About the Author
Paul Jaminet, PhD, was an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Paul’s experience overcoming a chronic illness led the Jaminets to develop the views of aging and disease presented in Perfect Health Diet.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Perfect Health Diet 1
Why We Start with an Evolutionary Perspective
Why understanding the big picture is so crucial to your health.
An ancient Indian story tells of eight blind men trying to discern the nature of an elephant. Each felt a different part and reached a different conclusion about the nature of the elephant.
The poet John Godfrey Saxe reported the outcome:
And so these men of Hindustan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right
And all were in the wrong.
Much the way experts quarrel about diet!
Why is it so hard to figure out the optimal diet?
Like the blind men in the fable, diet experts begin with no clear picture of what an elephant looks like and after lifelong investigations acquire only a partial grasp of the evidence. The biomedical database PubMed contains more than 22 million articles, and a million new papers are added each year. A typical scientist reads at most a thousand papers per year. No matter how long a scientist’s career, it’s impossible to read more than 0.1 percent of the literature. Most of this reading has to be in the scientist’s specialty—a small part of the elephant.
Adding to the problem is the complexity of human biology. We need to get many nutrients, maybe hundreds, from our food. Food contains thousands of toxins. With so many different ways food can nourish or harm us and so many different ways to assemble foods into a diet, picking out which diet is healthiest is like answering a multiple-choice test that has a billion choices. It’s easy to go wrong.
Looking at all this research is like looking at a disassembled jigsaw puzzle with no picture of the completed puzzle. It’s hard to tell how to put the pieces together.
A Big-Picture View We Can Trust
What we really need is a big-picture view—a view of the whole elephant. We need a reliable guide to the optimal diet, a guide that gives us an approximation to the truth at the very beginning of our investigations. This approximate answer can be a lodestar that guides us through the labyrinth of details, preventing many a wrong turn.
This is where an evolutionary perspective comes in. We know that healthy people and animals are more likely to survive the vicissitudes of life and have children and grandchildren. This means that evolution selects for healthful behaviors—including healthful eating.
If we’re looking for a human diet that evolution guarantees is healthful, the place to start is with the diets of the Paleolithic. The Paleolithic was so long—2.6 million years—that Paleolithic man became highly optimized for the Stone Age environment. In the last 10,000 years, mutations have become much more common due to population growth,1 but most beneficial mutations have not had time to become widespread. The historical era has been a period of genetic diversification and emerging but incomplete adaptation to modern life. That means if we want an environment, diet, and lifestyle that will be healthful for all of us, we have to look back to the Paleolithic.
SCIENCE OF THE PHD
Why We Share a Paleolithic Heritage
The Paleolithic began 2.6 million years ago with the invention of stone tools and ended 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture. The Paleolithic lasted a hundred thousand generations and was characterized by small populations, typically, tens or hundreds of thousands; at the end of the Paleolithic the human population was 3 million. The modern era has a large population—7 billion today—but evolution has had little time, less than five hundred generations, to work its magic.
We can calculate how long it will take before every possible mutation appears in some person, somewhere. Every child has a similar number of mutations—about 175 new point mutations among the 3 billion base pairs of the human genome.2
· In the Paleolithic, with 10,000 children per generation, it would have taken 8,000 generations, or 160,000 years, for each possible mutation to occur once.
· Today, with more than a billion children per generation, every possible point mutation now appears about twenty times per generation, or almost yearly.
We can also calculate the time required for a beneficial mutation to reach “fixation,” or universal presence throughout humanity. This time is on the order of ln(N)/s, where N is the population size and s is the selection coefficient, a measure of how beneficial the mutation is in terms of expected number of children.3
· In the Paleolithic, a mutation that raised the probability of having an extra child by only 0.1 percent would have reached fixation in 460,000 years. So a mutation with selective advantage of 0.1 percent would have occurred within the first 160,000 years of the Paleolithic, then become universal 460,000 years later—long before the Paleolithic was over.
· In the modern era, a similar mutation would occur every year but would require 200,000 years to reach fixation. The modern era is less than 10,000 years old, however, so few recently mutated genes have had time to become universal. As a result, our genetic adaptation to the new environment of modern life—agricultural foods, city living, the presence of governments and complex institutions—is incomplete. And human genetic diversity is greater than ever before.
Because mutations that would remove our adaptation to Paleolithic diets have had little time to spread through the population, it is likely that nearly everyone is extremely well adapted to Paleolithic diets. The same cannot be said for modern diets.|Perfect Health Diet 2
The Paleolithic Diet
· Eat real food: recently living plants and animals.
· Eat mostly plants—but low-carb!
· Among plant foods, favor in-ground starches.
· Don’t be afraid to eat fat! Hunter-gatherers flourished on a fat-rich diet.
The premise of “Paleo” diets is that foods hunted and gathered by our Paleolithic (“Old Stone Age”) ancestors represent the healthiest human way of eating, while agriculturally-produced foods may be dangerous to well-being.
There’s solid evidence backing this idea. Direct evidence for the superiority of Paleolithic diets comes from archaeological studies of ancient skeletons. These studies tell us that until the modern era, with our reduced rates of infectious disease, the Paleolithic was the healthiest epoch of human history.
Studies of animals also show that “wild” diets are the healthiest. For example:
· Thirty-two percent of pet cats and dogs are obese,1 but obesity is rare among wild wolves and tigers. It’s not only pets: feral rats living in cities and eating discarded human food have grown increasingly obese in parallel with the human obesity epidemic.2
· Zoo-born elephants live only half as long as elephants living wild in parks such as Amboseli National Park, Kenya.3 Zoo elephants also have much higher rates of obesity than wild elephants. Elephants make a great comparison animal, because they are rarely subject to predation in the wild.
What’s the “wild” human diet? Presumably, the diet obtained the same way wild animals obtain their food: by hunting and foraging in the manner of our Paleolithic ancestors.
READER REPORTS: A Cure for IBS
I’m 62 and have suffered, along with anyone who gets near me, with IBS for the past 25 or so years, and have tried just about every supplement to alleviate the condition without success. Since starting the PHD my symptoms disappeared in less than a week—and haven’t come back. As Billy Crystal would say, “UN beWEEV abo.” Thanks so much.
Paleolithic Health and Neolithic Decline
The tall stature and strong bones of Paleolithic skeletons indicate that Paleolithic humans were in remarkably good health. Paleolithic humans were tall and slender; cavities and signs of malnutrition or stress in bones were rare; muscle attachments were strong, and there was an absence of skeletal evidence of infections or malignancy.4
The adoption of farming in the Neolithic radically changed the diet, and with it came a dramatic loss of health. Farmers needed crops that yielded many calorie-rich seeds from each seed planted, so the harvest could feed the farmer’s family for a year and supply seeds for sowing in the spring. This required a turn of the diet to grains and legumes—foods that, as we shall see, are toxic.
After the adoption of agriculture, stature lessened; smaller tendon attachments show that muscles weakened; bone and teeth pathologies, such as cavities and osteoporosis, became common; hypoplasias show that periods of malnutrition were common; and signs of infections and inflammation became common.
SCIENCE OF THE PHD
The Neolithic Decline
A large number of journal articles, anthropology Ph.D. theses, and books discuss the collapse of health that is visible with the adoption of cereal grain agriculture.5 A few tidbits:
· Average height dropped, bottoming out at about five feet, three inches for men, five feet for women around 3000 B.C.—about five inches shorter than in the Early Upper Paleolithic.6
· Bones from the Neolithic site of Ganj Dareh in Israel, studied by the anthropologist Anagnostis Agelarakis, showed hypoplasias on the teeth, indicative of malnutrition when young; signs of ear infections and gum inflammation; broken or fractured bones; and arthritis. Those who survived childhood struggled to reach middle age.7
· Nine of sixteen Bronze Age mummies—and seven of the eight of people who died after age 45—in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, Cairo, had atherosclerosis.8
The drop in stature persisted throughout the agricultural era until modern times. Only in the twentieth century, with rising wealth and the elimination of many infectious diseases, did humans regain Paleolithic stature.
So Paleolithic diets were quite healthful—agricultural diets, not so much.
We’d better look into what those healthy Stone Age hunter-gatherers were eating!
Paleolithic Plant Foods: Savanna Starches
Many people assume that our distant ancestors resembled chimps and gorillas—forest-dwelling apes who ate fruit. That’s a mistake.
Our ancestors had a long association with open woodlands and tree-spotted grasslands. Where the fossils of human ancestors have been found, tree cover was generally less than 40 percent, sometimes as low as 5 percent.9
Fossils testify that our Paleolithic ancestors lived in open, grassy terrain. Fossil hominids lack the stiff spines and long powerful arms of forest-dwelling apes, and appear to have spent much of their time walking bipedally as grassland dwellers do.10 Ape bipedalism has a long history. Ardipithecus ramidus, which dates from about 4.4 million years ago, spent a significant amount of time walking bipedally,11 as did Oreopithecus bambolii, whose fossils date from 10 to 7 million years ago.12 Another bipedal hominoid dates to 21.6 million years ago.13 Very possibly the common human-chimp ancestor was a bipedal ape living in open terrain, and chimps and gorillas adapted to the forest after they diverged from the human line.
Not only did our hominid ancestors live in wooded grasslands, their food came from grasslands too. This has been proven by a clever method—“isotope signatures” of fossilized bones. Combined with the structure of hominid teeth, this evidence tells us that our ancestors were eating savanna tubers, roots, and corms—foods similar to our modern potato and taro. They had invented the digging stick and were eating starch!
SCIENCE OF THE PHD
How We Know Paleolithic Hominids
Ate In-Ground Starches
Carbon comes in heavy (carbon-13) and light (carbon-12) forms, and grasses and sedges (“C4 plants”) incorporate relatively more carbon-13 than other plants. So the carbon-13 to carbon-12 ratio in a skeleton tells us what fraction of the creature’s food was obtained from grassland plants or animals that ate grassland plants.14
There is considerable variability, but in general grassland plants predominated in the diet of Paleolithic and earlier hominids. This created a puzzle, known as the “C4 conundrum.” Hominids such as Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus robustus did not have the right kind of teeth for eating grasses and were not thought to be major hunters of grazing animals, yet their bones show that they got their carbon from grasses. The resolution of the puzzle: those apes were getting their dietary carbon from C4 plant underground storage organs—tubers and corms similar to the modern potato and taro.15
This emphasis on starchy roots, tubers, corms, and rhizomes continued throughout the Paleolithic. Food residues from Upper Paleolithic sites dated to 30,000 years ago show that the grinding of starchy roots and rhizomes into flours and foodstuffs was a common practice.16 Microfossils on Neanderthal teeth from around 44,000 years ago show evidence of the consumption of many roots and tubers, some of which show evidence of cooking.17 Neanderthal consumption of starchy plants goes back at least 250,000 years.18
Modern hunter-gatherers who live in environments that lack starchy plants all trade for starches produced elsewhere. The anthropologist Thomas Headland proposed that it would not be possible for humans to survive in forest environments without such trade; this was debated as the “wild yam question.”19
READER REPORTS: Weight Loss, Improved Energy
I am in the middle of the wardrobe crisis that I’ve been waiting to have for ten years: all my clothes are too big. I don’t mean a little loose; I mean I perpetually look like I’m headed out to an M.C. Hammer costume contest.
Over the past few months I’ve lost 25 pounds. That’s a good thing, since the drop on the scale was a side effect of lifestyle changes that have left me with more stamina and energy than I had when I was 20.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Perfect Health Diet changed my life.
A final line of evidence—genetics—supports the idea that our Paleolithic ancestors ate starches. Chimps have two copies of the gene for salivary amylase, the enzyme that digests starches. Humans worldwide average seven copies of the gene; aboriginal peoples eating low-starch diets, such as the rain forest–dwelling BiAka and Mbuti pygmies of the Congo Basin, average 5.4 copies.20 A plausible interpretation is that our Paleolithic ancestors ate enough starch to reach 5 to 6 copies of the amylase gene and that subsequent evolution since the Neolithic invention of cereal grain agriculture has increased the amylase copy number a bit further.
Paleolithic Animal Foods
The Paleolithic began with the invention of stone tools about 2.6 million years ago. These tools were used to hunt animals, tear meat, and cut bones to reach the marrow. Bone marrow consumption is attested from 1.9 million years ago.21 The pursuit of marrow, which is nearly all fat, shows that animal fats were a sought-after part of the early Paleolithic diet.
By 1.75 million years ago, ancestral Homo had spread to northern latitudes, where plant foods are relatively scarce. It is likely these northern hominids were eating a meat-based diet.
By 40,000 years ago, we can tell that Neanderthals (hunting herbivores such as mammoths) and humans (hunting many species with an emphasis on fish) were top-level carni...
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