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Is Paleo Even Paleo? And Does It Even Matter?


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I was happy to see a new blog post by Kurt Harris over at PaleoNu yesterday. He’s one of my favorite bloggers, and he hasn’t written much over the last several months. Turns out he’s been boning up on evolutionary biology and paleoanthropology to determine what is currently knowable – and unknowable – about how our paleolithic ancestors lived and ate.

He has also been cultivating a relationship with a PaleoNu reader who happens to be a tutor in Zoology at an “institute of prominence” in the UK, with over 20 years of research and teaching in this field behind him. Preferring to remain anonymous, this fellow will be writing occasional guest articles under the pen name “Professor Gumby” (love it).

Paleo ambiguity

So what did Professor Gumby and Dr. Harris have to say in this first collaboration? In short:

  • It’s very difficult for us to know with any certainty what paleo people ate or how they lived.
  • The vast majority of studies of modern hunter-gatherers (HGs) have been ethnographic in nature, and as such are heavily influenced by the researchers own assumptions and objectives. This is a problem in all research, but it’s particularly notable in the anthropological literature.
  • Modern HGs are not analogous to paleolithic HGs. Even limited amounts of contact with modern people can have a profound impact on the diet and lifestyle of HG populations. This means we can’t simply study modern HG groups and assume that their habits reflect our distant ancestors.
  • Observer bias and influence are also issues with studies of modern HG populations. Professor Gumby (and others) have noted that the people they study will often change their dietary habits while being studied, perhaps to impress the researchers. In my family there’s a funny story about me when I was 8 years old eating a whole plate of spinach when a special guest came to visit for dinner one night. I hated spinach and wouldn’t touch it any other time. Turns out this phenomenon is common in anthropological field studies.
  • Along the same lines, modern HGs aren’t living in their traditional habitats. They’ve been displaced from their more optimal habitats by agriculturists and pastoralists. This means the diet they’re currently eating is probably atypical – “more akin to a ‘fall-back’ or ‘subsistence’ diet than an optimal one”, as Professor Gumby put it.

This last point is particularly salient. We can’t determine the optimal diet of a particular group of people simply by observing what they currently eat. As Dr. Harris points out:

It should be instructive to ask apparently healthy HGs what they prefer to eat in addition to what they have to eat. In a population that is healthy and not conditioned to a lifetime of non-foods as in the diet of a westerner with metabolic syndrome, it may have meaning to know what they prefer to eat. Not accounting for costs, how would they apportion their caloric intake from their extant food sources? I see no reason that relative food preferences could not be genetically or epigenetically influenced in addition to culturally influenced. Absent the interference of modern medicine, could a preference for the foods that make one live a healthier, more robust life be selected for and rapidly move through a population in a few generations? Do the Kitavans actually prefer yams/sweet potatoes/cassava over coconut and fish in the same ratio as the proportions they eat them in? Would Inuit happily prefer half their calories as sweet potatoes if they grew in the arctic? Or does each dietary pattern just reflect the preference to avoid starvation?

What we don’t know about paleo

The takeaway is simply this: it’s impossible to know for certain what our paleolithic ancestors ate by studying modern HG people. It’s difficult even to know what modern HG people eat when a bunch of researchers aren’t hanging around watching them.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the “paleo-sphere” about this lately. It comes up every time a fossil study is reported on, such as the most recent one that found starch on the teeth of Neaderthals, suggesting that they may have – gasp! – eaten grains on occasion. Of course these stories are pounced on by the anti-paleo set as evidence that grains have been a regular part of our diet for a long time and that proponents of the paleo diet don’t know what they’re talking about.

So on the one hand you’ve got paleo fundamentalists claiming to know exactly what paleolithic people ate, and stating with apparent certainty that grains and legumes were absolutely not included in their diets. Then you’ve got folks on the other end of the spectrum who claim that paleo is a just another “fad diet”, like the Zone or Atkins, with absolutely no basis in clinical or anthropological evidence.

They’re both wrong, of course.

It should be abundantly clear that we can’t know for certain what paleo people ate. They lived a long time ago, and we don’t have a time machine.

Even if we did, and went back to study them, they’d probably pull the equivalent of me eating spinach when that special guest visited.
But this doesn’t mean we simply disregard what we do know about our paleolithic ancestors and modern HGs, nor does it mean that we can’t extrapolate that knowledge into helpful guidelines for what a species-appropriate diet might be for us humans.

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What we do know about paleo

We still know, for example, that modern diseases like diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmunity and heart disease were rare (or even nonexistent) in paleo people and are still rare in the few HG groups around the world that have been lucky enough to preserve their traditional diet and lifestyle.

We also know that when modern foods like wheat flour, industrial seed oils and sugar are introduced in these populations, the incidence of modern diseases goes up commensurately. And, even more telling, when these groups return to their traditional ways, the modern diseases disappear again. This suggests that it wasn’t some genetic vulnerability that caused them to develop modern diseases with the introduction of modern foods.

So yes, paleo may not actually be paleo. We will probably never know exactly what our paleo relatives ate.

My response to that? I couldn’t care less.

Why? Because we know enough about ancestral diets in a general sense to suggest that they are superior to modern diets for human health. And we know enough – thanks to current clinical research – about modern foods like flour, seed oils and sugar to know that we shouldn’t be eating them.

That’s enough for me.

I really wish there was a word (other than paleo) I could use to describe a nutrient-dense, toxin-free, whole-foods based diet. Because that’s kind of a mouthful, and it leaves a lot open to interpretation. A raw-food vegan could hear me say that and think I’m talking about their diet. I’m not.

So I go on using the term “paleo” to loosely refer to a diet that emphasizes animal protein and fats, starchy & non-starchy vegetables, fermented foods, raw dairy (when tolerated) and fruit, nuts & seeds (in moderation).

I wish there was another term I could use that didn’t evoke a quasi-religious debate. But I don’t know of one, so for now, I guess I’ll just have to deal with all of the baggage that comes with “paleo”.

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Join the conversation

  1. http://www.cnn.com/2010/HEALTH/12/29/neanderthals.diet/index.html

    Chris, I seem to recall that there was also other stuff written about Neanderthals which examined their bone structure, size, etc. and reserachers were able to deduce that they had a high caloric need, somewhere around 4000 calories per day. Isn’t that the case with Otzi as well? The point is, I do think you can’t say for sure what people ate 1,000,000 years ago, but you can deduce it from studying the bones of ancient hunter-gatherer’s, as well as the bones of the ancient Egyptians, and studying anatomy and physiology comparatively say between man and ape. There is a lot of evidence out there, though you might have to deduce it a bit, like evolution. But still, a LCHF seems to work, and the bigger issue is that government and economic policy doesn’t care about that, but would rather make you sick while making themselves rich. We shouldn’t fight amongst ourselves! But I do have problems with the general aesthetic of the term Paleo, and would agree that if you are not ready to eat worms, insects, drink blood, boiled blubber, and carrion, then you are definitely NOT paleo.

    • Actually we CAN know what our paleo ancestors ate.

      Here is one of many methods in use: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/280636?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21101296750011

      But this post is absolutely correct: if you knew what they ate you probably would not want to eat it.
      In the words of one anthropologist working with modern hunter gatherers in Australia: “Hunter-gatherers eat everything they can get their hands on.” They eat everything in their environment that is edible. And more grasshoppers and baby birds and rodents than we usually find in our modern grocery store. Another method of determining what our ancestors ate is environmental reconstruction. We can generally know what edible plants/animals were in their environment, and except for food tabus we can validly infer that’s what they ate. In general h-g in more southern latitudes at more plants than those in more northerly latitudes.

      I should think the conclusion to be drawn from any “paleo” analogy is that they–our ancestors–ate everything edible, while we eat only a very limited selection that happens to be available at the local store–unless we have a garden. Even then it is unlikely that our consumption of food would match the varied edibles of the every-day consumption of any hunter-gatherer.

  2. There’s a crucial factor missing in assessing any “Paleo” diet. Primitive man walked barefoot and slept on the ground. Modern humans typically NEVER make contact the Earth, unless they’re at the beach. Otherwise, they’re wearing shoes with NON-CONDUCTIVE soles. What does this mean from a health standpoint? We’re not getting the free electrons that the earth is designed to give us. This energy is the most powerful antinflammatory and antioxidant therapy known, and we aren’t getting it like paleo man did. See http://www.earthing.com and find out.

  3. In scandinavia Over 40% of the people eating less carbs. The most popular diet are
    LCHF( Low carb high fat,) People quit margarine their eating real Butter, double cream and
    fullfat sour cream Sorry my bad English LCHF= see Dietdoctor.se

    Bjørn from Norway

    • I like that as a name instead of Paleo, LFHC makes sense. Although it doesn’t encompass all of the principals of Paleo, it might lead to a little less confusion.

  4. “And, even more telling, when these groups return to their traditional ways, the modern diseases disappear again. This suggests that it wasn’t some genetic vulnerability that caused them to develop modern diseases with the introduction of modern foods”

    Why is this so? Wouldn’t such vulnerability stop being active when the food are withdrawed?

  5. I refere to this diet as the “innate diet” based on the teachings of Dr. James Chestnut. Innate means inborn, and its based on what raw materials are needed to express homeostasis..

    Good post!

  6. start with a little observation – he’s not eating the phone… 😉
    having poked around on vegan sites fer fun looking for signs of dementia, i have to say that paleo-type discussions are definitely considerably more intelligent and “meaty” (sorry fer that)

    it’s kinda clear, yes – there is no single paleo diet even if we could time-machine our way back – i’m quite sure ever couple thou years the diet varied widely – but i think it’s safe to conclude that what was eaten was variations on a theme (kinda like the painfully endless tunes of vivaldi – what was that? oh yea – he wrote the same piece… 650 some odd times…)

    that then begs the question how much of which of that collection of foods available in the environment did our evolutionary heros eat? probably widely varying amounts at all different times resulting in evolutionary adaptation to the “musical scale” of possible foods, but in fact – there was never the perfect concerto of foods. For example i think it totally possible that we have husbanded (and wived…?) animals off and on for a hell of alot longer than there is evidence – thus our easier digestion of goat milk over cow–

    so paleo is what exactly? in my world – it’s a starting point with no finishing point ‘cept what i find works and doesn’t make me sick or kill me–

    PS – love the PENIS diet – is that a raw food diet…?

  7. someone commented on dr harris’ forum about his use of the term “pastoral” in his side bar summary. i posted the below comment over there so i figured i’d just copy/paste it here too…

    Pastoral refers to old school shepherd’s life, most specifically with raising livestock and moving around according to availability of fresh pasture and pure water. Pastoral is a pretty decent description actually. Since dairy and meats make up such a large portion of our diet, much of what we eat should ideally be pasture based. Plus it’s very non-industrilaized, meaning there really wouldn’t be poisonous seed oils, grain agriculture, and loads of silly fructose laden concoctions.

  8. There was not just one paleo diet. The food composition surely very much depended on where a HG lived and on the time of year. I agree that it is best to focus on and avoid what they surely did not eat. I stick to a (low-carb-side) Loren Codain type of diet. VBR Hans

  9. I often use “species appropriate” diet, but again, a lot of raw food vegans will tell you that’s what they’re doing.

  10. I like Genetically Appropriate. (Genap, Ga)

    anon, that is absolutely hilarious. i am crackin up over here thinking about what people would say improved their health the most.

  11. Pre-Industrial
    Saturated fats

    The PENIS diet will sweep the country!

  12. Ha ha……. some more….

    GARFeD = Genetically Appropriate Real Food Diet
    FREE SOWS = Free of Seed Oil Wheat Sugar

  13. I like where GeeBee was going with the word mixing.

    Somehow take all the words that most accurately describe the best way to eat and then make an acronym.

    Whole Foods
    Optimal Health
    Nutrient Dense or
    High Nutrition Density

    hmm. not enough first letter vowels here….

    how about

    Nutrient Dense Whole Foods = Nuden Woofoo
    High Nutrition Density Optimal Whole Foods = Hindop Woofoo
    Pre-Industrial Nutrient Dense = Prindy Nuden