Some critics of the Paleo diet posit that there are not any foodstuffs in today’s nutritional landscape that we can be certain were eaten during the Paleolithic era. The critic explains that the environment in which we live is vastly different from the Paleolithic, many animals that were eaten then are now extinct, the plant foods that are now grown often lack nutrients that would have been abundant eons ago due to soil depletion, even organic fruits and vegetables tend to contain some toxins that also would not have been prevalent in the Paleolithic period, etc. Furthermore, many argue that making it impossible to develop a true Paleo diet. Granted these critics are totally missing the point of ancestral diets; they are also wrong. There is one food that we eat today that has been available, likely in the same or very similar form, since the dawn of man: one perfect food. At that food is breast milk.
It is a perfect food for a multitude of reasons, but today’s post is going to focus on its nutritional superiority. Here’s a short list of human milk’s unique nutrition (taken fromhttp://www.askdrsears.com/topics/breastfeeding/why-breast-best/nutrient-nutrient-why-breast-best):
- High-quality protein – though the percentage of protein in human milk is relatively low (for good reason – we are carrier mammals, meant to keep our young with us at all times and if they grew too large too fast, mamas would not be able to easily keep their young close by and to carry their little ones when needed). One amino acid in high concentration in breastmilk, however, is taurine, which is critical for both brain and eye development. The body can’t easily convert other amino acids into taurine, so it is very important for babies to get this amino acid through breastmilk. The proteins in human milk (primarily whey, as opposed to casein) are also easily digested (thus why little ones are often ready for another feeding not long after finishing their last “meal”).
- Self-digesting fats – human milk contains lipase, an enzyme that helps break down fat into a form that can be easily absorbed into the bloodstream. This is essential for little bodies with maturing digestive systems. This fat provides the little ones with the constant energy they need to develop.
- Nutritional plasticity – the fat (and nutrient) content of human milk changes as needed, and even changes during a feeding. Foremilk is generally lower in fat and has a thirst-quenching element to it for the nursling, while hindmilk, coming later in the feeding is higher in fat.
- Brain-building fats – all of the nerves in the brain are covered in myelin, which assists in efficient electrical communication within the brain and body. Myelin development requires two specific types of fatty acids, linoleic and linolenic, both of which are abundant in breast milk. In addition to these fatty acids, human milk contains ample amounts of DHA (docasahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid that is vital to the growth and development of neural tissue.
- Vitamin and mineral bioavailability – the nutrients in breastmilk have been designed via evolution to be readily absorbed and used by the baby’s digestive and circulatory systems. “For example, 50 to 75 percent of the iron in breastmilk is absorbed by the baby. With formula, as little as 4 percent of the iron is absorbed into baby's bloodstream.” Additionally, nutrients in breast milk exist in ratios that compliment each other. The Vitamin C in human milk increases the absorption of zinc, for example.
- Hormones and enzymes – in addition to lipase, other enzymes exist in breast milk that help the nursling to digest it. Additionally, breast milk contains hormones, like Epidermal Growth Factor (useful in the development of the digestive tract in addition to regulating cell growth, differentiation and proliferation – per Wikipedia), in significant amounts.
- Beneficial bacteria – this milk also contains “Bifidus factor, one of the oldest known disease-resistance factors in human milk, promotes the growth of a beneficial organism named Lactobacillus bifidus.” (quote from http://www.kellymom.com/newman/how_breastmilk_protects_newborns.html)
- Immune boosters – One drop of breastmilk contains “one million white blood cells” called macrophages that help babies fight germs. Human milk also contains IgA, which helps coat and protect the immature lining of the large intestine (this not only helps with fighting infection, but also helps prevent allergies because allergens are unable to sneak into the bloodstream due to IgA’s coating of the gut lining). As if this wasn’t enough, moms can also manufacture antibodies to germs their little ones were exposed to and deliver those antibodies to their littles through nursing.
- Health benefits for the mama – studies (albeit most epidemiological) show that nursing moms, (1) have a reduced risk of breast, uterine, and ovarian cancer, (2) have a reduced risk for osteoporosis, (3) experience less postpartum depression, (4) have an easier time losing baby weight, and (5) save money by not purchasing formula.
This truly is a short list. There is additional information available on the benefits of breastfeeding, the amazing nutritional content and benefits of human milk; and science continues to discover new beneficial components in breast milk year after year.