You are what you eat...
Despite the lack of access our paleolithic ancestors had to proper dental care--nary the floss, toothbrush, or minty paste has been recovered with early hominid remains on any archeological dig--they had great teeth.
This is not another article espousing the benefits of The Paleo diet, but thinking about how our ancestors ate and why it was beneficial for them does help to illustrate some valuable guidelines for our modern world.
Before we make any recommendations, let's first explore the cracks in the central tenet of The Paleo Diet, which is that our optimal health can only result by consuming the foods we ate as we were evolving. Although we'll only touch on it in this article, the incompatibility with reality follows:
Foods: None of the foods we eat today are identical to the ones our ancestors ate. They have been changed and modified by a long history of selective breeding, and at closest only resemble the organism from which they descend. This is true for fruits, vegetables, and livestock.
Genetics: We are not genetically identical to our ancestors. The ability for adults to digest dairy? Emerged within the last 7,000 years. Blue eyes? First appeared between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago. The genetic mutations that contribute to malaria may be even newer.
Microbiome: 90% of the cells in our body are not our cells at all, but bacteria. Consequently, the contents of our “microbiome” plays a major part in every aspect of our health. You’ve likely taken probiotics for gut issues, but your mouth has its own microbiome as well. The extent to which our microbiome has changed since the paleolithic age is impossible to assess, but the bacteria in our body has evolved far more rapidly than us, and is completely different than earlier populations.
Evolution: Evolution is not fixed. It is a constant process, and our ancestors, like ourselves and all other organisms on the planet, were never living in perfect harmony with their environment. There wasn’t a single diet that sustained us in homeostasis with our surroundings. Rather, we evolved to be able to survive and utilize a wide variety of nutritional sources, which changed over space and time; between seasons and as we traveled to new territories. Take, for example, the below graphic of the diets of different foragers today:
If you really want to get into the details of what we just scratched the surface, check out this article from Scientific American.
Our Paleolithic ancestors had healthy teeth not because they were cleaning them, but, at least in part, because the foods they ate were varied and biologically diverse, providing the full range of essential vitamins and minerals and allowing healthy bacteria to flourish and ward off infections from unhealthy bacteria.
Variety is vital when it comes to what we eat. In order to get all of the vitamins and minerals and proteins and fats and fiber we need, we have to be consuming myriad foods. Our ancestors were well versed in foraging for all the available sources of nourishment their environment had to offer, enjoying a more varied diet than the vast majority of humans today.
The domestication of grains and a shift to a grain-based diet changed all that. By drastically reducing the diversity of our foods and replacing complex vegetable sources with single-crop carbs, harmful bacteria flourished. “The transition from hunter-gatherer to farming shifted the oral microbial community to a disease-associated configuration.” Without a healthy microbiome and the nutrients necessary to sustain the organism as a whole, the mouth suddenly became a hotbed of infection.
One simple way to improve your oral health is certainly to eat more similarly to your ancestors. The paleolithic diet contained a bounty of vegetables and was high in nuts, seeds, and fruits. Meat, seafood, and eggs were on the menu as well, but not as centrally as in modern diets today. Think about it like this: if it can grow, walk, swim, or fly, you can eat it. Processed carbs and refined sugars are not recommended by anyone, and this is consistent with the notion of eating foods that are close to their unadulterated form, as they would be found in nature.
The key is moderation. Our bodies, and the microbes which are an integral part, are resilient. Ensuring that the food you eat is healthy and varied will help mitigate the detrimental effects of the not-so-healthy choices that you can and will very reasonably make.
But no matter how healthy your diet, always brush and floss.