October 15, 2012

The Problem With Paleo

Have you heard of the paleo diet? It is based on the idea that  human beings have only been farming for the past 10,000 years, since the Neolithic Revolution, and that we have not had enough time to evolve adaptations that enable us to remain healthy on a grain-based, Neolithic diet. Neolithic means “New Stone Age”; paleo is short for Paleolithic, or “Old Stone Age”.

Anatomically modern humans have been around for 200,000 years.  This means that we have spent 95% of our existence as hunter-gatherers, not farmers.

Proponents of the paleo diet argue that grains, like wheat and corn, and legumes, such as soy and peanuts, contain large amounts of lectins – proteins that are difficult for humans to digest and cause intestinal damage.

Some say that celiac disease, a reaction to gluten (wheat protein) that affects the small intestine, is simply a stronger than usual reaction to what is, in fact, a toxic substance for all humans.

Paleo diet enthusiasts also point to the fact that rates of obesity and diabetes in the United States have shot up since the USDA Food Pyramid, which encourages eating large amounts of grain and small amounts of protein, fats and oils – the opposite of a paleo diet – was publicized in the early 1990s.

This explains why obesity is associated with poverty – bread, rice and cereal are cheaper than meat and fresh vegetables.

The paleo diet mantra is “You can only eat it if you can hunt it, catch it, pick it off a tree or a bush, or pull it up from the ground.”

So while fresh fruit is OK, corn – and candy made from high fructose corn syrup – isn’t.

Milk, butter and cheese are out, too. Before the Neolithic Revolution and the domestication of buffalo, goats and cows, the only milk human beings drank was human breast milk. (The fact that the majority of people on Earth are at least partially lactose intolerant in adulthood shows that we aren’t well adapted for consuming dairy products.)

What’s left?

In addition to fruit, paleo devotees can have mushrooms, vegetables, meat, eggs and fish. They can even sweeten their meals with honey once in a while – as long as they remember that their ancestors would have had to fight swarms of angry bees to get it, so honey is only for very special occasions.

That doesn’t sound so hard, does it? Well, there’s a catch.

It’s impossible to recreate the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors because the food they ate does not exist anymore.

The food that we eat today is nothing like the food that our ancestors ate more than 10,000 years ago.  Today’s fruits and vegetables  have much higher sugar content, because we’ve spent thousands of years breeding them for sweetness.

Even if you grow your own, the seeds you use will be the product of millennia of selective breeding.

Then there’s meat. Most of us don’t have the time, the skills, the energy or the desire to hunt our own meat.  You could buy game meat if you were rich – it is very expensive.  So those of us who do eat meat usually eat the meat of domestic animals, such as chickens, pigs and cows.

These animals are raised for profit. That means that they are selectively bred to be big and tasty (more fat, less muscle, more profit from customers who pay by the pound) and to use the least amount of resources.  Chickens, pigs and cows are cooped up in tight spaces – their lifestyles are very different from those of their wild ancestors, and their bodies surely must be affected by this.   A person who spent all their time in front of a computer and never left their room would have a very different body composition than someone who went hiking and mountain climbing.

To make a profit, farmers try to save money on livestock feed.  It is recommended that followers of a paleo diet only eat grass-fed meat, but that is expensive and can be hard to find.

The meat that you eat in the supermarket usually comes from animals that have been fed food products like corn and soybeans, which are inexpensive compared to other types of feed.  This explains why, at my local UK supermarket, three bell peppers costs about the same as 500 grams of minced beef – more than enough meat for a meal for me and my husband.  So much for the argument that it’s cheaper to be a vegetarian than an omnivore; it isn’t, unless your idea of a vegetarian diet is bread, cake and pasta – not a very healthy version of vegetarianism.

Now, even grain is becoming too expensive for livestock farmers.

As mentioned previously on Red Orbit, Britain’s National Pig Association has predicted a shortage of pork next year, because of a drought that has led to a shortage of corn and soybeans. In the US, drought has been such a problem, and corn has become so expensive that one Kentucky farmer has been feeding candy to his cattle.

It seems that farmers have been feeding candy to their cows for decades, and the practice has become more popular as the price of corn has risen. The price of corn has doubled since 2009, as the result of drought and a government mandate that almost 10% of America’s gasoline supply must come from corn-based ethanol.  This means that up to 40% of the United States’ annual corn production is allocated to the production of ethanol.

Farmers have been feeding their cattle ice cream sprinkles, gummy worms, marshmallows, cookies and chocolate bars.

Dairy farmer Mike Yoder said he was advised by a livestock nutritionist that feeding candy to cows is OK, as long as it doesn’t make up more than 3% of their diet.

Livestock nutritionist Chuck Hurst, of Nutritech, Inc. says that the sugar in candy provides cows with the same energy as the sugar in corn, and that the candy doesn’t have a negative effect on the cows or on the people who drink their milk or eat their meat.

Well, candy-fed cows certainly aren’t paleo. Our ancestors didn’t eat gummy worms, and they definitely didn’t eat animals that ate gummy worms.

If gummy worms do have the same nutritional value as corn (Parents, how do you feel about serving your children gummy worms as their side dish with dinner?), that doesn’t mean that either gummy worm-fed meat or corn fed meat is good for you.

Farmers need to make a living and if the only way they can do that is by supplementing their cows’  diets with ice cream sprinkles, they are going to feed their cows sprinkles (which cost about half as much as corn).

Consumers are going to continue to purchase corn-fed and candy-fed beef because they can’t afford organic.

Unfortunately, our diets are often determined by our wallets.

Image Credit: Photos.com

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