Ugh! I hate this question! Not because there aren’t some interesting gray-area foods worth talking about, but because I dislike this approach to paleolithic nutrition. When people approach this way of eating with the mindset that “I will only eat it if cavemen ate it”, it starts to feel more like a cult than what paleo truly is: a sustainable way to eat for optimum health.
I have read dozens of opinion blog posts on whether or not specific foods are paleo. They generally follow the same argument: archeological evidence suggests that the first incidence of humans eating this specific food is 1) pre-agricultural revolution so it’s paleo, or 2) post-agricultural revolution so it’s not paleo. One blog post in particular comes to mind about kombucha (a fermented tea that is delicious, fairly low in sugar, and packed full of probiotics and beneficial yeast). The author stated that since paleolithic man didn’t ferment his own beverages, that we should not drink anything fermented. This ignores the fact that our ancestors’ diets were extremely rich in probiotics and beneficial yeast (these healthy microflora coated almost everything they ate), while also being devoid of things that kill these healthy organisms in our guts (like grains and antibiotics). Our modern diets are the opposite: rich in stress, gut irritating foods and medicines that kill off our gut microorganisms, while offering little opportunity to replenish the gut with the diverse microflora that we need. This blog post also ignored the fact that paleolithic man almost certainly did eat some fermented fruit when it was in season (probably got good and drunk on it too). It’s this over-simplified approach to evaluating the benefits of individual foods that frustrates me. We can’t simply ask whether or not our paleolithic ancestors ate a specific food. Certainly, we need to assess foods in the context of similar foods that our ancestors had access to, but the real question that needs to be asked is: is this food good for you?
This isn’t a simple question and it embodies a whole host of other, more specific questions. Does this food cause inflammation? Does this food prevent inflammation? Does this food irritate the gut? Does this food heal the gut? How does this food affect metabolism? How does this food affect hormones? Does this food affect neurotransmitters? Does this food contain nutritive value? Sometimes, the answers are hard to find and require combing through scientific literature. Sometimes, the answers change as more evidence comes to light (like chlorella which was initially considered to be a good source of DHA and several minerals but is now known to express the same gut irritant (lipopolysaccharide) as E. coli).
While the question “Is It Paleo?” still bothers me, there are many foods that do require close scrutiny to evaluate whether or not there should be a place for them in our diets. So, I am launching a new section in my blog to ask this question about a variety of specific foods. But, like the scientist I am, I’m going to answer the question, not by whether or not cavemen ate it, but rather by evaluating just how good or bad for our health this food really is.