In my previous blog in this series I discussed the Paleolithic nutrition in great detail, so now, when we already know what our ancestors' nutrition looked like, we can focus on the diet that claims to replicate their way of eating, the Paleo diet. I must say that I am very excited to talk about it as the whole idea of returning to our roots is very appealing and makes lots of sense. There are plenty of descriptions of the Paleo diet online, so for the purposes of this blog I will focus on the original book by Eaton, Shostak, and Konner "The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet & Exercise and a Design for Living"1, which laid down a solid foundation for the modern Paleo diet, and the book by Loren Cordain "The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young"2, which is essentially a revival, or an update of the Paleo diet. I hope that you'll enjoy the read and can't wait to start, so let's dive into the modern-day Stone Age nutrition.
The core idea
The Paleo diet aims to replicate the nutritional patterns of our most recent ancestors who lived before the Agricultural Revolution 12-50 thousand years ago. They were hunters-gatherers and didn't have access to multiple food categories that we enjoy these days. There are some indications that the foods that were introduced as a result of farming have a profound impact on our health along with the changes in lifestyle3. Thus, the core idea of the Paleo diet is to restrict our food consumption exclusively to the foods that our ancestors, cavemen (and cavewomen) ate.
What can we eat and what we shouldn't on the Paleo Diet?
I mentioned in my previous blog that there are 4 major food categories – meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, milk and dairy products, and bread and cereals. I would add alcohol as a separate category. In any case, the cavemen had access only to the first two categories, and there was no conservation and processing of food, at least the way it's done nowadays. So, in order to replicate their nutritional patterns, we should eliminate the following foods from our menus:
- Bread and cereals: Our ancestors might have come across occasional grains, but they would not consume heavily selected and modified, nutritionally-dense grains. They would not grind them and remove bran, they would not add yeast or milk to make dough and ultimately bread. Neither should we. As a bonus, this completely solves the gluten problem.
- Milk and dairy products: Again, other than consuming their mothers' milk, our ancestors would not have access to any dairy products. I cannot imagine a caveman catching a wild lactating herbivore and milking it, let alone storing and processing milk to make cheese or yogurt. So, this food category is out too. Another added bonus – it solves the lactose intolerance problem.
Special note: For some reason Eaton, Shostak and Konner do not oppose the consumption of dairy products, which, in my humble opinion, defeats the purpose of the Paleo diet.
- Processed foods: Our ancestors did not have food industry – they did not preserve foods, they did not cure meat, they did not ferment things, they did not add any chemicals to their foods to change their taste, size or looks. They ate their food without any additives and excessive processing with exception of animal products that were roasted.
- Fast foods and prepackaged foods: These products mostly fall into the processed foods category. Please note that there are some exceptions, like salads or grilled chicken that would still be fine.
- Added sugar: Sugar falls into the processed foods category, but I would still like to emphasize that we only had access to refined sugar in the past several centuries. As a matter of fact, most of that time it was extremely expensive and became a cheap addition to our rations in the past hundred years or so. Thus, no sugar and no additives in general.
- Artificial sweeteners: Since we spoke about added sugar, we should mention the artificial sweeteners. Obviously, cavemen didn't use any and, therefore, you shouldn't either.
- Alcohol: I said that I'd like it to be a separate category, because it doesn't really fall into other groups and is often overlooked. Our ancestors didn't have single-malt whiskey or wine, they didn't even make beer until after agricultural revolution. The only reason why our bodies can process alcohol is because occasionally we would come across naturally fermented fruits or vegetables and our bodies needed a detoxification mechanism to help with that.
To sum it up, if you want to follow the Paleo diet you need to limit your food choices to meat, poultry, eggs, fish, fruits, and vegetables. It already sounds quite restrictive as we just crossed out 90% of the things we see in a typical supermarket. The fun part is that there is much more to it.
The wild vs. farmed foods issue
Here is a huge problem – the foods that we can find in a supermarket are still very different from their wild counterparts, the ones our ancestors consumed. Let's review the foods from the "allowed" food groups one by one.
- Fish and seafood in general, especially wild caught ones, are more or less ok – in fact, it's the only food category that remained unchanged simply because we didn't intervene with the natural course of events much in case of seafood. There might be some contaminants, but that's pretty much it. It is still wild.
- Meat and poultry: These are already very different from the game meat and fowl. The domesticated animals have much more fat on them than their wild counterparts, even if they are organic or free-range. There are much more calories coming with that fat, and accordingly, much less protein per unit of mass than if we were to consume wild game meat. We still have access to game meat and fowl, though it might be limited and expensive.
- Fruits and vegetables: Not surprisingly it is the most problematic category – as all species of edible plants have been heavily cultivated to be high in starch and sugar and relatively low in fiber. The alternatives are very scarce. Maybe, if you are very lucky you can come across some wild berries, but you can't really have a reliable source of any wild fruits or vegetables. Unless you live in some natural habitat and all you do is searching for edible plants, which is simply incompatible with our modern lifestyle.
So, given that we have these issues with food availability, what can we do to get over them? How can we follow the Paleo Diet properly? I have two solutions, a realistic one, the diet you can follow by shopping at a supermarket, and something rather extravagant, but very close to the ways our ancestors got their nutrition from.
The "Supermarket Paleo"
This is the most realistic solution based on the idea that you get most of your foods from a regular supermarket and you don't want your diet to make you go bankrupt. When you shop, you still avoid all the food categories that I've outlined above – no processed food, no dairy products, no bread or cereals, no cookies, no junk foods, no alcohol, no condiments. It actually saves some money for purchasing the proper foods. Here are my recommendations in terms of what foods to purchase:
- You can get your fish and seafood, I would suggest getting the items that are wild caught and freshly frozen. Stay away from derivatives, like crab cakes or salmon burgers – you don't know what was added there. I am on a fence with the canned, smoked or salted fish, so it's up to you whether to get these items or not.
- Meat and poultry: Since the major issue with the farmed animal products is the fat content, try to get lean parts of everything – you can get lean ground beef, steaks with trimmed fat, skinless chicken breasts and so on. Organ meats are good too, especially liver. If it doesn't break the bank, go for organic, free-range, grass-fed items. I do not think that it would make a huge difference, but if it's not too problematic financially, why not doing it.
- Fruits and vegetables: This category is the most problematic and I feel that our options are very limited here. As I mentioned, the main difference between the cultivated plant-based items and wild ones is the carbohydrate content, so I would recommend going for the fruits and vegetables with higher fiber and lower starch and sugar content. They will also have a lower glycemic index. Some highly recommended plants I would suggest are cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. These are good. You have to be careful and study nutritional labels. Try to limit your consumption of sweet and starchy fruits and vegetables. And of course, it would be nice if you could get organic versions of these items.
- Eaton, Shostak, and Konner also recommend trying to replicate the ratio of carbohydrates, protein, and fat as 20:8:8, which was common for the paleolithic nutrition, so you can play with macros when making your selections. Please keep in mind that the ratio is based on the weight of the macronutrients.
- You might also, need to look into micronutrient supplementation, things like vitamin C and certain minerals, though ideally you should get them from food.
I must say that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try to replicate the paleolithic nutrition, you will not be able to do it in a supermarket. But, in my opinion, it is still a very good idea to try. But, what happens if we really care about our nutrition and want to truly replicate the paleolithic nutrition? Here comes my extravagant version.
The roper paleo diet
I'll start with a warning – this is not a diet for a regular person, it is expensive, and it almost takes an obsessive-compulsive or highly perfectionistic personality to follow it properly. First of all, you can get your seafood directly from the sea, exclusively wild-caught, ideally fresh, but I think it would be fair to accept freshly frozen variants. Next, the meat – you must find a supply of game and fowl. You can either hunt yourself or find some reliable sources. It will cost a lot, of course, but these animal products will be of exceptional quality and taste. Last, but not the least – the plants... This category is still so problematic, that I don't have a good advice on it. One option would be to go full carnivore, which is a different diet, or, you can try finding some reliable sources of wild edible plants. I know for sure that you can purchase some wild berries. You can go hiking and gathering yourself, though I don't think it's sustainable. Still a nice hobby to pick. But since we have unlimited budget here, we can assume that you would be able to find some local (or not so local) supplier of wild fruits and vegetables. You can definitely find some wild leeks, some mushrooms, fiddleheads, some greens. Apparently, dandelions are edible too. Please, don't take it as I am mocking you – we really don't have that many sources of wild edible plants nowadays, so it might be difficult to find them and the whole diet idea might not seem feasible.
The Final Thoughts
The Paleo diet sounds like a great idea and as a matter of fact it is – our nutrition can improve greatly if we steer away from our current Standard American or Western Diet. That's a given. At the same time, it's almost impossible, or, I should rather say, unfeasible to follow a proper Paleo diet as many of the foods our ancestors consumed in Stone Age are simply not available. We can still try to follow the Paleo diet on a budget by carefully watching our food choices, but the benefits of this approach might be limited. Hence the question – is the realistic version of Paleo Diet truly beneficial and is there scientific evidence supporting it?
And that will be the topic for my next blog in this series. I am working on it right now and I will post it soon, so if you don't want to miss anything, please subscribe to my website and to my YouTube channel – there is a lot of information to share and I am always happy to do so. And of course, you can always ask questions, make comments and suggestions either on YouTube, or here on my website.
1. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med. 1985;312(5):283-289.
2. Cordain L. The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel Great, Stay Young. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.; 2012.
3. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Sebastian A, et al. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(2):341-354.