Today’s “Paleo” Diet
It turns out that those of us following the so-called Paleo diet have been eating the wrong foods. Proponents of this food plan have insisted that the diet of the hunter-gatherer, with the emphasis on the hunter, is best for our modern bodies. In other words: No processed food but the (one hopes) cooked meat of whatever did not eat the hunter first, along with whatever garnishes of fruits, nuts, seeds, and other plant parts found by foraging. The Paleo dieters believe that pre-modern humans and Neanderthals did not consume starchy grains such as wheat, oats, beans, lentils, and starchy tubers like potatoes. They insist that when such foods began to be eaten around the time that agriculture began, it was the beginning of health problems associated with consuming carbohydrates.
Neanderthals Ate Starchy Carbs
Now these assumptions have to be reexamined because of recently reported research on the food intake of Neanderthals who lived 600,000 years ago. A large group of scientists investigated the types of microbes living in the oral cavity (mouth) of our close cousins, the Neanderthals, prior to the time they split off from the lineage that produced modern man.
They examined the dental biofilms (plaque that during life calcifies forming tartar; the stuff scraped off when teeth are cleaned). The tartar preserved bacterial species that lived in the mouths of the pre-modern man and Neanderthals. By examining the bacteria, the scientists were able to reconstruct their diet. Apparently, certain bacteria in the oral cavity appear when large amounts of starchy foods are eaten. Moreover, the scientists suggest that these foods may have been modified by cooking. This was taking place in the Late Pleistocene era, at a time when the size of the human brain was rapidly enlarging, and significantly before the development of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago.
Carbohydrates for Brain Development
According to the archeologists involved in the study, meat was certainly an important part of the diet, especially because early man’s skill in successfully killing his dinner had improved considerably by then. However, the increase in brain size meant that there had to be an increase in the consumption of foods providing fuel supporting brain growth. That fuel is not the amino acids in meat protein, but energy-dense starchy carbohydrates. Glucose, the final product of all carbohydrate digestion, is the fuel upon which the brain cells depend for energy.
Carbohydrates as an Important Energy Source
To the surprise of the investigators, there was evidence that not only did pre-modern humans and the Neanderthals eat carbohydrates; they might have been able to cook them. Evidence for this came from discovering that the oral cavity contained the enzyme, amylase. This enzyme initiates the digestion of carbohydrates in the mouth, and works best on cooked carbohydrates.
The enlargement of the brain started between 1 million and 700,000 years ago. We don’t know yet, perhaps will never know, if the consumption of starchy carbohydrates preceded, followed, or was concurrent with the enormous expansion of brain size. Happily, there was no one around to protest the consumption of carbs under the mistaken belief that it might damage the emerging modern brain.
What should also be considered is that carbohydrates are a readily available source of energy for the entire body, not just the brain. In fact, carbohydrates supply about 60% of the calories to most of the world’s population. Carbohydrate-rich foods like grain, tubers (potatoes and related plants), rice, corn, beans, lentils, squash, and other starchy vegetables, are easy to grow and are inexpensive. Fat, the more efficient source of energy for our bodies, is difficult to obtain, except in affluent countries. Consider what sources of fat Neanderthal and early modern man would have had available if someone from the Keto diet community had warned about the dangers of eating carbohydrates. The animals hunted for food were heavily muscled, but did not have the fat stores found in domesticated animals. A filet of Woolly Mammoth, heavily marbled with fat, was not metabolically possible. Any fat in the bodies of the prey would have been used to fuel their physical activity. Nuts and seeds have small amounts of oil (as do olives) but extracting oil from olives, corn, or soybeans, for example, required ingenuity and agricultural development thousands of years in the future. Had our ancestors lived near aquatic animals that have extensive fat stores, they could have relied on them as a source of energy … but that also came much later.
Carbohydrates as a reliable source of energy support the energy costs of pregnancy and growth of the newborn. One may even wonder whether meat obtained from a successful hunt would have been given to a pregnant woman, or her young children, or reserved for the male hunters. Perhaps future analyses of the microbiome of early man’s mouth will tell us.
Good Quality Carbohydrates are Part of a Healthy Diet
In our overfed world, we have the luxury of advising each other to eat less and to avoid categories of food in order to lose weight. Some have found weight loss most successful when they eliminate carbohydrates because the carbohydrate foods they had been eating were without much nutritional value, overly processed, and probably high in fat. Indeed, carbohydrates have been demonized as responsible for the overwhelming number of obese individuals in our country. If we ate like early man, consuming only meat, and a few berries and leaves, then, according to the “no carbs” folks, we would be as healthy as they were. Some have told us to avoid carbohydrates because we will develop something called Grain Brain because even healthy carbohydrates will cause us to develop mood and memory disorders, along with other neurological problems.
We are fortunate that our early ancestors did not know this; otherwise, they may have avoided eating the carbohydrates that have given us the powerful brains we have today. Today we are also fortunate to know the serotonin-boosting properties of carbohydrates to control our appetites and boost our moods. The ancients sure had it right!
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