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by Dr. Daniel J. Heller
The origins of the Paleo concept stem, at least partly, from the perfectly reasonable observation that modern diets and lifestyles create a lot of unnecessary disease. It’s not a very big step from that to realize that we weren’t meant to be couch potatoes; we weren’t meant to subsist on salty, fried, sweetened, packaged, refined, and manufactured foods that didn’t exist until 50 or 100 years ago.
Based on this information, some authors (or marketers) found an apparently perfect target for their wrath: agriculture! Had not agriculture given us white flour and white rice? Wasn’t agriculture the ultimate source of potato chips and white sugar and corn syrup and genetically modified soy? Who regulates factory farms? The Department of Agriculture. Where are the most and herbicides sprayed and applied? Whoops, not on farms. They’re actually applied to on our lawns and gardens more, or at least those of our neighbors. But anyway, farms are the second most common place for them. Who is responsible for the potential mistreatment of farm animals, and the toxic application of antibiotics and hormones to them?
What this whole idea misses is that agriculture, in the pure sense, is not the problem. It’s modern, industrialized agriculture that feeds a huge food processing and marketing industry. And, of course, speaking broadly, we are the problem because we eat that stuff. I don’t want to try to analyze the ills of modern society, so let’s just stick to this idea of agriculture itself, as opposed to modern, industrial agriculture.
When it comes to food, agriculture is our friend. Plant-based foods, eaten in their whole form, are phenomenally healthy. Put in a caveat that some people are allergic to wheat, or corn, or legumes like soy and peanuts (or to strawberries or other somewhat less likely candidates). Taken as a group, whole plant foods are healthy, and are deservedly staple foods around the world.
If you pick out just a handful of them (like wheat and sugar beets and vegetable oil)—and process them and pulverize them and package them in plastic, then you have convenience store food that is really bad for us. But that isn’t really an agricultural problem—it’s an industrialized agriculture problem (and a food distribution and marketing problem, but let’s try to stay focused here).
Animals that are raised in cramped conditions that increase their saturated fat content and lower their healthy omega 3 fat content aren’t so healthy for us. The change in these animal’s natural diet from grass to grain and soy, which fattens them up, fattens us up too. But again, that is an industrialized agriculture problem. Animal husbandry 500 or 1000 or 5000 years ago didn’t have these problems.
This raises an important point—just about every animal product a modern Paleo advocate chooses to eat is a result of animal husbandry. That is, even their meat comes from agriculture. The kinds of animals and animal products we eat nowadays weren’t available to hunter-gatherers.
If the idea of a Paleo diet helps someone to eat healthier, that’s great. However, you don’t need to eat a lot of animal foods to be healthy, and you don’t need a fancy (or inaccurate) concept to guide you. A plant-rich, Mediterranean-style, whole foods diet with some non-industrial-style raised animal products in it will be healthy. And it will, above all else, be an agricultural diet. Eat more like an agriculturalist, and we think you’ll be as healthy as can be.