This blog explores different ways the hunter-gatherer way of life may hold clues for living healthier and happier in our time. It’s not all about food, but examining the way I/we eat is a crucial part of the exercise.
Before I could act like a modern caveman, I had to decide on some ground rules with regard to my diet. The paleolithic diet means different things to different people. My rules at present:
• Eat meat and plants
My internet probing has revealed quite a few schisms in the caveman congregation regarding this or that food. But the basic message stays more or less the same everywhere: To eat a paleolithic diet means to eat primarily from three groups: unprocessed protein, ideally sourced ethically; fresh fruit and vegetables; and nuts and seeds. These, the paleos believe, are the fuels our bodies are designed to run on.
• No eat grain! No eat beans or modern food!
What’s not allowed are the foods of the neolithic revolution? The foods of civilization; the nourishments that humans developed in conjunction with farming. Forbidden food categories include legumes (that’s one that a lot of paleo newbies are surprised by), processed foods, added salts, refined sugars and grain. Grain is the big one — although, as I’ll explain before long, I’m going to make exceptions to that one.
• Tubers, maybe
Tubers and other starchy root vegetables are contentious. Most paleo types ban them altogether, while others only counsel a blight on potatoes and/or sweet potatoes, and similar tubers that are roly-poly starch grenades (I’m not offered cassava very often in Canada but I’m going to assume that’s off-limits as well).
But here’s the thing: Based on some reading I’ve done, hunter-gatherers do eat tubers. Based on this study (link opens as a PDF), the Hadza people, for example, have a few tubers in their diet that I’ve never heard of.
Mind you, it’s not their favourite food at all. Men and women both ranked tubers their last choice among five food groups available.
I’ve actually noticed a bit of a potato-avoidance trend in societies where people weren’t brought up on a Western-style avalanche of spuds. This site says of wild sweet potatoes: “While Native Americans ate them, they were not a popular food.” And the Cambridge World History of Food says societies that European societies originally adapted the potato as an “antifamine” food, but not as a staple.
So my rule is: I’m going to eat tubers if they’re put in front of me. I won’t go out of my way to eat them and I’ll keep them to very limited portions. I know this decision will keep me slightly heavier, and I know it puts me in a small minority among the paleo crowd. But the idea here is to eat like a pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer, and the evidence suggests to me that tubers are a (small) part of a typical diet.
• Other nightshades OK
The potato and its relatives, the tomato, the pepper and the eggplant, are part of the nightshade family of plants. A lot of paleo types won’t eat nightshade foods because the plants are partially poisonous.
I grant that edible nightshades are a New World and a post-Neolithic revolution phenomenon, and thus not really a pure paleo food source. But there’s such a thing as taking this too far. And since cavemen were not botanists nor nutritionists, I’m going to just ignore the scientific arguments paleos make against nightshades. Fred Flintstone would totally eat a red pepper.
Also, dude, I’m part Italian. The idea of not eating peppers, tomatoes and eggplants actually kind of traumatizes me.
• Little bit honey OK
Those Hadza people who don’t care much for tubers told researchers that honey is their favourite food. Honey seems to be an ancient component of the hunter-gatherer diet, worth fighting a bee or two for. So it’s OK to eat some — not too much, since access to honey has always been limited, for obvious reasons.
And while we’re at it, how about sap-like natural sugars? Other paleos use agave nectar, on the odd occasion, I figure what the heck.
Also, our cave-dwelling ancestors knew how to use tree sap to make pigments, so unless I read otherwise I’m going to assume that they knew how to turn it into yummy sugar as well. I’ll be using maple and birch syrups sparingly. I may be a caveman, but I’m still a Canadian.
• Caveman make exceptions
While otherwise generally avoiding dairy, I’m going to have coffee and tea and put a little bit of milk or cream in it — I dare you to come into my kitchen at 8 a.m. and try to stop me.
I’m also going to have one 24-hour period of cheating each week. And since I write about booze for a living, I’m going to consume alcohol as required to do my job. That’s a big cheat, I know, but I have to make a living (and a guy does get thirsty).
As I go along, naturally I’ll have to make more decisions about what to eat and what not to eat. You may have different cave-rules than I. Feel free to comment.