From Paleo to Present – a brief history of the human diet

Prior to the domestication of animals and the development of agriculture, the human diet centered around the ‘hunt’. They ate when they caught something, and didn’t eat until again until they either caught something else, or were successful in finding edible vegetation, berries or nuts. “Feasting” and “fasting” were normal events in the rhythm of life, and our bodies were designed to function using our fat stores for energy, as evidenced by our continued existence.

From hunter-gatherers to farmers

After the Ice Age, those that survived were left with an increasingly unpredictable climate, decreases in big-game species that were hunters’ first-choice prey, and increasing human population in the available habitats for hunting and gathering. To decrease the risk of unpredictable variation in food supply, people broadened their diets to second- and third-choice foods, which included more small game, plus plant foods which required much preparation, such as grinding, leaching and soaking. As I will demonstrate below, these plant foods, including grains were very different in carbohydrate and protein composition than they are today.

The domestication of animals and plant cultivation of ~ 13,000 years ago, forms a significant turning point in the human diet.

Humans began to transport some wild plants, including grains from their natural habitat to more productive selected habitats, and so began intentional cultivation, or farming. With the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals – the plants and animals themselves began to change.

This is important.  

The fruit of today bear little resemblance to their ancient predecessors. The grains of today don’t either. For example, wild wheat and wild barley bear their seeds on top of a stalk, and sheds its seed spontaneously – enabling it to germinate where it falls.

Once people began bringing some wild wheat or barley seeds back with them in order to intentionally plant them, some seeds would accidentally spill along the way, germinating in new places. Over time, some seed would cross-pollinate with wild grain, while others would undergo spontaneous mutations, leading to wheat and barley varieties with non-self-shattering heads. Eventually, these non-shattering grains were selected for by humans for cultivating, leading to a very different type of grain than the wild species – and one with very different nutritional content than their wild predecessors.

Similarly, domesticated animals were selected based on traits that were considered desirable to people – chickens were selected to be larger, wild cattle to be smaller, and sheep to lose their bristly outer hairs and not to shed their soft inner wool. Eventually, the land where hunter-gatherers lived was overrun and replaced by people who had become agricultural – and who were ever-expanding the amount of land they required for raising animals, as well as for growing crops.

At Tell Abu Hureyra, in the Euphrates valley of modern Syria are the remains of a civilization that lived between 13,000 and 9,000 years ago, spanning the Epipaleolithic and Neolithic periods. This site is significant because the inhabitants of Abu Hureyra started out as hunter-gatherers, but gradually moved to agriculture, making them the earliest known farmers in the world. Meals consisting of the meat of gazelle, wild goat and game birds were supplemented with wild-growing Einkorn wheat-porridge, as well as berries, nuts or fruit, if in season.  Tools such as sickles and mortars for harvesting and grinding grain, as well as pits for storing it have been found at Tell Abu Hureya and remains of harvested Einkorn wheat (which was ground by hand and eaten as porridge) have been found at Tell Aswad, Jericho, Nahal Hemar, Navali Cori and other archeological sites.

The diet of man forever changed at that point.

As previously mentioned, plants underwent change as a result of both natural cross-pollination as both underwent change as a result of intentional manipulation by man.  This occurred everywhere that man settled – from the lush valleys of the Middle East*, to Africa and Asia.

[*yes, the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East was lush and green, then.]

The grain we know today as “wheat” and “rice” is nothing like their wild ancient predecessors. Likewise with fruit. The fruit of today has been bred to be sweet – not so with the wild cultivar. A brief history of wheat will help illustrate this type of change.

Evolution of Wheat – but one example

The first wild grass that was cultivated was Einkorn wheat. As cultivation techniques improved, Einkorn eventually became an essential component of the dietreducing the need for hunting and gathering. Einkorn wheat contained only 14 chromosomes.

Shortly after the cultivation of the first Einkorn, the Emmer variety of wheat (Triticum turgidum) appeared in the Middle East; a natural offspring of Einkorn and an unrelated wild grass, calledgoatgrass(Aegilops speltoids.

Emmer wheat is what is referred to in the Hebrew Bible (Exodus 9, Exodus 32, Isaiah 28, Isaiah 25) as Kes-emmet (כֻּסֶּמֶת) and both Eikorn wheat (חִטָּה) and “Emmet” (ֻּסֶּמֶת), translated in English as ‘spelt’, are referred to together as distinct species (e.g. Exodus 9:32).  It was the ancient Egyptians that are credited with the addition of wild strains of yeast in order to make bread rise – which gives an added dimension to the story of Passover, where the Jews left slavery in Egypt in “great haste”, “not having time to let their bread rise”.

Since plants do not combine genes but add (or sum) them which provides evidence of what cross-bred with what. Goatgrass added its genetic code to that of Einkorn , so Emmer wheat had 28 chromosomes.

Emmer wheat then naturally cross-bred with another wild grass called Triticum taushii, giving rise to the original cultivar of Triticum aestivum, the predecessor of modern wheat, which has 42 chromosomes. This was a higher yielding wheat variety which had many desirable baking properties that Eikorn and Emmer lacked.  This new strain remained largely unchanged until the mid-eighteenth century when Carolus Linneaus, who invented the Linnean system of categorizing species, counted only 5 species.

Today, Eikorn, Emmer and the original cultivated strains of Triticum aestivum have been replaced by almost 25,000 strains of modern human-bred wheat strains that are hundreds, if not thousands of genes apart from the original Eikorn and Emmer wheat species.

Our food is not the food of our ancestors.

Modern Triticum aestivum is on average 70% carbohydrate by weight and only 10% protein. Emmer wheat, on the other hand was 57% carbohydrate and 28% protein – and was suitable to supplement the protein of a meal.

Paleo Diet compared with the Low Carb High Healthy Fat diet

The premise of Paleo eating to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors did is understandable, however the foods that exist now are nothing like the foods our ancient ancestors ate. Fruit, for example is considered “paleo” -but the carb content of paleo fruit was substantially less than that of today.

In a low carb high healthy fat way of eating, carbs are not avoided. It is the foods that are high in carbs that are easily broken down to glucose and have little nutrient-density that are limited.

[It is hard to justify eating grain products made from varieties of wheat that were bred for no other reason than they could be grown in nutrient- poor soils in novel parts of the world.]

No justification is needed to eat carbs that come as part of fibre- and nutrient-rich non-starchy vegetables and to eat carbs found in nuts that are a good source of protein and monounsaturated fat.

A diet where 45 – 65% of calories are as carbohydrate is has us eating “carbs for carb’s sake”, but a low carb high healthy fat diet should not be about “fat for fat’s sake”.

Some people think they should eat large amounts of saturated fat “just because they can”, and I suppose that’s true. One can certainly eat a pound of bacon, but when compared  with a fat marbled grain-fed steak or a Brome Lake- or wild duck, one is more nutrient-dense than the other. The yolks of free-range egg comes as part of a nutrient-dense package, which includes good quality protein, as well as other nutrients. A pound of bacon, does not. That doesn’t mean that eating bacon is “bad”, but in comparison to grilled salmon with a large serving of non-starchy vegetables bathed in cold-pressed olive- or avocado oil, it doesn’t quite measure up. It is not just about not being hungry, but about being healthy.

A Low-Carb-High-Healthy-Fat Diet is about “nutrient density” – not just “fat density”.


Final Thoughts

In a Low-Carb-High-Healthy-Fat Diet, carbs are not “bad” and fat is not “good”.

Carbs and fat that come in nutrient-dense food and in particular ratios are what we are striving for.

As well, protein quantity is based on physiological need and not unlimited (as excess in a low carb diet will be converted and stored as fat). The source of that protein ought to be considered, as well. For example, it is well documented that fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and tuna are high in omega-3 fatty acids and are good for our brains and our hearts so for those that enjoy fish, eating it often is ideal.

The good thing about the Low-Carb-High-Healthy-Fat Diet is that it can be adapted to  culture- or religious restrictions. Don’t eat pork? No problem. Don’t eat beef? Not an issue. Take fast days? That is easily worked-in.

Want to know more?

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To your health!





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