Over the most recent decades, the Paleo diet, AKA the original human diet, has taken the world by storm. It’s gone from being a niche concept that was only known to a handful of scientists to becoming a part of the mainstream vocabulary. The diet has gained a big following; however, it’s public entry and evolution hasn’t been seamless. It’s faced quite a bit of resistance and mockery and has also been frequently misused. This isn’t that surprising, considering that new and revolutionary ideas that go against the grain tend to face those issues, particularly in their early lives. The fact that history has shown us that this is a common occurrence doesn’t mean that we should just let it slide though. It should cause those of us who appreciate the science of Paleolithic nutrition to take up defensive arms!
High-quality science, not health trends, dogmatic beliefs, or subjective opinions, should preferably guide discussions about health and medicine
There’s nothing inherently wrong with debate and controversy. One may go as far as to say that it’s the bread and butter of science and what fuels its evolution. With that being said, it’s important that all the involved parties abide by the rules of the game. If some of the debaters operate in a shady manner, outside of the scientific playbook, then chances are they’ll do more harm than good and hinder, rather than support, scientific progress, as well as the advancement of our species.
Unfortunately, this is very much an issue in discussions about Paleolithic nutrition. Many of the critical arguments I’ve seen presented appear to be based more on personal beliefs and feelings rooted in the dietary trends of the day, conventional wisdom, and dogmatic notions than on science. In this article, I thought I’d have a look at 10 of the most common statements I’ve come across that fit this bill, in an attempt to show that it’s a mistake to take everything one hears about Stone Age nutrition at face value. If you have any thoughts on any of the matters I discuss or feel I don’t hit every mark, then feel free to share your viewpoints in the comment section.
1. “Our Paleolithic ancestors were short-lived, typically not passing the age of 30, and for that reason, we can’t really learn much, if anything, worthwhile about nutrition or health from studying how they lived and what they ate”
It’s certainly true that the average lifespan among hunter-gatherers is lower than in modern, industrialized countries; however, that’s not because hunter-gatherers tend to die early of heart disease, cancer, or other diet-related diseases, but rather because they don’t have access to any form of modern medicine and are subjected to the perils of nature. Perhaps most importantly, in the wild, many infants die early as a result of infections and other issues, something that dramatically lowers average life expectancy measures. When one eliminates this issue by only looking at the non-infant population, it quickly becomes clear that many hunter-gatherers live long lives. Actually, a 2007 comprehensive analysis found that it’s not uncommon for foragers to live well into their 60s and 70s (!) (1). There’s no reason to think that the situation was widely different in the distant past. Just imagine what can potentially be achieved, health and longevity wise, by combining the best of that past with the best of the present.
Also, it’s important to point out that even if our primal ancestors had been very short-lived, that wouldn’t mean that it would be a waste of time to examine how they lived and what they ate, as such an alternative situation would have had to be produced via the exact same evolutionary mechanisms that lie at the root of the Paleolithic nutrition concept as we know it. Perhaps needless to say, the health status of young people is not static. It’s not just old people that can get sick; people of all ages can. Young hunter-gatherers tend not to; however, in non-natural environments, the situation is very different.
2. “We don’t really know what our Stone Age ancestors ate; hence, the practise of trying to emulate their diet is highly speculative”
This statement is simply not true. Actually, we have a pretty good understanding of what our primal forebears ate. We obviously don’t know precisely what each and every one of their meals consisted of, as they didn’t leave a food diary for us to examine; however, extensive investigations carried out over the past century have equipped us with the data we need to determine what the general characteristics of their diets were. This investigative work encompasses examinations of ancient teeth and bones, genetic analyses, and studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers, among other things.
One may even argue that it’s unnecessary to delve into this research to find out what our Stone Age ancestors ate. Simply by looking at what types of foods that are available in natural, non-engineered environments, one can make pretty solid inferences about what humans of the past would have eaten.
3. “The dietary practises of our Paleolithic ancestors varied across time and space; hence, it’s erroneous to assume that a particular type of nutritional pattern suits us the best”
I’ve seen this argument thrown around a lot. Some people seem to be under the belief that the scientists and health professionals who’ve spearheaded the scientific development of the Paleolithic nutrition concept are unaware of the fact that not all Paleolithic hunter-gatherers ate the same diet. Obviously, this is an erroneous assumption. It’s widely known among evolutionary health aficionados that the dietary pratcises of Paleolithic humans varied as a result of seasonal-, climatic-, and geographic factors.
What’s often overlooked though, is that Africa is the ground zero for the evolution of our kind. It’s not really that relevant what the Inuit eat. It’s a lot more important what African Paleolithic foragers subsisted on. Furthermore, it’s often overlooked that all hunter-gatherer diets have certain characteristics in common. It’s those characteristics that define the boundaries and shape of the Paleolithic nutrition paradigm.
4. “The foods that we have available to us differ from those our preagricultural ancestors ate; hence, it’s pointless to try to emulate the diet that they ate”
This is a weird, yet common argument that’s often brought up by people who are critical of the idea that the key to creating a healthy diet can be found in our hunter-gatherer past. The reason I say it’s weird is that it doesn’t really have any basis in logical reasoning; unless one considers it logical to take the fact that we can’t match the dietary practices of our primal ancestors to the letter to mean that they are irrelevant and should be disregarded.
No sane person has ever claimed that it’s possible for the modern man to consume exactly the same foods as those our Paleolithic forebears ate. However, that doesn’t mean that he should feel free to disregard the past and stock up on fast food. By adjusting his diet in accordance with Paleolithic nutrition principles, he won’t end up with a diet that is 100% identical to a ‘true’ Paleolithic diet; however, he won’t miss the mark by that much, particularly if he makes an effort to locate high-quality, organically produced or wild foods.
What is often not realised is that the fact that our food has changed so much recently speaks in favor of, not against, the key message that evolutionary nutrition enthusiasts are trying to get out to the public, which is that we’d be wise to seek out foods that have a nutrient configuration that conforms to the pattern that is present in nature.
5. “We’re sufficiently adapted to foods that were introduced into the human diet during the Neolithic era”
Virtually everyone recognizes that the many junk foods that have been introduced into our nutritional environment in recent history are bad for us; however, many are skeptical of the notion that we’re not sufficiently adapted to consume milk, bread, cheese, and other foods that were introduced into the human diet during the Neolithic era, which began with the initiation of the Agricultural Revolution some 10.000 years ago.
What’s often overlooked is that 10.000 years is a fairly short period of time in evolutionary contexts; that agriculture didn’t spread over night; and that the selective pressures induced by the dietary changes that occurred following the Agricultural Revolution were not so strong as to cause major, rapid shifts in the human gene pool. This statement is supported by a number of scientific investigations, all of which indicate that we are only partially adapted to consume foods such as cheese, cow’s milk, and wheat. These types of foods have a nutrient configuration that differs markedly from that of the foods our preagricultural ancestors consumed and contain a variety of compounds that have been shown to be troublesome, such as casein proteins, miRNAs, and gliadin.
6. “The idea that we would benefit from emulating the dietary practices of our Stone Age ancestors is not supported by science”
All evolutionary dieters will be confronted with this statement – or another similar one – sooner or later, despite the fact that the time when there was some truth to it is long gone. In the time that has passed since Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner planted the first seeds from which the evolutionary nutrition movement grew in 1985, by publishing their seminal paper entitled Paleolithic Nutrition – A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications in The New England Journal of Medicine (2), a long list of studies and papers pertaining to Paleolithic nutrition has emerged. Of note, over the past two decades, a number of randomized controlled trials have verified that Darwin, as well as Eaton and Konner, were right, in the sense that it’s been consistently shown that humans generally do well on a diet that resembles the type of diet that we humans have been eating throughout most of our evolutionary history.
7. “By eliminating entire food groups, you’ll set yourself up for nutritional deficiencies and imbalances”
Grains are today a ubiquitous part of our nutritional environment, as well as staples of most people’s diets. In some parts of the world, the same is true of dairy products. The fact that these food groups are so ingrained into our lives has led some people to believe that they are an essential part of our existence. What’s often overlooked is that it wasn’t until very recently in our evolutionary history that this situation started to unfold, which implies that we’re by no means dependent on grains or dairy products to function appropriately. On the contrary, what it suggests is that regular consumption of those foods is likely to cause, rather than protect, against issues related to our health and nutritional status. The reality is that grains and dairy foods actually score poorly on nutrient density rankings when compared with the foods that made up the bulk of our preagricultural ancestors’ diets (3).
8. “Our Paleolithic ancestors ate grains!”
Over the past decade and a half, several scientific publications indicating that grains may have become a part of the human diet earlier than previously thought have emerged in the scientific literature (e.g., 4, 5). Unfortunately, some people have either unknowingly or deliberately misinterpreted these reports, drawing conclusions that are not really supported by the data.
What typically happens is that paleoanthropological investigators find grain residues on ancient teeth or cookware or other forms of evidence indicating that grains were consumed by some preagricultural humans who lived in a specific area of the world. These findings are then extrapolated by journalists or other non-scientists to mean that grains made up a significant part of the typical Paleolithic diet. In other words, the results of the study in question are taken out of contexts, caveats and details are lost in translation, and the evidence showing that it’s not commonplace for hunter-gatherers to rely on grains as an important source of energy is overlooked.
Finally, it’s important to point out that even if large quantities of grains had been introduced into the human diet somewhat earlier than when the Agricultural Revolution is believed to have taken root in the Fertile Crescent some 12.000 years ago, that wouldn’t necessarily mean that there has been sufficient time and pressure for natural selection to reconfigure the human biology so that it matches well with a grain-based diet.
9. “Some people don’t do well on the Paleo diet. That means that the whole concept is bollocks.”
The Paleolithic nutrition concept is rooted in the idea that natural selection ‘acts’ so as to bring about compatibility between organisms and their environment, by sculpting the organismal design over generations. If an aspect of the organisms’ environment or way of life suddenly changes, this compatibility is lost. Such a discrepancy may affect the nutritional requirements of the organisms in question, particularly if it involves alterations of the organisms’ immune status or physical activity levels and/or pattern.
In other words, it’s reasonable to assume that not all contemporary humans are going to do well on a strict Paleolithic diet. In particular athletes and people who suffer from certain immune-related health conditions typically have to make certain modifications in order to satisfyingly meet their nutritional needs. Unfortunately, some people have taken that to mean that there’s something wrong with the Paleolithic nutrition concept as a whole, which is obviously a spurious assumption.
10. “It’s bad for the environment to devour so much meat and animal protein”
I’m not going to get into a discussion about the sustainability of meat consumption here, as that could quickly turn this article into 10.000 word post. What I’d like to point out though is that it’s perfectly possible to stay within the boundaries of the Paleolithic nutrition framework without consuming huge slabs of meat for dinner every day. One simply has to make root vegetables, leafy greens, fruits, nuts, eggs, seafood, and healthy fats the foundation of one’s diet, as opposed to red meat. Also, it’s important to point out that although meat certainly made up a significant part of our primal ancestors’ diets, the primary concern for evolutionary dieters is not to strive for a specific macronutrient ratio, but rather to eat non-inflammatory, nutrient-dense foods. The macronutrient composition of the diet is a secondary concern that tends to adjust itself naturally in accordance with one’s appetite.
Finally, it’s important to point out that healthy, lean people tend to crave and take in less energy and protein than big, inflamed people, and that animal protein (the primary type of protein consumed by people who abide by Paleolithic nutrition principles) is of a much higher quality than grain proteins. In other words, Paleo dieters may actually get away with taking in less protein than other people.