Paleo diets are tough to follow: You’re only allowed to eat meat, nuts, eggs, fruits, vegetables and healthy oils like olive and coconut.
The idea is to live off what our ancient ancestors ate, back before foods like pizza or french fries entered the world. Researchers now think our ancestors ate a carbohydrate-rich diet that provided the energy to evolve bigger brains.
In an article published last week in The Quarterly Review of Biology, archaeologists, geneticists and physiologists argued that carbohydrates from plants, such as potatoes, were just as important to the evolution of our brains as meat was.
The researchers analysed existing information about early hominins (the group that later evolved into today’s human beings): How and when they started cooking, what their teeth looked like, and what their DNA tells us about how their bodies processed complex sugars. Our ancestors evolved genes that could help with breaking down sugar, and once they started cooking plants with starch, it made them much more digestible and nutritious. Combined, this made it way more appealing for hominins to continue eating the plants.
Carbohydrates are our main source of energy. The body converts complex carbs like starch (found in a lot of plants including root and tuber vegetables like the potato) into glucose, which then fuels our cells and keeps us moving — and, in the case of early hominins living about 2 million years ago, allowed our brains to keep evolving.
Even if the paleo diet isn’t exactly historically accurate as is, it doesn’t mean humans today need to change their diets based on this new theory, The New York Times points out.
“I think evolutionary biology can have a lot to say about food and health,” said Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London and one of the authors of the Quarterly Review article told the Times. “But nutrition is so incredibly complex, and we’ve only scratched the surface.”
So maybe feel free to splurge on a baked potato every once in a while. Chalk it up to brain food.
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