PThe more we vary, the better off we are. In the Upper Paleolithicbetween forty thousand and ten thousand years ago, the 70 percent of daily calories came from vegetables, those that happened. It seems that our ancestors ate more than a kilo and a half a day including seeds, berries and vegetablesas the nutritionist Stefano Vendrame, successful YouTuber and professor at the Catholic University of Milan, recalls in his well-documented book Food trapsjust published by Longanesi.

Vegan and vegetarian diet without errors: the nutritionist's advice
Vegan and vegetarian diet without errors: the nutritionist's advice

Someone, in our belly, has not forgotten the caveman habits. The population of bacteria that accompanied the ancestors, and which remains essential for the survival of even the most metropolitan of today’s Sapiens, demands fibre. And to give fiber, together with vitamins, minerals and phytocompounds, they are the plant sources: vegetables, fresh and dried fruit, cereals, legumes, aromatic herbs. The ideal is to differentiate, to obtain a range of substances that is as wide as possible. If artichokes give a special fiber, which is called inulintomatoes offer lycopene, if pistachios offer iron, strawberries provide vitamin C.

The belly doesn’t forget

As scientists discoveredAmerican Gut Project, the individuals who eat 30 types or more of plants per week they have a more diverse intestinal microbiota. Translation: one green diet it proliferates those classes of microbes, allies of human health, which produce short-chain fatty acids or group B vitamins. It is not that difficult to reach three dozen. Let’s take the month of May.

Between the seasonal fruit, cherries, strawberries, lemons, apples, grapefruits. Among vegetables, asparagus, beets, artichokes, red cabbage, green beans, fennel, lettuce, radishes, rocket, celery, spinach, also in minestrone. And then onion, garlic, capers, basil or sage. Between fresh legumes, broad beans and peas, and among the dried ones, beans, lentils and chickpeas, or tofu, derived from soy. Between cereals, the soft wheat of the bread, the durum wheat of the pasta, the rice, the spelled or the amaranth and the quinoa. It’s still potatoes, American potatoes, almonds, pistachios or hazelnuts, sesame or sunflower seeds.

Thinking about great-grandmother’s great-grandmother

The fibers that the germs that protect us feed on, however, are reduced to a bare minimum in today’s food options. An easy experiment to realize how much the way humans eat has changed in a very short fraction of time is to imagine our great-grandmother’s great-grandmother who, in a temporal frenzy, enters a supermarket in Milan, Cagliari or Bari. Apparently he finds everything, but not everything is as varied as it seems. Indeed: industrial products, peeping out in market aisles and kitchen cupboards, always revolve around three basic ingredients: starch, sugar and fats.

How many foods would great-grandmother’s great-grandmother recognize, Vendrame wonders? «Well, a very small percentage: perhaps something between fresh fruit and vegetables and something between fresh or minimally processed products». Ava would identify the most artisanal eggs, milk and cheeses, but she would certainly be surprised by the quantity of meat and fish in the fridge and freezer counters. «In the central aisles, however, those of pre-packaged and processed products by the industry, she would remain dumbfounded, as if she had been transported to an alien planet» writes Vendrame. «He would even have difficulty recognizing the flour, given that he will certainly never have seen anything so white and fine: in his time the flours were stone-ground from whole grains, they were therefore very dark and coarse and it was with these that the flour was made. bread, pasta and all baked products”. And those flours, in fact, were rich in fibre.

Ultra-processed products

Certainly, at the time of my great-grandmother’s great-grandmother there were no snacks, boxes of breakfast cereals or ready-made meals to heat in the microwave. Completely unknown to her, in short, i so-called ultra-processed products. «By adding appropriate additives and flavouringswith starch, sugars and fats you can build hundreds of them ranging from sweet to savory” says the nutritionist.

The most profound changes in our lifestyle in the two million years of human evolutionary history occurred just over half a century ago. «If we compare the entire course of human history to a 24-hour day, man was a gatherer or hunter for the first 23 hours and 53 minutes» we read in the book Food Traps. “There agricultural revolution happened in the last seven minutes, the Industrial Revolution in the last ten seconds and the complete upheaval of the post-industrial revolution just four seconds ago. From an evolutionary point of view, our genes have barely had time to notice that something has happened. Let alone starting to adapt.”

Ancestors ate four times as much fiber

It is true that our organism is extraordinary and that there are epigenetic mechanisms capable of modifying the expression of genes, but not to the point of revolutionizing the system and the relationship with the microbiota. In the blink of an eye one happened profound upheaval. «Compared to the modern Western diet, the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors brought almost the quadruple the fiber, there half the saturated fat, six times more vitamin C» says nutritionist Vendrame. «He also had a relationship between omega-3 and omega-6 six to twelve times higher and a relationship sodium-potassium thirty times lower». Sodium, to be clear, is contained in table salt and potassium is abundant in vegetables.

It doesn’t mean that we should embark on Paleolithic diets like those that are proposed every now and then: they are practically devoid of any scientific basis. Know what they are dangers of industrial foods and the poverty of natural ingredients in our diet is useful for understanding how to best structure modern nutrition, not for mimicking hypothetical hominid menus. In two words: more fibers. If the human being is “an animal that cooks”, according to the (brilliant) definition of the Scottish writer James Boswell, it is above all due to the solutions he has invented to transform something like four thousand plant species into edible ingredients, from borage to chili.

The fake news on the prehistoric diet

The proposals focused on meat, fish and vegetables are (also) a historical falsehood.

The popular paleo diets they propose a diet based on meat, fish and vegetables. But our ancestors did not eat meat every day at all. «An even bigger misunderstanding concerns the fury against cereals and legumes, identified as an emblem of the food upheavals that have occurred since the agricultural revolution, and often portrayed as unknown to our genes, almost as if they didn’t even exist before then», writes the nutritionist Stefano Vendrame in the book Food traps. What went wrong in our diet and how to fix it (Longanesi). «Agriculture has greatly increased consumption, but wild cereals and legumes have always existed and were regularly consumed even before: also because, if this hadn’t been the case, no one would ever have chosen to start cultivating them».

Eliana Liotta (photo by Carlo Furgeri Gilbert).

Eliana Liotta is a journalist, writer and science communicator. On and on the main platforms (Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcast and Google Podcast) you can find his podcast series The good that I want.