The Paleolithic, or “Paleo,” diet is one of my favorites to discuss, if for no other reason than it is highly polarizing. Conversations about most modern diets usually track along the topics of weight, macronutrients, calories, etc. Discourse on Paleo is often more tangential. Get a Paleo proponent and detractor together, and their conversation on “nutrition” will almost assuredly morph into heated repartee on everything from the anthropological to the teleological.
In the following text I offer an overview of the Paleo diet, a look at popular figures associated with it, a list of some of the many pros and cons on which its debaters build their cases, and my personal thoughts on it.
Overview of the Paleo Diet
The Paleolithic Era includes the bulk of our human prehistory. It began about 2.6 million years ago when we were likely little more than anthropomorphic apes, and it ended roughly 10,000 BCE. Often, we talk about the Neolithic Era as being the age that immediately followed Paleolithic times. The transition between eras, however, actually includes the rather ambiguous Mesolithic Age (or “Epipaleolithic Age” depending on what historian you ask). While the start of the Neolithic Era is also considered to be the start of agriculture, there is evidence that farming was used in the Mesolithic Age—possibly even the late Paleolithic Era. Proto-Neolithic cultures like the Natufian are believed to have used wild cereals, and to have cultivated rye as far back as 12,500 BCE for example.
Paleolithic humans were hunters and gatherers; their diet largely consisted of meat, fish, insects, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Since agriculture did not begin, for the most part, until Neolithic times, it is believed that Paleo Era humans did not eat grains.
Our modern Paleo diet, as implied by its name, is an adaptation of our Paleolithic ancestor’s diet. Ostensibly, it includes meat, fish, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and nuts, but is devoid of grains, dairy, and refined sugar (most adherents forgo eating insects). Since Paleolithic animals roamed freely, ate grasses, and were not given hormones, their meat was generally much better for human consumption than is the meat from our modern captive, grain-fed, rBST-ridden animals. To this end, Paleo dieters usually try to seek quality meat that is organic and hormone free.
Most proponents of the Paleo diet believe that “diseases of influence”—ailments like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, cancer, and many allergies—were not existent in Paleolithic times, that they came about later in our history largely as a result of agriculture. They maintain that natural selection had time to metabolically and physiologically adapt humans to the dietary conditions of the Paleolithic Era; but, that in the roughly 10,000 years since the advent of agriculture, and its significant change to our diet, natural selection has had insufficient time to make the necessary genetic adaptations in modern humans. Accordingly, we are experiencing metabolic and physiological maladaptations which are causing us to contract diseases of influence. In a nutshell, Paleo adherents claim that our predominantly “agricultural” diets of grains, refined sugars, and hydrogenated oils are making us fat, and making us sick.
Unlike many popular programs such as “The Zone,” “Weight Watchers,” etc., the Paleo diet does not call for calorie counting, food measuring, consideration of macronutrient ratios, etc. Paleo eating is simple. It is summarized nicely on the pro-Paleo website, Whole Nine, in a piece entitled “The Whole Nine Nutrition Elevator Pitch“:
“I eat “real” food – fresh, natural food like meat, vegetables and fruit. I choose foods that are nutrient dense, with lots of naturally-occurring vitamins and minerals, over foods that have more calories but less nutrition. And food quality is important – I’m careful about where my meat comes from, and buy produce locally and organically as often as possible.”
“It’s not a low calorie “diet” – I eat as much as I need to maintain strength, energy and a healthy weight. In fact, my diet is probably much higher in fat than you’d imagine. Fat isn’t the enemy – it’s a great energy source when it comes from high quality foods like avocado, coconut and nuts. And I’m not trying to do a “low carb” thing, but since I’m eating vegetables and fruits instead of bread, cereal and pasta, it just happens to work out that way ….”
Popular Names Associated with the Paleo Diet
Most popular diets are the progeny of a specific person. Dr. Arthur Agatston created the “South Beach Diet,” Dr. Barry Sears invented the “Zone Diet,” and so on. The Paleo diet’s origin is a little more ambiguous; it has no specific originator. In fact, “Paleo diet,” is essentially just the most popular among many monikers that describe eating like our ancestors did. Despite the absence of an inventor, there are many well-known individuals within the Paleo circle who are considered forefathers, or largely impacting:
- Dr. Walter Voegtlin: Dr. Voegtlin, a gastroenterologist, self-published the now out of print, The Stone Age Diet, in 1975. While Voegtlin’s name is not as popular today as are others on this list, many purists still consider him the godfather of the Paleo diet. One distinction between Voegtlin’s dietary prescription and that of modern-day Paleoism is that he discouraged consumption of most fruits and vegetables.
- Dr. Melvin Konner and Dr. S. Boyd Eaton: In 1985, Doctors Konner and Eaton published an article in the New England Journal of Medicine entitled “Paleolithic Nutrition – A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications” which helped mainstream the concept of the Paleo diet. A copy of the article can be ordered from the New England Journal of Medicine here. Over the years, both doctors have written many works on Paleo nutrition. In 2010, they published “Paleolithic Nutrition Twenty-Five Years Later,” a follow-up to their 1985 article.
- Dr. Loren Cordain: Dr. Cordain wrote The Paleo Diet, which was first published in 2002. Given his book’s title, many mistakenly think he is the inventor of the Paleo diet construct. Cordain is very popular within the Paleo landscape.
- Robb Wolf: Robb Wolf, a biochemist and USAW Olympic weightlifting coach is arguably one of the most popular Paleo advocates of current time. In 2010, he wrote The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet. He also has a highly informative blog, Robbwolf.com, from which he host weekly podcasts.
- Mark Sisson: Sisson, a former Ironman triathlete, published The Primal Blueprint in 2009. While The Primal Blueprint prescribes a diet that differs somewhat from the one Cordain decrees in his book—Sisson is not afraid of saturated fats; Cordain is more skeptical—it still fits neatly within the rubric of the Paleo diet. Sisson also maintains a vastly popular diet and lifestyle blog, MarksDailyApple.com.
Frequently Cited Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet
Both advocates and naysayers of the Paleo diet love to throw around facts, specious arguments, studies, and anecdotal evidence they feel strengthens their positions. The aggregate of these points has become a well-formed list of pros and cons. Following are a few popular ones.
- The Paleo diet is easy to follow. There is no calorie counting or food measuring. You simply eat the allowable foods whenever you are hungry.
- The Paleo diet is devoid of processed foods. Its recommended fare—high quality meat, fish, organic vegetables, fruit, etc.—is among the most nutritionally rich you can consume.
- There is evidence suggesting that the Paleo diet has improved glycemic control, and decreased cardiovascular risk factors for select patients suffering type 2 diabetes. An abstract entitled “Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study” states the following:
“… Compared to the diabetes diet, the Paleolithic diet resulted in lower mean values of HbA1c (-0.4% units, p= 0.01), triacylglycerol (-0.4 mmol/L, p = 0.003), diastolic blood pressure (-4 mmHg, p = 0.03), weight (-3 kg, p =0.01), BMI (-1 kg/m2, p = 0.04) and waist circumference (-4 cm, p = 0.02), and higher mean values of high density lipoprotein cholesterol (+0.08 mmol/L, p = 0.03). The Paleolithic diet was mainly lower in cereals and dairy products, and higher in fruits, vegetables, meat and eggs, as compared with the Diabetes diet. Further, the Paleolithic diet was lower in total energy, energy density, carbohydrate, dietary glycemic load, saturated fatty acids and calcium, and higher in unsaturated fatty acids, dietary cholesterol and several vitamins. Dietary GI was slightly lower in the Paleolithic diet (GI = 50) than in the Diabetic diet (GI = 55).”
“Conclusion: Over a 3-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors compared to a Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes.”
- The Paleo diet is an “exclusion” diet; many find it highly restrictive. Foregoing grains, etc., in a society in which they are the predominant fare is emotionally difficult and socially disruptive for many.
- The Paleo diet is more expensive to maintain than most western diets. Pasta, rice, beans, mid-grade meat, etc., are vastly less expensive than hormone-free meat from grass-fed livestock, and organic produce.
- Eliminating entire food groups from a diet can lead to vitamin and or nutrient deficiencies. In much the same way vegans may need to supplement vitamin B-12, Paleo adherents may need to supplement calcium.
My thoughts on the Paleo diet
I like most aspects of the Paleo diet. The parts of it I like, however, I like because of their conventional merits, not because of their possible relationships to our Paleolithic ancestors. In fact, I am on the fence about much of the cited “science” behind the Paleo diet.
Many ambassadors of the modern Paleo movement, rather sophistically in my opinion, ascribe “one diet” to the entire Paleolithic Era. While this makes for a succinct dietary snapshot, it does not account for variation. Our prehistoric ancestors were hunters and gatherers; accordingly, it seems logical that their diets were determined by their available resources within their adapted zones. Undoubtedly, these “available resources” were varied—dictated by season, geographical area, and time period. It seems plausible to me that a prehistoric human living in 1,000,000 BCE in the winter, and in the upper latitudes, may have had a moderately different diet than a prehistoric human living in 100,000 BCE in the summer, and in the lower latitudes. Perhaps one of them had a predominately vegan diet based on available fruits and vegetables; perhaps the other’s was more omnivorous. It is generally accepted history that humans did not possess the control of fire, or tools beyond the rudimentary spear and harpoon, until the middle-end of the Paleolithic era. To this end, it seems likely that later humans probably fished more, ate more cooked foods, etc.
The list of opposing arguments relating to the Paleo diet construct is exhaustive. Just one example: Proponents of the Paleo diet often make the point that our ancestors were free from diseases of influence, that said ailments are the byproducts of our agricultural diets. Detractors frequently counter this assertion with the idea that prehistoric humans had short life expectancies by today’s standards; they maintain that they simply did not live long enough to develop diseases of influence.
At the end of the day, I simply do not have a sufficient enough grasp on anthropology and prehistory history to reconcile for myself which assertions relating to the Paleo diet are correct, and which are casuistic (I am not so sure all of the scientists and doctors preaching on the subject do either). It is for this reason that I have chosen to judge the diet strictly on its conventional merits.
I like that the Paleo diet nixes processed foods. I like that it is prescribes carefully sourced, nutrient-dense fare; and, I like that it does not call for calorie counting, food measuring, etc. I do not mind that it calls for less refined carbohydrates and more fat than most western diets; I do not like, however, that it dismisses all grains, legumes, and dairy. While I can appreciate that crushing a bowl of white rice may not be the healthiest thing to do, I do not think an occasional bowl of stone ground oatmeal—which contains the same enzyme inhibitors as do Paleo friendly “nuts”—will do me too much harm.