The 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…
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.
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.
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…