In 1985 a leading article was published claiming that all chronic diseases are a result of us diverting our eating habits away from the prehistoric diets (developed during the Stone Age) to the refined and processed things we call “food” today.
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This initial article from 1985 has led to fierce debate in the academic community ever since. Many of these academics call for a return to these prehistoric eating patterns so that we become more like our “hunter-gatherer” relatives and consume diets based on: nuts, vegetables, fruits and lean meats. But is this argument legitimate and does it stand up to scrutiny?
Our nutritional requirements were established in our prehistoric past. The problem presented today is trying to establish which prehistoric past that was. These nutritional requirements have been developed over 25 million years, yet those in favour of returning to the “paleo diet” have singled out the last 2 million years as the main reason we were able to evolve into what we are today. But they have glossed over the other 23 million years as if it was inconsequential.
And these initial 23 million years of our evolution may hold the key to explaining why we are so susceptible to disease today. Heart disease, for example, is only a relatively recent phenomenon. For most of our evolution, our bodies weren’t exposed to cholesterol through dietary intake. No burgers, bacon, butters or trans-fats. Today our bodies produce 1000mg of cholesterol a day (in the liver).
This cholesterol enables the body to make Vitamin D, make hormones, create bile salts (to assist with digestion) and build cell walls. Our bodies didn’t just evolve to produce cholesterol, it evolved to re-use, preserve and hold on to it. A delicate eco-system. We know that throughout history that any time this delicate eco system has been over-burdened we run into health problems. For example, Henry VIII and those who surrounded him ate a diet “fit for kings”.
A diet primarily based on meat, cholesterol and high levels of protein. And look what that diet did for his health and those who surrounded him. Yet the common peasant with no access to meat developed far fewer food related diseases. Yes, there were obviously great health and disease problems during these periods, but they were not attributable to food and high levels of cholesterol!
Now fast forward to the last 100 years. Look what happened during the second world war. For example, when Germany invaded Norway, it had a dramatic impact on life expectancy. The Germans took all the livestock to feed their soldiers. What happened to the life expectancy of the Norwegians during this period?……It increased by eight years.
What happened when the war finished and the Norwegians returned to cholesterol and saturated fat?…… Life expectancy went back to pre-war levels. You can also see this correlation in Japan over the last 40 years. The standard Japanese diet (for thousands of years) has consisted of mainly fruits, vegetables, and a little fish.
They have been the longest living people for hundreds of years. Then introduce more meat, cholesterol and saturated fats and life expectancy begins to fall. So if you think of the body as a cholesterol recycling system and you dump eggs, sausage, bacon and saturated fats into it, then its no wonder heart disease is now the leading cause of death globally. We are all eating the diet of “kings”! Our bodies simply cannot handle it.
Have you ever wondered why carnivorous animals don’t experience heart disease (unless domesticated and fed domesticated processed diets) despite consuming massive amounts of cholesterol and saturated fats? You could literally feed a lion a 1000 zebra burgers worth of cholesterol a day (if they could eat that amount :)) and the lion would just continue to be happy without developing atherosclerosis.
Their bodies are designed to process and remove cholesterol, a trait that is lacking from our bodies. If the “paleo” diet is the optimum diet for health and longevity then why haven’t our bodies better adapted to meat consumption over the last 2 million years? Why aren’t we better equipped to remove the excess saturated fats and cholesterol from our bodies? And why haven’t the genes of those who developed heart disease (and had heart attacks) died off and been replaced by those that would enable you to live to a ripe old age with clean arteries regardless of dietary intake?
Well the answer is quite simple. It comes down to the genetics and lifespan of our pre-historic ancestors. They never lived long enough to develop heart disease. In prehistoric times when life expectancy was 20-25, the genetics passed on were from those who managed to reach the age of reproduction by any means necessary.