Putting “Paleo” to the Test
The entire concept of the Paleo Diet is predicated on the idea that the modern average western diet is, in a word, shit – and the culprit is our over-reliance on processed foods, grains, dairy, and sugars. The diets of our paleolithic ancestors, by comparison, was free of processed foods and abundant agriculture – making them healthier overall.
The Paleo Diet has merit – it is indeed a healthy alternative to the standard American diet, consisting of excessive carbohydrates, corn syrups, and trans fats. It’s no small wonder adult obesity rates sit at nearly 1 in 3 in the United States (and, tragically, our children are almost equally obese).
But a major recurring question today is: is the “Paleo Diet,” as it is defined today, healthy?
I’d like to make a case for the Paleo Diet, but I’d also like to make a case for updating its definition. I will argue that a “carb” is not always a “carb” – that natural unprocessed grains, lentils, and tubers, consumed in moderation and in lieu of heavily processed (and sugar-dense) grains, are actually a better dietary choice than severely limiting your grain intake. I will also make the case that dairy should not be excluded from a diet, and that milk fats are not the villain they’ve been made out to be. A high meat, high veggie diet – supplemented with nuts and fruits, of course, but also a healthy and controlled amount of grains and dairy – may in fact be the one true “Paleo diet.” And I will make my case by analyzing the diets of two African tribes, the Maasai and the Dinka, who are modern-day nomads – and eat a truly natural, largely paleolithic diet that has remained unchanged over the course of millennia.
The Maasai Diet
The Maasai are a people native to Kenya and northern Tanzania. They are largely semi-nomadic pastoralists, herding large groups of cattle across their homeland. This reliance on cattle largely dictates their diet, and as a result, the traditional Maasai diet consisted of plenty of red (and raw) meat. They eat some vegetables (mostly roots and tubers) and fruits.
So far, so Paleo, right?
The traditional diet was originally recorded by Dr. Weston Price in 1935, along with the observation that the Maasai were in incredible health: most tribes appeared to be disease-free, and most showed no signs of tooth caries or dental concerns of any type. Compare that to the general state of modern western dental health and the traditional Maasai diet is very appealing, indeed.
However, studies in 1989 and 1991 indicated a massive change in the diets of the Maasai as they became less nomadic, and more agricultural (likely due to government enactments begun in the 30’s that tried to convert them to a less pastoral way of life). Now the Maasai consume quite a bit more milk and butter, and significantly, maize is now one of their staple foods. Maize and milk have even overtaken raw beef in the Maasai diet, as a porridge made from the grains is eaten almost daily.
Despite this shift, the Maasai seem as healthy as ever. Modern electrocardiogram tests applied to 400 adult male Maasai resulted in no signs of heart disease or any kind of cardiovascular abnormalities, and their cholesterol levels were half that of westerners.
And of course, the Maasai still herd cattle (which are as much status symbol as food supply), as well as sheep and goats.
The Dinka Diet
The Dinka have a wildly different diet from the Maasai, though both eat fairly primitively. The land they call home is a river-filled region of South Sudan, and like the Maasai, they lead a primarily pastoral life. Cattle makes up a not-insignificant portion of their diet. But while the Maasai are a largely nomadic people, the Dinka tend to have more permanent settlements – they migrate based on the flooding of the nearby rivers, and therefore spend some time in temporary settlements every year.
Once again, we encounter Weston Price: in the 1930’s, he declared that like the Maasai and the Nuer, the Dinka surely ate predominantly cattle and cattle byproducts (as well as some vegetation). But it turns out, Price’s methods were rather simplistic, and he didn’t actually account for the full extent of the Dinka diet. He did not log meals of sufficient sample size to make any real claims about their nutrition. So, what do we know of the Dinka diet now?
Because they live in such proximity to major tributaries, including the Nile River, the Dinka diet largely consists of fish and cereal grains. Their simple, traditional diet is indeed fairly agricultural, though again they do not “process” their cereals the way we do in the west. The mainstay of the Dinka diet – a ‘paleo’ diet before “Paleo” came into fashion – is millet. Meat is an important component of their nutrition – especially fish and steer meat – but not as vital as this grain.
That said, meat does hold a rarified place in the culture of the Dinka. Cattle and cattle products, especially dairy, are considered the “best and most noble” food. Cattle are viewed as more than just sustenance however, they are also spiritually symbolic to the Dinka. The Dinka do not slaughter their cattle solely for meat. They will eat cattle meat when it is prepared as religious sacrifice or when the animal dies of natural causes.
The day to day diet of the Dinka is generally much more focused on grain and fruit. As a consequence, dental caries are more frequent amongst the Dinka, but the Dinka are nonetheless in phenomenal health, with an infrequency of cardiovascular problems consistent with the Maasai.- and a generally taller, stouter build.
What’s the Difference?
So as you can see the diets of the Dinka and Maasai aren’t as restrictive as the modern “Paleo” diet. They still eat plenty of grain and fruit in the case of the Dinka, and plenty of dairy in the case of the Maasai. These are carbohydrate and sugar-laden foods. So, what’s the difference between this and the average western diet?
The most obvious answer is the fact that western diets incorporate a lot of added sugars rather than natural sugars, as well as trans-fats and processed foods that are more difficult for our bodies to process effectively.
But perhaps it’s something even more than that. After all, with all the millet the Dinka eat, why don’t they have more health problems, dental caries aside, that westerners tend to suffer from?
Probably the most important takeaway from all this is that the Maasai and the Dinka both are pastoralists. They aren’t dieticians, they aren’t super athletes, they don’t lift heavy weights and they don’t do yoga and they don’t run very fast. They don’t even run very far, like the bushmen of Kenya.
They walk. A lot. And they rarely sit down for long periods of time, save to rest up for the net long period of walking.
These people are constantly in motion. As I sit here writing this, and as you sit here reading this, they are our either herding cattle, tracking down nuts and berries, cutting grain, fishing, dancing, surveying the land… or they are sleeping. The west has a very toxic relationship with the alluring siren song of sedentism – we sit down, a lot. And we can’t be bothered to move very much.
We are a very hard-working, but very sedentary, people. If you want to be healthy and happy like the Maasai and the Dinka, the key may not lie so much in some esoteric diet, especially one so skewed in favor of a few specific food groups that it ignores some very important ones that people around the world recognize the value of – but rather in the limbs affixed permanently to our torsos.
So maybe the strict definition of the modern “Paleo” diet isn’t so paleolithic after all. And it certainly doesn’t appear to be a truly effective diet on its own. It’s one of those things that “makes sense” to the layperson, but that doesn’t mean it’s good science.
Keeping to a Paleo diet, but slightly modifying it to allow for some dairy and grains (in moderation) is likely a far healthier (and more tenable) diet for most people. Ultimately, the best “diet” is the one that you can stick to… and no diet in the world can outperform an unhealthy, inactive lifestyle.
So: Eat unprocessed foods without added sugars as much as possible. Eat plenty of meat and even more vegetables. Enjoy good portions of fruit and dairy as well. Throw in some nuts for satiety. Practice balanced food choices. And please, please, go outside and stretch your legs once in a while. Your heart will be healthier, your body will be leaner, and you won’t have to worry so much about restricting food so heavily.