“Humans need lots of carbohydrates.”
Or so we’re told. Maybe you’ve been shown the “food pyramid” in elementary school as an example for the optional diet, with carbohydrates building the foundation and just a tiny piece of chocolate at the top. In reality, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever that there is any truth or benefit in this recommendation. Humans have been eating very little carbohydrates for most of our time here on earth, it was only after the shift to a sedentary, agricultural lifestyle that carbohydrates became the foundation of our diet in the form of grains and various forms of products from grains.
A diet based on carbohydrates as foundation is directly connected to certain aspects that characterize civilized life, a carbohydrate-rich diet is concomitant with increased risk of obesity, heart disease, tooth decay and other symptoms.
The primitive way
Among hunter-gatherer populations that don’t include lots of carbohydrates into their diet on a daily basis, it is observed that they show less tendency for obesity and tooth decay is little of a problem. Ethnologist Adolf Bernatzik found that the Mlabri in Northeastern Thailand had excellent teeth (they didn’t eat any grains back then), whereas the Penan of Borneo show signs of tooth decay according to Bruno Manser (since they include starch from the sago palm in their diet on a regular basis).
Primitive people are healthy, strong and muscular – and all that with very little carbohydrates.
How we do it
Since Nature nowadays is nothing like it was before civilizations started destroying the environment, we can’t just go back to foraging for our food, because there is simply not enough wilderness left. So what we do is the middle way, a horticultural approach to creating an environment in which food can easily be obtained again.
As for our daily dose of carbohydrates, we prefer easy sources such as cassava and sweet potatoes, since growing them requires minimal effort (as opposed to the toilsome cultivation of rice and other grains). Again we look at the practices of horticultural semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes such as the Zo’é people of the Amazon rainforest, who grow cassava during the monsoon season when they temporary settle down.
Cassava (also called maniok or yuca) is very easy to grow; you just take a short branch from a tree and put it into the ground. It needs no care, thrives even in bad soil and is resistant to drought. They grow very fast, too, and are usually harvested after half a year.
Cassava contains cyanide, which is why it is best to cook the roots or at least grind them into small pieces and let them sit until all the cyanide evaporated. We grow a sweet variety, which contains cyanide in such small quantities that it is safe to eat raw.
Since the roots don’t contain much protein or amino acids, it is recommended to also consume the leaves to prevent signs of nutrient deficiency (at least for people who eat cassava every day; with a well-balanced diet there is no danger of deficiency of any kind).
The boiled young leaves are a delicacy and one of our favorite side dishes.
There are many ways to prepare cassava, the roots can be boiled, steam-boiled, mashed, fried, ground into flour to extract starch (by mixing it with water and pressing it through a cloth), which in turn can be added to food or baked, and the leftovers from the starch-extracting process can be used to make a delicious primitive flatbread, which is how we mostly eat cassava.
The starch can be used in manifold ways, it can be roasted and mixed with fat to create a delicious side dish called Farofa in Brazil, or mixed with water and baked into small, sweet primitive cakes called Beijú.
The origin of a carbohydrate-based diet
The idea of eating mostly carbohydrates obtained from grains is a very recent phenomenon on the long timeline of human history on this planet and dates back only about 11,000 years ago – when people in the Fertile Crescent switched from a nomadic forager life to the toilsome, sedentary agricultural lifestyle. There is still no consensus among scholars as to why this shift appeared, even though earlier assumptions have now been proven wrong. People didn’t start farming because they were starving because, as Daniel Quinn put it, “starving people don’t invent lifestyles any more than people falling out of airplanes invent parachutes”.
It is important to notice that this new way of life wasn’t adapted because it was so pleasant that it was an inevitable next step forward. Those first neolithic farmers fundamentally invented the notion of work. They developed a hard way to live – probably the hardest way to live ever found on this planet.
Several studies have shown that foraging is superior in many ways. First of all, it pays off at a rate of 1:5, which means that for every calorie spent you gain five calories. If we say an adult needs 2,000 calories per day, a hunter gatherer has to spend 400 calories to obtain the required amount. Farming, in contrast, pays off at a rate of 1:2, so in order to get your daily 2,000 calories you have to spend 1,000 calories. A shift from foraging to farming is like trading a job that pays $5 per hour for a job that pays only $2. No hungry person would ever do such thing, since it makes utterly no sense, and the hungrier you are, the less sense it makes.
Hunter-Gatherers devote on average about 2-3 hours per day to what we would call ‘work’, meaning that they have the most leisure time. As every other animal, they just take the food that’s already there, and therefore don’t need to go through the whole process of clearing a field, sowing, watering, weeding, nurturing, adding fertilizer, reaping, threshing, storing and processing until they can eat their food.