The Paleo Diet: Were the Founding Fathers Right All Along?

plant-foodsI consider Loren Cordain, Boyd Eaton, and Staffan Lindeberg to be the founding fathers of the Paleo diet movement. They pioneered the research on Paleolithic nutrition and were largely responsible for building the foundation upon which the evolutionary health movement arose. This foundation is solidly built. It was built brick by brick under the supervision of science and is held together by glue in the form of an evolutionary premise.

Unfortunately, many of the things that have later been constructed on top of this foundation have a much weaker design. Instead of being built on high-quality clinical research and evolutionary science, they are largely composed of anecdotes, personal opinions, and cherry-picked science. The result is that these things, when compared to the foundation upon which they rest, lack integrity and scientific strength.

The costs of growth

Over the past decade, the ancestral health community has grown tremendously. This is both a good and a bad thing. The good thing is that more people have become involved in the community and have acquired evolutionary tools that help them improve their health. The bad thing is that things have gotten a little out of control. People with financial interests or other similar motives have jumped on the Paleo bandwagon, producing cookies, breads, energy bars, and other processed foods that are supposedly both Paleo-friendly and healthy. In reality, though, the vast majority of these products are nothing but healthy.

Moreover, perhaps even more concerning, many ideas and concepts that lack a solid scientific foundation and aren’t rooted in the original premise upon which the ancestral health community was built have been allowed to spread and gain foothold within the community. Not all of the new ideas and concepts that have somehow evolved out of the work of the founding fathers have morphed into vicious, pathogenic life forms, but unfortunately, some have.

I get the impression that some people within the ancestral health community believe that the original ideas of the founding fathers have reached their expiration data, and that it’s time we move on to something new. I largely disagree with this notion. Actually, I would argue the opposite. I think we should take a step back and reclaim the solid footing that we once had.

The more I read about nutrition and health, the more convinced I become that the evolutionary health foundation the founding fathers coordinated the construction of is as solid today as it was 10 or 20 years ago. A few cracks have appeared here and there and its color is a bit faded, but other than that, it’s in good condition.

Obviously, not all of the concepts that Eaton, Cordain, Lindeberg, and other evolutionary health pioneers presented in their scientific papers several decades ago have stood the test of time. However, the vast majority have. I would argue that it isn’t the quality of their work we should be the most concerned about, but rather the quality of the work that triggered the emergence of the new and largely unproven ideas that have been allowed to spread within the ancestral health community over the past couple of years.

Are we progressing or regressing?

Innovation and change aren’t necessarily bad things; however, it’s obviously important that things change for the better, not for the worse. Change, in itself, shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to make things better than they currently are.

Dolores Umbridge, one of the characters in the Harry Potter series, wouldn’t be the first person on my list of people to go to for advice on how to best go about building a thriving community of health-conscious people; however, in this exact case, she may actually have some wisdom to share.

In the fifth Harry Potter book, she said the following:

Let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected and prune practices that ought to be prohibited.

If you ask me, that sounds like a pretty good strategy for keeping the evolutionary health movement on track, or any other health movement for that matter. We should be open to making adjustments; however, I would argue that we shouldn’t change the fundamental principles of the original human diet, unless very strong scientific data support a change. Furthermore, we shouldn’t change the “rules” of the diet just to make it easier for people to stick with it, which is something a lot of people are doing these days.

Each person is obviously free to eat and recommend whatever diet he wants; however, I would argue that we should refrain from calling diets Paleo unless they actually are Paleo. The fact is that a diet that contains dairy foods (e.g., milk) or a lot of grains isn’t a Paleolithic diet, regardless of how much we might want it to be. Our Paleolithic ancestors didn’t drink milk, and they didn’t eat a lot grains; hence, it’s simply incorrect to call a diet that contains these foods a Paleolithic diet.

I’ve made the case many times here on the site that some people are better off eating a diet that contains some non-Paleo foods than a strict Paleo diet. This is a statement I stand by. In particular hard-training athletes who do a lot of a anaerobic exercise may need to include some grains or other non-paleo foods in their diet in order to perform optimally. Also, perhaps needless to say, the most important thing is to find a diet one can stick with over the long-term. There’s no point in trying to adhere to a Paleolithic diet if it makes you miserable and you quickly fall off the wagon.

With that said, I strongly believe, based on everything I’ve read and experienced over the years, that the original human diet, in its unadulterated form, stands extremely strong on its own. In most cases, no additions are needed. Actually, in most cases, additions undermine the healthfulness of the diet. That doesn’t mean that we should fear to make adjustments to the diet so as to better make it fit our lifestyle and needs; it just means that we don’t have to. In most instances, we are probably best off just sticking with the fundamentals.

Comments

  1. Alessio says:

    I think that as soon as some idea becomes business, any pure idea is going to get lost for the sake of marketing. When it works in this way, you have to renew the “product” over the years.
    Furthermore, new exploiters of the concept have to change something to led people to believe to sell a new different program fixing the errors of the former.
    I think that the shades of grey of the definition of health is helpful in an evolutionary context, while detrimental in others.
    You are not either thriving or fall apart dead.
    This is how the work of Price has been misunderstood. He compared traditional population habits with a western style disaster, a farcry from a natural condition.
    Probably, Maasai may be even better off without milk and Gaelics without oats..
    We can’t extrapolate data just from that.
    The safest template is the one that triangulated with RCT and clinical evidence, in our context, makes more sense.

    • “I think that as soon as some idea becomes business, any pure idea is going to get lost for the sake of marketing. When it works in this way, you have to renew the “product” over the years.
      Furthermore, new exploiters of the concept have to change something to led people to believe to sell a new different program fixing the errors of the former.”

      I definitely think you’re on to something here, Alessio.

      The more I learn about nutrition and health, the more convinced I become that the original/scientific evolutionary health concept is superior to all of its spin-offs.
      The big problem as I see it is that the gap between the real science and the average Joe is so big. The vast majority of people don’t have a good understanding of how science works and don’t know much about evolutionary health principles; hence, they aren’t able to distinguish credible information from not so credible information.

      If I wanted to, I could write an article promoting vegan diets that a lot of people would find very convincing. All I’d have to do would be to cherry-pick studies and twist the results of research papers so that they appear to support the idea that it’s bad to eat meat. Perhaps needless to say, it would be even easier to do something like that for a “smaller” topic, such as salt consumption.

      This is one of the primary reasons why the evolutionary health model is so powerful and important. It brings order out of the chaos.

  2. I agree with what you say, Alessio. The pure concept of Paleo has not been lost, but it has certainly been obscured by numerous attempts to make money from it. There are also those who don’t make much money but pander to people’s desire for comfort foods by posting recipes online for “Paleo” cakes, cookies, candies, etc. There are dozens of these websites online. Such foods are claimed to be Paleo from the standpoint of their ingredients (which are often bizarre to say the least), but they are, in fact, nothing but low quality junk food and not at all what the diet is intended to be.

  3. Dave Sill says:

    You said “nothing but healthy” when you apparently meant “anything but healthy”, which has the opposite meaning. If you’d like a native English speaker and published author to proofread your posts, I’d be happy to help.

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