How & Why I Started:
My first footsteps regarding paleo nutrition began with my lifelong pursuit of ancestral lifeways (also called “primitive skills”). I have always admired the indigenous for their resourcefulness, creativity, and ingenuity. But more than that, I learned to admire them for their skill acquiring food (from any landscape) and for their wisdom putting it together into a successful nutritional strategy. Initially, my interest in wild foods was for survival purposes. Eventually, as I began to understand nutrition and its effects on human health, I realized wild foods were something that should be consumed daily (not just in survival situations). Every study I found demonstrated the nutritional density of non-cultivated foods. Examination of intact cultures showed they were healthy, vital, lacked chronic disease, lived life free of cancer, and were happy. As noteworthy, their children also possessed these characteristics, including the full, broad faces, excellent dentition, and properly formed skeletal structure humans should have. These facts suggested that the traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom possessed by feral and traditional cultures, of which food is a significant proportion, was an important (if not key) aspect that anyone interested in nutrition should study.
The Why: Though I was fortunate to grow up in rural Maine, where wild foods still contribute to a small portion of the diet, as a child I still largely ate a Standard American Diet, rich in processed carbohydrates, grain-fed cage-reared animals, and pasteurized dairy. My diet was largely devoid of raw and living foods. As a result, like most Americans entering their middle ages, I began to suffer from minor health issues. Though nothing was holding me back from strenuous physical activity, I was on a path that would have created another US citizen on a variety of medications. My study of indigenous cultures, which included their methods of healing, gave me a direction to start in my treatment. My first steps were to heal the ailments I suffered from (e.g., frequent cardiac arrhythmias, periodontal infections, bacterial infections). Once these issues were treated, I then moved on to armoring myself against these ailments, focusing on immune system and heart health through nutrient-dense wild foods, beneficial fats, lacto-fermented plants, and properly prepared seeds/grains (yes, grains are paleo, regardless of what you have read or been told).
The How: I started my path on the Paleo Diet (the how) by gathering wild foods from the open spaces around my home and finding open spaces during my travels. Though most Paleo Diet authors recommend an assortment of cultivated foods to be purchased in the supermarket, these choices are based on fragmentary (and sometimes incorrect) information about what was consumed during the Paleolithic Period. I was aware that almost all plant foods from supermarkets and farm stands have been genetically modified through breeding. Though far superior to processed foods, they are lacking the original nutrition and phytochemistry that paleo hominids were exposed to (found in wild food). Therefore, I was fortunate to have botanical training to recognize and find wild plant foods. This knowledge also helps guide my choices of what to purchase (i.e., acquire the least modified plants possible). This is still my path and I share it with my students.
My Message to You:
The Paleo Diet revolution is in full swing. This diet is attempting to mimic aspects of our ancestral nutrition, arguing that our bodies and genomes have been exposed to particular foods that have shaped our anatomy and physiology. Therefore, it is best we avoid exposure to new-fangled foods and stick with those items we have been nourished by for a long time (i.e., those foods that have shaped our evolution). Given that our DNA is very similar to that of humans that lived 50,000 years ago (in the paleolithic period), there is justification for this argument. So, it stands to reason that any diet that is trying to re-create patterns of nutrition from human and pre-human history must (with capital letters) have a clear understanding of past diets and how they fit into the people’s lives.
However, there is some information offered that stands in contradiction to what we know (or can infer) about paleolithic people and the foods they ate. Some of the restricted foods were, in fact, consumed by early people. Therefore, to recommend avoiding all grains (for example) is inaccurate. It would be better to share aspects of grains eaten by paleolithic people so followers of this diet can make an informed choice. Perhaps more importantly, everyone should be made aware that almost all plant foods purchased in supermarkets and from farm stands represent species that have been genetically modified through breeding (note: breeding can insert fragments of a genome from one species into another, it just does so in a more crude manner than laboratory techniques). The result of this breeding is that we have foods that are less nutrient-dense and lacking the original phytochemistry of the wild progenitors. These missing phytochemicals result in a decrease in the food’s antioxidant capacity and antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer actions (and so on). Wild foods that can be collected from the present-day landscape are far more accurate representations of what early humans consumed. Interestingly, very few Paleo Diet authors provide guidance on foraging for wild plants.
A few more items for your consideration. First, wild plants are, on average, more nutrient dense than cultivated plants, and also have a more beneficial essential fatty acid ratio and more fiber (i.e., fewer calories per unit mass). Regardless of your diet, these are good features that any health-conscious person should realize. Second, the Paleo Diet, in its original form (and as practiced by indigenous and traditional cultures), is the only diet that translates through the generations to create vibrant and happy children with proper form (e.g., broad faces and nostrils, wide dental arches creating room for all the teeth). No other diet can claim this. Anyone interested in the health of their children should consider this diet. Third, and last, why the paleo movement is only focused on diet is still a mystery to me. It can be convincingly shown, for example, that early methods of raising and nourishing children, traditional healing practices that focus on the individual (and not just the drug of choice), the egalitarian social structure, the reverence for place, and connection to nature have important implications for our health. The Paleo movement, in my opinion, could be improved by strategies that include real-world diet, movement, and lifestyle (rather than farmed foods, gym exercises, and 1st world patterns of living). Regardless of your personal take on the paleo lifestyle, I do wish you the best in your quest for health.