Friday, January 17, 2014

Real paleo diets

It's time for another installment of Health news from archeology and history.  Today, I explore the latest evidence that bears on the paleo diet, beginning with two articles I included in Overnight News Digest: Science Saturday (Polar Vortex) on Daily Kos.

First, Fox News, a news source readers of Daily Kos have learned to distrust, lives down to its reputation with The REAL caveman diet: Research shows ancient man mainly ate tiger nuts.
So much for Fred Flintstone’s brontosaurus ribs.

The popular caveman diet claims people will feel more powerful and healthier if they only eat items popular during the Paleolithic, pointing to nuts, berries and red meat. But a new study from Oxford University says meat wasn’t making it for our ancient ancestors: 2.4 million years ago, man survived mainly on “tiger nuts” -- edible grass bulbs still eaten in parts of the world today.
Strictly speaking, these aren't "cavemen."  They aren't even our genus.
To find what cavemen really ate, Macho compared the diet of Paranthropus boisei, nicknamed “Nutcracker Man” because of his big flat molar teeth and powerful jaws, and modern Kenyan baboons. Scientists have debated whether high-fiber foods would have been sufficient nourishment for early man.
Trying to determine what our immediate pre-agriculture ancestors ate from a specialized side branch neither confirms not debunks the Paleo Diet.  Nice attempt at getting readers, Faux Noise, but not an honest description of the importance of the research.

On the other hand, the research described in Past Horizons, Hunter-gatherer diet caused tooth decay is a much better test of the claims of the paleo diet, as it did examine anatomically modern pre-agricultural Homo sapiens.
Research led by Natural History Museum scientists suggests a diet rich in starchy foods may have caused high rates of tooth decay in ancient hunter-gatherers.

The results published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) also suggest tooth decay was more prevalent in earlier societies than previously estimated. The results also suggest that the hunter-gatherer society studied may have developed a more sedentary lifestyle than previously thought, relying on nut harvesting.

Dental disease was thought to have originated with the introduction of farming and changes in food processing around 10,000 years ago. A greater reliance on cultivated plant foods, rich in fermentable carbohydrates, resulted in rotting teeth.

Now, the analysis of 52 adult dentitions from hunter-gatherer skeletons found in a cave in Taforalt, Morocco dating from between 15,000 and 13,700 years ago suggests people suffered tooth decay in much earlier times. Evidence of decay was found in more than half of the teeth that were intact, with only three skeletons showing no sign of cavities.
That particular claim on behalf of the paleo diet fails.  However, advocates might say, "see, eating starches is bad for your teeth."  They're probably right about that one.

As for my opinion of the paleo diet, I'll let Trace Dominguez of Discovery News express it when he answers his own question in Does Science Back Up the Paleo Diet?

Fans of the paleo-diet are very dedicated ones. They report not only looking better, but also feeling better. Trace looks at whether this is just a passing fad, or if it deserves a closer look.
I think it's an effective diet, but it works for the reasons Trace lists--portion and calorie control without actually paying attention to calories by themselves, which makes people feel deprived, and having people eat more healthy foods.*  I'm in favor of all of those.

On the other hand, it's not really a "caveman diet," as our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate grains and legumes, and we aren't our ancestors any more, as many of us have adapted to a diet in which we consume dairy products.  Still, I agree that the modern American diet isn't good for our long-term health, to say nothing of what it does to the planet, and consuming fewer grains and less dairy while eating more fresh fruits and vegetables would be a good thing to do.  On the other hand, eating more lean meat might be good for us, but it's not great for the planet.  That is, unless we start eating more bugsSeriously.

*I say the same thing about the Atkins Diet.  It works for the same reasons.  When I was on it, I didn't feel deprived, as I would if I were concentrating on counting calories.


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