Your Eating: Are You A Hunter Or A Gatherer?

by Brian Cormack Carr on June 5, 2012 · 12 comments

in Real Food, WELLNESS

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When it comes to your eating preferences, it pays to know how you’re made. As a sometime follower of 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 and other plants, 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 have, at various points, followed both the paleo diet and also a broadly vegetarian approach (although I now prefer to say that I just eat real food, and I focus on eating a broad range of different foods from all categories).

When I was following paleo, I was often asked: “so, do you eat anything other than meat?”.  The answer of course, was yes – I ate and enjoyed lots of things other than meat.  Still do. 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 in the world would be a whole lot bleaker without large helpings of sweet, delicious fruit. After some time off them, I went back to eating grains and legumes, because I find them both delicious and nutritious, and they agree with my constituation. When following paleo, it took some time to get those closest to me to see that eating such a diet is less about eating meat and more about not eating fake foods –  but I can understand where some of their confusion came from.  They heard “paleo”, thought “caveman” and probably assumed that I regularly donned a mammoth-fur loin cloth and went out prowling in the countryside with my flint spear.

Some promoters of the paleo 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:

  • “All 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 these statements.  Excess carbs and over-processed carbs are never a good thing.  Meat – especially organ meat – is nutrient dense. Grains – particularly those containing gluten – can cause intestinal grief for some, and they’re not the all-round 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 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, or no meat ata ll.
  • Many vegetarians and vegans do very well, even in the long-term, particularly if they plan their diets with some care and attention.

What’s Your Eating Preference?

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-gatherer’, with an emphasis on the ‘gatherer’ – and when I tried to be a ‘hunter’, I got into trouble (and so did my waistline);
  • 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, and some even do well when these foods comprise most 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.

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{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Titus June 6, 2012 at 12:24 am

Interesting concept. I began Atkins 11 years ago and the older the more I am realizing that I should eat according to my preferences. I prefer dark, fatty meat. I think of low fat foods as being a waste of time. There are times when all I want is a piece of fatty meat with a side of buttery shrimp or sliced avocado…or both, depending on my appetite. I also fast daily extensively. I don’t eat before 3:00 PM and I rarely need to eat more than one meal. SO, I have been considering becoming more solid as a paleo dieter. As a matter of fact, I plan on doing Paleo over the summer to lose a little weight and to kick my pre-diabetes in the butt. Something else might be interesting. I suffered with PICA with all 3 of my pregnancies and when I began Atkins, I continued having PICA – type cravings. However my cravings for dirt eventually vanished. I began supplementing manesium when I suspected that my headaches may be related to magnesium deficiency. Could this be why I had PICA. Could this be why my mom also craved dirt? Low magnesium can also be the root cause of diabetes. As you recall, I mentioned that I was pre-diabetic…my Mom was also diabetic. Anyone interested in my paleo experience please contact me.

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cormackcarr June 6, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Thanks Mary, that’s interesting….I think Pica can definitely be associated with mineral deficiencies. Bone broth is a great source of minerals. Also some therapeutic clays like azomite. Similar to eating dirt, but maybe a bit more pleasant!

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Heidi Fawn June 7, 2012 at 2:28 am

Great post, Brian. Based on what you wrote I think I’m a hunter type. Once I start with sweets and carbs, I can’t stop. I fell, er jumped, off the wagon a while ago and I’m having a hard time getting back on. Those dang sweets!

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cormackcarr June 7, 2012 at 10:02 pm

I’m with you! It’s a toughie. Don’t forget that we sometimes crave sweets (refined carbohydrates) in the absence of adequate saturated fats. I’d add lavish helpings of good grass-fed butter to your meals, and make sure you’re eating animal protein with its attendant fats. I found that helped me get over some sweet cravings. Along with some nice dark chocolate, of course….

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Crystal Fieldhouse June 15, 2012 at 10:29 pm

An eye opening post Brian!
I am a big advocate of following Paleo ‘guidelines’ only in the big picture sense…I think it is important to pay attention to your body and work out what is best for you and to tweak accordingly.
The concept of grouping hunters, gatherers or hunter-gatherers really appeals to me!
Like you, the hunter description this seems to describe me pretty well 🙂
I am currently in a 30-day elimination and sugar has been one of the hardest things I have had to stay away from! I am really finding myself clutching at the starchy veggie straws as a compensation, tearing myself away from that one will probably be my next focus!

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cormackcarr June 15, 2012 at 10:35 pm

Thanks for commenting, Crystal! Yes, I think the hunter-gatherer spectrum has a lot to recommend it…it really helps to explain (or maybe more accurately, “describe”) variations between paleo-enthusiasts.

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Paleo Jimbo June 16, 2012 at 9:59 pm

What a great piece Brian. I’ve been going thru the outstanding work you did over at Palo Diet News as well….

I have some ideas on how we might work together – so drop me an email sometime….

Once again… thanks for all the great work you’ve done.

==>Paleo Jimbo

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Jimbo Paleo June 24, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Brian… this is simply a great article.

I love the idea of a spectrum from hunter to gatherer… mostly because it allows for, and encourages, each of us to find a healthy sustaining balance of foods… without dogma.

Thanks!
==>Jim

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cormackcarr July 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm

Thanks Jim! Good to see you here 🙂

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Jessica March 12, 2016 at 1:14 pm

I really like this post. I have tried low carb, then paleo and now I’m a proud grain consumer! While on paleo, I developed an autoimmune disease and severe hormone issues that has caused me to cut out a majority of meat. I’m not vegetarian, but I don’t eat meat during the day. Thus, I can definitely relate to hunter-gatherer with emphasis on the gatherer portion. I also fell victim to some of the mental games like ‘carbs are evil’. It took several months to retrain my body that natural carbs are good. Great post, and it’s refreshing that I’m not alone!

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Brian Cormack Carr March 14, 2016 at 3:13 pm

Thanks Jessica, I’m so glad this resonated with you! It sounds like you’ve been on a food journey that I recognise very well indeed. I’ve just written about it, in fact, in my forthcoming book Real Food Revival Plan. I’m hoping to get it out sometime in April. If you’re interested in getting a heads-up as to when it comes out, you can sign up for my mailing list (and you’ll get a free ebook of real food recipes, too).
http://www.cormackcarr.com/list

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