The term “paleo” is short for Paleolithic which represents a specific period of time in human development or evolution. The onset of the Paleolithic Period has traditionally coincided with the first evidence of stone tools approximately 2.5 – 3 million years ago, which is why the period is also commonly referred to as the “Stone Age.” From this period until the onset of the First Agricultural Revolution, approximately 12,000 years ago, the diet of early humans (within the genus Homo), were identified as hunter-gatherers, subsisting on a mixed diet of wild fruit, nuts, seeds and various sources of animal protein.
The hunter-gatherer diet was moderately high in fat, approximately 10 times our modern intake, and included varieties of saturated, monounsaturated, omega-3, and a balanced amount of omega-6 fats, along with an abundance of fat-soluble nutrients. A wide variety of vegetable matter including raw nuts and seeds, and some limited quantities of tart wild fruit was included when seasonally available.
What’s in a name?
The Paleo Diet™ is a trademarked name owned in part by Loren Cordain, a professor emeritus from the University of Colorado. Dr. Cordain is considered by many to be the world’s foremost authority on the evolutionary basis of diet and disease and the founder of the paleo movement. Contrary to how it may look, most sources suggest that Dr. Cordain’s decision to trademark the phase was not motivated by personal gain, but rather to protect it from unscrupulous entities that may misuse or misrepresent it in pursuit of a quick buck.
Since it has gained in popularity, several other names have been used in lieu of The Paleo Diet™ in order to get around trademark requirements including: Paleolithic Diet, Caveman Diet, Stone Age Diet, Primal Diet, and of course just plain old Paleo.
But… prior to agriculture weren’t our ancestors unhealthy and short-lived?
Although this is a widely perceived notion due to the proliferation of misinformation, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Research has confirmed that our hunter-gatherer relatives were extremely healthy. They were as tall or taller than modern Europeans and Americans, which is a sign that they had a very nutritious diet, and were virtually free of cavities or bone malformations that are common with malnutrition. Despite the lack of modern shelters, services, or medical care, they had remarkably low infant mortality rates, and commonly lived into their fifties or sixties.
If you are truly interested in examining this topic further, I suggest a book published in 1980 called Nutritional Anthropology: Contemporary Approaches to Diet and Culture. A used copy of the book can be purchased on Amazon.com for approximately $30, but it may be available at your local library. There is a chapter in the book written by Clair Cassidy, PhD called “Nutrition and Health in Agriculturalists and Hunter-gatherers: A Case Study of Two Pre-Historic Populations.”
This chapter provides an analysis of two peoples who lived near the Ohio River Valley. The agricultural-based group subsisted predominately on corn, beans and squash, and lived in the area approximately 500 years ago. The hunter-gatherer group subsisted on a mixed foraging diet of meat, wild fruits, fish and shellfish, and lived in the area 3,000-5,000 years ago. This study is particularly beneficial in that the groups lived in the same location (similar environment, climate, topography, and surroundings), not continents apart, and that there were a large number of skeletal remains available from each group, providing a robust sample size.
From this study hunter-gatherers were determined to be much healthier than the agriculturally based group. They had almost no cavities, showed significantly less bone malformations consistent with malnutrition or infectious disease, lived longer, experienced lower rates of infant mortality, and showed little sign of iron, calcium, and protein deficiencies, which were prevalent among the agriculturalist group.
If we were meant to eat meat shouldn’t we have fangs and claws? Wouldn’t hunting have been too risky and energetically wasteful?
I hear this argument quite often from vegetarians and vegans, and I find it somewhat perplexing that they would focus on the lack of physiological features that may aid in our ability to directly capture or kill animals, but ignore the fact that physiologically we are incapable of digesting cellulose, the main constituent of plant cell walls and vegetable fibers.
Don’t get me wrong, vegetables make up a large proportion of my diet, and I believe they are vital for optimal health. However, the argument that, “we lack fangs and claws therefore we shouldn’t eat meat” is meritless. Dozens of animals that consume animal protein, either as omnivores or carnivores, lack these physical attributes. This argument focuses on a fallacy that eating meat would have required us to run down, capture and physically overwhelm large potentially dangerous animals, when the most abundant and available sources of animal protein would have been small mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds, eggs, fish and insects. Even today more than 80% of the world’s nations consume insects. This argument also seems to dismiss the fact that for hundreds of thousands of years humans possessed an intellectual advantage and had developed and utilized various tools and weapons.
What if I don’t believe in evolution, or that we are descendants of these prehistoric beings?
Labeling this dietary approach as “paleo” has unfortunately prevented many people from exploring it further as they feel it undermines their religious beliefs. It is important to understand that “paleo” is just a rebranding of the hunter-gatherer diet, and that the science behind this approach is not exclusively tied to the Paleolithic time period.
Most creation-based religions acknowledge that human existence on earth predates the timing of the Agricultural Revolution. The influence of modern agriculture did not reach everyone and hunter-gatherer-based cultures and civilizations still existed in more recent times and to some degree are still even present today. Research from these more recent time periods have drawn similar conclusions.
Hasn’t eating meat been linked to cancer?
Yes, and no. With dietary research it is often difficult to remove potentially confounding elements. Data is often collected through a survey process that requires subjects to be honest and accurate with the information they provide about how they eat, or generated from broad assumptions about a sample group based on their culture or location. This can often result in other elements of the subjects’ diet or lifestyle not being taken into account.
Research linking eating meat to cancer also does not differentiate between grass-fed, hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat, and meat from grain, corn, or soybean-fed animals treated with hormones and antibiotics. Similarly, most people agree that fruits and vegetables are healthy, but they too have been linked to cancer when chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides have been applied. It is extremely important to take into account the source when choosing your food.
7 Important Considerations
Do not take the paleo or hunter-gatherer approach too literal. Essentially, none of the food you have access to today is the same as what our ancestors ate, and you are not likely consuming it the same way that they did.
Consideration #1 – Our ancestors did not cook or process their food the way we do today. High heat can damage and/or denature meats, oils, and vegetables reducing their benefits and, in some cases, actually making them toxic. Freezing meat or fish for extended periods (two weeks or more), using marinades consisting of vinegar or lemon juice, or taking hydrochloric acid tablets with meals are approaches that can be used to minimize the risks of eating raw meat. However, at this point I would simply recommend consuming raw or fermented vegetables whenever possible and cooking unprocessed, grass-fed, or wild caught meats and fish.
Consideration #2 – Our ancestors consumed nearly every part of an animal they harvested, including the organs, brain, eyes, connective tissue, cartilage, bone marrow, etc. These are in many ways the most nutritious parts, but you aren’t as likely to find them in your local supermarket.
Consideration #3 – Selective propagation techniques have been used to alter the palatability, color, sweetness, and juiciness of our fruits and vegetables, while reducing the size of pits or seeds, or even eliminating them altogether. Unfortunately, this approach has resulted in fruits and vegetables that are higher in sugar, lower in fiber, and in many cases less nutritious. Check out this link to see how some of our fruits and vegetables have been altered over time.
Consideration #4 – Paleo is not a free pass to consume all the meat you want, and I would recommend building the foundation of your diet on leafy green vegetables, avocados, berries, nuts, seeds, non-processed oils, and eggs. Any meat consumed should be from free-range, grass-fed, (wild caught – regarding fish or seafood), non-hormone or non-antibiotic treated sources, nitrate-free, and minimally processed.
Consideration #5 – If you are considering adopting the paleo diet, in part or entirely, I would recommend focusing on what is limited or excluded in the diet (grains, dairy, legumes etc.), and the sources of the food you do include (organic, minimally processed, grass-fed, pasture-raised, humanely-raised, sustainably-sourced, etc.).
Consideration #6 – Be wary about foods labeled as paleo. Regulations regarding the labeling of products as paleo is severely lacking, and there are varying definitions of the term paleo. Try to chose single-ingredient foods whenever possible and limit your consumption of processed or manufactured foods.
Consideration #7 – Paleo in and of itself is not a weight loss or weight management diet. Being calorie- conscience is still necessary with paleo.
My Experience With Paleo
I have personally followed a paleo-based diet for several years and have noticed a considerable improvement in my health when I removed grains, dairy and most processed foods. I did however continue to struggle with managing my food intake, and frequently caved to cravings that led to binge eating, especially in the evenings. For most of my life I have also struggled to maintain consistent energy throughout the day and frequently experienced dramatic mood swings that affected my relationships. I knew at the time that sugar and insulin were playing a big part in this, but I was having difficulty managing my sugar intake, despite the fact that I was primarily eating healthy foods.
I have since added a couple of dietary strategies, namely intermittent fasting and keto, that have improved these issues considerably. I explore each of these approaches in detail within the Dairy-Free Keto website, and provide some guidance on how to apply these strategies successfully.
Intermittent fasting, in short, is simply going without food or calories for set periods of time to allow the body to focus on cleansing and healing through a process called autophagy. There are several approaches to intermittent fasting. Some people fast daily by constricting the total time period in which they consume food. For instance, a very popular fasting approach is the 16/8 method in which calories are only consumed within an 8-hour period of the day (10am to 6pm for example) and no food or calories are consumed during the remaining 16 hours. Some people apply intermittent fasting periods only during weekdays and eat normally on weekends, and some people fast for an entire day once per week or once per month. Intermittent fasting does allow for quite a bit of flexibility, but there are some guidelines to consider for optimal results.
Keto is short for the ketogenic diet, which is a dietary approach that encourages your body to utilize fat as its primary source of energy rather than glucose or sugar. The foundation of the ketogenic diet is a daily macronutrient intake of approximately 75% fat, 20% protein and 5% carbohydrates. To many people this diet seems too restrictive, but it is actually the easiest diet approach I have ever followed because while on it I don’t experience powerful cravings or hunger, and sometimes I even have to remind myself to eat. It also takes the guesswork out of food choices because there really isn’t a gray area, and the food options on this diet are delicious. I really don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.
In short, I try to follow a paleo-based diet as the foundation for the types of food I consume or exclude. I incorporate intermittent fasting to help cleanse and heal my body, and utilize the macronutrient guidelines associated with the keto diet to help me gain control over my food intake, reduce cravings, and eliminate the damage that sugar has on my body. I do believe that these approaches support a natural way of eating, as I know that our ancestors were not consuming 3-5 meals each day, and they relied heavily on healthy fats from a variety of sources.
I have experienced phenomenal improvements in my skin, hair, energy levels, mood, muscle development, fat loss, and overall health by utilizing these approaches. I am now able to approach food as fuel and make dietary decisions based on nutritional content rather than succumbing to cravings. I don’t view this as just a short-term fix, and I plan on eating this way for life.