Not so long ago, it started becoming trendy to eat like a hunter-gatherer. A lot of people ditched grains, dairy products, and processed foods and stocked up on grass-fed meats, eggs and fresh fruits and vegetables. As I see it, that’s a good thing. In the time that has passed since the public was first exposed to the idea that we would be wise to restructure our diets so they more closely resemble the diet of our Stone Age ancestors, the (r)evolutionary diet concept that took the world by storm has gone through many seasons, come under frequent attack, been episodically misused, and experienced shifting winds of popularity.
This isn’t that surprising, seeing as anything new and interesting that gains sudden fame tends to have a tumultuous early life. It should cause a reaction though. It should cause people who care deeply about science and evolutionary nutrition, such as myself, to take up arms in an attempt to protect and preserve the Paleolithic nutrition concept.
Great science: The bedrock of the Paleolithic nutrition concept
The Paleolithic nutrition concept was unearthed and fine-tuned by some of the greatest nutritional scientists of our time. Via scientific processes it was established what our preagricultural ancestors did and did not eat, how the human diet has changed over the most recent millennia, what types of foods that agree with our biology, and what happens when contemporary humans adopt a hunter-gatherer type diet.
This work, which spans multiple decades, continues to this day and has left clearly visible marks in the scientific publication record. We should all be grateful that this research, which is rigorous, meticulous, and comprehensive, has been – and continues to be – conducted, as it has the potential to transform our health and well-being.
Here’s a selection of articles that explain the scientific rationale behind the notion that we need to look to our ancient past to understand how to build a healthy diet in the 21st century:
- Paleolithic Nutrition. A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications
- Paleolithic nutrition revisited: A twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications
- Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later
- Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century
- Paleolithic nutrition for metabolic syndrome: systematic review and meta-analysis
- Lifestyle and nutritional imbalances associated with Western diseases: causes and consequences of chronic systemic low-grade inflammation in an evolutionary context
- Cardiovascular Disease Resulting From a Diet and Lifestyle at Odds With Our Paleolithic Genome: How to Become a 21st-Century Hunter-Gatherer
- Low-grade chronic inflammation perpetuated by modern diet as a promoter of obesity and osteoporosis
The information that’s presented to the public doesn’t necessarily correspond to the information that’s presented in the scientific literature
Unfortunately, original and beautiful ideas are often degraded and misused by people who don’t appreciate how the idea or ideas they discover came into existence and/or don’t possess all of the information that’s needed to fully make sense of the relevant concepts. Typically, some of these people have financial motives, are guided by a desire for popularity and acceptance, and/or have a habit of locating and modifying ideas or statements so that they support their position or world-view.
The Paleolithic nutrition concept is no different from other great concepts in this regard. If anything, it has had a particularly tough time. Not just because it first gained popularity in today’s day and age, in which a lot of people are hyperobsessed with money, popularity, and social media, but also because it has to do with something a lot of people are interested in and have an opinion about, namely nutrition.
I don’t claim to have all the answers. Everyone makes mistakes, and we don’t all operate from the same information; hence, I don’t see any reason to bash people who I feel have misrepresented or misused the scientific data; however, I do think it’s important to talk about the issues I’ve observed, so that people can judge for themselves and make well-informed decisions about what they should eat.
There’s a striking difference between the real Paleolithic diet and many of the “Paleo” diets that are promoted on blogs and in popular diet books
Many of the “Paleo diets” that are promoted by health & fitness bloggers and authors bear little resemblance to the Paleolithic diet that’s featured in the scientific literature. This is something everyone who’s digged into the research on evolutionary nutrition and health has undoubtedly noticed. Whereas all of the scientists who’ve conducted research pertaining to preagricultural human diets operate from the notion that Paleolithic diets didn’t contain dairy foods, added salt, dark chocolate, coffee, fermented foods, processed meats, or beans, many bloggers and popular fitness authors include one or more of the aforementioned foods in the “Paleo diets” they promote. Not necessarily because they aren’t aware of the fact that these foods weren’t a part of the diet that our preagricultural ancestors ate. Some just include them to make the diet they promote and/or eat easier to follow and more marketable. In some instances, “Paleo” cookies, energy bars, and supplements of various kinds also come along for the ride.
The people who follow this type of dietary advice end up eating a diet that differs markedly from the diet that Paleolithic humans ate, as well as the diet that participants of experimental studies that investigate the therapeutic value of Paleolithic-type diets eat, which is typically detailed in the manner shown below:
The information on the Paleolithic diet stated that it should be based on lean meat, fish, fruit, leafy and cruciferous vegetables, root vegetables, eggs and nuts, while excluding dairy products, cereal grains, beans, refined fats, sugar, candy, soft drinks, beer and extra addition of salt. (1)
Why take something great and turn it into something that’s not that great?
Over the years, I’ve made the case many times that one doesn’t necessarily have to stick with a strict Paleolithic diet (adapted to modern conditions) to have a chance at achieving good health. It’s okay to consume some dairy foods, dark chocolate, red wine, and/or certain other nutritional items every now and then, at least if that increases the likelihood that one is able to stick with the diet. The most important thing is to listen to one’s body and find something that works, not to stick with a rigid set of rules regardless of how one feels.
I still hold this belief. That said, over time, I’ve become more inclined to keep a clear line between the foods that were a part of our Paleolithic ancestors’ diets and the foods that weren’t, so as to avoid causing confusion among the readers and the public. Another reason why I’ve done this is that I want to highlight the fact that the unaltered version of the Paleolithic diet has some unique nutritional properties that make it superior to adulterated or diluted versions.
This is not to say that I think there’s necessarily anything wrong with eating or promoting diets that contain certain foods or food groups that weren’t a part of our preagricultural ancestors’ dietary repertoire, however, I think it’s best to avoid calling such diets Paleo(lithic) diets or associating such diets closely with the Paleo label, in part because doing so could cause a lot of confusion and weaken the Paleolithic nutrition concept in the eyes of the public.
Summary & last words
Most unique and great concepts face resistance when they are first presented to the world. This is particularly true for concepts that revolve around something a lot of people are interested in, are revolutionary, and/or go against the grain. Only the concepts that are able to stand strong in the face of this resistance prevail.
One of my goals with my nutritional endeavors on this site is to protect and preserve the true Paleolithic nutrition concept that was created via scientific processes. My goal is not to attack the people who’ve altered or misused it, but rather to highlight the scientific rationale and benefits of the real Paleolithic diet. I’ve never claimed, nor will I ever claim, that the Paleolithic diet is the optimal diet for everyone, irrespective of health status, physical activity level, and the like.
That said, I do think we would be wise to keep the real Paleolithic nutrition concept intact and uncontaminated by subjective beliefs and opinions. I think the wise move would be to take a step back and get back to the basics. I’m not opposed to change; however, I see no reason to change a winning team, unless strong evidence suggests that a change is warranted.