The truth about the Paleo Diet

There are anthropologists who believe that there is a disconnection between what many of us eat today and what we and our ancestors actually successfully evolved to eat. There is a suggestion that we have bodies genetically tied to the Stone Age while living in a fast food world. This has fostered the idea that modern humans should be eating the way that hunter-gatherers ate during the Paleolithic era which extends from about 2.6 million years ago to the start of the agricultural revolution. This idea has led to a study of indigenous hunter-gatherer cultures that still live and thrive on the Earth today and the promotion of a Paleo diet that advocates more than half of all your calories from meat (mostly lean meat and fish) and the elimination of dairy products, beans and cereal grains that were introduced into our modern diets after the advent of cooking and agriculture.


While this approach may be appealing to many people who are still grossly uninformed and mistakenly carb phobic, and others still lost in high animal protein diets as the best approach to long term weight loss, it is full of misconceptions and short sighted interpretations of the information at hand. A comprehensive discussion of the problems with the Paleo diet has been presented by Ann Gibbons in “The Evolution of Diet” in the September, 2014 issue of National Geographic. It is important to realize that we are not just limited to fossil records to try to understand the eating and living habits of hunter-gatherer tribes of the past. There are still a number of nomadic hunter-gatherer tribes with short ties to the distant past that are scattered on the Earth today. These include the Tsimanes in the Bolivian rainforest, the Hadza of Tanzania, the Yanomami Indians of the Amazon, the Kung tribe in Africa, the Bajau of Malaysia, the Kyrgyz in the mountains of Afghanistan, and the Inuit of Greenland.


Promoters of this eating plan have tried to make the case that we have evolved as carnivorous creatures that thirsted, needed and relied on the flesh and blood of animals for our health and the evolution of the human brain. When in fact there are data that clearly challenge these assumptions.        The observations of indigenous cultures suggest that today, and probably even more dramatically in the past, hunter-gatherers typically have very little success as hunters with the primitive weapons at their disposal, and unless they are a tribe of people that live in an environment where plants just don’t grow effectively, e.g. the Inuits of Greenland, they often rely on plants for the bulk of their diets. The Hadza get close to 70% of their calories from plants and other hunter-gatherers incorporate a substantial amount of tubers, yams and wild nuts into their diets. Furthermore, there is a strong suggestion that when cooking became part of the human lifestyle approximately 500,000 to 1 million years ago, the increased availability of nutrients and energy from cooked food fostered the development of bigger functional brains of early humans even more than hunting and eating meat.


So that while early humans may have wanted some meat, the evidence suggests that when plant foods were available they lived primarily on plant foods. And the paleobiologist, Amanda Henry, found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools suggesting that humans have been eating grains and tubers a lot longer than previously thought and certainly long enough to tolerate and digest them effectively. In fact, the extremely variable environmental conditions and genetic diversity of the different hunter-gatherers, suggest that there is a huge variation in the types of food that humans have consumed and thrived on in the past and continue to utilize today. Therefore, there is no one single ‘Paleo diet’. On the contrary, being human does not rely on our consumption of meat but on our ability to adapt to many different habitats and to promote our survival with a variety of potentially healthy food options.


Although the Paleo diet recommends the elimination of processed food, it erroneously promotes the elimination of whole grains and legumes that enhance the quality of a healthy plant based diet. Also, the heavy focus on meat in the Paleo diet clearly does not replicate the diversity of foods that our ancestors ate and promotes a variety of disease promoting factors. Aside from the high fat, cholesterol, and inflammatory prostaglandins provided by meat, research has shown that the human immune system attacks a sugar in red meat called Neu5Gc causing inflammation that can eventually cause cancer.


It is important to realize that we don’t need another diet that masquerades as truth behind the veneer of questionable science while planting the seeds for more potential disability and disease. Instead of getting lost in one more questionable diet plan your focus should be on eliminating refined processed food from your diet. When indigenous cultures adopt the excesses of our modern diets they create all the same chronic diseases affecting modern civilization. There is no reason or need to consume animal products and processed junk food. The increased consumption of meat and other animal products, refined sugar products and processed oils is the foundation for our pandemics of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Furthermore, a diet centered on animal products takes the greatest toll on the environment, land and water resources. Importantly, eating an unprocessed whole food, plant-based diet gives you the greatest nutrient and energy availability for the smallest amount of calories and, when it is combined with regular physical activity, is the ideal eating plan for health and long term weight regulation.