Is The Paleo Diet a “Fad Diet”?

food-bowlOne of our natural tendencies as humans is to accept the world around us as “normal”. This doesn’t just apply to the environment we can see with our naked eyes, but also to conventional ideas and beliefs that are commonly held in contemporary societies. Conventional wisdom and official public guidelines are by many viewed as the starting point by which to compare other information, and behaviours, concepts, and ideas that deviate from this baseline are frequently labeled as strange and off-base. The Paleo Diet – the diet that dominates on this blog – occasionally get lumped into this category, as it goes against conventional dietary wisdom in several respects.

The Paleo Diet has experienced a surge in popularity the last couple of years, and most people like the idea of eating a “natural”, unprocessed diet. However, as expected for anything “new” and unorthodox that gains traction, some criticism has also followed. Getting some discussion going is great, as it helps us get a better understanding of human nutrition, but some of the things that are printed, such as the occasional labeling of the Paleo Diet as a fad diet, just come across as ignorance towards genetics and the evolution of the human diet…

Have we learned from our mistakes?

The evolutionary history of man is filled with conventional wisdom that dominated at a certain time in history and then became dismissed as flawed or incorrect at later times. Although we might think that we modern humans are in another league, I personally think there’s little to suggest that we’ve learned from our mistakes and become so much wiser over the years. We don’t even have to go back more than a few decades to see this in action. Not long ago, smoking was considered by many to be completely harmless, a notion that largely came to be as a result of massive ad campaigns that drove home the message that cigarettes are safe and trendy, as well as tobacco executives who covered up documents on the adverse effects of smoking.

There are several other examples of this type of deliberate deception of the public. However, in general, I don’t think the flawed conventional health wisdom that dominates in our society is primarily shaped by “evil” top leaders, but rather by inadequate knowledge, low-quality research, teachers who simply pass on what they learned 40 years ago to their students, an inability to learn from our past, and as mentioned in the beginning, our natural tendency to just accept the world around us as normal.

Let’s take the Human Microbiome for example. One doesn’t have to go back more than a couple of years to get to a point where the trillions of microorganisms that colonize the human body were largely ignored in the field of health & medicine, and those who suggested that disorders such as acne vulgaris, autism, and irritable bowel syndrome were largely caused by “leaky gut” and dysbiosis were labeled as quacks. Fast forward to today and there are thousands of research articles listed in PubMed showing a link between perturbations of the microbiota and pretty much every chronic health disorder under the sun. It’s still going to take years before information and treatments really get out to the general public, as it takes time for new information to make its way into medical studies, because many health practitioners cling on that what they’ve always done instead of actively following the latest research, and since the development of new treatments often takes years.

If we shift our attention over to the Paleo Diet, some of the previously mentioned principles apply. Since cereal grains and dairy products have been such a natural and large part of human diets since agriculture started to spread around the globe, a grain-based and dairy-rich diet have become the norm, and most people simply accept this type of diet as the “natural” human diet. This notion has been further imprinted in people’s minds through national food pyramids, which are largely based on flawed science, and official dietary guidelines, where wheat, barley, rye, and other cereals are advocated as staples. Also, the fact that few nutrition students even hear the terms evolutionary biology and Paleolithic nutrition have further contributed to making conventional dietary wisdom into what it is.

Expanding our perspective

So, how can we avoid repeating the same types of mistakes that have leaved marks on human history? As you know if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, I think a good first step is to expand our perspective by looking at health & fitness through the lens of evolution.

During the Paleolithic era (2.6 MYA-10.000 YA), hominins lived as foragers that subsisted on wild animals and plant foods. hominins lived as foragers in various and diverse ancestral environments, there clearly wasn’t one universal Paleolithic Diet consumed by all tribes. This is especially true following our species’ migration out of Africa 50.000-100.000 years ago, as this journey lead our ancestors into habitats that differed markedly from the African savanna. However, everyone ate some form of a Paleolithic Diet, and a hunter-gatherer lifestyle was the norm.

DNA analyses have shown that all modern humans share a common ancestry. The most recent woman from whom all living humans today descend, Mithocondrial Eve, and the most recent male, Y-chromosomal Adam, are estimated to have lived between 100.000 and 200,000 years ago, somewhere in Africa. We were all once foragers in the wild, and although we now wear suits and dresses and drive around in fancy automobiles, our genetic heritage is still with us.

For millions of years, our digestive system, metabolism, and teeth evolved to match a diet of meat, tubers, fruits, honey, and other foods available in the wild; a concordance that was abruptly lost when large amounts of starch, novel secondary metabolites, and ultimately ‘junk food’ were introduced in the human diet.

The important thing to remember is that grains and dairy products only became a significant part of the human diet approximately 11.000 years ago – and many places in the world also much later than this. Compared to the millions of years we’ve been eating from the food groups that make up preagricultural diets, this is just a small drop in the pond.

From an evolutionary perspective, it’s the modern, grain-based and starch-heavy diet that is the fad.

Here are the facts:

  • The Paleo Diet is the Original/Default Human Diet
  • Humans don’t have a nutritional requirement for grains and milk. This is actually a given, as these foods were not a part of human diets (except for very small quantities) up until the Agricultural Revolution.
  • No other free-living primates routinely consume cereal grains, and to my knowledge, no wild animals regularly drink the milk of another species. In itself, this doesn’t tell us that we shouldn’t consume these foods, but as every Paleo dieter knows, and as I’ve outlined on the diet page and elsewhere, these foods come with some potential downsides.
  • The Paleo Diet has all of the traits that characterize a healthy diet.

Takeaway

The main point of this article is that we have a tendency to look at the current way of doing things (e.g., eating a high-carbohydrate and grain-based diet, sleeping in one concentrated bulk each night) as the baseline for what is “normal” behaviour for humans. However, if we broaden our perspective and look at things through the lens of evolution, it quickly becomes clear that our Paleolithic ancestors’ way of life in ancestral natural environments functions as a far better baseline. Why? Because 99.5% of the evolutionary history of our genus (Homo) consists of a hunter-gatherer existence in the wild. This doesn’t mean that everything that is new to today’s society should be avoided, or that foods that have been introduced after the Neolithic Revolution should be shun like the plague. Of course not. It simply means that the evolutionary template provides the foundation we need to build everything else upon.

In affluent societies, cultural buffering of evolution’s harsh rule of “survival of the fittest” has slowed down the process of Darwinian evolution. In other words, we’ve created an environment where most people – regardless of physical fitness levels – can survive and reproduce. Chronic health disorders, such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and overweight, are widespread, but these conditions typically only have negligible effects on reproductive fitness. What this means is that natural selection no longer operates as strongly as before, and hence, it takes a long time for genetic adaptations that allow us to better thrive on modern diets to increase in frequency in a population.

We’re still very much Stone Agers from a genetic perspective, and as long as this continues to be true (which is for the unforeseeable future), a Paleo-based diet is the type of diet that is best aligned with your genetics!

Comments

  1. Very excellent article, as usual. I grew up eating in the 50s and was healthy, active and slim. I’ve gone back mostly to that way. Real food will never go out of style.

    You don’t think any “evil” men are at the top?? Remember, the sicker, weaker, broker and more frightened we are, the easier we can be controlled.

    • Hi Jean! I guess it depends how you define evil.

      Just came across this article from 1994 in The New York Times:

      The top executives of the seven largest American tobacco companies testified in Congress today that they did not believe that cigarettes were addictive, but that they would rather their own children did not smoke.

      I’m generally suspicious when it comes to substances (e.g., tobacco, refined fats, various ingredients in lotions and creams) that are relatively recent introductions to human lifestyles, as science has shown again and again that inhaling, eating or applying these products typically have some adverse effects on our health.

      • I define evil as those who would deliberately destroy us. Those execs are liars. They saw the science and lab results. They knew that addicting us to nicotine would result in billions in sales. They were right. I’ve never smoked but now the pendulum has swung too far the other way; forbidding people from smoking in their own homes and backyards is just the tip of the dictatorial iceberg. Europe still believes in individual rights but they are being eroded, as well.

        As for additives, anything that cannot be safely ingested should be used with caution, however, I’ve never had any problems with creams and lotions, etc or any of the common additives we use.

        Sorry for the lecture and keep up the good work:P

  2. Erik, thank you for a well formulated presentation of this hypothesis, insightful as I have come to expect from your pieces.
    I would like to add a layer of complexity to this idea of an ancient genome…. a point you have brought up many times, and that is the microbiome. The genetic material herein adapts and morphs at a dizzying rate, and can certainly impact our tolerance for Neolithic foods, such as grains and dairy. In fact, many species of bacteria thrive on resistant starches and other fermentable fibers, most abundant in “nonPaleo” foods. This is our evolution, we are one with them(the microbiota). Maybe it is time to reconsider our understanding of “paleo”. I was a staunch adherent to the diet for several years, but in 2014 I find myself being more open minded. A penny for your thoughts?

    • Hi Newbie! Great question.

      I have actually addressed the very topic you ask about several times. I even have a lengthy article specifically dedicated to it here: http://bretcontreras.com/the-unexpected-flaw-of-the-paleo-diet-philosophy/ Check it out 🙂

      Here’s a quote from the diet page on this blog as well:

      The gut microbiome change much more rapidly in response to dietary alterations than the human genome, but these adaptations may not be sufficient to eliminate the adverse effects of novel dietary components in grains. Also, widespread use of broad-spectrum antibiotics, hygienic living conditions, c-sections, and many other factors associated with the western lifestyle have led to a dramatic loss of microbial “old friends” and an epidemic of gut dysbiosis, which means that people are less likely to possess a gut microbiota that is well-adapted to a grain-based diet.

      I’ve noticed that there is/has been a growing perception in the Paleo community that Paleolithic Diets are low in fermentable susbtrates. This notion is simply false. Actual Paleolithic diets consumed by hunter-gatherers rarely contain any less than 70 g of dietary fiber each day (and often more than a 100 grams)! This is largely because H-Gs eat a diet of very low caloric density and because uncultivated vegetables and fruits are markedly more fibrous than commercial ones.

      I think the importance of resistant starch has been overblown in the ancestral health community. As you know if you’ve been reading this blog, I focus a lot on the microbiome, and I think there’s absolutely no doubt that including a lot of Microbiota Accessile Carbohydrates (MACs) in your diet is important. What is important to remember though is that RS is just one type of MAC. It does have some unique properties, but it’s not a magic bullet.

      Many contemporary Paleo dieters get too little MACs through their diet because there has been a trend in the Paleo community to consume a more low-carbish “Paleo diet”, often high in butter, bacon, and other such dense sources of fat that don’t really make the Paleo Diet food list. However, if you eat a contemorary Paleo diet rich in tubers/vegetables and fruit you will have no problems meeting your fiber requirements.

      Hope this clears some things up for you. Let me know if you have any more questions.

      • I think our problem is that we don’t have access to uncultivated vegetables and fruits, our modern produce is decidedly less fibrous and our preparation methods do not optimize recovery of fermentable fibers. RS is only one example of a MAC, the NSPs are harder to come by in the range of 50 grams per day (total) without expanding your horizons beyond traditional Paleo as put forth by Cordain (don’t get me wrong – I still think he has given us so very much understanding, I respect him much more than the current lot of Paleos). My point is that our microbiome has likely adapted over the centuries (even if our genome has not) to safely include these products into our diets – and that includes highly fermented dairy such as kefir, cheddar cheese, gouda and brie.

        • I think we agree on most points. I just don’t think you have taken the time to actually read my previous posts on nutrition. I’ve discussed all of these things on the blog before. You can check out a summary here and the article I linked to at BretContreras.com… I have always advocated the Paleo diet as a starting point, not as a strict set of rules. I eat some cheese, fermented dairy, dark chocolate, and other items that are not a part of the “strict” Paleo regime myself.

          As for the fiber in today’s plant foods, I think nobody wuld disagree that it can be difficult to get enough fiber through leafy vegetables and fruits from the grocery store, which are the plant foods many low-carb, Paleo dieters ate until the microbiome started getting more attention. However, I don’t think the answer is to start including plenty of bread and other forms of cereal grains into the diet. Rather, I think we should pay closer attention to the composition of our diet, how the food we buy is produced, and how we prepare our food. A well-designed Paleo-based diet – rich in organic vegetables, tubers, fruit, and some traditionally prepared legumes – provides plenty of MACs.

          • Yes, I have carefully followed you for years (reading all of your posts- even the ones on other sites), and we don’t disagree. You spend a lot of time putting these posts together, to the benefit of all of us. I was just trying to put a broader perspective on our genetic potential, so that we don’t forget to include the 99% (when you include the 10x number of cells and 10x amount of genetic material), and how that may influence our adaptability to macronutrients (?and antinutrients) – a point you have made repeatedly, just not in this post.
            Thank you for your diligence and hard work.

          • Absolutely. Keep the questions and feedback coming. Always great to have some knowledgeable readers on board.

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