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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. Labels always suck. If I eat 30-28-42 I’m not in “the Zone.” It’s just stupid. Then people argue about whether X food fits Y label, and then an intelligent nutrition plan is made to look stupid to the majority of the public because its main proponents argue like children. (“Tubers are Paleo!” “Are not!” “Are too!” “No, they’re PRIMAL, not PALEO” etc etc etc. What’s sad is I’ve actually seen this, and more than once.

    Great article.

  2. I imagine he deleted our comments as they have devolved a little. So lets try again. I can see where you are coming from in that there are people talking about names etc and you are saying why not throw the paleo part out the window to be more inclusive. And I do understand you are not intentionally trying to be inflammatory. This is why I reacted. Evolution as a science is backed up by every single research article ever published in biology. Never has a research article ever condtradicted the idea of Evolution. It’s a theory as much as gravity or how to get planes to fly is. Chris, I believe, is interested in how our evolutionary past has formatted the types of foods that are most healthy for us, a very sound approach, in my opinion. Myself, and many other readers are interested in reading posts like this. For anyone to come along (and I am not targeting you here as I believe this was not your intent) and ask him to not write this stuff because it offends their creationist beliefs, I feel, is a little arrogant and self entitled. Because they think that their beliefs are more important than that of the authors or other readers. For example, I wouldn’t go on to a creationist blog and ask him or her to stop mentioning god, and this is essentially what anyone is doing by asking someone to not mention evolution in a paleo blog. So my issue is that by asking to throw the paleo label out you are indirectly asking for the above. I’m not saying you are arrogant or self entitled as I believe you have good intentions, but that for me is the end result when you ask people to do that.

    And as for creationists gaining access to this information I agree it is important.But it is their decision to shun evolution despite the overwhelming evidence in it’s favour. I have met plenty of fundamentally religious people, I am talking very extreme here, who have managed to reconcile their faith and accept evolution as fact. So maybe they should be looking into this a bit more rather than just ignoring the evidence?

  3. I’m not sure why two comments were removed (one from myself and one from Dan), but I just wanted to say that tone and clarity can be lost and/or misconstrued online. I still believe my question is legit and in no way intending to “complain” or “accuse” anyone of anything. The question of division isn’t to blame any one person, only begs to ask the question if the label causes it. That’s all. This whole thread consists of people’s ideas of names and such. Didnt think my question and idea was any different. 🙂

  4. I am going to stop responding now because I feel I am just running around in circles saying the same stuff over and over and it’s hitting a wall. Good day.

  5. As I have already stated I agree that looking at the benefits of eating such foods is good in it’s own right and perhaps a way for creationists to move ahead. But if that was the case I would suggest they don’t base their assumptions on what is healthy through evolutionary principles and test all the foods out there since they would assume they were all created by god. I mean grains were around for a long time so why can’t we eat bread. It’s explanable through an evolutionary lense, I’m not sure how a creationist could argue it. I mean doesnt the bible say to eat bread?

    Regardless, for someone who is interested in the evolutionary basis of our diet for determining which foods are likely to be healthy I fail to see why they need to change their outlook and belief system because someone else chooses not to follow an evidence based approach. If a creationist is at odds with this concept I feel it is their problem to sort out not the evolutionist to cater to them. If a blogger talks about paleo then it is the choice of the person to read it, not to complain and ask for them to change the terminology based on their own sensitivities or accuse them of alienating a group of people. Paleo is very clearly an evolutionary approach to eating, and I would simply suggest not reading it if you don’t agree, just like I would never read any creationist diet based on the bible’s preferred foods, for example.

  6. Dan,
    My intent wasn’t to start a theological discussion. Everyone is free to believe however/whatever they choose to believe. My point is that eating a high quality protein, vegetable portion, and a healthy fat at each meal is beneficial to everyone (as evidenced by countless testimonies and for lack of a better phrase, food science), so going along with Chris’ overall sentiments in this post, is it necessary to label it Paleo (which focuses on a time period on which the details aren’t definitive) rather than focus on the amazing benefits of this eating style? Why automatically dismiss Dallas and Melissa Hartwig and The Whole 30, which is a Paleo-eating book and breakdown of how it benefits the body? If you want to argue or confront some important players in the “Paleo food field,” contact them and be my guest. It shouldn’t matter if one believes in evolution across species or intelligent design to have optimal health!

  7. I agree… Couldn’t care less. Just stay away from stuff, can’t call it food, that comes in a box or bag. Eat things that God made and were fed things that God made. And you’ll be fine…

  8. The paleo diet is a diet based on evolution. If anyone feels their is a divide or alienated it would be from the creationist who chooses not to believe the evidence. Although I agree that a detailed explanation of how foods reacts with our bodies, this is not paleo. Again, any division felt is only because said religious person does not agree with evolution, but that problem does not mean the person who does should change their viewpoints to cater for them. IMO.

  9. Not sure if this question/sentiment will be dismissed by the readers, but why does there need to be a focus on the presumed population rather than the balance and nutrition that these foods provide us today? The focus on a Paleolithic people excludes Creationists. I appreciate Dallas and Melissa Hartwig’s book, It Starts With Food and the detailed explanation of how foods react in our bodies, rather than guessing and adhering to labels that exclude people who can greatly benefit from gaining better health and optimal wellness. I appreciate your posts, Chris. I also think there is an inherent division implied, which is not necessary (but may be purposeful?).

  10. I am a scientist with over 15 yrs research experience into Zoology also, and currently working at a University looking at predator-prey dynamics within ecosystems. Although I study marine animals (i.e zoology) and not humans (although humans are animals this is more the field of anthropology) I find it as much of a stretch to claim we cannot learn from modern HG’s because they may change their diet due to observer bias, as it is to say we can. With most science there will never be the ‘perfect’ study when you are looking at evolution and ecology, but I certainly believe you can learn a lot about paleolithic diets from HG groups as long as you admit that the caveat is that their diet may be slightly altered. It just seems the basis of the argument in this post is a bit overinflated in importance. I mean if I didn’t publish material every time there was a potential flaw in my study I wouldn’t have published a thing, ecology and evolution are full of variables, it’s about transparency and letting others know the possible flaws, it doesn’t undermine the findings. Knowing their diets might be altered is a non-issue in my opinion.

    • Well said. The premise that modern HGs can’t be ‘paleo’ because their diets are automatically suspect or corrupt is ridiculous. OF COURSE they have much to teach us: the living testimony of the variety of primitive diets that actually work, one way or another.

      As someone above so eloquently pointed out, it is best to define Paleo by what it does NOT include; stuff that was not eaten in significant quantities long ago: grains, dairy, junk food, industrial seed oils, sugar.

      Personally, I don’t have a problem with the ‘paleo’ label; to me it merely indicates a very wide variety of foods from the era preceding intensive agriculture and animal husbandry. By no means does it mean a heavy meat-dominated diet. As someone who has been paleo for over a year, I am constantly baffled as to where that idea came from (I suspect the New York media; they love the snarky caveman label.)

  11. Greetings, all.
    Well, as a latecomer my comments might not be as relevant. However…..

    First of all let me amake clear that approve in general the tone of the article and find it balanced as well as interesting. The following opinions are mainly meant to open up the debate and should be taken in that spirit.

    The main problem I find with all these discussions (not just here but in general) is that they are limited to the foods, the grains they ate or didn’t eat etc. What is missing is context, setting, opportunity, choice etc. This last point was mentioned in the article and I was very happy to see it. Indeed, an Inuit might well love some sweet potatoes and your average HG would have loved the occasional Twinkie if one of the time-travellers had left one behind.

    Where is the talk of cooking methods and lifestyle? Sugar in itself is not Evil. Too much sugar is. The occasional burger with ketchup (don’t like the stuff) isn’t going to kill you but eating too much boar and venison (no beef s such in thoe days) might. Eating a Paleo (whatever variation of it) diet and living as a couch potato isn’t going to help you live longer. Going to the supermmarket or the butcher, driving around, turning on the oven or stove and sitting in front of the telly do not compare with wandering around the wilderness, hunting and gathering, making do with what’s available, building a fire and looking out for deadly predators.

  12. Very interesting discussion.
    One point: many people seem to assume that grains and legumes are too hard to be eaten without some kind of preperation. I am an ex-farmer. All the grains I have grown, including grasses, are easily edible until maybe a month before they are normally harvested. For modern harvesting and storage they have to be hard and dry, but for most of the growing period they are soft. They can be eaten when hard but it takes a long time and a lot of chewing. Maybe paleo-people could grind the harder seeds between stones to make them more easily edible. So it would be quite possible for hominins or hunter-gatherers to have eaten the pre-agricultural versions of our grains and some legumes (some are poisonous).

  13. I like the term “Hunter/Gatherer”
    Dreamer is asking a great question.

    Loved your article. I feel so much better on a “Paleo Template” diet but do not like the whole “Ancestral” premise used to prove its efficacy. I think there were cultures who ate bread and cheese as their main foods and were very healthy. What they didn’t eat was modern processed foods. Some people today can do excellent on a varied, whole foods diet like WAPF, although others do far better without grains, starches or legumes.

    My theory is completely opposite to the “Paleo” premise: I believe that modern people have lost some of the ability to digest grains, legumes, and dairy from several generations of eating processed foods, taking medicine (including antibiotics), and a high stress lifestyle which has led to gut dysbiosis and a lack of the enzymes and bacteria needed to digest these foods properly. Our ancestors probably had the gut health to eat many fibrous, starchy foods that today often make people sick. They ate what they could find, grow, or produce. There wasn’t a grocery store so people in different regions remained healthy even with very different diets. What they had in common is their food was unprocessed and natural.

    Some people today can go back to a whole foods diet and do great, others no longer have the gut health to include all of these foods in the diet, even though we know that many cultures existed eating them for generations with excellent results. Your perfect diet will be determined by your genetic background, the bacteria you inherited from generations before you (the good and the bad), and your current health status. There is no “one size fits all” approach that will work for everyone like it did in times of old where everyone in a particular region ate basically the same foods. Diet Dictocrats that claim they know the perfect diet for mankind are arrogant and mislead; in my opinion.

    That is why I particularly like your approach Chris. Thanks for everything you share online that blesses so many people. All the best!!

  14. Eating a nutrient rich diet of appropriately raised items is something I am 100% behind. However I have a few thoughts for you (which I promise I am not trying to “stump” you with).

    I’m not sure if someone has asked this yet, but how do you explain people who cannot tolerate meats and get physically ill even when it is appropriately raised?

    Also of note, how do you explain the ancient asian and other diets that help people live well past one hundred with the same low or non-existent incidence of cancer or other modern diseases. These diets focus on grains, soy bean products, and other paleo “no-nos”.

    Lastly, many of paleo’s bad food have been used for centuries (non-modern, non-western) as part of a regular diet to cure common diseases, cancer, and other things rather than cause them and promote very very long life. Many times what wards of disease has been proven to change from climate to climate. What works in one will cause imbalance and disease in another. That is basic, ancient healing wisdom. Does paleo look into these known ancient teachings or does it simply rely on modern, scientific inquiry based on current finds?

  15. THIS IS THE BEST ARTICLE I HAVE READ SINCE FOREVER … i have been struggling with knowing what a perfect human diet is … i am on paleo (low carb high fat ) and i have had so may questions and many things about the paleo argument didn’t make any sense to me … things like the primal blureprint of sisson seemed like a diet not a life style choice … thank you for filling the gaps

  16. Thanks so much for posting what has been on my mind a lot lately. I work as a nutritional therapist and am constantly asked what I eat. I don’t fall into one “category” and I’m okay with that. I usually answer “real food” tending to lean more towards paleo. It’s refreshing to find people breaking free from the label game.