The Joys of the Caveman Diet
Posted on: 2010-12-05 16:36:50
by John Young
Obesity, cardiovascular disease and type-II diabetes are at record levels among our Folk in America, and rising. For decades, we have become increasingly sick. True, our lifespan has increased due to vaccinations, antibiotics, open-heart surgery, transplants and the like. But overall, our rates of autoimmune disease, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and other ills have increased. Furthermore, the period of frailty at the end of life has increased.
Dr. Loren Cordain, among an increasing number of scientists in the field of evolutionary medicine, is attributing most of these ills to our diet. The underlying science is complex; but the principle is simple. Humans diverged from our primate ancestors millions of years ago and for millions of years of evolution we ate a diet rich in lean meats, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Therefore, we would be most likely to thrive while consuming such a diet. With the introduction of agriculture only a few thousand years ago, humans started to live on grains, dairy and legumes. Because of the relatively recent introduction of these foods into our diet, our bodies have not adapted to thrive on them; and they actually make us sick if used chronically.
There is evidence to support that persons of European ancestry, more than other groups, are susceptible to damage caused by grain consumption, including greater presence of the HLA-B8 gene, which creates sensitivity to gluten. This is no surprise as the large scale agricultural use of grains as food started in the fertile crescent, and took thousands of years to reach Northern Europe.
According to an impressive body of research, there are many ways in which grains, dairy and legumes make us sick.
Mammals were simply never equipped to consume milk after weaning and though both Africans and Europeans have made some imperfect adaptations through different genetic approaches to enable digestion of lactose; the genes enabling digestion of lactose into adulthood are still missing in 20% of persons of European ancestry. But lactose is only one ingredient in milk. Far more troubling is the presence of lectins.
Grains and legumes also contain lectins. But what are lectins and why are they a problem?
Lectins are glycoproteins ubiquitous in nature that serve important functions for the organisms of which they are a natural component. In the human body, lectins serve to help train the immune system. In castor beans, they are a deadly metabolic poison called ricin that is used to deter predation.
Plants have developed a number of defense mechanism to deter predation. For example, the roots used to make tapioca contain deadly levels of cyanide that must be removed during processing, apple seeds (though not the fruit itself) also contain cyanide. Many plants are outright poisonous, such as hemlock. Others are more benign in that they evolved so that birds and mammals would eat their seeds, but the seeds would survive the digestive process intact in the ready-made fertilizer made by the animal's feces. But even then, the seeds contain compounds intended to inhibit their digestion (called protease inhibitors) so they can survive the trip.
Humans co-evolved with many plants and animals, ultimately developing a genetic profile suitable for the harmless processing of the lectins in those foods. Foods that entered the diet later in our history such as grains, legumes and dairy, contain lectins and other compounds that we have not yet fully evolved to consume with impunity. Thus, they can cause problems with our health in many subtle and indirect ways.
In acute cases, many grains cannot be consumed by those who develop celiac disease, and many milk products cannot be consumed by those who are lactose intolerant. But even for those of us who do not develop acute reactions, the macronutrients, anti-nutrients and lectins contained in such foods can cause substantial harm. The most obvious source of harm is that grains, even whole grains, primarily provide carbohydrates to the diet, which are little more than chains of sugars that trigger an insulin response upon consumption and thereby leading to the development of insulin resistance, diabetes and obesity.
But other insidious harm lurks. The degree of harm will vary with the individual, but according to Dr. Cordain among others, a great many of the autoimmune and degenerative disorders we associate with aging are caused by consumption of grains, legumes and dairy.
Starting a few months ago, my family adopted a paleo diet. The results, in terms of our health and wellbeing have been nothing less than astonishing. Problems ranging from the merely nettlesome such as acne through the quite troubling, such as borderline high blood pressure, have disappeared. Everyone has experienced a decrease in weight and fat, clearer thinking, and an increase in lean muscle.
I cannot say with certainty that a paleo diet will be equally useful for everyone; but the evolutionary science makes sense, and the results for my family have been sensational.
For more information on the Paleo Diet, please check out the following books:
The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Designed to Eat by Loren Cordain
The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet
By Robb Wolf