There is a misperception that the Paleo diet is about gorging on meat. And avoiding all carbs.
There is nothing wrong with eating a little meat, especially organ meats. As we saw in Part 2, animal fats are a rich source of Vitamins A and K2. But eating meat three times a day doesn’t make you Paleo.
Also, unless you’re pre/diabetic, have high triglyceride/metabolic syndrome, or trying to lose weight to fit into a wedding dress, there is no need to go low-carb. Cutting back on carbs, especially the good kind can be a bad idea.
Grains – carbs at a cost
Most people think of whole grains as a good for you.
Grains kill you very slowly.
There is absolutely nothing essential in grains that you can’t get from fruits and vegetables.
Grains contain phytic acid, which reduces absorption of calcium, magnesium and several other essential minerals.
You already know about gluten. No need to beat that ex horse.
But there are other possibly scarier proteins in wheat like gliadin, glutenin, and germ agglutinin that enter your gut wearing brass knuckles.
Some traditional cultures seem to have figured out ways of reducing the full brunt of these toxins by soaking, sprouting, and fermenting grains and legumes. This is still not ideal, but it helps a little.
The pacifist vegetarian Jain tribes of northern India are expert legume sprouters. They were also huge consumers of butter oil /ghee and home-fermented yogurt. Urban Jains have dropped ghee and embraced wheat in a big way…and seem to be paying for it.
The truly healthy ancestral cultures, however, seem to get their carbs from roots and tubers.
Paleo folks are familiar with Staffan Lindberg’s study of the residents of Kitava, a small island in Papua New Guinea. The locals are remarkably free of modern diseases and they mostly eat root vegetables (yam, sweet potato, taro and tapioca), fruits, coconuts and fish. There is no heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, obesity or dementia. Sudden death appears to come only by way of drowning or falling from coconut trees.
Low-carb Paleo folks have often dismissed the starchy, high-tuber consumption of Kitavans.
Looking at my notes, I found something remarkable. Three different cultures I’ve studied have a virtually identical diet to the Kitavans.
• Indigenous tribes in northern Amazon (Brazil)
• The Igbo people of the Niger delta (West Africa)
• The Malayalees of south Kerala (India)
Ancestral Northern Amazonian Diet
Manioc and freshwater fish make up most of their diet. Manioc (also known as Cassava or Tapioca) is a starchy tuber. The skin of the tuber contains some cyanide, so it needs to be peeled, soaked and processed carefully.
It’s not uncommon to see sunken canoes in the shallows of rivers, filled with peeled tubers. After a couple of days of soaking, the cyanide will leach out and you’re left with a very safe and gut-friendly starch.
Palm fruits are also a rich source of starch and several other nutrients.
Leafy vegetables, worshipped by westerners, are not a big part of the diet. Cucumbers, peppers, cilantro, and pumpkin are consumed. Legumes are consumed two or three times a year.
Dairy, wheat, and grains are not consumed. Meats like beef and chicken are eaten very rarely…but when they do, they leave no part of the animal to waste. Raw Brazil nuts, a nutritional powerhouse, are used to make ‘milk’ – crushed or blended with some water. The soft nut is also scraped and used like butter on top of manioc flour pancakes – a delicacy that I miss every single day when I’m not in the jungle.
There are lots of seasonal fruits in the jungle, some of which, like Acai and Cupuacu are eaten almost daily. Camu camu fruit, available freely along any river, is unbelievably high in Vitamin C.
Ancestral diet of the Niger Delta
Yam forms the basis of this diet. Cassava, taro and plantains are consumed in large quantites.
Yam and cassava in many different forms are eaten with a fish or goat soup of stew. Those living along the waterways eat fish on a daily basis. Garri, cooked tapioca flour, is the common man’s food.
The Igbo people eat a little more meat (bush meat – small antelopes, monkeys, etc.) than the Kitavans. Traditionally, the Igbo used red palm oil as their primary cooking oil.
Bitterleaf (similar to spinach) and Breadfruit are common vegetables.
Today, rice, vegetable seed oils and chicken have replaced a lot of the traditional foods.
Traditional diet of the south Kerala fishing villages
Clearly, they have access to fish and coconuts. Tapioca, yam and several types of root vegetables are cooked with coconut oil.
Tapioca, fish, and coconut form the basis of at least two meals every day.
Several leafy vegetables and plantains are consumed almost every day. Turmeric is used daily.
Of the three non-Kitavan diets described here, this was the one most like Kitavan. And it’s also the diet that’s worsened the most in the last 50-100 years. Rice has almost completely replaced root vegetables. And Omega-6-rich seed oils have replaced coconut oil.
Frequent and excessive (almost candy like!) antibiotic abuse appears to have wiped out many of the probiotic organisms needed to digest prebiotic soluble fibers in tubers. I’ve never seen people complain so much about digestive distress after eating root vegetables. Not surprising. But they haven’t made the connection yet.
Many middle-class people from Kerala now hold traditional root vegetables in disdain.
According to a doctor employed at a free government hospital, when the volume of patients gets overwhelming, nurses are instructed to send everyone home, after distributing free antibiotics to all in the waiting room.
Words fail my outrage.
Common dietary threads
The main dietary thread that connects all these cultures is consumption of friendly starches in the form of roots, tubers and plantains.
The following commonalities are secondary:
• Daily or near-daily fish consumption
• Minimal (but adequate) local leafy vegetables
• Seasonal fruit consumption
• Reliance on saturated fats
The secondary points are nothing new to followers of the Paleo diet. But the heavy reliance on roots and tubers may be novel to many.
There is a very important reason why I think this is crucial: tubers are full of prebiotic fibers.
No, not the insoluble, bark-like roughage marketed in boxed breakfast cereals. That’s not the kind of fiber you really want.
You want the soluble kind that humans cannot digest, but the bacteria in your intestines love.
There are several kinds of prebiotic fibers in tubers, plantains, vegetables, fruits and nuts. Each kind of prebiotic fiber sustains a different community of probiotic flora in different sections of your gut.
Amazonian fruits are also very high in polyphenols, yet another class of prebiotic.
Without these fibers, these bacteria either starve or die.
As if that weren’t enough, we squirt anti-bacterial potions into every possible orifice. Triclosan and Listerine and Summer’s Eve! Oh my!
I’m surprised there isn’t a product to sterilize belly buttons.
We’re waging chemical warfare against ourselves.
Why should we care?
We should care because the last decade has opened scientists’ eyes about the far-reaching health effects our bowel bugs can have.
Each of us has a probiotic fingerprint that’s established by age 3.
There is mounting evidence that several ‘health states’ like obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, and celiac each have unique probiotic fingerprints.
The question to answer now is whether the disease caused the compromised fingerprint or vice versa? And even more importantly, will reverting to a more ideal microbiome fix the health problem? I don’t have the answer, but a lot of things are pointing to a preceding probiotic compromise.
The prebiotic and soluble fiber-heavy diets of these cultures suggest that our ancestors had figured out over eons that such a diet made them thrive.
I just happened to stumble across these findings when I was entering notes into my computer after my recent trip to the Amazon. But I’m far from alone in coming to this conclusion. Paul Jaminet and Shou-Ching Jaminet, Ph.Ds have wonderfully articulated all this in their book, Perfect Health Diet. Possibly the best health related book I’ve ever read.
Don’t look to supplements for a complete cure
I’d guess that only 5% of the species in our guts are available as supplements. One course of antibiotics can permanently alter your microbial fingerprint.
Same goes for prebiotic fiber supplements – we are just starting to understand the fiber needs of each bacterial community.
They were also in constant contact with nature. They were all, in effect, organic farmers, exposed to dirt and animals at all times. Washing hands after each activity was not the norm. They were covered with bacteria. (Hey new mom – how quickly can you draw that portable Purell bottle from your purse?)
They walked. A lot. Usually in the sun, soaking up Vitamin D3. Most adults probably walked 5 miles a day.
They were also intensely connected to their communities. Our understanding of the influence of social structure on human health is in its infancy. I look forward to learning more.
There’s a lot more to Paleo diet than just eating more meat.
Looking backwards to a simpler, more ancestral way of eating and living will help you in ways modern medicine cannot.
Some people call it Paleo. I call it eating real food – stuff that was alive a few days ago. And while you’re out shopping for real food, pick up a new root vegetable you’ve never tried before. Or maybe a plantain.