Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Eating Like Our Ancestors: Fresh, Raw and Sustainable Food

As we grunt along, happily enjoying our dinners, we all sound a little Paleolithic at times. The Paleolithic Diet is a raw food diet that has been growing in popularity. The idea behind the Paleo Diet is remarkably similar to that espoused in The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” Add the word “raw” to that sentence, and you have the diet that many of our ancestors might have eaten: fresh leaves and berries gathered from the bushes, nuts and seeds, complemented by preserved or foraged roots and animal products when we could get them.

People are omnivores. In some places in the world, like the Arctic, these omnivores have historically eaten a lot of raw meat. In other parts of the world, humans have eaten a diet that occasionally involved a lot of raw or dried meat. However, in general the human diet has relied on fresh, raw vegetables and fruit in the seasons when food is plentiful, accompanied by fresh or smoked meat and eggs when they were available. Some cultures also had systems of farming to grow grain crops in abundance, and some nomadic and herding people had animals that they would use for milk as well.

Eating like our ancestors means that we cook very little and preserve using root cellars, fermentation, and processes like yogurt-making that involve very small amounts of heat to process food. This keeps the micronutrients intact and the fiber still present in the food. Cooking like a caveman involves eating foods that are processed as little as possible. While people have always processed items like manioc into edibility, in most cases it is easiest to eat foods as they come. Eating fresh berries, leaves, and the occasional raw egg or milk product is part of the Paleolithic diet.

Is the Paleolithic Diet a sensible one for the body? Eating whole, unprocessed foods and living foods like sprouts is certainly a sensible nutritional choice. The Paleolithic Diet also reduces the amount of grains and animal products that many people eat. In wealthy countries where grains and animal products are found in cheap abundance, many people eat far too many carbohydrates that are often fried in processed animal or vegetable oils.

Is the Paleolithic Diet a sustainable one for the earth? It may reduce the consumption of animal products. Raw eggs, raw dairy, and raw meat may be less palatable or available to some and may become a smaller part of the diet. The focus on unprocessed, unpackaged, and uncooked fruits and vegetables is certainly a lower-impact choice. However, for northerners eating raw and vegetarian in the winter time, finding local food can be challenging, since many fresh fruits and vegetables are flown in from far away. Like other raw food diets, the Paleolithic Diet is a concept that holds the promise of increasing fruit and vegetable consumption, but it can be a hard sell in these days of packaged and processed foods.


  1. The paleo diet is raw only if you want it to be raw. There is evidence of cooking food going back 250,000 years or more. The problem with that evidence is those sites are populations that died off. We are descended from the last migration out of Africa that was 50,000 years ago. So it is possible our ancestors have been cooking our food for only 50,000 years.

    Most people that study the diet arrive at the conclusion that they ate more meat. You have to factor in the Optimal Foraging Theory. This says that we would have gone for the food that was easiest to get at that location. If, like the Native Americans, you drove a dozen bison off a cliff, you had thousands of pounds of meat with not too much effort. That is why they invented pemmican to store it.

    Many people feel that man hunted the megafauna to extinction. There is clearly evidence (from cave paintings) that they liked to go after the larger animals. One kill and they could feed many for quite a while.

    There is no limit to egg consumption on the paleo diet. They would have been easy to collect. Though there may have been some seasonality. But there is also seasonality with fruit, so many use that to argue to limit one's fruit consumption.

    There is NO dairy on the paleo diet. As this is one of the hardest things for people to give up (maybe because of the opioids) some people try to argue that is can be included. It can't.

    I have written a definition of the diet, along with various variations that people have created. You can find it here:

  2. Oh. This is a sustainable food blog. Meat that has been fed grains is not efficient. Paleo eaters prefer grass-fed meat. Grass-fed meat can be raised in locations were crops can't be grown. This is very sustainable.