, Evolution, and the Human Animal
The “paleo” or “ancestral” diet might be thought to take Pollan’s principle to the extreme: Don’t eat anything that a pre-modern, pre-neolithic person (a caveman) would not have recognized as food.
Anatomically modern humans have been on earth for approximately 200,000 years, and were evolving for millions of years before that. We spent nearly all of that time as pre-agricultural hunter gatherers, meaning that many staples of modern eating–bread, pasta, Twinkies–either didn’t exist, or were not consumed in great quantities. Like any animal, we are healthiest when we eat within the range of diets consistent with our body’s natural evolution, and that evolution has largely been as hunter-gatherers. If you take an animal that runs on grass, such as a cow, and feed it something it was not optimized to eat, like corn, it survives, but it also gets sick. Humans are no different, even if we can get by on a pretty wide range of diets.
Sensible Principles, Not Inflexible Rules
So, the logic goes, if cavemen didn’t eat cheese, don’t eat cheese. If a certain nut wasn’t domesticated until 5000 years ago, don’t eat that either. We can follow this type of thinking to deduce a list of “dos” and “don’ts,” the halal and haaram of Paleo eating.
Some refer to this as “Paleo re-enactment” or “orthodox Paleo.” Many who consider themselves Paleo nevertheless consider this approach inflexible and unnecessary. For the heterodox, the paleo diet is really more of a set of flexible eating and lifestyle principles based on our best thinking about the metabolic conditions to which our bodies have been adapted by virtue of evolution.
No one is going around pretending to be a caveman or suffering from the delusion that they are eating some kind of “authentic” paleolithic diet. You have to use your head: THINK, experiment, see what works for you. There is no “one” paleo diet for the simple reason that real-world paleo diets have been quite varied throughout history.
So what were we designed to eat?
We’re omnivores of course, and have succeeded based on our ability to eat almost anything. But we are not hummingbirds designed to live on a high-octane fuel of sugar and frankenfood (though take a look at most supermarkets and you’d think otherwise). But that’s the Standard American Diet (SAD).
The SAD diet makes us fat, causes diabetes, and plays a very negative role in heart disease. To see this, you only need to look at the before and after picture of every native people around the world as it adopts a modern, Western diet. They go from the picture of health to obese diabetics in a single generation.
If we look to the variety of hunter-gatherer diets for inspiration, we can lower the chances of suffering from the various “diseases of civilization”: diabetes, cancer, heart disease, etc. I’d add that looking to the variety of traditional diets that have kept neolithic populations healthy for millennia is also something that informs my own thinking. In that sense, my diet is actually something of a combination of a “strict” Paleo diet and “real food” or “traditional cultures” diet as advocated by groups like the Weston Price Foundation.
Is a Paleo or Ancestral Diet a “Low-Carb” Diet?
Not necessarily, even though many people confuse the two, and even though some of the biggest proponents of paleo eating have promoted low-carb versions of the diet. There were healthy hunter-gatherer populations that lived off of tubers, fish, and coconut (high carb diet), and maintained excellent health just as there are plenty of healthy modern populations with a fairly high carb intake.
If you have diabetes or some kind of metabolic disorder, then a low-carb version of the paleo diet might make more sense for you. For most people though, starches are a normal part of a healthy diet. Consider the simple fact that we’ve evolved to produce amylase, an enzyme in our saliva whose purpose it is to break down starch. Starch is not your enemy!
My own approach is to tailor carb intake to my activity levels, adding in more starch during weeks when I am doing more physical activity, less when I am more sedentary. I get the bulk of my carbs from potato, sweet potato, fruit, rice, and quinoa, in that order.
If you want to learn more about the Paleo diet:
There are a lot of resources on the web. Perhaps one of the best and most popular ones in terms of explanatory content is Mark Sisson’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple. There are also a lot of recipes on his website so you can get a better idea of how good and creative food can be that is not founded on a bed of grains or pasta.
But the best way is to give it a shot and see how you like it. Even if you decide the full Paleo diet isn’t for you, you could do a lot worse for your health than to adopt at least a couple of the principles outlined above over the long term, particularly principle #1!.
A Few Sample Meals, Based on My Own Version of the Paleo Diet