In an anthropology class years ago, my professor began by stating that paleo-humans (the people living 10,000+ years ago) were the healthiest in human history. That small fact intrigued me and stayed with me, pushing me to re-imagine our ancient ancestors and the reality of our modern world. Thus, when recently I heard about the Paleo diet, I just had to find out more about this radical and sometimes controversial diet and lifestyle.
When most of us try to imagine the lives of the first people, back before the Iron Age or the Bronze Age, back before the agricultural revolution when most people were semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers, we tend to evoke a rather bleak image of those people’s lives: hunting giant beasts with rudimentary weapons, collecting a few roots and berries and barely surviving through winter and famine to perpetuate the existence of the species. Contrary to popular belief, however, anthropologists are increasingly arguing that, based on accumulating evidence such as bones and dental records, Paleo Man was actually more robust and healthy than the average person today and for a variety of reasons, including their diet.
The Paleo diet and lifestyle is based on the idea of eating in a way that is similar to our paleo-ancestors, which works well within a modern context. It is argued that such a diet best serves the needs of our bodies and leads to optimal health because it provides the right balance of organic foods which we are genetically wired to process, use and store in the most efficient manner. Humans are naturally omnivores; we are able to eat from a wide range of food sources, including many plants and animals and even some fungi. Therefore, the Paleo diet draws not only on anthropology, but on modern research in epigenetics and human development to argue for a diet that is rich in protein, fruits and vegetables and low in grains (carbohydrates) and sugar.
Paleo is often considered to be a variety of the low-carb diet, similar to the Atkins diet in that it stresses a reduction in the consumption of carbohydrates. However, unlike Atkins, it lays more stress on the health and environmental importance of eating free-range and organic meat and eggs and also advocates not eating vegetable oils.
Allah has commanded us, in multiple places in the Qur’an, to eat not only what is halal, but also what is tayyib, which can be understood as what is good, wholesome and pure. In modern terminology, that could translate as organic, meaning free of poisonous pesticides, hormones, antibiotics and artificial additives. In the case of our meat, animals should have space to roam, be well treated and fed a diet which is consistent with their natural disposition (i.e., not fed the products of other animals or synthetic mixes designed to make them fat). Eating what is tayyib is the heart and soul of the Paleo diet and lifestyle.
Don’t be fooled by the critics’ (and some zealous proponents’) over-emphasis of meat consumption. In fact, a well balanced Paleo diet will include lots and lots of fresh fruit and veggies. While the Paleo diet is also by no means vegetarian, the important thing to remember is that, when it comes to meat, quality (organic, free range) is far more important than quantity.
It is for this reason that the Paleo diet tends to demonise grains (which are our primary source of carbohydrates), and particularly processed grain products like flour and its many by-products. What most people today do not realise is that what we consider to be an average Western diet is actually significantly more carb-dense than the human diet has been for most of history. Furthermore, once something has been processed to the point that it becomes pure white powder, it has become a nutritional desert and should be avoided (fun fact: the term “empty calories” was actually created to describe breakfast cereal). Some evidence suggests that our paleo-ancestors did eat a variety of starches, particularly from roots, maize and other varieties of grain. Their sources were significantly more nutrient-rich than most modern varieties of corn and wheat and they still did not eat nearly as much of it as the average person today. This diet places an emphasis on freshness, nutrients and minimising the consumption of highly processed foods rather than eliminating grains and starches from our diets altogether.
What also impressed me about this diet is the general lack of branded “Paleo” products. Unlike many famous diets, it has not spawned legions of extremely profitable bars, shakes, membership fees, etc. The only people who profit from promoting the Paleo diet, besides a handful of Paleo diet book authors, are small scale organic farms and farmers’ markets. It’s not being made into a big business because that would be inherently antithetical to the Paleo lifestyle.
The Paleo diet does not argue for us to all go back to being hunter-gatherers, which would be neither desirable nor really possible at this point. However, the grain (or bone marrow) of wisdom in this diet and lifestyle is that we need a return to purity in our diets; to eat the good of this earth in all its many natural sources.
Tara Alomari is a freelance writer, wife and mum currently residing in Wales. She has a passion for learning about genetics, anthropology, nutrition and a wide range of other sciences and tries her best to implement the knowledge she gains in her daily life.