My Previous View Of The Paleo Diet Got Squashed

Chareva’s gardens are pretty much done for the year, but she harvested these recently:


This bounty came from a small patch of ground, maybe 16 x 8.  Imagine if we’d grown an acre of the things.  These squashes, along with a book I just finished, got me thinking (again) about what the true paleo diet was and wasn’t.

At one time, I believed Paleo Man was first and foremost a hunter who spent most of the year living on a diet of meat, meat and more meat. Then autumn rolled around, and Paleo Man would eat a few squashes, tubers and fruits during the brief harvest season.  Then it was back to the meat or the fish, because plant foods weren’t available.

Let’s just say that belief has been squashed.  With proper care, these squashes will be edible well into the winter.  That was also the case with the sweet potatoes we grew and harvested last year.  So if Paleo Man knew a little about proper food curing and storage – and I believe he did – he could have been eating squashes and tubers for a good chunk of the year.

I commute to Nashville three days per week, which means three to four hours per week in my car, depending on traffic.  I spend the drive time listening to books.  Blood and Thunder, the book I just finished, is about the conquering (or theft, if you prefer) of the American Southwest. The culture of the Indian tribes who lived there is described at length.  Food sources:  sheep, goats, occasional buffalo, deer, elk and other wild game – there’s that meat-meat-meat part of the paleo diet – but also maize, beans, pumpkins and ground tubers.

Granted, these Indians didn’t settle down and build towns around their crops.  In fact, in one stirring speech recounted in the book, an Apache warrior explained to an American soldier why the Apaches didn’t want to become farmers and send their kids to the reservation school:  you white people spend your lives as slaves, working for the sake of your big houses and your crops, he said.  Your schools teach your children how to be good slaves.  We don’t want to live like slaves, and we don’t want your schools to teach our children how to be slaves.  We want to be free.

But while they preferred a nomadic lifestyle, many Indians of the Southwest – the Navajos in particular – were quite adept at growing plant foods.  They planted, moved around at will during the warm months (herding their goats and sheep along with them), then came back in time for the harvest.   In fact, as the book explains, they depended on their maize, beans and pumpkins to get them through the winter.

Unfortunately for them, the U.S. Army figured that out.  An army general assigned Kit Carson the task of finding and destroying the fields where Navajos and other Indians grew their crops.  Carson apparently had little taste for the job – his first wife was an Arapaho, and he didn’t agree with the policy of herding Indians onto reservations – but he followed orders.  With their plant foods destroyed, the Navajos surrendered to avoid starving to death.

If these Indians were typical of paleo people, then tubers and squashes were part of the paleo diet.  Their diet would certainly be low-carb compared to the sugar-laden, wheat-laden diet of the modern western world, but it wasn’t zero-carb or ketogenic by any means.

You could argue that the Indians of the Southwest in the 1800s weren’t typical paleo people because their lifestyle had been transformed by the introduction of horses.  That mobility allowed them to be nomadic much of the year and still return to their maize and pumpkins at harvest time.   So perhaps the Indians east of the Mississippi – who didn’t ride horses – are a better example.

Well, those Indians ate squashes and tubers as well.  One of the plants we’re considering growing next year here on the farm is Apios Americana, otherwise known as the American groundnut.  Here’s some of what Wikipedia has to say about it:

The tubers were a staple food among most Native American groups within the natural range of the plant … In 1749, the travelling Swedish botanist Peter Kalm writes, “Hopniss or Hapniss was the Indian name of a wild plant, which they ate at that time… The roots resemble potatoes, and were boiled by the Indians who ate them instead of bread.”… The early author Rafinesque observed that the Creeks were cultivating the plant for both its tubers and seeds…  In 1910, Parker writes that the Iroquois were consuming significant quantities of groundnuts up until about 30 years before his writing … The author Gilmore records the use of groundnuts by the Caddoan and Siouan tribes of the Missouri river region, and the authors Prescott and Palmer record its use among the Sioux. The Native Americans would prepare the tubers in many different ways. Many tribes peeled them and dried them in the sun, such as the Menomini who built scaffolds of cedar bark covered with mats to dry their tubers for winter use.

Another plant we’re considering growing is Cyperus esculentus, otherwise known as the tiger nut.  Richard Nikoley has written about tiger nuts several times on his blog.  Apparently they were a major food source for early humans, including paleo Indians in North America.  Here’s another quote from Wikipedia:

It has been suggested that the extinct hominin Paranthropus boisei, the “Nutcracker Man,” subsisted on tiger nuts.  Prehistoric tools with traces of C. esculentus tuber starch granules have been recovered from the early Archaic period in North America, from about 9,000 years ago, at the Sandy Hill excavation site at the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Connecticut. The tubers are believed to have been a source of food for those Paleo-Indians.

I ordered one bag of tiger nuts from Amazon and liked them enough to order several more bags.  They’ve replaced almonds as my watching-football snack.  I enjoy the taste very much –like coconut with a hint of raisin — but it takes awhile to chew them because they’re very high in fiber and resistant starch.  (If you have a constipation problem, I can almost guarantee tiger nuts will fix it.)  I like the idea of growing tiger nuts because they’re apparently quite prolific – some strains are so prolific they’re considered an invasive species.  That tells me they’re not difficult to grow.

It’s clear from the historical evidence that our paleo ancestors ate squashes and tubers.  That being said, I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Richard Nikoley when it comes to white potatoes.  Yes, if you cook and cool them, you get some resistant starch.  That helps to reduce the glucose spike.

But like many other foods we buy today, modern potatoes were bred to be more palatable than their ancient counterparts – which means less fiber and more starch in the case of tubers, or less fiber and more fructose in the case of fruit.  I still believe diabetics and people with genetically low levels of amylase need to be careful not to over-eat those foods.

Tiger nuts are tubers, but they’re not exactly the metabolic equivalent of a baked Russet potato.  White potatoes are low in fiber and fat.  Tiger nuts are high in fiber and fat, both of which help to slow the release of glucose into the bloodstream.  Putting numbers to the comparison, if I eat a small baked potato that provides 120 calories, I get 30 carbs of which 3.5 grams are fiber (26.5 net carbs), and 4 calories from fat.  If I eat an ounce of raw tiger nuts that provides 120 calories, I get 19 carbs of which 10 grams are fiber (nine net carbs) and 63 calories from fat.

Think about that fiber content for a second.  I don’t know how big Nutcracker Man was or what his daily calorie needs were, but if I ate 2,400 calories of tiger nuts to get through the day, I’d end up consuming 200 grams of fiber.  I hope Nutcracker Man subscribed to a good magazine.

So yes, Nutcracker Man subsisted on a tuber, but his diet was way high in fiber and more than 50% fat by calories.  Richard listed tiger nuts as 42% carbohydrate, but if I go with the net carbs (the fiber would be converted to short-chain fatty acids in the colon), I get 30%.

So what was the true paleo diet?  It would, of course, vary by region.  But based on what we know about paleo people discovered in modern times (like the Indians in North America) and the foods other paleo people ate, I think Paul Jaminet got it right in the Perfect Health Diet book:  more than 50% fat by calories, with the carb calories in a range of 15% to 30%, mostly from tubers and squashes.  Not meat-meat-meat, not VLC and not ketogenic, but still roughly twice the fat and half the carbohydrate recommended by our national diet dictocrats.

I’ll take meat-meat-meat over the USDA diet any ol’ time  But I don’t have to choose from those two options, so I’ll take meat-meat-meat with a side of squash and some greens.

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123 thoughts on “My Previous View Of The Paleo Diet Got Squashed

  1. Peter

    Hi Tom,

    I started eating Tiger Nuts and like them a lot, but I noticed the husks are very rough. I’m worried for that reason they may be an irritant to the gut, just as Paul Jaminet says brown rice is?

    Has anyone heard of that being a risk for Tiger Nuts?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton

      Dr. William “Wheat Belly” Davis told me during an interview that the fibers in grains aren’t the same as the fibers in other plant foods. A portion of the fiber in grains is an irritant. If tiger nut fibers are an irritant, I certainly haven’t noticed.

      Reply
  2. Peter

    Hi Tom,

    I started eating Tiger Nuts and like them a lot, but I noticed the husks are very rough. I’m worried for that reason they may be an irritant to the gut, just as Paul Jaminet says brown rice is?

    Has anyone heard of that being a risk for Tiger Nuts?

    Thanks!

    Reply
    1. Tom Naughton Post author

      Dr. William “Wheat Belly” Davis told me during an interview that the fibers in grains aren’t the same as the fibers in other plant foods. A portion of the fiber in grains is an irritant. If tiger nut fibers are an irritant, I certainly haven’t noticed.

      Reply

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