How ‘paleo’ is the Paleo diet?

This post is part 2 of 6 in a series on Useable Pasts: Archaeological Insights Into Diet and Food Security.

What is the Paleo diet? Would our palaeolithic ancestors recognise it?

The Paleo diet is supposedly based on the eating habits of our Palaeolithic ancestors, working on the assumption that they were hunter gatherers subsiding on meat, berries, nuts and other foraged or hunted food sources. While the followers of the Paleo diet are generally not going out and hunting for food themselves, they do attempt to avoid foods that would not have been available to our ancestors, such as processed sugars, dairy and grains. At least, this is the theory. In reality the common conceptions of what constituted a ‘paleo’ diet are inaccurate and misinformed, and many items that are excluded from the diet would in fact have been eaten by our ancestors. For example, evidence suggests that cereal grains, which are one of the main ‘bad’ foods in the Paleo diet, were a dietary staple in many Palaeolithic populations, who started eating wheat and barley during the last ice age. Archaeologists also believe that the modern Paleo diet is too focused on meat, and doesn’t include the same diversity of foods that a real Palaeolithic human would have eaten — perhaps this is because our diet is not heavily influenced by availability and environment in the same way a real Palaeolithic diet would have been. The idea that there even was one ‘paleo’ diet is inaccurate, as Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City points out: “The human diet goes back at least two million years. We had a lot of cavemen out there.”

Our bodies have also evolved since the Palaeolithic, and the idea that we would thrive on the same diet as our ancestors is misinformed. For example, lactase persistence (the ability to drink milk past childhood), is a genetic ability that has only evolved in the last 10,000 years or so, since the invention of dairy farming (Hollox, 2005: 267), refuting the common argument that humans have not had enough time to adapt to a grain heavy diet. Similarly, our teeth, jaws and heads are all smaller than those of our palaeolithic ancestors. Even putting this evidence to one side, humans have been eating grain for longer than previously believed. Agriculture has only been around for around 10,000 years, and yet archaeologists have discovered starch granules from plants on fossilised teeth and stone tools, suggesting that humans have been eating grain for at least 100,000 years — more then enough time for our bodies to adapt.

Finally, even if our conceptions were accurate, “we live in a society where it is not possible to eat exactly as our ancestors ate.” Every species of plant and animal consumed today is drastically different from the version of that species our Palaeolithic ancestors would have eaten. Even if we could eat exactly as they ate, it would probably not be the optimum diet for the average person alive today — while it is true that Palaeolithic humans had lower rates of heart disease and diabetes than their modern counterparts, archaeologists believe that was due to the active lifestyle led by our ancestors, rather than diet. Similarly, an archaeological study looking for signs of atherosclerosis (a disease caused by arteries clogged by cholesterol and fat), found that out of one hundred ancient mummies (which included those from preagricultural societies), forty seven of them had probable or definite atherosclerosis. This implies that the preagricultural diet of ancient hunter gatherers did not create a culture of “sculpted Adonises immune to all disease” as many Paleo diet focused books and websites imply.

So is it worth following?

While it may not be the cure-all diet many would have you believe, nor particularly accurate to how ‘paleo’ humans lived, there are some benefits to the Paleo diet. Cutting down on the processed foods common in modern diets, especially those high in sugar and salt, is definitely a positive change, as is the emphasis on ‘whole’ foods such as vegetables, fruit, and lean meat. However those following a Paleo diet should still aim for balance, and especially take care not to overload their kidneys with excessively high amounts of protein. Similarly, many foods that are not part of the Paleo diet — for example, dairy, legumes, and grains — have been shown to be beneficial in moderation, and should not be cut out of your diet entirely without consulting a physician.

Image (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0): Followers of the Paleo diet avoid pasta, bread, rice and other grain products.

Works cited:

Filipic, M. (2013) ‘Paleo diet has pros and cons’, The Ohio State University: Chow Line, 8 March. Available at: https://cfaes.osu.edu/sites/cfaes_main/files/site-library/site-documents/News/chow.paleo_.pdf.

Gibbons, A. (2013) The Evolution of Diet, National Geographic Magazine. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/foodfeatures/evolution-of-diet/ (Accessed: 9 January 2020).

Hollox, E. (2005) ‘Evolutionary Genetics: Genetics of lactase persistence — fresh lessons in the history of milk drinking’, European Journal of Human Genetics, 13(3), pp. 267–269. doi: 10.1038/sj.ejhg.5201297.

Jabr, F. (2013) How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked, Scientific American. Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-paleo-diet-half-baked-how-hunter-gatherer-really-eat/ (Accessed: 12 November 2019).

Ungar, P. (2017) The ‘True’ Human Diet, Scientific American. Available at: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-true-human-diet/ (Accessed: 9 January 2020).

Weltman, S. (2017) Paleo Diet: Back to the Stone Age?, PennState Extention. Available at: https://extension.psu.edu/paleo-diet-back-to-the-stone-age (Accessed: 8 January 2020).

Image:

Cristian (2015) Food Market, Flickr. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/omnia_mutantur/17581308424/in/photolist-sMANtj-PjiBcG-ceJXL3-NU8cZQ-2bzw2yp-jVxS1R-nbSK5C-vGSJRw-RECzqs-2acEdvU-hSEYe2-2fGcFgZ-59PMra-i8ndLh-zgFrKQ-3GRRkx-TWcThi-2hu5fDH-2hsNxDJ-8UBomU-93Sam2-7k46dj-dSFiTW-NTS4b-kSNtqH-qHpyrV-7cDm-22uu7bU-EpRV2u-74trS-2b23naw-L74heh-2682XPT-Md8nM9-29kVrGe-sCom1Q-bYYjG-2aTpE6U-27uFUf4-24EwvG3-REwvdm-PwNkcH-Buztjb-9zPHvt-yYXec-3B66fs-9nsAka-aaqoZR-2aq8iHX-Pk8iK2 (Accessed: 11 January 2020).

Image is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. Some rights reserved.

Article written by Caitlin Nathan-Maister, 2020.

MSc Archaeology student at Oxford University