17 September 2013 by Denise Slabbert

Ancestral food in a modern era?

Following a palaeo diet may or may not be a good thing, but it’s definitely worth a debate.

Harry the Hominid's ancestral diet under scrutiny. Image courtesy of Maropeng

You may have heard of the palaeo diet (or the paleo diet, as it is known in the United States). If you haven't, you may well have been living in a cave (if you’ll pardon the pun).

The palaeo diet is also known as the 'caveman diet', and is all about eating lots of protein (like our caveman ancestors) and eating limited quantities of things like bread, carbs and processed foods, which were never part of our ancestors' way of eating.

According to scientist and bestselling author of a book of the same name, Dr Loren Cordian, 'The palaeo diet is based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors.'

Cordian first developed the paleo diet in 1987, and it's a talking point that has lasted 26 years. The diet promises increased energy, optimal health and a reduction in chronic disease (as well as the kilos dropping off). Word's like 'optimal human nutrition' are bandied about in sentences related to the diet, and even South Africa’s own Professor Tim Noakes has 'gone against the grain' and embraced this way of eating.

Meat is a feature of the paleo diet. Image by Darling Lama Productions

In a recent article in Health Intelligence magazine, writers Kirsten Alexander and Brent Murphy point out that the palaeo diet advocates high protein intake because the hunter-gatherer diet consisted of around 19% to 35% protein, which is much higher than Western, diets which only consist of 15% protein. The diet is low in carbs with zero sugar allowance – trans fats are a big no-no, as are processed foods (no caveman ever ate a McDonald's burger or went shopping at the nearby Woolworths).

A voice from Maropeng

Amid all the palaeo-diet fuss comes a voice from our very own Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site, renowned as a fossil excavation site. Brendon Billings, ‘Bone Detective’ at Maropeng (the official visitor centre for the Cradle of Humankind) and a scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand, thinks we may be taking everything a little too seriously, and argues that the palaeo diet is 'founded on privilege rather than on logic'. He says that while the palaeo diet is all good and well in theory, it is not sustainable. 'Resource availability as it stands today is an issue. So it's not practical in the sense of affordability in light of the challenges we are facing globally at present.

'Science tells us that our ancestors had a balanced diet consisting of meat, vegetables and fruit, and perhaps we need to interpret the whole palaeo diet craze a little differently', he says.

'As much as I do agree with the idea that higher protein and less refined carbohydrates, sugars, etc benefit the individual, one has to contextualise the practicality of such an approach in a modern-day setting.'

He says the day-to-day activity of modern humans is substantially less than our cavemen forefathers. 'How much of our time and energy is dedicated to procuring food compared to our ancestors? We certainly utilise less energy compared to our ancestors. Food in most cases is readily available (open the packaging and pop it in the microwave). We do not cross great distances during the course of a day; we just jump into our car and drive to work. So we have different bio-social demands in relation to metabolic energy and how we use it.'

Billings points out that we are using a diet (the palaeo diet) that worked for a being with a different biology from ours, with entirely different demands on its system. He says, 'How can we assume that the same dietary benefits would be applicable to modern humans and our ancestors, when the setting was so different? It’s like comparing oranges and apples and saying that the benefits for the one should be the same for the other when the underlying conditions are much different.'

In terms of longevity, modern-day humans have a greater lifespan than our earlier ancestors. 'The older we get, the more prone we are to pathology and disease, regardless of the diet of the individual.'

Billings questions whether consuming a high-protein diet is practical considering resource availability and Africa’s increasing population. He also questions whether it is environmentally sound to have a predominantly meat-eating diet. 'This palaeo diet might seem good in theory, but practically, it has to be contextualised in the context of the demands on us today, whether they be energy consumption and usage, biological make-up and life history, or resource availability and environmental stresses, to mention a few.'

Whatever we believe regarding whether or not to eat like Harry the Hominid, the facts are clear – in terms of food sustainability and security, we need to change our thinking about how we eat and what we put into our bodies ... perhaps the word 'balance' best sums up the way forward, no matter what our ancestors ate.

Book a space on the Bone Detectives tour with Brendan Billings: +27 (0)14 577 9000 or visit www.maropeng.co.za

Brendon Billings, the Bone Detective. Image courtesy of Maropeng

Category: Culture & History, Food & Wine

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