Stone Age Smiles: Paleo Diet And The Evolution Of Oral Health

Guest Post: Jon Linhart

A brief skim of Google search results will confirm how diet-obsessed we are as human beings. It seems a new cohort of fad diets pop up, run a brief course, then die before the thronging masses have time to enter their credit card information. It’s okay, there will be more next week. Each diet equally touted by the thin support questionable science and a few Instagram models who swear by the regiments.

We aren’t here to besmirch anything in particular, but it’s important to realize the prevalence of these fads and the rampant consumerism that fuels them. What we can talk about with some authority is the how our diets have evolved since the dawn of humanity. You probably knew this, but we’ve been eating for millions of years.

If you were to compare a human being now to one from even 500 years ago — let alone two million — the comparison would be staggering. As products of our environment, human evolution has been impacted by countless factors. Among these factors, eating is an important one to investigate.

The Paleo diet gets its name from our ancient ancestors in the Paleolithic Era (Stone Age). This massive piece of time spans from between 2.6 million years ago to about 12,000 BCE. Let’s look into how time has changed our diets, and, therefore, us.

Time and technology changed eating…

Until human beings start willing nutrients into themselves, we will continue to use our mouths to eat and drink. In this seemingly obvious way, our physical health, diets, and oral health are all undeniably interconnected.

Our teeth and mouths, as a whole, have changed over time. A vast amount of that change has been because of our diets. As with any aspect of human evolution, this didn’t happen overnight. When you think of being hungry or thirsty now, the effort you have to put forth to access food and drink is as much as you care to exert.

Paleolithic humans didn’t have such luxuries, and their mouths and teeth reflected that. Hunter-gatherers had to hunt and gather, whereas we merely have to hunt for a choice on GrubHub. Technology, beginning with agriculture, changed how we accessed, made, and consumed food. The continued ascent of technological development is moving faster than our own evolutionary trajectory.

A rise in oral disease and tooth issues is merely a testament that our bodies aren’t changing as fast as the environments we’re creating. By what we eat, we’ve changed ourselves, slowly to adapt to an environment of our own creation, right here in our own mouths.

…And eating changed our mouths

It sounds strange that food changed our mouths. People rarely think about the biological environment that exists inside our mouths. Bacteria — good and bad — exist by the millions and have been residents of our mouths since the beginning. This eon-spanning symbiosis has been and will always exist.

When we eat, we not only feed ourselves but feed the biosphere inside our mouths. In our technological advancement, our diets have changed, and, in turn, we’ve changed the biological balance of our oral microorganisms. You are what you eat takes on new meaning when we’re talking about bacterial balance in your oral ecosystem.

Good bacteria and bad bacteria abound in your mouth. Processed foods, which make up a massive portion of modern diets, stand to feed certain bacteria types over others. When the balance is thrown off, biological malevolence is close at hand (or a tooth). What, Paleolithic humans didn’t have to worry about was immediate access to highly processed foods. In a way, our rapid advance in technology has spiked the prevalence of oral issues. We take the good with the bad.

No, we aren’t hunter-gatherers, and our bodies haven’t evolved to be. You can, however, look to the diet as a way to balance your consumption of processed foods that correlate with oral issues and oral bacterial imbalance. It’s a less Snickers, more steak, type thing. Sounds delicious, right?

Not a one-stop fix

The Paleo diet is a modern reflection of how the early stages of human evolution consumed nutrients. It’s important to note that we’re not them. Taking up a Paleo diet and bailing on the dentist is a surefire way to destroy your oral health. What the diet can do, is minimize the amount of extraneous processed things that are more likely to feed certain bacteria in your mouth that cause oral issues.

Dropping soda and sweets doesn’t make you a hunter-gatherer, but it certainly helps emulate a diet that bears positive effects on your oral health. Perhaps the next time you’re poised to go processed, pause and take a page out of the Paleolithic.

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