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If Neolithic foods are so bad, why are "Disease of Civilization" epidemics recent rather than long-standing?

by (8187) Updated December 02, 2013 at 11:57 AM Created November 30, 2013 at 7:58 PM

I'll start by saying I eat Paleo/Primal. I don't need convincing as to the merits of eating quality vegetables, fruit, grass-fed meat, seafood, healthy oils. And avoiding sugar, processed foods, industrial age fake foods. For precautionary reasons, I steer clear of wheat and other grains that are problematic for many people. And I'm feeling great. So my question has nothing to do with my personal health.

Instead: lately I've found these questions swirling around in my head: If the relatively "new" (10,000 year old) Neolithic diet contributes to a host of serious degenerative maladies (diabetes, autoimmunity, inflammation, cardiovascular disease, chronic gut issues), why do these health problems seem to have cascaded toward epidemic levels only during the past 20-50 years? Why have we not seen advanced Neolithic Disease Symptoms during more (most) of the Neolithic Era? And why do many of the longest-lived peoples on the planet today seem to thrive on diets far more preferential to grains and legumes (fermented and not) than to animal foods?

I realize diet is not the only relevant factor. Modern life is far more sedentary for far more people today than it was 10, 30, 50, or 100 years ago. And I realize chronic stress is a significant causal factor in disease states. Still and all: If Neolithic foods are deleterious to human health, why were the above Neolithic Diseases not widespread in the USA 100 (or even 50) years ago?

Could it be that factors other than diet (for instance environmental toxins including massive use of lawn feed and weed killer) have contributed in recent decades to an overall degeneration of human health, specifically the compromise of immune and hormone function? If yes, this degeneration could increase the vulnerability of more individuals to the much discussed anti-nutrient effects of Neolithic foods (for instance, phytic acid in grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans).

I repeat my basic questions: If Neolithic foods aren't good for us, why has this not been more evident in the form of massive ill health over thousands of years? Why the relatively recent upsurge in Diseases of Civilization that we might have expected to see with the advent of the Neolithic era? And why do so many long-lived people seem to flourish on Neolithic diets in our time?

If any of my premises seem faulty, hack away!

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10077 · December 01, 2013 at 12:45 PM

50 years ago there were no hippies so blame the hippies.

This is only partially facetious. I lay most of the blame on a shift to sedentarism due to the enormous increase in electronic communications. But there is also a cultural shift towards easy self gratification - the hippie factor. Social norming prevalent 50 years ago has disappeared in favor of individual laissez faire attitudes.

1321 · December 01, 2013 at 4:23 AM

Because the dose makes the poison.

Many of the things the Paleo community rallies against are things that were commonly marketed as rare, expensive, luxuries as little as one hundred years ago. Sugar especially. It was a rare treat to be able to afford such fine, refined, sweetness. Sweetness you can add to any dish or mold into any shape. Sweetness that would let your guests know that, yeah, you're rich. Sugar was a status symbol and a cash cow. And, as with any cash cow, players came into the market to make money off of it. Slaves were imported and the process improved. Suddenly sugar became affordable. In comes the march of time and sugar is now not only affordable, but has become POOR people food. Sugar has become so insanely economical that only those "rich dieters" can actually afford to avoid it. Sugar in such doses is proving to be poisonous.

Which really is a shame. Properly dosing yourself with globs of delicious honey or perfectly dried cherries is one of life's greatest joys. If done right then these doses can be wonderfully healthy for you as well as make you shiver from the flavor. But, again, the dose makes the poison. We've too much of a good thing.

15 · December 01, 2013 at 4:02 AM

Disease of Civilization is recent due to pollution, introduction of industrial chemicals, vegetable oils, unnatural amounts of sugar and wheat in our diet, GMOs, new dietary trends.. and.. a lot other things. Things are very different from 100 years ago. "Neolithic" foods on the other hand.. it depends. I think "paleolithic" foods are suitable for everyone, while neolithic foods and carb/fat/protein ratios are really up to the individual's recent evolutionary history and heritage. For example, Asians don't do hot with cow dairy, but if cheese helps you, go ahead and have cheese.

962 · December 01, 2013 at 3:53 AM

Sam points out another important recent development. In 1960, virtually all the main grains changed, due to the repeated introduction of new, more productive hybrids. I only know the story about wheat. The original wheat is a relatively tall plant, and in windy or rainy conditions it will lay down, promoting mold, and making harvest inefficient. The newer varieties where short stemmed, and more productive. However, the older varieties were selected for digestibility over the millennia. We do not know whether a little or a lot of food quality was lost with that change (we certainly gained in quantity).

I can certainly tell you that supermarket flour is not only a poor food, it also tastes poor compared to heirloom flour (such as fife wheat). I don't think it is the bleaching only, it really is a grain fit for animal feed. The other big thing that was lost in the last decades with wheat was natural, one day long fermentation, which mostly breaks down gluten. There are worlds of difference between one day fermented, sourdough fife bread and chemical yeast, regular flour bread, not just in taste but also in healthfulness.

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188 · December 01, 2013 at 12:03 AM

There has been a change in grain types, cattle & other meat raising, soil depletion, etc. Food has morphed into something different and it has accelerated in the last 50 years or so. Fruit is so damn sweet now and tomatoes no longer taste anything like they did when I was a kid.

962 · November 30, 2013 at 11:51 PM

If you go to Wikipedia and look for life expectancy in the paleolithic, you will find that there is a huge drop when people started farming. Diseases of civilization killed most of them right then and there. Then there was a long process of refinement of the paleolithic diet, with selection of the more resistant people, selection of the most digestible grains, improved animal husbandry, food combination techniques, food fermentation techniques, that has improved the diet over the millennia.

That is about grains/beans/dairy. But in the last 200 years we introduced sugar, hydrogenated fats 100 years ago, and vegetable oils 80-90 years ago. People have not adapted to those, it is too early, and profit-driven food development did not/does not allow for any health related development.

4232 · November 30, 2013 at 10:00 PM

My reply is to look around any supermarket. Things look like food and smell like food, but they really aren't food. The host of additives, flavourings and chemicals in almost any packaged item. For me that is the clue as to what has caused a total downslide in health for those who live in so-called advanced civilizations.

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