Time to take a break from breasts- though I think I may have one more post in me on that subject.
I’m a fan of a paleo diet. There, I said it. To me it is not “the” paleo diet, and there is no single set of “rules”, but I embrace the idea of thinking about our evolutionary past when talking about health and disease. Like it or not, what we eat (and of equal importance, what we don’t eat) is one of the major forces that shape our health. Let’s face it, it’s much easier to change what you eat than to change your genetics (and probably your job, your geographical location, and other things that affect health).
There’s been increased coverage of a paleo diet in the media of late- usually not a resounding endorsement, not that I’m surprised- and it’s sometimes referred to by other names such as “the caveman diet” (except our ancestors largely didn’t live in caves) or the hunter-gatherer diet.
I generally like (and use) the term ‘paleo’. For me (and many others), it’s a term that has developed a definition that we all understand. That being said, I also like the idea of talking about a ‘hunter-gatherer diet’. It gives a nod to seasonality, encourages us to think about naturally available quantities, and a personal involvement in the food we eat. Sure, a lot of people who “eat paleo” don’t hunt or gather their own food (though certainly some do), but it’s good to be mindful of when you might actually have access to different foods and in what amounts.
I’ve never been a hunter (though I love having friends that are, and appreciate the stock of venison I have in my chest freezer), but I’ve been gathering since I was little. I’ve been involved in two different types of “gathering”- spending a portion of my summer childhood raiding (or being put to work) picking in my family’s garden and also time in the woods scouting for wild edibles. It’s funny how times change: these days I love getting out in the sun to pick berries at a local pick-your-own place, but as a child I really thought of it as a chore (I’m guessing it’s mainly because when the plants are yours you don’t want to let anything go to waste so you pick whether you want to or not, and you also pick *everything* instead of just as much as you want).
Of course, picking quarts of strawberries at the local pick-your-own place is NOT gathering (in the truly ancestral sense of the word), but it’s fun (at least for me), and while I’m picking vitamin C I’m getting vitamin D for free. I’m also supporting local farming families, keeping money in the local community, and keeping an eye on how the food I eat is grown.
As a child, while I was duty bound to pick strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, blackberries, and whatever else we had in the garden, I still would go out “exploring” with friends and bring home wild bounty. To this day wineberries are one of my favorite fruits. Seedy, waxy, and plentiful (if you happen to beat the birds to the punch), I would spend hours with my friends gathering these treats. I still find it difficult to pass a stand without stopping for a snack.
Wineberries are just ripening in my area, but I haven’t had a chance to get out and pick any yet. However a couple weekends ago I was out hiking on the Appalachian Trail (AT) and came across blueberries- LOTS of blueberries. I’d seen the green berries at other places earlier in the season, and fortuitously happened to be out on the Blue Mountain portion of the AT when the berries in the area were ripening.
Out on the AT, I don’t look all that out of place gathering handfuls of berries, but in the park opposite from my apartment I get some weird looks when I stand on tiptoe to pick the ripening Mulberries. As I’ve said, my drive to gather might be a little pathological, though I suspect it is a deeply human urge. Most of the kids that I’ve met have loved to gather food (berries, vegetables, eggs, etc.), but perhaps it’s novelty not nature…
When I was up in Maine a few weeks ago I went beach combing with a friend. To our excitement, while we were out at low tide we came across a few pools that housed beautiful large mussels. We were looking forward to cooking them up in some white wine until we discovered there was a red-tide warning for the area- what a shame!
Most recently I’ve been gathering watercress from a local stream. I know the thought of this makes my European friends cringe, but the liver flukes that make this practice a hazard in other countries don’t live in the US- or so I’ve been told.
In the fall I’ll be gathering chestnuts, a task I’ve been doing for years. My neighborhood has quite a few old Chinese Chestnut trees- I wonder if there was a local craze to plant them some decades back.
A “paleo” diet isn’t about prehistoric reenactment. The point isn’t to only eat foods you’ve hunted or gathered, but personally I like having a role in sourcing the food that I eat, and I do enjoy time spent outside gathering foods. The food “gathered” at a pick your own berry farm certainly isn’t the same as the food our ancestors gathered (I’ll refer you back to the post I did on bananas– check out the difference between the wild and the domesticated fruit), but what you pick yourself will be infinitely fresher than what you buy at the supermarket.
As I was finishing up this post, I heard an interview on NPR with the author of a new book, entitled Eating on the Wild Side. Her premise seems to be that the plants we evolved eating were very different from their domesticated ancestors that we eat today, and that somewhere in the mix foods have lost some of their most valuable micronutrients *. I can’t speak on the book, but the interview is certainly worth a listen!
*Interestingly, some people have suggested that some of the nutrients that the author above touts can actually be problematic. You can check out Dr. Ede’s talk from the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium exploring the darker side of plant foods.