I’ve written before about the Paleo diet and pointed out that the true understanding of what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate is often shallow.
Let’s face it. If I gave you a spear and told you to go out and get dinner, the odds of you coming back with a deer or buffalo are likely not very good. Unless you happen to have medaled in javelin in the Olympics.
Those of us less familiar with how to throw a spear to catch our dinner are likely to come back with less-then-typical protein sources; rodents and insects topping the list. Not items you would normally see in your weekly circular from the local grocery store.
But what types of plants did our ancestors eat? Some of what they ate, like fruits, would be familiar to you, but the list of unfamiliar foods would be much bigger and probably don’t make regular appearances in your kitchen. In addition, grains were probably all wild gathered and not cultivated. So why does this matter?
There are protective plant-based compounds in the foods we eat. Sure, you may know that broccoli is good for you, but you may not realize that it is because broccoli contains compounds like dithiolthiones, indoles, glucoraphanin, s-methyl cysteine sulfoxide, isothiocyanates and indole-3-carbinol. It’s got some vitamins in it as well, but the true benefits of broccoli come from the phytonutrients.
This is the same with other foods that we eat. But, walking though the produce aisle of your favorite grocery store, how many different varieties of plant foods do you really choose? What’s in your fridge right now? I’m betting not much more than 5-10 different fruits and vegetables. This provides us a much narrower exposure to phytonutrients. And this will affect your health in subtle ways.
Like maybe your eyesight and distant visual acuity.
Here’s a little tidbit I’ve just recently learned: Hunter-gatherer populations do not suffer from a loss of distant visual acuity as they age (myopathy, aka nearsightedness) like we do.
Having just recently had my 46th birthday, I’m resisting the urge to run out and buy readers for the smaller font items I come across. Vitamin bottle labels? It’s a global conspiracy to shrink the font on these. Has nothing to do with my eyesight.
A few months ago I was on the phone with service for my TV. The advisor asked for the serial number off the back of the TV. I don’t know if font numbers go below 1, but I needed a microscope to read these. Has nothing to do with my eyesight.
Despite this denial on needing readers, my distant visual acuity remains intact. But I never really thought that the realm of nutrition would cut across so strongly into how your eyesight deteriorates (or doesn’t) as you age. Turns out this is a pretty well-accepted relationship, which would explain why myopia (nearsightedness) is becoming far more common in today’s processed lifestyles.
Which brings us to this particular article. In it, researchers hypothesized that a much broader variety of phytonutrients in the diets of hunter-gatherers was responsible for the protection of visual acuity as they age. So they evaluated the diets of the Amazonian Kawymeno Waorani hunter-gatherers and then compared them to the neighboring Kichwa subsistence agrarians to see how they compared. Here’s what they found:
- Hunter-gatherers consumed more food species (130 vs. 63)
- Hunter-gatherers consume TWENTY TIMES more wild plants (80 vs. 4) including 76 wild fruits.
- Visual acuity got worse with age only in agrarians.
- Hunter-gatherers maintained high visual acuity throughout life.
- Surprisingly, there the visual acuity of younger participants was high across the board which may be related to local, organic, whole food diets of the agrarians when compared to out low quality modern food production diets.
While I can honestly say that I’ve been eyeing the weeds I’ve been pulling out of my yard since I read this study, I haven’t quite gotten to the point of snacking on them.
So what can you do? Obviously expanding the horizons of what you buy and prepare from the grocery store is a great first step. Branch out into kale, red chard, Brussels sprouts and jicama.
Besides this, our family uses a lot of spices. Spices are a great way to expand your “phytonutrient” horizons because spices are loaded with protective compounds and can be very easily integrated into your current lifestyle with very little effort.