Fad diets seem to be a hallmark of westernized society and one still making the circuit is the Paleolithic Diet, aka the “caveman diet.” If you are unaware of this diet, it is similar to the low-carbohydrate Adkins diet of the 1970s.
This fad diet works on the premise that human genetics have not changed in 15,000 years and that Paleolithic man was free of many of the diseases afflicting humans today. The Paleolithic period occurred around 2 million years ago (12,000 B.C.) and the general lifespan of Paleolithic man was around 30 years; although a few lived to be 50 years of age. These groups of people were primarily hunters and gatherers.
The main components of the Paleo fad diet are large amounts of meat, fish, poultry and eggs along with high vegetable, nut, fruit and fat intake. The food needs to be organic, free range and wild caught. Big no-no’s for the diet include grains (wheat, corn, quinoa, oats), sugar, dairy, refined vegetable oils (corn, canola, etc.) and beans or legumes.
Why no beans?
While the premise of eating quality meats and high fiber are good, why are beans forbidden? Dietitians and other health care providers recommend beans as part of a healthy diet. They are high in fiber, low in fat, full of nutrients, inexpensive and are a reasonable source of protein.
Beans are among the first crop cultivated by hunter-gatherers and nomadic people. Archaeological research has found evidence of bean consumption in Peru (3000 B.C.), the Andes (5000 B.C.) and in Mexico (4000 B.C.). The earliest record of humans eating beans is dated around 5500 B.C. near Nazareth, Israel. The use of lentils is dated back to 6750 B.C. in what is now the Middle East.
The question of why beans are not allowed on the Paleo diet has to do with lectins. So what is a lectin? They are proteins mainly found in the seeds of plants that are meant to protect the seeds from microorganisms, pests, predators and insects.
It is thought that when an animal eats the seed, the lectins cause severe gastric distress because they cannot be digested. Several cases of lectin poisoning were reported in Britain in the 1980s, resulting from undercooked beans.
Proper cooking methods are essential to reduce possibility of illness and eliminating lectin activity. Lectins in beans are more responsive to moist heat then to dry heat. There is a reason Grandma soaked the beans overnight and then cooked them long and slowly. This reduces the lectin activity and it is important not to use the soaking water to cook the beans in.
Sprouting beans is also another way to deal with those pesky lectins.
What the research says
So why do dietitians recommend beans? They are good for you, and research backs this up.
A compelling study in Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2004) found that there was a 7 percent to 8 percent reduction in mortality for every 20 g (about 2 tablespoons) of legumes consumed by people 70 years or older.
In addition, bean consumption has also been linked to better glycemic control for diabetes, lowered risk for cardiovascular disease and reduction in cancer risk. Beans are also a powerhouse for folate (B9); a B-vitamin that is used to manufacture DNA, RNA, red blood cells, brain cells and prevent neural tube defects.
The World Cancer Research Fund/American Institute for Cancer research identified that foods high in folate have a strong protective association with pancreatic cancer and to a slightly lesser degree with colon and esophagus cancers.
It is important to remember that the Paleolithic diet is just a fad diet, not intended or feasible for long-term health goals. In truth, we do not really know what Paleolithic man ate; we can only make an educated guess. Eating a balanced diet that includes a variety of quality foods is the best way to improve all health and longevity.
Had beans been available to Paleolithic man, he surely would have cooked up a big batch and possibly extended his lifespan in the process.
New Mexico Style Pinto Bean Salad
2 cups cooked pinto beans* or 1 (15-ounce) can, rinsed and drained
1 diced red or yellow bell pepper
¼ cup diced New Mexico green chile (or more if you like it spicy)
¼ cup finally chopped red onion
1 small avocado diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
½ cup shredded Colby and Monterey jack cheese or sharp cheddar cheese (optional)
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 small garlic clove mashed or ½ teaspoon garlic paste
1½ limes, juiced (about 3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon chili powder
1/8 teaspoon cumin powder
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
Make the dressing: Mash the garlic clove by placing a bit of salt on a cutting board and smash with the flat side of a knife until a paste forms, or use ½ teaspoon garlic paste.
Whisk together garlic paste, lime juice, salt, chili powder, cumin; gradually add in olive oil.
For the salad: Toss the beans, chile, bell pepper and onion together. Add the dressing and toss to coat evenly. Gently fold in the tomatoes, avocado and the cilantro and cheese if using. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve.
*COOK’S NOTE: To cook dried beans, soak beans overnight. Discard the soaking water, add fresh water and cook until tender; about 4-5 hours in a crockpot on high.
Virginia Mathes, MS, RD, LD, CDE, is a certified diabetes educator and owner of Zen Functional Nutrition.