Is Paleo Even Paleo? And Does It Even Matter? | Chris Kresser
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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.

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”.

120 Comments

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  1. This article mentions diseases that can be turned on and off with the intake of carb, oils and sugar, but what about meat? I saw Forks Over Knives which mentions several studies about the rise in cancers and diseases with the increase/decrease in meat intake. I’m sure sugar and excess carbs are no good as well, but can anyone speak to this that supports the meat intake of Paleo? I’m not claiming to praise one diet over another, I’m just looking for more info and want to get the facts about meat intake. To me, it seems it would be closer to our ancestors if we didn’t eat a ton of meat, or even every day, since the hunter’s abilities probably weren’t successful to fulfill daily intakes of meat. thoughts?

  2. Simon Cook:

    You should have read to the end of the ‘article’.

    “–To avoid further confusion: this is a work of fiction. The experts do not exist. Their arguments, however, most surely do.”

  3. Hey Chris,

    Agree with this post when you say that we don’t know exactly what our ancestors ate in the paleolithic area.

    But I thing I know as a Hunter-Gatherer Apprentice (just started recently the Paleo Diet), it WORKS for and I think it makes total sense to eat what we are supposed to eat

    Stop bloaded, no gaz, better digestion and more energy.

    I will soon start my own 30 days plan and will share some results.

    See ya.
    Phalakone

  4. With deference to Joel Salatin, how about the Polyface diet? 🙂

    I also have issue with telling friends about “paleo” – it has too many connotations.

    Things like “human”, “real”, “optimal” and all might be accurate but if they are perceived as condescending it won’t have appeal in larger media.

    Atkins took hold – maybe paleo needs a person to take on the name and run with it. We do have a “Wolf”, after all…. that sounds better than the “Weston” or the “Attia”…. 🙂 One of the sub-genres is Bulletproof – not a bad concept but as detailed and restrictive as GAPS so not really great for large populations. There might be something to using the word “gut” as it or as an acronym, since it gets to the point about what’s wrong and what needs nurturing.

    How about the Puppy diet? Everyone loves puppies, right?

    Anyway, just musing.

  5. Awesome-vore Diet!

    The “Way-better-than-yours” diet! Wait, we all call our own dietary beliefs that already.

    The “I Keeel You” diet?

    The “Chest-thumping, Teeth-gnashing, Ravenous Two-legged Beast” Diet!

    The “My Scientists Could Kick Your Scientists’ Butts” diet!!!

  6. “Nutritarian”
    Does that work as a substitute for “paleo?” Implies nutritent-dense food, leaves the door open for meat&dairy, but excludes processed grains, oils, sugar.

  7. My questions are:

    Why would you avoid the many vitamins and micronutrients found within the fruit world and also why the percived need to emphasize meat and fats in the diet if health has been shown to occur on vegan diets that are low in fat? I’ve heard recenlty on-line by researches that even olive oil causes a 6 hours sludging of the blood.
    W.r.t. the first, I seem to remember an anthropological study where teeth of human ancestors were studied and determined to be indicative of largely frugivorous (fruit eating) type eating.

  8. I like “The Designer Diet” because I believe we did not evolve to eat this way, but instead were created to eat this way. Grains may have been included, but is it even possible to get grains that have not been genetically modified now? I’m not sure we can eat the way we were designed to eat exactly because of that. But, we can do our best. Whenever I read the words ‘evolved’ I just change them in my mind to ‘were created.’ It’s all good. Thanks for all the valuable information.

  9. Great article. The term “Paleo” works well enough for me, although I prefer “Hunter-Gatherer.” The term “tribal” won’t work. I have friends today who hail from tribes in the Himalayan regions and they are certainly not eating a hunter gatherer diet. They’re farmers, and they eat a lot of wheat and a copious amount of dairy and potatoes. In today’s world, “Tribal” does not equal HG. Keep going, Chris!

  10. Template Diets

    How about we call it The Template Diets.

    So that it’s more of a system than a specific diet. The problem with giving it a name is that it implies it’s a static diet that is the same for everyone – especially true when your target audience is everyone. As we know there is no one diet that is going to be healthy for everyone because everyone is different.

    I know this name is boring but it’s full proof.

    Within the template diets are several different templates of diets targeted at different audiences that can then be further tweaked and refined to the individual. There could be hundreds of variations but each is clearly defined and could have sub-versions.

    There is no confusion. Template diet 1 could be the Chris Kresser diet as mentioned above, perhaps targeted at healthy people who want to be as healthy as possible and stay that way. This could be whatever is determined the most effective blanket approach sort of diet (i.e. the paleo diet). It would not specify any macro-nutrient ratios at all. People would then find their own sub-diet from it which works best for them individually.

    Template diet 1.2 could be low carb, targeted at specific audiences that would benefit
    Template diet 1.3 could be high carb
    Template diet 1.4 could have an emphasis on gut healing like GAPS
    Template diet 1.5 could be the same sort of diet but made to be vegetarian (obviously worse but some of these vegetarians still like paleo except the meat. all we’re doing is categorizing it)
    Template diet 1.6 could include dairy
    Template diet 1.7 could include legumes
    Template diet 1.8 could include properly prepared grains for those who can handle it

    Template 2 could be what is the current western diet which is just everything that is on the menu
    Template 2.1 could be low carb
    Template 2.2 could be low processed food
    Template 2.3 could be gluten free
    Template 2.4 could be dairy free
    Template 2.5 could be nightshade free

    Everyone has a different level of buy in on what is healthy and what isn’t and also what they are willing to do. some people might feel just fine on a standard diet (as far as they know) so maybe all you can get them to do is go to template 2.2 at best. but it’s still better than the standard template 2. But with the goal of template 1.

    Then as it’s a diet without a name we can change our stance as often as we like and update the diets without anyone being able to attack the whole thing. It will all simply be based on the latest research. I don’t know who gets to approve the changes but we could have different versions for where there is conflict. They can even be authored by different people or co-authored etc.

    I think as long as it’s documented well and searchable and clearly idendified by the template and version numbers it should be easy enough.

    Each diet will specify the target audience and provide supporting evidence of why the specific diet template is recommended with references. It will be awesome.

    could call it http://www.templatediets.com which is still available.

    for people to see what diet they are currently on they just read the main template and narrow down to the more granular templates. Then they say I’m on template diet such and such and I changed to template diet 1 and feel the best ever or it didn’t work out so I’m now on template diet 1.3 or whatever.

    The idea needs work but it get’s out of the pigeon holing of the paleo diet name.

    It’s not about who is right or wrong it’s about providing these diet templates as recommendations for people who seek them. References and all so people can do their own research. If the evidence is lacking it will show.

    And we can categorize the references into strong or weak evidence etc so there is a grading. and use different colours or something to show it. Make it very easy for people to learn about nutrition and make the very best choice for themselves. they can easily discuss with the doctor without having to explain it.

    Any comments??

  11. I think there is another issue at play here. I’m not saying you’re guilty of it mr. Kresser, but evolution effectively means adaption to the environment. These HGs wandered around to obtain better hunting and gathering grounds, both relative to the seasons as to change in climate or just to find better grounds (through the generations). It is not all that certain that the grounds were always optimal or that found HG tribes that wander along a stable pattern of grounds or just stayed put were at the optimal ground for hunting and gathering. All kinds of factors play a role in the distribution of HG tribes on the land. So basically, I’m saying that it doesn’t even follow that the diets of HG were or have always/ever been ‘optimal’. With a proper use and application of modern science man can reveal the physical cause and effect mechanisms of diet and the human body, which leads to rules and guidelines that are much more settled than the result of intentioned but organic distribution of HGs and their resulting diets.

    Of course the Paleo diet constitutes a reactionary direction in diet and nutrition vis-à-vis the ‘modern’ common wisdom diet. But as HGs adapted to their environments and through selection sought better HG grounds, we are in the position to much better pick and choose our personal optimal diets than the HGs could have ever been able to achieve. I’m not per se saying that we should drop the label Paleo, because the inspiration of the HGs are there. But living with an optimal diet by means of natural selection and given resources in a geographical area constitutes a whole different intentional diet selection process than the present evidence-based biochemical Paleo diet.

    Just my 2 cents, great site!

  12. I’ve been starting to think of it as the “mediocre hunter” diet. When our ancestors were successful in their hunts, they got to gorge on meat for a few days. Not so successful, and the bushes started to look tasty.

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