The Paleolithic nutrition concept centers on humans’ nutritional practices and experiences during the Paleolithic era – a prehistoric period that lasted from about 3.3 million years ago to 12.000 years ago. It’s rooted in Darwinian nutrition principles which dictate that our nutritional requirements – as well as those of all other organisms – were shaped over evolutionary time as a result of the selective pressures we’ve faced. The Paleolithic era is particularly relevant in this respect, as it covers more than 99.5% of our genus’ evolutionary history.
Paleolithic nutrition in a nutshell
The nature of Paleolithic diets
Humans of the Paleolithic era consumed wild plants and animals that were present in their environment. Their diets varied across time and space; however, they all had certain characteristics in common. Chiefly, they included primarily meat, seafood, eggs, insects, nuts, seeds, vegetables, and fruit. Grains were rarely or never consumed, at least not until the late Upper Paleolithic, and there were no dairy products or highly processed foods on the menu. When compared with westerners, such diets are low in carbohydrate, salt, and omega-6, while high in protein, fiber, and omega-3.
The foods that line the shelves of modern supermarkets differ from those our ancient ancestors ate. This is not only true if we compare foods that were a part of the Paleolithic diet with modern foods that weren’t available to our preagricultural ancestors, but it also to some extent extends to comparisons between similar types of foodstuffs. For example, modern, domesticated fruit tends to be sweeter and larger than wild, uncultivated fruit.
With that said, the differences that exist between similar types of foodstuffs (e.g., domesticated, modern fruit vs. ancient, wild fruit) are small when compared to the differences that exist between dissimilar types of foodstuffs (e.g., chocolate vs. wild game meat). This is particularly true if the modern Paleo foods are derived from animals and plants that have lived under conditions that match well with their biology.
The current relevance of the original human diet
The evolution of man didn’t stop with the end of the Paleolithic era. We’re obviously not completely identical to humans of the past, nor to each other, with respects to our genetic make-up. Furthermore, it’s important to point out that our nutritional requirements are not set in stone as a result of our genetic heritage. Other things, in particular our physical activity levels/pattern and health status, matter as well. Very sick people, as well as individuals who are very physically active, such as CrossFitters, bodybuilders, and sprinters, have special nutritional requirements and should think twice before they adopt a non-customized dietary plan of any kind.
With that being said, the core elements of the hunter-gatherer physiology that was shaped over millions of years of human evolution have been retained, as evidenced by the fact that a considerable body of compelling scientific research suggests that we – contemporary humans – are inadequately adapted to eating foods that were recently (from an evolutionary point of view) introduced into our diets, such as grains, milk, and highly processed foods, and would benefit from adjusting our modern diets so they more closely resemble the Paleolithic diet, AKA the original human diet.
The main components of Paleolithic diets
If you’re interested in adopting Paleolithic nutrition principles, then the food pyramid below, which depicts the four main components of Paleolithic diets – animal source foods, fruits, vegetables, and nuts & seeds – may be of interest to you.
- Eat 2-3 meals a day, of which at least 2 contain a balanced portion of protein, fat, and carbohydrate/fiber.
- Buy the highest quality foods you can find and afford. Choose grass-fed meats, wild-caught seafood, etc. when possible.
- Make larger batches of food when you cook, so that you have leftovers for future meals.
- Practise intermittent fasting, for example skipping breakfast and eating your first meal later in the day.
- Follow the diet strictly for a couple of weeks (3-5) when you first start out, so as to give it a fair try and give your body a chance to adjust.
- If you feel like it’s impractical and/or distressing to stick with the diet 100% of the time in the context of your modern life, then try loosening up a bit, for example sticking with it for 90% of your meals, while eating some non-Paleo foods (preferably mostly whole foods as opposed to highly processed ones) under the umbrella of the remaining 10%.