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  • You Ask, I Answer: The Paleolithic Diet (Part 1)

    ancient_manI’d really love to hear your thoughts about The Paleolithic Diet/The Caveman Diet.

    What do you think about [its main] claim that we simply haven’t adapted to relatively new modern foods that became available about 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture (like grains and beans), and that ones we have evolved to eat [-- the ones eaten by hunter/gatherers tens of thousands of years ago, mainly meats --] are much easier on digestion and better for health?

    – Sean Murphy
    (Location unknown)

    Let’s start on a positive note.  The one thing I like about the “Paleo diet” is that it advocates one very important point that I agree with — eat foods that are as close to nature as possible (ie: instead of drinking apple juice, eat an apple; instead of munching on onion rings, have onion slices in a salad, etc.).

    The “eat closer to nature” ideology makes perfect sense — heavily processed foods tend to be high in calories, saturated fat, sodium, and added sugars.  They are also low in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.

    Now let’s get to the fun part — the barrage of issues I have with this style of eating.

    Number one: the connection between “prehistoric” eating patterns and health is a stretch.  Our “Paleo” ancestors lived approximately half as long as the average adult in today’s first-world countries.  Would they have developed cancers and other diseases if they lived to be, say, 80?  We don’t really know.

    Similarly, we have no way of knowing what was happening with hunter-gatherers from a biochemical perspective.  Were they, for instance, deficient in any nutrients?

    One also has to wonder how nutritious their diets were, seeing as how they were 100% local and seasonal.  Depending on where these groups of people lived, they may not have had access to a diverse enough supply of food to cover all nutrients.

    Also keep in mind that certain foods, like bananas, were not eaten on a global scale until they could be transported thousands of miles from their original locations.  So, then, one could “make the case” that, from an evolutionary perspective, people in Norway — where bananas do not grow — are not “designed” to eat them.  Clearly, though, the introduction of bananas to the Norwegian population did not have any negative health effects, nor did their bodies not know how to digest them.

    The same could be said for other foods.  Olive oil is now customarily eaten around the world, but it was originally only available to a very small part of the population.  Same thing with avocados, blueberries, and raspberries.  If someone were to truly argue a Paleo diet, they would also have to make the case that people who currently live in parts of the world where blueberries don’t grow shouldn’t eat them since hunter-gatherers in that area weren’t eating them.  It’s a silly argument full of holes.

    Keep in mind that our bodies are perfectly equipped to digest the three macronutrients — fat, protein, and carbohydrates — thanks to specific enzymes produced by the pancreas.

    There are, of course, situations like lactose intolerance, where some people can’t produce enough of one enzyme (with lactose intolerance, we are talking about the enzyme lactase, which breaks down lactose, the naturally-occurring sugar in milk).

    However, it makes absolutely no sense to claim that the body can break down animal protein just fine but “isn’t equipped” to digest the protein in chickpeas.  That has absolutely no scientific basis and is easily refuted.

    The Paleolithic Diet fails to acknowledge a very important factor — that these diets were healthier than today’s “Standard American Diet” because of what was NOT consumed.

    Trust me, beans and whole grains are not behind rising obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates.  Today’s health problems can be easily traced back to excesses in calories, added sugars (which do not contribute to a feeling of fullness, thereby making it easy to overconsume them), omega-6 fatty acids, saturated fats in animal products, trans fat, and sodium.

    Another VERY important factor that gets left out of this conversation?  Physical activity!  Hunter-gatherers were not sitting in office chairs for 8 hours, driving in their cars while sipping a 42-ounce Big Gulp, or laying in front of the TV for hours.  When you talk about health, you can not ignore the huge role physical activity plays.

    You can never go wrong eating a less processed diet.  However, there is no reason to shun whole grains, beans, or legumes under the guise of eating healthier.



    1. Becca said on June 28th, 2009

      The Paleo Diet for Athletes – addresses all the factors you named above. Perhaps you should read that one instead of the original. While I found it to be a bit too scientific to be really interesting, they do have very good theories in my opinion. Also, they are not saying your body can only eat and digest what’s around where you’re from, (i.e. bananas in Norway) but suggest more that the human body can take on what any other human body from across the globe can take on, so all natural foods get the green light.

      Good post!

    2. Andy Bellatti said on June 28th, 2009


      I’ll have to check that out and see how it compares to the original book.

      My concern with “we should eat what humans across the globe used to eat 20,000 years ago” is that it points the finger at foods that do not pose any health risks of problems (i.e.: tofu, peanut butter, quinoa, brown rice, sweet potatoes, etc.)

      It’s silly to blame foods like kidney beans and scrambled eggs for diet-related health problems.

    3. Becca said on July 1st, 2009

      Agreed. I haven’t read the original so I can’t comment on it’s ligitimacy…I think the Paleo Diet in general a bit far fetched (or hard core) for me, but I do like the underlying basis of eating and natural clean foods. I suspect the Paleo Diet for athletes was written to backtrack a little on their first book, giving more value to and incorporating more carbs and the ‘need’ for carbs in more ‘athletic’ people…

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