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From the Paleolithic diet to the raw food diet, many health-conscious Americans want to eat the way our ancient ancestors ate because it's more "natural." Granted either way of eating is a vast improvement over the Standard American Diet (SAD) high in sugar, chemicals, processed foods and unhealthy fats.
But some of these back-to-our-roots dietary prescriptions make little sense for modern humans, according to a book on the evolution of the use of food and eating habits among prehistoric people.
While we can learn a lot from what our ancestors ate, many of our more modern foods and diets were developed for very good reasons, according to Kristen Gremillion, associate professor of anthropology at Ohio State University.
Gremillion is the author of "Ancestral Appetites: Food in Prehistory" which explores how humans have adjusted their food and the way they prepare it in response to new knowledge and new environments.
Noting that humans are omnivores with the ability to eat a wide range of things, Gremillion suggests that, rather than trying to base a healthy diet on what we think people used to eat thousands of years ago, it would probably make more sense to look at our nutritional requirements today and find the best way to meet them.
Gremillion has an issue with many of the new diet fads that claim they are more "natural" because they focus on a time before modern culture spoiled our eating habits. But she says, that time never existed.
Diet must be evaluated in the context of culture. According to Gremillion:
Human dietary behavior can't be reduced just to our biology. Culture has always played a part in what we eat and how we eat it. And people have always been innovating, finding new foods to eat and new ways to prepare them. There's no way to say that there's only one way we are supposed to eat.
Is the Paleo Diet a more natural way to eat?
One very popular diet today is the so-called "Paleo" or "Paleolithic" diet, sometimes also called the caveman diet and popularized in the book "The Paleo Diet" by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. Based on what people ate before the introduction of agriculture, Paleo dieters emphasize eating lean meats and fruits and vegetables, and avoiding processed foods and grains of all kinds.
While Gremillion believes the Paleo diet is scientifically based and a healthy way to eat, she doesn't believe it is somehow more natural than other diets.
For instance, she does not believe it's unnatural for humans to eat cereals and grains, despite some very persuasive arguments to avoid grains for health reasons. From a cultural point of view, she notes that humans started agriculture because it was difficult to get enough food through hunting and gathering. Cereal grains provided a stable source of calories as humans evolved. She finds a middle position on the question of grains, stating that cereal grains can't be the sole basis of a diet, but can be part of healthy meals.
Is a raw food diet healthy?
Raw food diets are another example of striving for a "natural" way of eating but Grimillion questions whether they make any scientific sense.
The raw food diet emphasizes getting most calories from uncooked, unprocessed foods. It was popularized by David Wolfe, author of "Superfoods: The Food and Medicine of the Future."
Gremillion notes that humans have been cooking food for hundreds of thousands of years and believes there is not really anything to be gained by eating only raw foods. While cooking does remove some nutrients from foods, she admits, it also breaks down some compounds to make other nutrients easier for our bodies to extract. In addition, she says, it's "much easier on our teeth and jaws than tearing and crushing hard and fibrous foods." As she says:
Cooking caught on for a reason, and there is no real reason to give it up.
The concern for returning to a more natural state is understandable and makes sense especially when it draws us away from frankenfoods and the unhealthy, artificial and chemically-laden processed foods that stock our modern grocery store shelves. But says Gremillion, there is not some one natural way to eat that we all have to get back to.
What do you think? Should we be eating like our caveperson ancestors?