As a committed adherent to the paleo diet, I’m pretty confident that all of us – just like our ancestors – are hunter-gatherers at the physiological level. To enjoy good health, high levels of energy, and relative freedom from obesity and degenerative disease, we should all be eating whole, real, unprocessed foods. In other words, the foods we evolved to eat as a species: meat, poultry, eggs, fish, vegetables, fruits and nuts. I’ve written about this extensively on this site and in my work for Paleo Diet News. All around us, we see the effects of eating non-foods, foods that have come from a factory, rather than a farm: ever-increasing waistlines, and skyrocketing health issues.
However, I’m very aware that any “diet” – no matter how laudable - runs the risk of becoming almost a parody of itself. Most of my friends and associates know that I follow the paleo diet (although I prefer to say that I just eat real food) and I’m often asked: “so, do you eat anything other than meat?”. The answer of course, is yes – I eat and enjoy lots of things other than meat. I love vegetables of all shapes, sizes and colours; I munch happily on nuts and seeds when the urge strikes; and I happen to think that life would be a whole lot bleaker without large helpings of sweet, delicious fruit in the world. It’s taken some time to get those closest to me to see that eating a paleo diet is less about eating meat and more about not eating fake foods - but I can understand where some of their confusion comes from. They hear “paleo”, think “caveman” and assume that I regularly don a mammoth-fur loin cloth and go out prowling in the countryside with my flint spear.
Some promoters of the diet don’t necessarily help the situation, because they have very fixed ideas about what it can and should include. When paleo means “just eat real food”, it’s the most sensible eating plan going. But I’m continually struck by the way that it can easily be pulled into dogma. On paleo forums on the internet, in speeches given by paleo commentators, and in real-life conversations, I’ve observed statements like these:
- “Carbs are evil. They raise insulin and insulin is to be avoided like the plague.”
- “Vegetables are totally unnecessary for human beings. Just eat meat and you’ll be fine.”
- “Grains and legumes are universally bad for you. If you eat any at all, ever, you’re compromising your health.”
- “Poultry and fish are inferior to red meat, so if you don’t like red meat you’re going to be malnourished.”
- “If you don’t eat any meat at all, you’re going to be malnourished.”
Of course, there’s a kernel of truth in each of these statements. Excess carbs and over-processed carbs are never a good thing. Meat – especially organ meat – is vastly more nutrient dense, and contains nutrients more easily assimilable for human beings than those found in plant matter. Grains – particularly those containing gluten - can cause intestinal grief for many, if not most, people, and they’re not the nutritional powerhouses some vegan pundits would claim.
But if we were to believe the above statements without questioning them, we’d struggle to be able to fathom why:
- Some people are able to eat large amounts of carbs without becoming obese or ill.
- Many people genuinely love vegetables, and would find mealtimes a whole lot more boring without them.
- Some people – especially those who eat a varied diet including good-quality animal produce – can eat large quantities of grains and legumes and still do just fine.
- Some people just don’t like red meat, yet manage to maintain their health by eating the meat they do like.
- Many vegetarians do very well, even in the long-term (particularly if they include some animal produce in their diet).
I’ve been acutely aware of these dichotomies for quite a while now – my coaching and writing approach is founded on the notion that my clients and readers are the experts in their own lives, and I see a great deal of variety in what “works” for different people - and so it was with great interest that I read Dr. John Briffa’s book The True You Diet.
It’s not a new book – he’s had a couple out since then, both of which I’ve reviewed for Paleo Diet News here and here – but it’s one that fits nicely into his generally paleo-friendly food philosophy. In it, he’s unequivocal that the best diet for all human beings is a diet based around the foods we evolved to eat.
What’s particularly interesting, though, is that he allows that there are differentials between individuals in terms of what their taste and personal physiology will guide them towards as the optimum diet for them. In brief, he notes that we’re all either “hunters“, “gatherers“, or “hunter-gatherers“.
Here’s what he says about the food preferences of each. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
‘Hunters’ generally like fat and can even crave it…(they) generally find that fatty foods are sustaining and effective for satisfying their appetites. They usually like and do well on dark, fatty meats such as beef, lamb, duck, venison, and the leg meat of chicken and turkey. The relatively rapid metabolism of the ‘hunter’ will tend to burn carbohydrates very rapidly…(they) tend not to feel sustained by carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruits, vegetarian/vegan food or grain-based meals. ‘Hunters’ can find themselves craving sweet foods such as biscuits or chocolate…once they start eating sweet foods, they can find it difficult to stop.
‘Gatherers’ tend to be drawn to foods relatively low in fat, including fruits, vegetables, beans and lentils. To a ‘gatherer’, eating these plant-based foods is a bit like putting small pieces of wood in a gently burning fire. These foods will tend to energize ‘gatherers’ more than heavier, fattier foods. ‘Gatherers’ tend not to need to eat between meals, but if they do they will often find fresh fruit will satisfy them.
The characteristics of the typical ‘hunter-gatherer’ fall in between those of the ‘hunters’ and the ‘gatherers’.
He goes on to provide information about some other possible differences – in terms of temperature preferences, sleep patterns, general moods, and body shapes and sizes.
So, is there something to it? Here are some of my immediate observations:
- I can definitely see that different people – including me and people I know – can be categorized in this way
- I was impressed at how ’consistent’ the differentials were – in other words, in my experience, the characteristics across all categories – mood, body shape, food preferences etc, do indeed seem to be grouped in the way described (although of course some degree of generalisation is always going to be inherent in such categorisation)
- My own experience is that I’m a ‘hunter’ who tried for a long time to be a ‘gatherer’ (by attempting to follow a low fat, often vegetarian, sometimes vegan diet) and found it a constant struggle which didn’t produce great results
- I can see that it helps to explain why it is that – even though most paleo adherents will swear blind that a diet high in fruit, grains, and legumes is sub-optimal – some people do genuinely seem to do well when large quantities of these foods comprise at least part of their diet
The book includes a questionnaire which can help the reader determine into which category they fall. It’s nothing complicated, and simply asks questions about eating preferences, meal patterns, which foods are most satisfying, etc. It’s not dissimilar to some of the “metabolic typing” questionnaires I’ve seen, and of course, the principle – that there is a degree of nutritional individuality to our metabolisms – is the same.
Will everyone like this approach? Of course not. If you’re a committed vegan, you’re likely to find the notion of some people being ‘hunters’ objectionable. If you’re the kind of paleo enthusiast who gets very suspicious of anyone who doesn’t like bacon, you’ll possibly find the idea of a ‘gatherer’ risible. But for many - including those of us who are committed to eating the real foods that evolution designed us to eat, but who are well aware that we’re not all cut from the same cloth – this is a very welcome, balanced, and useful read.