I've often thought modern humans would be wise to look to earlier generations for guidelines on how to live well individually and in groups.
So I was intrigued in late 2011 when my wife said she was going to follow the so-called "Paleolithic diet" for a month. She read "The Primal Blueprint" by Mark Sisson, which encourages people to eat like humans did before the development of agriculture.
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"I'm only going to eat things people ate before 10,000 years ago," my wife said. "Meat, vegetables, fruit, eggs, nuts. No grains. No legumes. No dairy."
No grains? Really? My Italian-American, bread-at-every-meal wife would eat no grains for a month?
"Grains have gluten, and humans didn't evolve to eat gluten," she said. "They were hunter-gatherers."
"But humans are opportunistic eaters," I replied. "I bet some Paleolithic people ate wild grains or milk from wild cows. I bet, when they were starving, they ate just about anything they could get their hands on — bugs, grass, bark, anything."
But my wife persevered. She completed her month-long paleo diet, and she felt good. She lost 5 pounds and her complexion improved. So she decided to continue.
What is the paleo diet?
Proponents say the paleo diet — also called the primal diet or cave man diet — works because it's the diet humans evolved to eat over hundreds of thousands of years. The name comes from the Paleolithic Era, the prehistoric period before the advent of agriculture.
Researchers don't know exactly what Paleolithic humans did and did not eat, but they have some educated guesses.
In a 2009 paper, "Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a Paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet," published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Lynda Frassetto wrote, "... (O)ur ancestors, including Homo sapiens, lived as hunter-gatherers, eating wild animal-source foods (lean meats, internal organs, bone marrow, but no dairy) and uncultivated plant-source foods (mostly fruits, nongrain vegetables, nuts, but no legumes)," she wrote.
Mark Sisson was an early proponent of eating a Paleolithic-style diet. But for him, the diet should be part of an overall lifestyle. He calls it his "primal blueprint."
"The Primal Blueprint is not just an eating strategy," Sisson said by phone from California. "It's a lifestyle that encompasses how you move, how you sleep, how much sun exposure you get, the amount of play incorporated into your life, and a lot of other elements that ... ultimately make for a strong, lean, fit, happy, productive individual."
Experts change their mind
Tammy Thornton is a registered dietitian at the Washington County Health Department. She is now generally following paleo-diet guidelines. She said research convinced her that eating a paleo diet was healthier than eating a diet low in fat and high in whole grains — the diet supported by conventional wisdom.
Thornton's boss, Mary McPherson, program manager of health and safety promotion for the health department, is also following the guidelines of a paleo diet.
McPherson said, for her, research is beside the point.
"I don't think bread is bad. I don't think milk and cheese are bad. Human beings have been on this planet for a long time. They can eat a lot of things," she said. "For me it's not about the research. It's about what works for me."
McPherson said she's gained weight over the years and also has developed multiple sclerosis. The paleo diet helped her with both.