Sunday, April 10, 2011

Extreme diet or paleolithic re-enactment?

I used to get really irritated when people mentioned hunter-gatherers in relation to some aspect of our modern lifestyle.

When I first learned about the increasingly popular Paleo diet, I felt a similar irritation, particularly when people talked about eating a food that clearly wasn't available in pre-agricultural times, like coffee or chocolate.  Whey powder is another strange one.

But as I thought about it more, I realized it's meant more figuratively than literally, and since I tend to think more literally, I came to the conclusion that I simply needed to lighten up a little.

There is a serious group of people online, whose goal is to achieve a diet that is as close to zero carbs as they can get.   They do this by subsisting on a diet that is mainly meat-based, the premise being that meat has all the nutrients one needs to stay healthy.

Many of the adherents are healthcare practitioners, and they are certainly not ignorant about nutritional science.  I suppose they follow the ultimate "hunter" diet, and it's not that far off from the way the Inuit historically stayed completely healthy and disease-free before they started to take on western dietary habits.

I find it interesting that these zero-carbers, as they are known, seem to be mainly male.

Of course there is no public body that will recommend or give a stamp of approval to such an extreme diet.  It's also not for me.  For one thing,  as I mentioned before, I do have vegetarian tendencies, and eating mainly meat isn't that appealing to me.  I also have a hard time believing more than 6 billion people could possibly be fed on meat alone without some dire environmental consequences.

I also like a varied diet.

Lack of variety is one of the frequent criticisms I've seen of a low-carbohydrate way of living.  While I would be the first to agree that this would be so if all one ate was meat, I strongly disagree that my way of eating is boring.

By removing sugars, grains and the starchiest of vegetables, one is actually left with more scope for dietary variety.  Salads and leafy green vegetables provide plenty of colour and interest.  Add eggs, milk, nuts, fish and meat to the culinary pot, and contrary to what the detractors would like you to believe, there is no end to what you can do to make delicious and appealing meals.

This also leaves you with a diet that still provides carbohydrates, just not as many.  This makes me wonder if, in hunter-gatherer terms, there might be a difference between the sexes.

Perhaps meat eating tends to appeal more to men, who, historically, needed to be lean in order to be successful hunters.

And perhaps the women, being the bearers of children and their primary caretakers, tended to stay closer to home.  This would make them the gatherers, and in doing so, they probably consumed more carbohydrates, which are found in greater abundance in plants and vegetables.  A little more fat around the hips, thighs and buttocks would be useful to mothers in order to breastfeed their babies and to stay alive longer in times of famine, and possibly explains why some studies suggest that a little more fat might actually be heart-protective in women.

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