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Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Stone Age Diet

I hadn't heard anybody talk about the Stone Age diet in years until I just ran across an article by someone who didn't quite get the point. The diet has a fascinating history, though: an almost perfect example of how cautious scientific advice gets perverted by hustlers and media manipulators into something as nutty as a filbert tree.

There are two schools of thought about diet and anatomy in the human body. Mainstream scientists say flatly that humans are omnivores. They are designed so that they can eat anything - plants, fruits, vegetables, insects, meat, poultry – and do. If you look at all the cultures in the world the omnivorists say, every single edible bit of protein, carbohydrate and fat is eaten by somebody at some time. The western diet is puny and restricted when compared to the richness of food on the earth. There are whole books on this. Try Unmentionable Cuisine, by Calvin W. Schwabe or Extreme Cuisine: The Weird & Wonderful Foods That People Eat, by Jerry Hopkins.

A few decades ago, however, some anthropologists said 'hold on a minute.' Sure, we can eat everything, but what are we optimized to eat? For all those millions of years of the evolution of the genus Homo, our ancestors had access to only meats, plants, and fruits. No dairy products, no ground grains, no coffee or tea, no processed oils. Sweets were extremely rare and sought after. Honey, fruits, and a few naturally sweet vegetables were the only choices. Fats, with the highest calorie density of any food, were also prized but hard to come by. Nuts were a major food source, along with some legumes. Fatty meat was also a delicacy, as it remained for Eskimos, but most tribes had little access to fatty animals so concentrated on eating whatever fatty parts they could find on lean, heavily muscled runners or fatty seafoods. Other food sources, from insects to mushrooms, were also consumed.

Obviously, therefore, our entire digestive systems – from the type, style, and relative lengths of the intestines to the enzymes we manufacture – must have evolved through natural selection to be best suited for these foods. Whenever possible we would want to get most of our calories through animal meats but supplement that with a huge and ever-changing (because of the seasons) number of plant foods.

Obvious, right? Well, it turns out it's a bit harder than that to try to figure out the diet of people who left no solid clues to their food. Contemporary tribal peoples vary. Vary a lot. Two schools of thought developed.

One, led by Dr. Walter L Voegtlin in his 1975 book, The Stone Age Diet, insisted that fats were key, and that ancient Homo ate high fat animal meats whenever possible and our digestive systems were not well suited to plants, or at least grains. The other, promulgated by Dr. S. Boyd Eaton and his colleagues in a 1988 book called The Paleolithic Prescription, took the opposite route, insisting that animal meat was far leaner than pampered farm-bred animals of today have, and that a rich high-fiber variety of plants supplemented the protein. His suggested diet still has about 20% of its calories from fats. Voegtlin's recommendations are closer to the Atkins Diet; Eaton's to the American Heart Association diet.

Both diets are well–suited to those of us, whether lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy, who want to remove dairy from our diets. Neither should do any harm to those who stick with them, either, as so many fad diets will. Eaton's diet has had better long-term acceptance from both anthropologists and nutritionists, though. It's the one I would suggest.

But it's hard to make money from being sensible. Anyone can give good sound middle-of-the road advice. People who buy diet books are like serial monogamists; they're faithful to a long series of partners but they need the variety.

So today you can find all sorts of pseudo-early man diet books. I won't name them. Each exploits a niche and beats it into the ground. No beans! No citrus! Raw foods! One thing they have in common: none of them were written by a doctor or anthropologist. The add-ons are all their own, little money-makers each and every one.

Don't give them your money. Middle-of-the-road it. That's a lot healthier than landing in the ditch.

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