Arguably, the optimal human diet is based on fruits, vegetables and nuts, with modest amounts of animal protein. This is a natural and omnivorous diet that recognizes human evolution. Here, it is possible to defend “vegan” and “paleo” templates, without adopting a rigid prescription of either.
Vegans are correct in that the basic hominid architecture is herbivore. Our intestinal tracts and our teeth are closer (but not identical) to herbivores than to carnivores. The main dietary constituent for hominids – from about 20 to 5 million years ago – was fruit. Unfortunately, modern industrial society considers fruit to be a snack, and not a staple food.
Oddly, many modern paleos keep pointing to human “evolution” but fixate on the expansion of meat eating among Homo erectus and Homo sapiens, downplaying early hominid history, that is before 4 million years ago, which was frutarian.
As argued since the 1980s, within the Fit for Life diet, the optimal diet includes eating fruit (and drinking fruit smoothies) in the morning – and only fruit in the morning. Fruit provides hydration, vitamins and enzymes, and fruit encourages the process of elimination. In the morning, the body does not require complex carbohydrates or protein, as the meal from the night before has still not been burned off. Fruit is the right energizer when waking up, and this was probably the case for many hominid species, which would require the day to gather and hunt for other foods.
Vegans are right to emphasize the importance of fruits, vegetables and nuts. Also, vegans are right to avoid highly processed foods with many chemicals, refined sugar, and salt. Clearly, most vegans are right to avoid junk food, soda pop and the tsunami of bagged and canned food that passes for human sustenance. Modern paleos share this rejection of industrial food.
Vegans can be criticized, however, for rejecting an even limited amount of animal protein in the human diet. Some protein encourages efficient muscle development, more bone density, better brain functions, better sleep and, crucially, less hunger. Protein staves off hunger. Meat represents a compact, high-energy source of calories.
That being said, people in industrial society – including the modern paleos – eat way too much meat, which is acidic and, when over-consumed, linked to cancer. Most people can benefit from one modest serving of protein a day, and any benefits can be obtained from eggs, poultry and fish. There is no need to devour mammals, which have the most developed mental and nervous systems.
The vegan rejection of meat can be justified on ethical or ideological grounds; but evolutionary nutrition suggests that hominid species, and even other primates, eat some animal protein. Orangutans and gorillas eat insects and small vertebrates. Both chimpanzees and bonobos regularly eat termites. Chimpanzees are especially opportunistic and are known to hunt and eat smaller colobus monkeys.
One of the first human species, Australopithecus afarensis, about 5 – 4 million years ago, mostly ate vegetable matter but was also omnivorous, mostly scavenging on carcasses.
Homo habilis, from about 2.5 million years ago, increased its meat intake within a mostly vegetarian diet. Homo habilis displays the first known use of stone tools to break apart bones and eat the marrow, and this species witnessed a hop in brain size.
Homo erectus, from about 1.5 million years ago, exhibits an even greater increase its meat intake (and brain size). They were mostly gatherers, but the practice of hunting, being complex and risky, encouraged social complexity and language development. It also led to the control of fire. Also, meat eating is associated with anatomical changes in humans, including an increased life span far longer than that of other primates. Meat-eating is thought to have produced genetic changes including resistance to disease. Finally, the human expansion of brain size would have been impossible without the increase of meat eating within an omnivorous diet.
As mentioned, today’s paleos tend to eat way too much meat. Also, paleos are not eating megafauna or lean meats like venison and small birds; instead, most tend to feed on factory-farm cattle, primarily cows and pigs, which are grain fed and jacked up with steroids, antibiotics, hormones and chemicals. And they do this two or three times a day. A few paleos emphasize organize and grass-fed meat, but this is unrealistic in terms of most people’s budgets. Fewer paleos still engage in what our ancestors did to obtain their meat: hunting.
One interesting species is Homo neanderthalensi, from 350,000 to 130,000 years ago, which ran parallel to homo sapiens and was eventually absorbed into the larger gene pool (probably). Neanderthals were primarily hunters and then gatherers. They ate the megafauna of pre-Ice Age Europe and Asia and, apparently as a result, they were physically stronger than modern humans.
Homo sapiens, from about 200,000 years ago to the present, followed the Neanderthal-style diet, and were primarily nomadic, but about 10,000 years ago the diet changes (for the worse). There was an Agricultural Revolution. Many grains – rice, wheat, corn, barley – replaced a large portion of the meat and even vegetable intake. This is a brand new development in terms of human evolution and an unhealthy one.
Grains allow for the storage and commodification of food, and thus for population growth, but these complex carbohydrates are damage human health. Indeed, their overuse has been linked to obesity and diabetes. In evolutionary terms, there was a leap backward, as humans became slightly shorter and witnessed a contraction in brain size – especially compared to the Cro-Magnon subspecies of Homo sapiens, who lived from about 30,000 to 20,000 years ago.
Here, the modern paleos are more convincing than the vegans. The modern paleo diet reduces – or rejects altogether – agricultural grains, which are all fattening. And most vegans eat rice all day long. Dr. William Davis, a cardiologist, who wrote the book Wheat Belly, argues convincingly for a wheat-free, grain-free lifestyle. Amazingly, the buns holding a hamburger are probably more fattening that the hamburger itself – which is not really fattening at all when situated in the right context.
At the very least, grains should be consumed incidentally, and not be part of the absurd “food pyramid” as propagandized by the US federal government after World War II. This means that if a little old lady offers up a chocolate-chip cookie, then why not enjoy it, but it is best to avoid the regular intake of grains. (It is possible to enjoy optimal health without waging nutritional jihad on one’s friends and neighbors).
Vegans and modern paleos hold valid points; however, both modern vegans and paleos are capable of nonsense – of engaging in the absurd.
Many vegans, for example, consider even wild honey to be an animal product and hence forbidden, but it would be impossible for bees to make honey without the nectar of flowers, and bees are not slaughtered (or necessarily captured, not that they know it when they are) to produce honey.
Modern paleos ofte consider potatoes to be off limits, since prehistoric people presumably did not dig up potatoes. But prehistoric people did poke around the earth with sticks, and wild potatoes have been eaten in Africa and South America for millennia. Some of these species are similar to domesticated versions of potatoes. So modern paleos think that prehistoric people only ate things that they could see, above ground? That’s ridiculous. Still, sweet potatoes and yams are far better for human health.
Modern paleos reject legumes – alfalfa, peas, beans, lentils and peanuts – because, presumably, they were not part of our ancestral diet. But Neanderthals ate peas and beans, as indicated by the archeological record of their teeth, and plenty of other hunter-gatherer societies in southern Africa and Australia eat many legumes
Finally, modern paleos often reject dairy because it is thought to be part of the Agricultural Revolution. Vegans reject dairy for either health or ethical reasons, and modern industrial society uses excessive dairy products. However, prehistoric societies in the Sahara Desert grazed and milked cows, when the desert was greener. The first use of dairy in Turkey was thought to be for butter and yogurt (not milk). Of course, regularly drinking the milk of another species is not logical, but humans – being opportunistic omnivores – are capable of benefiting from yogurt, for example. Clearly, a huge swath of humanity tolerates lactose and can handle dairy.
Some people feel and perform better with different diets. There is no perfect diet for each and every person on the planet – but there is a diet, or a lifestyle, that can arguably sustain optimum health for most people, if human evolution is any guide. Fruits and vegetables form the base of the pyramid. Next, there are varieties of nuts, followed by sweet potatoes and yams, followed by meat and dairy products (at the top of the pyramid, with less quantity).
Food for thought.