The Original/Scientific Version of the Paleo Diet

delicious-foodThe evolutionary health movement has grown tremendously lately. It’s no longer just a few scientists here and there who’ve acknowledged that we can learn a lot about diet and health from our ancient ancestors. A lot of people have. Over the most recent decade, Paleo – the word that people most closely associate with everything that has to do with hunter-gatherer diets and evolutionary health – has become a household word. Unfortunately though, a lot of people have a flawed understanding of what Paleo actually is, in part because some self-proclaimed experts and authors have created their own versions of the original human diet, many of which are not scientifically grounded. Moreover, as the evolutionary health community has grown, more and more companies and people with financial interests have jumped on the Paleo bandwagon and turned the whole ancestral health thing into big business. As a result, Paleo has accumulated quite a bit of baggage on its journey.

The thing that seems to elude a lot of people, including some evolutionary eaters, is that “Paleo” was born out of the scientific literature. It hasn’t always been the massive, viral beast that it is today. The original evolutionary nutrition concept was established via science. In my recent article entitled The Paleo Diet: Were the Founding Fathers Right All Along? I made the case that this original/scientific concept is superior to all its spin-offs. In this post, I thought I’d briefly discuss why I hold that belief.

Why the original, scientific version of the original human diet is superior to all of its spin-offs

Let me start out by saying that I’m not opposed to innovation or change. If it’s possible to improve something, then I see no reason not do so. With that said, I’m very hesitant about changing a winning team.

The most important thing to me is to discover the truth. I don’t really care where I have to go to find the truth, as long as I find it. The reason I prefer the scientific/original version of the Paleolithic diet over other versions is not that I feel it’s important to be a purist or that I think non-scientists can’t come up with new and good ideas, but rather because I think the evidence as a whole clearly shows that the scientific/original version of the Paleolithic diet is superior to other versions.

In order to illustrate this, I thought I’d briefly talk about some of the problems with some of the foodstuffs that are a part of some Paleo diet spin-offs…

  • Salt
    It’s beyond me how the idea that it’s unproblematic to take in a lot of salt has been allowed to gain foothold within the evolutionary health community, seeing as a large body of evidence refutes that idea (1, 2, 3). One doesn’t have to be a genius to understand that preagricultural humans didn’t take in a lot of salt. All one needs is to possess a basic understanding of nutrition. Paleolithic humans obviously didn’t consume crackers, chips, or other highly processed foods, and they didn’t have access to large quantities of refined salt. They primarily ate fresh, whole foods, which are low in salt. Some Paleolithic humans undoubtedly took in some salt via the consumption of seafood; however, this intake would likely have been fairly minor. Hence, it goes without saying that salt did not make up a major part of hunter-gatherer diets. This idea is supported by a lot of research, including studies that have looked into the composition of hunter-gatherer diets (2, 4, 5). Seeing as salt was a scarcity in the environments in which our preagricultural ancestors evolved, it’s not surprising that many studies have found that high salt intakes are accompanied by many adverse health effects (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
  • Paleo cookies, bars, etc.
    Most “Paleo-friendly” convenience foods are anything but healthy. Paleo crackers, cookies, etc. may be superior to their conventional counterparts; however, they are still highly processed foods that have a weird nutrient composition.
  • Dairy
    The more I’ve learned about nutrition, the more convinced I’ve become that dairy foods are inferior to fruits, vegetables, nuts, meats, and other Paleo foods with respects to their nutritional composition. Not only do dairy foods have a fatty acid profile that I don’t like, but they contain a variety of proteins (e.g., casein), hormones, and other compounds that don’t do a body good. To read more about the problems with milk and dairy foods, then check out this article.
  • Fermented foods
    A lot of people seem to be under the impression that fermented foods are an important part of the Paleo diet. This isn’t surprising, seeing as some Paleo bloggers and authors advice their followers to consume moderate-large quantities of fermented foods on a daily basis. I think this is probably bad advice. As I’ve pointed out many times here on the site in the past: Paleolithic humans did not consume large quantities of fermented foods. They may have occasionally consumed some fruits or berries that had started to ferment; however, they didn’t have the knowledge or tools to create large quantities of yoghurt, kimchi, or other fermented foods. It wasn’t until after the Agricultural Revolution that large quantities of fermented foods were infused into the human diet. Given that it’s only very recently that we humans started consuming a lot of fermented foods, it’s not surprising that we a poorly adapted to such a practice. As I’ve pointed out before (e.g., here, here), the consumption of large quantities of fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut on a daily basis can destabilize one’s gut microbiome. I think fermented foods, in particular fermented vegetables, are great in that they contain a lot of live bacteria that can help us rebuild our damaged microbiotas; however, I think it’s very important not to go overboard with respects to the consumption of fermented foods.
  • Modern, high-fat foods such as butter and ghee
    Some “Paleo dieters” consume a lot of butter, ghee, and other similar high-fat foods on a regular basis. As I’ve pointed out before here on the site (e.g., here, here), I think that’s unwise. Not only do those types of foods have a very high calorie and saturated fat density, but they also have several other nutritional traits that make them inferior to eggs, grass-fed meats, olives, avocados, seafood, and nuts.
  • Very fatty meats
    The nutritional composition of the meats that line the meat aisle at the modern supermarket differs from the nutritional composition of the meats that our preagricultural humans ate (6, 7). Among other things, modern, domesticated meats typically contain more saturated fat and total fat than game meat, as well as less omega-3 fatty acid. This can partly help explain why the consumption of large quantities of fatty, domesticated meats has been associated with a range of adverse health outcomes. I have nothing against the consumption of fatty foods; however, I do think we would be wise to restrict our consumption of fatty animal source foods such as bacon and sausages.

Key takeaways

The point I’m trying to make with this article is not that a strict Paleolithic diet is a good fit for everyone or that we should completely shun all foods that were not a part of the original human diet. Rather, the point I’m trying to make is that the original Paleo diet concept is superior to its spin-offs with respects to its scientific underpinnings. We all interpret the science differently. Moreover, we’re all human and make mistakes. At least I know I do. With that said, I do think the weight of the evidence clearly shows that we would be wise to think twice before we alter the basic principles of the Paleolithic diet that were established via science.

People are obviously free to eat and recommend whatever diet they like; however, as I’ve said before, I would argue that we should refrain from calling diets that aren’t Paleo, Paleo. It just creates a whole lot of confusion if many different diets have the Paleo label on them. Moreover, it dilutes the fundamental principles of the evolutionary nutrition concept.

I would argue that we should follow the science, not trends or money…


  1. Agreed agree agreed! Great post!

    But even at the beginning of the ‘Paleo’ movement the message was still skewed (towards high fat low carb).

    There’s still such a way to go, I think, before people accept that ‘Paleo’ should mean real food, with a higher percentage of vegetables. (That there is a place for salt and butter and meat and dairy, if you can tolerate it, as *accompaniments* to those vegetables.) But the majority should be veg.

    Not Paleo bars. Not smoothies. Not convenience foods.

    MOAR Vegetables! That’s it. It ain’t rocket science. 🙂

    • Dave Sill says:

      I disagree somewhat with Lucy. Paleo doesn’t imply a veggie-centric diet. Wild meats or at least grass raised and finished meats are low fat and higher in in omega-3s.

      I agree that “real” food is critical, but I think you need to go beyond diet into physical fitness, sleep, stress, etc., to really thrive, and there again, it’s useful to look at our ancestors for guidance.

  2. I agree with Lucy. Real, natural whole foods is the way to go. I made a salad yesterday with a cucumber and tomatoes from our garden, a beautiful locally-grown sliced peach, and some fresh salad greens. I think that was the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in weeks.

    I think one of the main reasons the Paleo diet gets skewed is because a lot of people don’t like vegetables and won’t eat them. They create a faux “Paleo” diet to suit themselves, even though it bears little resemblance to the original diet, and then they complain that the diet doesn’t work for them. I really have to laugh at some of the junk food I see that’s labeled as “Paleo.”

    I’m fortunate in that I’ve always loved all kinds of vegetables and never developed much of a taste for grain products like pizza, pasta, and various kinds of processed foods. I have my mother to thank for that. We never had convenience foods when I was growing up. She always cooked from scratch with an abundance of fresh vegetables from my dad’s garden. I cook for my family much the same way she did.

  3. Dave, I’m naturally a meat and dairy girl. Always have been. And it’s taken me many years of Paleo to finally understand – from multiple directions – that good health does not stem from scarfing down platefuls of meats and good fats. They are an essential part, but not the mainstay!

    It’s not about grains nor sugars and starches either (at least ‘Paleo’ gets that bit right).

    The biggest portion of food should be vegetables or plant foods… fiber! Gut food! From a nutritional perspective and from your gut bactetia’s perspective this should form the bulk; with the high density nutritious food like meat and eggs and nuts (and some good fats, though they’re not nutrient dense) added in.

    Get yourself a nutritional app on your phone or laptop and see for yourself! Try to get all your nutritional stats to 100% just eating your fatty meat or lean meat, whatever version of Paleo you *think* our ancestors ate, without eating a ton of plant foods… You can’t do it! It’s impossible! And not only that, its unhealthy!

    You’re completely right, “Paleo doesn’t imply a veggie-centric diet.”

    But it should!

    Look at Wahl’s Protocol. She didn’t beat her MS eating Paleo, UNTIL she added in 9 cups of veg. Sulphur, green and brightly coloured. Why? She was nutritionally deficient.

    (And she wasn’t feeding her gut bacteria!)

    But “Wild meats or at least grass raised and finished meats are low fat and higher in in omega-3s.” Which they are… yes, but if you think its, “useful to look at our ancestors for guidance” then you have to, HAVE TO, seriously up your fibre. That’s fact. They had WAY higher fiber diets than we do!

    You can’t pick and choose which bits you cherry pick.

    They picked, they dug in the dirt, they foraged and they gathered… wild batteries, leaves, herbs, wild stringy plants (that we’ve never even seen…) that were high in Vitamin C and other nutrients. The men hunted but weren’t always successful. And when they did kill they had blood on their hands, there were flies, they washed their hands in the gut contents of their kill. (Hazda). Australian Aborigines used to use rotting fish as a bug repellent that they used to smother it over themselves. The white man, when he invaded their land, was apparently repulsed by the stench. The Aborigines were oblivious and bug free!

    Are you doing that version of PALEO?

    Eating fresh herbs, greens, colourful plants, fungi, and sulphur plants like onion and garlic, are antibacterial, antifungal, healing, gut bacteria food. You simply can’t ignore their importance as the bulk of the diet.

    Too many ‘carbs’ is problematic. Too much protein also. Too much fat… yup, ditto.

    Has anyone ever encountered problems from too many vegetables…?

  4. Dave Sill says:

    You say a paleo diet should be veggie-centric. I disagree. I think a paleo diet should consist of geographically and seasonally appropriate combination of meats and vegetables. In some places and times that’s veggie-centric, but in others it’s meat-centric. Focusing on emphasizing one or the other is *not* what a paleolithic eater would have done. They also would have been utterly unaware of the existence of their gut bacteria. Nonetheless, they fed their gut bacteria.

  5. New here…anyone who think that our predecessors (hunter gatherers) had excess to this much vegetables and fruits, is delusional and no different then those who Cherise grains. It reminds me a conversation I had a while back with a fruitarian. I gently explained to him, that orchards and fields of greens with an assortment of vegetables, are manifestation of the agriculture revolution and had he had to survive prior to it’s existence, he wouldn’t have made it, given his choices. And just for the record, I grew up on the Mediterranean diet – home cooking and no junk or fast food (thanks MOM), so you can’t say that I don’t know the difference.

    Since Lucy mentioned the Hazda I would like to share a recent story I read by an Englishman who had his biome tested before and after staying with them for several weeks and eating what they dug up, picked from a tree or hunted. Basically, he eat roots, different kind of meats (birds among them), the fruit of the baobab tree (lots of fiber) and the occasional raw honey. That’s it – no kale, cucumbers, tomatoes you get my meaning…. At the end of his endeavor, he was retested and found out that his gut biome had grew by many folds and included bacteria (all positive) that he didn’t had before. Unfortunately for him, his body reverted to his previous state after a number of weeks.

  6. “…anyone who think that our predecessors (hunter gatherers) had excess to this much vegetables and fruits, is delusional”

    Based on what evidence TT? Or is that just your opinion because it doesn’t agree with yours?

  7. Thoughts on the argument that good amounts of salt were available from blood of fresh animals? The book ‘The Salt Fix’ makes a strong argument for consuming salt.

    • Hey Richard!

      I’m sorry for the late reply. Do any scientific studies or papers support the claim that humans have historically taken in significant quantities of salt via the consumption of animal blood? If so, please share the science here. I’m completely open to adjusting my stance if I’m presented with new evidence.

      With that said, I find it very unlikely that I’ll change my stance on the salt issue, seeing as there is overwhelming, strong evidence (IMO) to suggest that it’s unhealthy to take in a lot of salt. Moreover, all of the scientific studies I’ve come across refute the idea that salt made up a large part of preagricultural human diets.

      Thanks for your comment! It’s an interesting argument you bring up.

  8. Dave Sill says:

    This article seems to cover salt science pretty well:

    Both too much and too little dietary salt are harmful.

    Eirik, what do you consider a healthy daily intake of salt?

  9. Hi Erik: What is your opinion about this paper:

Do you have any comments or questions pertaining to the article? If so, please feel free to post them below. Note: Comment moderation is in effect. Spam, rants, hateful remarks, etc. will be deleted.


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