The Paleolithic diet, AKA the original human diet, is often portrayed as a very fatty diet. This is something you’ve undoubtedly noticed if you’ve explored the part of the blogosphere that encompasses evolutionary health-related topics and discussions. The diet that’s advocated by some bloggers is extremely rich in fat, providing as much as 55-70% of total calories in the form of lipids, of which a lot comes from high-fat dairy products and fatty, processed meats. Such dietary recommendations cause me to raise my eyebrows, as I feel they are highly imprudent, bordering on dangerous.
My experience with overly fatty renditions of ancestral human diets
When I first discovered the world of evolutionary health and nutrition in my late teens, I was led to believe from reading about ancestral diets online that it’s perfectly safe and healthy to take in a lot of fat in the form of oils, fatty meats, and high-fat dairy foods on a daily basis, and as a result, I adopted a fatty diet, rich in foods such as butter, dark chocolate, bacon, and coconut milk. In the beginning, I followed the diet almost blindly, in large part because the bloggers and book writers I’d put my trust in seemed completely convinced that it’s fine to take in a lot of fat, as long as one stays away from carbohydrates.
However, over time, I could no longer overlook that the fat-heavy nutritional regimen I’d created on the basis of the information I’d come across online didn’t seem to agree with me. It certainly didn’t make my body, in particular my cardiovascular system, work in a smooth and flawless manner.
This triggered me to dig into the scientific literature pertaining to the nature of ancestral human diets, which fairly quickly led me to deduce that the high-fat “Paleo diet” I’d seen promoted online had little in common with true Paleolithic diets. Also, as I started getting more serious about nutrition and began studying the subject in a systematic manner, I realied that the diet I’d been eating was imbalanced and bound to affect my body in unfortunate ways. As a result, I gave my eating regimen a serious overhaul, which involved ditching certain fatty foods I’d come to realise were not good for me in favor of healthier alternatives.
In the time that has passed since I first started to dabble in evolutionary nutrition, the informational landscape of the blogosphere and social media sites has changed somewhat; however, my impression is that fat-heavy nutritional philosophies à la the one I was exposed to when I first entered the scene still hold a dominant position many places. I think that’s unfortunate, as it may lead a lot of people to take up an imprudent diet. I have nothing against fat per se. I’m very much in favor of making healthy fats a cornerstone of one’s diet; however, I think the practise of taking in a lot of cheese, butter, coconut oil, dark chocolate, bacon, and/or other similar fatty foods represents a big misstep, irrespective of what one’s goals are. Such a diet is certainly not an accurate rendition of any true Paleolithic diet.
Was the Paleolithic diet a high-fat diet?
Very recently I came across a paper on PubMed that clearly highlights that there’s a major discrepancy between the Paleolithic diet that’s described in the scientific literature and the fatty version of the Paleolithic diet that you’ll find some places online. Here’s a quote from the paper:
Information from archaeological findings and studies from modern day hunter-gatherers suggest that the Paleolithic diet is the diet we evolved on and for which our genetic profile was programmed. The Paleolithic diet is characterized by lower fat and lower saturated fat intake than Western diets; a balanced intake of omega-6 and omega-3 essential fatty acids; small amounts of trans fatty acids, contributing less than 2% of dietary energy; more green leafy vegetables and fruits providing higher levels of vitamin E and vitamin C and other antioxidants than today’s diet and higher amounts of calcium and potassium but lower sodium intake. (1)
The quote highlights a very important thing, and that is that Paleolithic humans didn’t sit around gorging on fat. On the contrary, fatty foods were hard to come by in the past. Not only were highly concentrated sources of fat such as oils and butter nowhere to be found, but the wild animals that ancient hunters tracked down were generally fairly lean. They didn’t look anything like the overweight cows that populate modern feedlots.
Our primal forebears would obviously have eaten the fattest parts of the animals they managed to bring down, including brain matter and marrow, but even so, they would have been hard-pressed to take in anywhere near as much fat, and in particular saturated fat, as bacon-loving “Paleo dieters” of the 21st century. This is something that’s widely acknowledged by pretty much all of the scientific researchers who’s fronted the evolutionary nutrition concept, but it’s unfortunately something that hasn’t been properly communicated to the public. Part of the reason is likely that the Paleo diet thing quite early on became a sort of rebellion against the nutritional establishment, with a lot of people moving as far away from the conventional dietary recommendations as possible, sometimes ditching pretty much all carbohydrates in favor of fat.
Paradoxically, this has likely led some people within the ancestral health community to eat a diet that looks less like a true Paleolithic diet than the diet that’s promoted by government-associated nutritional authorities. Not only did some people bring a lot of fatty dairy products, processed meats, and oils into their nutritional arsenal (As previously explained, I was once one of these people), but many also incorporated ample amounts of salt into their dishes. What this fat-heavy nutritional ideology fails to account for is the fact that most of human evolution took place in a warm climate and that among hunter-gatherers, it’s the exception, not the norm, to eat a very fatty diet (2, 3, 4).
One group of people that immediately comes to mind when talking about the scarceness of fat in natural environments is the Australian aboriginal hunter-gatherers. They were obviously very fond of fat and did what they could to get a hold of as much of it as possible, but even so, they ended up eating a low-fat diet, as dense sources of fat were very difficult to get a hold of in their native milieu.
This is clearly highlighted by the quote below:
The results of these analyses suggest that even when the traditional Aboriginal diet contained a high proportion of animal foods it would have been low in fat with a high proportion of PUFA and thereby could have protected Aborigines against cardiovascular diseases and related conditions through a combination of factors: low energy density, low saturated fat and relatively high PUFA content. (5)
It’s fairly commonplace within the ancestral health community to eat a very fatty diet that contains not only avocados, nuts, olive oil, and other fatty foods that are a part of the Paleolithic nutrition pyramid, but also significant quantities of fatty, processed meats, dark chocolate, and/or high-fat dairy products. This is undoubtedly largely because some influential authors and bloggers promote such an eating regimen. What’s often overlooked is that the nutritional characteristics of this type of diet differ markedly from those of the diet we’re genetically suited to eat as a result of evolution via natural selection. We need fat, but not a ton of it.