Happy Friday, everyone! I’d like to indulge in some “nutritional blasphemy” this morning, by debunking a particular diet that I myself was a huge fan of in the long ago time before I had a Bachelors and Masters diploma hanging on the wall behind me. Popularly known as the “Paleo” or “Primal” diet, I do not take particular objection to either of these similar dietary approaches as exclusionary methodologies for eliminating modern processed foods from one’s diet. They are both certainly a good starting point in the personal journey of restoring oneself to optimal health, as the Primal diet was for myself 7 years ago, but I cannot ignore, having learned what I’ve learned the past few years, the numerous inherent pitfalls of attempting to replicate an ancient ancestral diet or a way of life that is now as extinct as the dinosaurs!
A few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of meeting in person the “founding father” of the Paleolithic Diet, the esteemed Dr. Loren Cordain, at the Ancestral Health Symposium in Berkeley. After his fascinating lecture, he was gracious enough to give me a few minutes of his time to answer a few questions that lay heavy on my mind. He made some interesting observations that were unexpectedly critical of the diet that he himself had “invented” over three decades ago. He told me that, in its current consumerized incarnation, the “Paleo Diet” does not in fact accurately represent the anthropological record, which I shall attempt to delineate with a few pertinent bullet points:
- It is nearly impossible to properly replicate a true Paleolithic diet and lifestyle in modern times, simply because we no longer have access to the same abundance and variety of wild-growing fruits, tubers, nuts and seeds that Paleolithic humans consumed, i.e. hundreds of nutritionally dense foods and animals, as compared with a relatively narrow range of options available to us today.
- The Paleo Diet’s popular emphasis on fatty cuts of meat and fats in general is inconsistent with the far leaner animals that would have been hunted by Paleolithic humans. Animals were lean because they were not ingesting a deliberately obesogenic diet, as are modern grain and corn-fed CAFO animals, and such animal protein would have been a rare “luxury feast” at best.
- The Paleo Diet is little more than a modern-day approximation of a pre-agricultural menu of options, most of the benefits of which are attributable primarily to exclusionary food choices that cut out processed and packaged foods, proinflammatory cooking oils, chemical additives, synthetic pesticides, and refined sugars.
- The Paleo Diet does not take into account that one cannot realistically isolate a specific period in history without also factoring in regional variations in diet within that epoch, e.g. Paleolithic humans were not consuming the same foods in Northern Africa as humans of the same period in Northern Europe.
- The Paleo Diet’s emphasis on a low-carbohydrate, high-fat macronutrient ratio is inconsistent with the historical record. Paleolithic humans would have had far greater access to a variety of carbohydrate sources than the popularized version of the Paleo Diet asserts. As for simple sugars, a bee hive of honey was a delicacy so greatly prized in that era that humans were willing to get stung just to get their sticky fingers on that high-octane energy source. However, in all fairness, they did not dine on such simple sugars every single day, as does a modern human pounding down glazed donuts with their double mochaccino latte every morning!
- And the most important point that Dr. Cordain highlighted was that, just because Paleolithic humans ate a particular way, it does not necessarily follow that it was the absolute healthiest possible diet that they could have been consuming. It is simply that they were eating the food sources available to them in that time and place, foods that kept them from starving to death!
- An additional thought worth mentioning, which Dr. Cordain did not point out, but which I uncovered in the course of my own explorations into this topic is that the average life expectancy of humans in the Paleolithic era (not counting infant mortality and those who were killed violently in their youth) was approximately 33 years, as opposed to 79 years in the United States as of 2017. Therefore, folks did not generally live long enough during the Paleolithic to have developed any of the degenerative chronic disease states synonymous with advanced age in our era. So in other words, unless you’re only planning to live to 33, please proceed with caution when it comes to eating like a caveman or cavewoman, especially if you happen to have a genetic proclivity such as familial hypercholesterolemia or a family history of heart disease.
In the final analysis, my numero uno criticism against the Paleo Diet is essentially the same as it is in regard to any other “one-size-fits-all” eating plan or fad diet, i.e. it is not personalized! If you decide to forego an individualized diet plan designed by a qualified nutritionist or dietitian who has factored in your personal genetics and biomarkers, and you decide to try a diet such as Paleo, please make sure to consult with your physician first and get bloodwork done, such as a lipid panel, at least every couple of months to make sure that your lab values and disease risk are not headed in the wrong direction. Like the old saying goes, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Have a happy healthy weekend and eat sensibly!
Also, here’s a link to a voluminous critique of the Paleo Diet published in Scientific American a few years ago, if you’re interesting in a more detailed exploration of this topic: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/