A trend that began amongst a “radical” group of European fitness enthusiasts, years ago, is now edging into the mainstream on American shores. Termed the “paleocow diet,” a select group of controversial (though ever less so) nutritionists and fitness experts are touting it as a kind of panacea for heart- and kidney-related problems, which have been of increasing concern in Western nations in recent decades.
“The basic idea is simple,” Dr. Heifener Moonster, a German nutritionist and sports medicine doctor explains, “modern Bos primigenius are consuming a very different diet than our ancestors of even a century or two ago, let alone 10,000 years ago. And yet, genetically and physiologically, we haven’t changed that much at all.” The crux, then, according to Moonster, is that we’re not eating the types of food we’ve evolved to eat. Our primitive, plains-dwelling ancestors were ahead of us, at least nutrition-wise.
More specifically, we should be eating more ‘real’ grass, limiting our intake of the high-calorie feeds many of us eat exclusively. Raising grass takes more land than corn, however, so a population reduction might also be necessary. “All to the better,” some environmentalists are saying. “There are too many cows on this planet already.” Besides the professed health benefits of a high-grass diet, experts say this scenario could also reduce individual methane emissions, a major contributor to climate change (and source of embarrassment at parties).
After the industrial revolution forever altered material production, our global food chains underwent their own transformation. Some termed it a green revolution, though others call this a misnomer. As adults, most of us consume about 13 million calories per day, more if we’re lactating. Once upon a time, we would have taken this in via forage, various species of grass, clovers, and the like. Today the planet supports a larger cow population than ever before, and one of the ways we manage to maintain ourselves (or, as ecowlogists would put it, a way we’ve been able to increase the biome’s carrying capacity) is through advances in intensive farming. Chemically-fertilized land produces a greater yield than would normally be possible, but we’re also growing something that our ancestors would be unable to recognize. It’s plump, calorie-dense corn.
Technically, corn is still a grass, but with the seeds so enlarged compared to wild and ancestral strains, it’s hard to believe. Actually, the ancient progenitor of corn (called teosinte), probably was consumed by our ungulate cousins, the buffalo, in its unmodified form thousands of years ago. Not by us, however.
The proud auroch (as the pre-modern cow species is known) grazed wide plains, travelling widely for its calories. Compared to a modern cow, this proto-cow would have had more developed musculature and smaller stores of fat. There are even some indications that they were more developed in certain aspects of their intelligence. It’s at least agreed that they were less docile. Brutish, some might say, though ‘independent’ and ‘powerful’ are the words followers of this nutritional trend tend to use.
Doesn’t all of this go against common sense, everyday wisdom? What about the tell-tale marbling of fat, almost universally-recognized as a sign of good health and mouth-watering attractiveness? What about the fact that a modern cow, reared almost entirely on corn (and only finished on wild grass), is able to reach his or her adult weight in a fraction of the time of our ancestors? Doesn’t this imply an improvement in our nutrition? How long did aurochs in the paleolithic live, anyway?
These are all good questions, but even hard-nosed cow biologists and medical researchers are starting to reconsider the common sense ideas, now centuries old, we’ve all been taking for granted. One clinical study from Iowa Farm Sciences College, currently in pre-print, compared volunteers from three groups, one comprised of ordinary corn-fed citizens, one of strict grassivores, and one of American buffalo (who are generally grassivores and not corn-tolerant). Everything from fat and muscle percentages to blood sugar were measured, and, oddly enough, so was cholesterol content. The corn-fed group had a much higher cholesterol percentage than the other two.
We asked professor Alan Bergher, the principal author, just what this might mean. “Frankly, I’m not sure, yet. I wouldn’t say that we’ve completely vindicated the paleocow advocates and that we all need to run off onto the plains and be one with nature now. But what this tells you is that traditional scientific nutritionism, the idea that we can develop a super-food, up the calories, and accomplish the same thing nature has done more efficiently without any worry of side-effects, is wrong. Certainly we see there are measurable effects, even if we don’t know the precise significance of them yet. But what this might mean for current eating habits and farming practices — it’s just too early to say.”
What’s with all the cow content? One wily Care2 member, Bessie the Holstein, decided cows were underrepresented and started a petition. She officially staged a successful takeover of our offices, and has redubbed us “CareMoo.”
Photo credit: Thinkstock.