Like most people who love cooking, I love cookbooks. I don’t have a particularly large collection, but they were published over a period of some 50 years. They are indicative of what people ate and how they cooked in the past. Cookbooks have changed a lot in that time.
An examination of all of these historical examples of cooking reveals an insight into the most successful, commercially promoted dietary fads of the last 50 years.
My mother in-law has a late 60’s copy of “The Joy of Cooking”. She also gave me a new copy of the book in 2005. I have prepared food according to recipe’s for the same dish in both books and I can tell you there is a difference. The old recipe’s were much better. Fat was not, apparently, to be shunned in the older version. The newer version makes a great effort to reduce the fat content of the recipe’s and the dishes suffer as a result.
It is also apparent in the older “Joy of Cooking” that carbohydrates didn’t have the bad rap they do now. There are many grain, pastry, pasta, rice and potato recipes in the old version.
Paleo promoters like to point to the fact that the statistics do, in fact, show that the overall population has become more obese over the decades as evidence of the veracity of their claims. The main thrust of the argument seems to be that obesity, high-cholesterol, diabetes and a host of other ills that are on the increase are due to the trend in low-fat and high carbohydrate diets of the last 3 decades and in particular the consumption of grains, legumes and dairy.
However, while the older diets were higher in fat, they were also higher in carbohydrates and dairy, yet people were skinnier and had fewer instances of disease back then.
My personal feeling is that the quantity of food, whether it be carbohydrates or fat, as well as the quality – fresh, raw and unprocessed foods as opposed to fast foods, canned foods and other processed and pre-packaged foods, is the primary difference between diets then and now and the cause for the spike in obesity and disease.
My research shows that, adjusted for inflation, food was more expensive in previous decades. It is also reasonable to assume that the commercial food industry was not as developed and pervasive as it now is. Today, food is cheaper, and the mass-produced commercial and fast foods are cheaper still. How do the commercial producers do it? By making an assembly line out of the process, increasing yields with GMO crops, hormones, antibiotics and cheap, high calorie and nutrient poor filler. In short, people eat a lot more cheap junk.
The paleos of today are definitely on to something. I generally agree with the organic, grass-fed movement (if you can afford it) espoused by paleo followers and I also agree that fat is not bad. But I believe the entire exclusion of grains, legumes and dairy is not the answer. Of course, there are a significant number of people today suffering from intolerance to grains, legumes, dairy, etc., and they should certainly avoid those foods.
The oft stated claim that on a paleo diet you can eat as much fat as you want and lose weight, or at least not get fat, is not borne out by my own personal experience. When I tried it, I gained weight (fat). The whole foods and calorie counting method worked better for me and it was surprisingly accurate.
I will say, however, that I felt good on a paleo diet. My sleep and energy levels were better and I disabused myself of the myth that you need to “carb load” in preparation for an intense workout session. On the rare occasion that I cheated with some pasta, my workouts were marked by a normal energy at the beginning of the workout, but I crapped out about half way through, whereas, when I stayed away from excessive carbs and had a big plate of bacon and eggs for breakfast, I was an animal in the gym.
What I take away from my experience is that some grains and legumes are ok, provided you have no sensitivities and you consume them in moderation, according to your specific response to them. Everyone is different, and, I don’t care if it’s fat or carbs, over-indulging in either will make you fat and ill. And for god’s sake, prepare your own food with fresh, minimally processed ingredients and stay away from fast foods as much as possible.