I’m often asked what makes the ancestral diet any different from Paleo. One of the main differences is that the Paleo Diet advises against eating legumes, which includes peas, lentils, peanuts, and green beans. (A legume is a plant that has seeds in a pod.) The argument is that legumes can be harmful to the health if eaten raw, especially if they are a staple of the diet; therefore, it is unlikely that cavemen enjoyed them routinely.

Today we know that legumes have consistently been shown to be an important part of the healthy diet, particularly the well-known, heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. For today’s modern cavemen, the benefits of legumes make them an indispensable part of a healthy diet. Legumes such as soy are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals that lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cancer and heart disease. In fact, their greater reliance on dietary soy may be one of the reasons that Asian cultures tend to have a lower incidence of heart disease.

But enjoying legumes doesn’t mean violating the principles of the Ancestral Diet; in fact, the archaeological record suggests that legumes were a part of our diet long before the Agricultural Revolution. The earliest known record of our ancestors enjoying cooked legumes dates back to the Middle Paleolithic Era, approximately 400,000 years ago. An excavation of Kebara Cave, high in the mountains of what is now Israel, unearthed charred peas alongside ancient hearths from that time period, suggesting that our ancestors were harvesting wild peas and cooking them for food.

While this is the only fossil evidence I’ve found of our cavemen eating legumes, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t more prevalent before agriculture. It just means we haven’t found any evidence of it. Plant matter is preserved very poorly, which is one reason that Kebara Cave is such an archeological treasure. Animals leave behind bones and hunters leave behind sharp tools for hunting, but harvesting plants leaves little to no trace over millions of years. We must piece together the historical record with whatever we find, and use our best judgment to fill in the missing pieces.

In any case, legumes certainly found their way onto the Ancestral dinner table during the Paleolithic Era, and we should be sure to include them on our modern dinner table as well.

Here’s a quick lentil recipe that can get you off to a great start with your healthy legume diet.

Lentil Burger Recipe

Ingredients

3/4 cup lentils, rinsed and strained
1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon low-sodium vegetable or chicken broth
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large red onion, half finely chopped and half thinly sliced
Juice of 1/2 lemon
8 ounces fresh baby spinach
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup almond flour
1/2 cup walnuts, toasted and finely chopped

Directions

Bring the lentils and 1 3/4 cup of the broth to a boil in a medium saucepan over high heat.

Reduce heat to medium-low, partially cover and simmer until the lentils are fully softened and the liquid is absorbed, about 30 minutes.

Transfer to a medium bowl with the remaining 1 tablespoon broth and mash well with a potato masher. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onion, lemon juice and 1/4 teaspoon salt and cook, stirring, until softened, about 6 minutes. Add the spinach, garlic, 1 1/2 teaspoons black pepper and cumin and stir until the spinach is wilted, about 3 minutes. Add the spinach mixture, almond flour, and walnuts to the lentils and mix thoroughly.

Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat a skillet to medium high. Form the mixture into six 4-inch patties and spray with cooking spray on each side. Cook about 3 minutes per side.