These days, one doesn’t have to look far and wide to find information about Paleolithic nutrition and evolutionary eating. These topics are no longer constrained to tiny sections of the world of science; they have proliferated and mutated and made their way into bookstores, magazines, newspapers, and blogs. Hence, it’s not surprising that Paleo is today a household word or that a lot of people have tried eating a diet that bears resemblance to the diet that their preagricultural ancestors consumed.
Whereas some of these individuals undoubtedly have experienced great success with such an ancient eating regime, perhaps losing a lot of weight and attaining a feeling of mental clarity; others may have found that they feel drained of energy and stamina if they don’t eat grains or sugary foods. This heterogeneity is clearly visible online, where you can find testimonials both from people who praise the Paleolithic diet, as well as from folks who say they didn’t feel so great when they gave the original human diet a try.
Often, health or lifestyle differences between contemporary and ancient people are at the root of the problem. Other times, however, the problem is simply that the modern dieters in question who don’t experience success with an evolution-based eating regimen haven’t designed their diet properly. Perhaps the most common mistake inexperienced evolutionary eaters make is to take in too little healthy fats…
Nutritional dogma creates many pitfalls
It’s not surprising that a lot of people fear fat, seeing as public health authorities have been telling us for decades that we should take in less fat and more carbohydrate. Moreover, fat-reduced foods and beverages have been infused into supermarkets all over the world. Unlike some other evolutionary health enthusiasts, I don’t think it’s wise to take in a lot of saturated fat in the form of butter, ghee, bacon, cream, and/or other evolutionarily novel high-fat foods. As I see it, the evidence as a whole clearly shows that it’s unhealthy to consume those types of foods on a regular basis.
With that said, I have nothing against fat per se. Actually, I think many evolutionary eaters could benefit from taking in more fat. The key is not to avoid fat, but rather to locate good sources of fat.
Every now and then, I come across people who’ve taken up a Paleolithic-style diet and say they’ve started losing excessive amounts of weight and/or feel drained of energy. Typically, if I ask these individuals to describe what they’re eating, I find that their fat intake is wholly inadequate. The standard diet that I’m confronted with in these cases is high in lean meats and non-starchy vegetables, but largely devoid of both carbohydrate and fat. No wonder these people aren’t thriving. They are barely surviving. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of eating a very lean Paleolithic-type diet myself; hence, I know from experience that such a diet can have a very detrimental impact on one’s health and vitality.
Fat: A very important energy source for evolutionary dieters
In order to understand why it’s so important for evolutionary dieters to include healthy high-fat foods in their diet, we have to examine the nutritional characteristics of the original human diet. The key thing to acknowledge is that the diets of our primal ancestors were much lower in carbohydrate – the other main energy-providing nutrient in the human diet besides fat – than contemporary western diets (1, 2). One doesn’t have to be an expert in nutrition to understand why this is the case; all that’s needed is a basic understanding of how the foods that make up the human diet are composed.
With the exception of honey, which was only seasonally available in certain parts of the world, none of the foods that were a part of our preagricultural ancestors’ dietary menu contained anywhere near as much carbohydrate as grains and highly processed foods such as chocolate and ice cream do. These latter foods are not a part of hunter-gatherer diets; hence, it’s not surprising that hunter-gatherer diets are by default low in carbohydrate.
It’s certainly possible for a Paleo dieter to take in a lot of carbohydrate; however, it’s not easy. Moreover, it’s usually not a good idea, seeing as it involves the consumption of very large quantities of sugary fruits and starchy tubers. Instead of stocking up on ripe bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, and other sugary and starchy foods, I would argue that most Paleo dieters would benefit from embracing healthy high-fat foods. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating some fruit or starchy tubers; however, unless you’re a hard-training athletes who needs a lot of glucose to keep your body running at optimal capacity, I would argue that you would be wise not to make these types of foods a very large part of your diet.
Healthy fats supported the evolution of the complex human brain and body
The idea that it’s not only safe, but healthy, to consume avocados, whole eggs, organ meats, fatty seafood, nuts, olives, and other similar foods that contain moderate quantities of healthy fats is firmly anchored in our evolutionary past. Our primal ancestors obviously didn’t discard the fattest parts of the animals they killed or captured. On the contrary, hunter-gatherers prefer fatty cuts of meat over lean ones, which makes sense, seeing as they are trying to squeeze as many calories as they can out of the animals they bring down: calories that can aid their survival and help them pass on their genes. If it weren’t for animal source foods rich in energy and long-chain fatty acids, the human brain would with a high degree of certainty never have gotten as big as it currently is.
With that said, our ancient ancestors didn’t have access to cream, ghee, bacon, or other similar foods that contain very high quantities of saturated fat. They got most of their fats from wild, unprocessed plants, meat, and seafood. I think we would be wise to follow in their footsteps and do the same. We obviously can’t eat exactly the same foods that they did. Moreover, it can be very expensive to eat exclusively wild meat.
With that said, it doesn’t have to be difficult or very expensive to adhere to a Paleolithic-type diet that contains moderate quantities of healthy fats. By seeking out animal source foods derived from animals that have had a good life, as well as adding plant foods such as avocados and nuts to our diets, we can make some significant headway towards achieving nutritional success.
Are you taking in enough fat?
The quantity of fat that you should consume depends on several factors, including your activity levels and body weight. If you’re very lean and/or physically active, you may find that you need to take in more fat to keep your body running at peak capacity than if you’re overweight and/or sedentary. As a general rule, include as much fat in your meals as you need to feel satiated. While there’s no reason to fear fat, more isn’t necessarily better. Don’t pour olive oil over your meals or stuff yourself with nuts.
Patience is key. Some people seem to think that they will feel great immediately after they replace their high-carbohydrate diet with a Paleolithic-style diet. This is rarely the case. If you’ve been eating a high-carbohydrate, grain-based diet for many decades, you shouldn’t necessarily expect your body to adjust to a very different diet over night. This is particularly true if you’re sick and harbor an unhealthy microbiota. However, over time, as you gradually dial in your diet, you’ll likely experience that many of your bodily systems become better adapted at running on fat, as opposed to on sugar.