A Paleo Primer

by Katie on February 27, 2013

It seems that at times we all yearn for the past. Whether we are wishing we could eat like we did when we were teenagers or perhaps even feeling like we belong in an earlier time period, the past has a way of seeming idyllic. Although, not many people yearn for the stone-age lifestyle, that is, outside of the occasional TV show or movie with the mammoths, spears, and a talking sloth. Ultimately, who cares anyway? The past is the past and at present it is very unlikely we will be rejoining it. (But keep your eyes on MTSG for any news of upcoming time-travel. Only kidding!) So maybe we can’t travel through time, but perhaps in a way we can join our ancestors. For those longing for the past and perhaps hoping to recreate the WAY past – more than 10,000 years ago to be precise – you could always try the Paleo Diet!

Let’s go out for dinner!

So why recreate a time when humans were just beginning, aside from the solidarity of catching up on lost time with our very distant relatives? Because it predates the enormous changes brought on by agriculture. Thanks to the tediously slow process of evolution and the remarkably short cultural history of humans, we often forget that the advent of agriculture was (evolutionarily speaking) practically just yesterday. Before this time, our great, great (x about 300 generations) grandparents basically ate whatever they could forage or hunt—not unlike the custom of hunter-gatherer societies today. Research has shown that modern humans living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle are virtually devoid of our most insidious chronic health problems including heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. But how can that be? How can societies be free of the most common causes of death in the industrialized world without access to modern medicine or even a simple grocery store? Well, the answer may be found in evolutionary discordance.

A Story of Survival

You all know the story of how evolution works, but let’s frame it in terms of my favorite topic: food. For years and years (millennia actually) our ancient ancestors ate what they could find. Furthermore, as we evolved, any small difference that conferred an advantage for survival in that environment, let’s say the ability to eat raw meat, was passed on to future generations because these individuals were more likely to survive. But as the environment around us changed, and it is always changing, the paradigm shifts and suddenly our previous adaptations, built up slowly to perfection for the previous environment, are suddenly not so perfect! This is called evolutionary discordance and it usually manifests through increasing rates of disease. Our species can adapt, sure, but true evolutionary change takes time and selective pressure.

Does this sound like modern times? Well, researchers propose that evolutionary discordance, resulting from the huge environmental and cultural changes brought on by agriculture, has caused the industrialized world to become overrun with the so-called ‘Diseases of Civilization’: heart disease, obesity, and diabetes among others. Advances in technology have been changing our environment at nearly light speed, again, evolutionarily speaking of course, and our genes just can’t keep pace.

Our physiology remains adapted for a diet of the distant past despite exposure to a modern environment for two reasons. First, there has not been enough time for evolutionary change to occur since the advent of agriculture. And second, modern medicine has removed much of the selective pressure that drives evolutionary change. This means that survival of the fittest is no longer so simple as reproducing plentifully and being able to out run dangerous beasts!

Caveman Diet Plan

So our modern diets combined with our stone-age genes may be to blame for much of the disease burden in the Western world. In an attempt to drop pounds and reduce risk for disease, researcher Loren Cordain has come up with a plan to put us back in line. Enter, the Paleo Diet. Unlike many modern fad diets that often focus on using the miracle pill of the future to drop pounds, the Paleo Diet tries to recreate the dietary patterns of the past that we humans may still be designed to eat. On the Paleo Diet, only foods that mimic those that might have been available during the Paleolithic period are allowed and everything else, that is everything that our very distant ancestors wouldn’t have recognized as food, is eliminated.

Eat This 

A well-preserved stone-age grocery list.

  • Grass-fed meats (grain-fed is the norm at the store)
  • Seafood and fish
  • Non-starchy vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Eggs
  • Nuts and seeds

Not That 

  • Sugar
  • Dairy
  • Grains
  • Legumes (beans, peas, peanuts)
  • Potatoes
  • All processed foods
  • Salt
  • Alcohol
  • Refined vegetable oils

Is Going Paleo the Answer?

The Paleo Diet has gained great popularity in recent years but it is important to recognize the benefits of following it correctly and the serious dangers of taking it too far. Firstly, one needs to beware the dangers of consuming too much saturated fat; an all too common side-effect of meat-based diets. Secondly, the Paleo lifestyle is also contradicted by recent, and compelling, research that champions plant-based diets as the key to better health, lower weight, and a longer life. As such, it seems that legumes and whole grains need not always be demonized as they are proven to be an important part of a healthy diet. Not to mention the proven connection between heavy meat consumption and elevated cancer risk.

Our inner caveman stuggles with the modern world

I think that if we could take some nutritional time machine back to the Paleolithic Age we would realize very quickly that so much more than our diet was different. After all, even the foods allowed on the Paleo Diet are products of large-scale agriculture and would likely be unrecognizable to real cave dwellers. It is also important to note that we don’t have a nutritional time machine so our insight into caveman cuisine is really just an educated guess based on evolutionary clues and observation of modern hunter-gatherer diets. As such, we must consider the other important aspects of hunter-gatherer lifestyles that contribute to lower disease risk such as  a highly active lifestyle and periods of restricted caloric intake due to famine.

So do we have to eat like a caveman or is it equally beneficial to, as Michael Pollan recommends, only eat foods your great grandmother would have recognized? Well there is little controversy over the health benefits of cutting out processed foods and replacing them with simpler, whole foods like fruits and vegetables. However, the demonization of carbohydrates from whole grains and legumes is not necessarily the best avenue to health. These foods represent an inexpensive and reliable source of healthy, low fat and high fiber calories that sustain many populations around the world. To truly live with a cave man mentality one would eat the best possible fuel available for their body in their environment. In our world this can mean many different diets but an emphasis on moderating processed foods and increasing physical activity will help get us closer to what our genes would have wanted.

References:

Cordain, Loren. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2005;81:341–54. 

KM February 27, 2013 at 6:11 pm

I can hear the enthusiasm in this post! A very good read.
From your article, I understand that, “only foods that mimic those that might have been available during the Paleolithic period.” Do you think that the regional availability of different sorts of these foods would also play a role in what our bodies are evolved to consume well? Some people have an allergy to shellfish. Do you think this allergy is a result of exposure and evolution of intolerance; or the opposite: a result of the fact that exposure does not agree with an un-envolved ‘preset mode’ resulting form origin in a region that didn’t consume shellfish?

Ashley Patriarca February 27, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Katie, this is a delightful read. You explain evolutionary discordance – a term with which I’m not really familiar – very clearly, and I appreciate that you keep it within the lens of the post as a whole (food). You also do a great job of addressing both the benefits and drawbacks of the paleo diet. Keep it up!

Katie March 13, 2013 at 11:08 am

Thank you for reading Ashley. I am very glad to hear that you liked the post. I will try to do more like this one!

Rick February 27, 2013 at 11:41 pm

Interesting post, but I think you need more references. In particular, I think the following points need sourcing:

1. “researchers [WHICH RESEARCHERS?] propose that evolutionary discordance, resulting from the huge environmental and cultural changes brought on by agriculture, has caused the industrialized world to become overrun with the so-called ‘Diseases of Civilization’”

2. “one needs to beware the dangers of consuming too much saturated fat” – You haven’t given any evidence for saturated fat being dangerous; by simply asserting that it is, you’re basically discrediting the Paleo diet by fiat. In recent years, I’ve seen many claims that saturated fat has been unfairly demonised, and the real enemies are polyunsaturates (and, according to some, most or all carbohydrates).

3. “These foods [carbohydrates] represent an inexpensive and reliable source of healthy, low fat and high fiber calories” – Your use of the word “healthy” suggests again that you’ve already discounted the possibility that a Paleo diet may be a good way to go. It suggests that high-fat/low-carbohydrate approaches are not worthy of serious discussion.

I appreciate that a blog post doesn’t give you enough space to go into all the background in detail, but more references would substitute for that to some degree. And it would be great to have a follow-up post looking more into the basic science of fat and carbohydrate metabolism, explaining why most (?) experts argue for low-fat diets but an increasing (?) minority question the mainstream view all the way back to Ancel Keys.

Kelly Bissonette February 28, 2013 at 10:27 am

The concept of the Paleo Diet is so interesting. Thanks for writing about it! I like the point that you made about whole grains and legumes. The Mediterranean Diet, for example, is based on legumes as a protein source and has been associated with heart health. Everything in moderation! Good work :)

Andrew March 1, 2013 at 12:57 am

Great topic. I personally think that the “paleo diet” makes a lot of bad assumptions.

That “we must consider the other important aspects of hunter-gatherer lifestyles that contribute to lower disease risk such as a highly active lifestyle and periods of restricted caloric intake” I think says it all, especially if you add life-expectancy.

I seriously doubt (although have no way of verifying) that hunter-gatherers ate 3 meals a day, had a stable and consistent food supply even through the winter, or would spend most of their day sitting. That said, we rely heavily on grains (for historic reasons) and they have essentially prevented famine in most parts of the world; however, eating grains in place of fruits and vegetables cannot be healthy.

Katie March 13, 2013 at 11:10 am

Hi Andrew. Thank you for commenting on the post! I agree that while basing the diet on hunter-gatherers is fine, it must always be with the caveat that we are taking a lot out of context.

Loon March 1, 2013 at 12:39 pm

Interesting article! A few remarks: the Paleo Diet seems to focus a lot on meat, at least as your remarks on fat suggested. However, I have read that the people in that time ate mainly gathered food (fruits, some vegetables, nut) and that meat was a rare treat. In addition, I would like to point out that they might have been healthier, but had a life expectancy of about thirty years. Could their diet, especially the periods of famine, have something to do with that?

Katie March 15, 2013 at 12:49 pm

Hi Loon. Thank you for commenting! I also have the impression that hunter-gatherers only have meat occasionally and in small quantities so this is certainly a deviation from that. Whether fortunately or not, as you mention, we can not perfectly recreate the Paleo lifestyle thanks to increased lifespan and always available food.

Angela March 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Interesting! Seems a bit like a stone-age fantasy, and should probably be accompanied by stone-age activities to have the assumed health benefits? As far as I’m aware, legumes (e.g. broad beans) were on the menu, and probably alcohol, too. Can’t picture humans passing up on gone-off fruit & veg ;)

Katie March 15, 2013 at 12:53 pm

Thank you for commenting Angela! I agree that complete restriction of legumes seems unnecessary. The creators of the Paleo diet have concluded that legumes are pro-inflammatory and lead to “leaky guy syndrome”. I find that the research behind this is inconclusive. I believe this is their main reason for restricting these foods. However, I question how large of a role these foods have in poor health as they can be wonderful (and cheap) sources of nutrients and fiber.

Chris March 6, 2013 at 9:09 am

Interesting. I have heard of the Paleo diet but didn’t know what it was about. I think if I was to eat like a caveman today I would have to keep up the activity level too. Probably not easy.

I love the idea “only eat foods that your grandmother would recognize”. This sounds like a good idea to me. I would like to read Pollans book.

Katie March 15, 2013 at 12:55 pm

Hi Chris, thank you for commenting! I also love the idea of trying to only eat what your grandmother or great grandmother would recognize. It simplifies the concept of a whole food by giving a simple test for each item. Pollan has written the Omnivore’s Dilemma among others and they are all very interesting. I also agree that to keep a Paleo lifestyle would require a lot of physical activity including walking and hard labor. To recreate this today would be difficult!

Jvc March 31, 2013 at 9:18 am

Hi Katie
I love the fact that possibly grandmother new something.

Antony April 20, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Hi there.
Would you mind if I share your blog with my zynga group?
There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Thank you

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