Amid all the rush to find a balanced diet that can keep one healthy, prevent from early ageing and kiss lifestyle-induced diseases a goodbye, modern calorie-counters in India have discovered a new fad: eat the way our ancestors ate.
The Paleolithic, caveman or Stone Age diet — until now a purely Western phenomenon — is fast catching up with the weight-loss crazy young Indians, say health experts, warning that since the time and space are so varied with our ancestors and their food habits, it is actually difficult to suggest a one-size-fits-all formula when it comes to emulating the palaeo diet for super health.
Simply put, the caveman diet consists of what our ancestors who, in order to survive the harsh, brutal forces of nature, ate whatever came their way — from meat to plant-rich food, fruits, nuts and vegetables in raw, boiled or barbecued form.
“No doubt that our ancestral diet was full of fibres and nutrients that definitely compliment super health and slow-ageing. The food consumed today is processed in nature, low on fibre and high on sodium. This is a reason behind the increasing ailments like diabetes, heart diseases, etc,” says Dr Ritika Samaddar, head (nutrition and dietetics) at Max Super Specialty Hospital in the capital.
“However, we need to keep in mind that our ancestors had a very different lifestyle from us. They were far more physically active; hence the high-fibre content in their food got easily digested,” she told.
But was a balanced diet ever there on our ancestors’ mind? One has to remember the fact that our tree-living ancestors like chimpanzees and orangutans — apart from partying on a rare meat supper once in a while — were largely vegetarians, eating all kinds of fruits, nuts and plant-rich diets.
So what is an ideal palaeo diet? One from 30,000 years ago when the Neanderthals disappeared from the Earth? From 100,000 years ago or 30 million years ago?
If we believe Rob Dunn, biologist at North Carolina State University and an authority on food and its ancestral journey, our ancestors were not at one with nature. “Nature tried to kill them and starve them out; they survived any way, sometimes with more meat, sometimes with less, thanks in part to the ancient flexibility of our guts,” he wrote in a blog on Scientific American website.
“As for me, I will choose to eat the fruits and nuts like my early ancestors, not because they are the perfect palaeo diet but instead because I like these foods, and modern studies suggest that consuming them offers benefits,” he added.
According to Dr Samaddar, it is important to take a note of important elements that were part of our ancestral diet but do not try to ape them. “Include raw veggies and fruits for high-fibre and nutrients but in quantities that match our lifestyle. Have an active lifestyle and consume lots of water to ensure good digestion,” she advises.
Not just meat and fruits, researchers are now looking into the carbohydrate consumption in early humans. According to a team of researchers from Autonomous University of Barcelona in Spain, eating meat may have kick-started the evolution of bigger brains but carbohydrate consumption, particularly in the form of cooked starchy foods together with evolution of genes that increased our ability to digest starch, made modern humans smarter.
“The human brain uses up to 25 percent of the body’s energy budget and up to 60 percent of blood glucose. While synthesis of glucose from other sources is possible, it is not the most efficient way and these high glucose demands are unlikely to have been met on a low carbohydrate diet,” noted the researchers in a paper published in the journal The Quarterly Review of Biology.
For Seema Singh, chief clinical nutritionist at Fortis Flt Lt Rajan Dhall Hospital, key takeaways from the ancestral diet are wholesome fruits and vegetables.
“Fruits and vegetables are full of antioxidants that protect the body from the harmful effects of free radicals. Antioxidants such as vitamins C and E and carotenoids help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Other naturally occurring antioxidants include flavonoids, phenols and lignans,” Singh told.
The paleolithic diet excludes dairy or cereal products and processed food and alcohol or coffee. “This diet is said to improve health as paleolithic nutrition improves lipid profile in people with high cholesterol to a greater extent than traditional heart-healthy dietary recommendations,” explains Sunita Roy Chowdhary, chief dietitian at BLK Super Specialty Hospital.
For Meera Roy, nutritionist and dietitian at tele-health venture Healthenablr, people are stressed out today and tend to have high-calorie foods which are not balanced.
“I agree with the fact that raw, boiled and barbequed are the best food. It keeps us healthy and slows down the ageing process as the quantity of fat is very less and the nutrients are almost intact,” Roy told IANS.
Dunn, meanwhile, supplements his diet chart with much coffee, maybe a glass of wine and some chocolate as “these supplements are not palaeo by any definition,” but he likes them any way.
So, as researchers the world over try to dissect the best palaeo diet, in a nutshell, the key to good health is a lifestyle that includes balanced food, exercise and proper rest and not any diet per se, experts point out.