The Paleolithic Diet
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Here is the basic question: “Would you be healthier (or fitter or thinner) if you ate like a cave man?”
Sometimes called the “Paleo” or “”Primal” diet, this concept actually emerged in the 1970s but has gained popular momentum today as the trend of high-protein/low carb continues and the new culture of CrossFit® has aggressively promoted this diet as part of their rapidly growing culture.
The basic idea is that the diet eaten by humans during the Paleolithic Era (2.5 million to around 10,000 years ago) – which was a pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer type diet – would be the healthiest one for humans as we have not changed much genetically since that time. Built into this idea is that with the dawn of agriculture, humans began significantly manipulating their diet to agricultural grains and legumes. We’ve continued this manipulation throughout time and shifted away from a diet of game meat, and nutrient-dense vegetables and fruits. One of the first books on the topic, The Stone Age Diet: Based on In-depth Studies of Human Ecology and the Diet of Man, was written by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin. His work was largely unnoticed until more than a decade later when a second wave of books on the topic appeared – although in a “softer form” that included some grains and dairy foods.
Opponents of this diet will point out that most of the food people now include in a Paleo diet would not have been available in that era and that all we can achieve are guesses based on fossil records and best approximations from the modern food chain. Others have pointed to evidence that there actually has been genetic adaptation to the more modern diet and that we are now genetically distinct from our Paleolithic ancestors in too many ways to ignore.
Yet still, others have pointed out that if you tried to actually characterize a Paleolithic diet from fossil evidence, there would be little real agreement with some cultures existing largely on fruit supplemented by small amounts of meat and others (such as native Alaskan populations) getting 99 percent of calories from meat. Whatever else may or may not be true, it is clear that because people hunted, gathered, fished, etc. based on seasonality, what resources were available to them, and what skills/tools they had, these diets were highly variable. So anything we are now calling “Paleolithic” is essentially a modern best guess.
Proponents of this way of eating will not only tout that it is the genetically correct diet for humans, but also that it provides better nutrition, help to build lean body mass, and may help to manage chronic diseases such a obesity, heart disease and diabetes. Of course, most humans living in the actual Paleolithic era died before they would have developed chronic disease, so that can only be supported by modern data. Trials to date have been small and limited but have had mostly positive outcomes, Given the interest in the diet we will likely see more.
Should you eat this way?
As with any diet, there is good and there is bad. If followed using a healthy balance of lean meats and fish, nutrient dense fruits, vegetables and nuts and healthy fats, this diet can actually be quite balanced and good for you. If you are trying to lose weight as a goal, you will still need to mind calorie intake – despite some sources that will tell you that you don’t have to do this. In practice, you – especially if you look at the CrossFit culture (and I do CrossFit, so I am comfortable making this criticism) – you will find a lot of people whose interpretation of the Paleo diet includes an awful lot of bacon and fatty meats – and they may not do quite so well with all the healthy veggies. While these foods might be ok on occasion, I think that if they are the basis for your Paleo diet, you should not expect to see many of the reported benefits, and you should expect the risks associated with over ingestion of those foods. I don’t care if it is Paleo, too much chocolate covered bacon is not health food.
About the Author
Dr. Jacques, a frequent author in the OAC’s quarterly publication, Your Weight Matters Magazine, is a Naturopathic Doctor with more than a decade of expertise in medical nutrition. She is the Chief Science Officer for Bariatric Advantage (a Division of Metagenics, Inc) a company dedicated to providing the best of nutritional care to weight-loss surgery patients. Her greatest love is empowering patients to better their own health. Dr. Jacques is a member of the OAC National Board of Directors.