Wednesday, June 03, 2009

What Are Your Thoughts On A Paleolithic Diet For Modern Humans?

Matt asked this question in comments. Here are some of my thoughts. Feel free to add yours.

The choice of a diet depends on what you want to accomplish - whether you want to lose weight, gain weight, manage a chronic lung disease or kidney problem, protect your heart, or protect the planet.

I think the paleo diet is restrictive. As I know it, since it tries to mirror how humans ate before the advent of farming and fire, it prohibits all grains and beans, even in their whole form, including green beans, peas, and peanuts; all dairy food, butter, cheese, etc.; all fermented foods like vinegars, kim chee, pickles, and alcohol; salt; and all cooking oils (as well as all cooking, although I know some paleo followers have relaxed this restriction). As a beverage it allows unheated, unprocessed water - rainwater or from a surface source (to maintain a particular colonic bacteria population?). I don't think it's a diet that many people can easily follow.

I know it focuses on wild plants and animals. That has benefits. You'd do away with chemical fertilizers (all fertilizers?), pesticides, genetic engineering, fuel for farming, irrigation, and processing, and the whole confined animal feeding operation mess. Meat would have a higher relative amount of omega-3 and less total fat. But here again it's restrictive. Plants like tomatoes, apples, corn, etc. bred to be large, starchy, and sweet would not be consumed. And there aren't that many non-farmed plants and animals to go around. The more you relax restrictions, the more it can be argued you aren't eating a paleo diet.

There's the issue of animal food consumption's larger carbon footprint relative to plant food, the increase in the price of food it causes, and its contribution to global warming and world hunger. That brings me back to the purpose of the diet.

So, the diet itself - wild lean uncooked meats, wild unprocessed uncooked plant foods - has merit for some purposes. It's probably a good weight loss diet, especially if everything is raw. Although it's difficult to judge a diet out of context. Modern man lives in a very different environment than prehistoric man. In fact, Dr. Wrangham argues that modern man (and modern man's brain) would not exist if not for fire and cooking.

One thing it has going for it that I think most people can do - it restricts processed food.
Photo of a 100,000-year-old human skull, found in Israel in 2001, from National Geographic.


Angela and Melinda said...

Just a couple observations. First, use of fire goes much further back than most people realize. While it's still controversial, there's a substantial body of evidence suggesting that controlled use of fire goes back to the Lower Pleistocene (defined as 1.8 million to ~800,000 years ago). Homo sapiens sapiens (that's us) dates back about 100,000 years, but we didn't flourish till about 35,000 years ago. That means that Homo erectus and other hominids used fire long before we came along.

The other thing is that unless you're willing to eat insects, rodents, etc. as major protein sources, you won't be eating a real Paleo diet. And the veggies and fruits available nowadays are far sweeter and much less fibrous than the wild plants of the Paleolithic period.

So you would have to forage. If you spent most of your waking hours foraging--and if you were quick enough to catch insects, rodents, etc--you *might* be able to approximate a Paleo diet, but I doubt it would appeal much to the modern palate.

Angela and Melinda said...

Whoops, I correct myself. Within Africa, modern human remains date back about 160,000 years, and in China one modern human skull has been found that's ~200,000 years old.

Anonymous said...

As a follower of the Paleolithic diet as it is advised by Dr. Loren Cordain there are some remarks I want to make:

-although it focuses on foods available before farming it doesn't mean cooking isn't allowed since fire were used widely about 200.000 ago while farming began about 10.000 years ago. The issue is about the foods that one can it, those eaten before farming, not about if they are consumed cooked or raw. Only a small percentage of paleodiet followers have a raw diet. Moreover, the cooking of the food is widely advised since it prevents many riks for health.

-cooking oils aren't prohibited, just those with a bad omega 6 to omega 3 ratio, as corn oil, palm oil or sunflower oil. Recommended oils are flaxseed oil, canola oil, olive oil, etc.

-I have never heard about the water restrictions, any drinkable water is ok. About beverages, only alcohol and sugary drinks are prohibited.

-about plants: although it is obviously better to consume organic products it doesn't mean that you can't eat the average fruits and greens available everywhere if they meet the quality standars.

-about meat: although wild game or free-range meat is the best, lean and with a good omega 6 to omega 3 ratio, any lean meat is acceptable.

-tomatoes and apples are not restricted, only seeds and starchy vegetables as potatoes. So, all the fruis and most of greens are allowed.

-the one thing that changed human brain was the consumption of meat. Fire had also a big role in making calories available, but that was more recently and not as meat.

Ive been with this diet for a year and I have found it very easy to follow. Food is easy to prepare, the thing that takes more time is to cook the meat or the fish, which are generally roasted, griled or boiled or steamed, as some greens.

But the best of all is that I feel healthy and I keep lean easily.

Anonymous said...

Replying to anonymous:

So why would you call that diet you described as a 'Paleolithic Diet'? it doesn't resemble in the least bit the diet followed by our ancestors. Certainly a boiled chicken breast with steamed broccoli with a green apple for dessert is a healthy and nutritious meal but it's not 'paleolithic', paleo would be a couple of bugs you would be able to forage, edible roots you pulled from the ground and wild game, and by 'wild game' I don't mean the lean cuts of meat like you wrote but the organs the brain etc...

Let's be real, anyone living in the western world won't be able to follow a real 'paleo diet'...

And btw in the amazons the indians there have been using quinoa, corn and lots of other starches as a staple in their diet for a long time and they seem healthy and lean so not sure about the hate directed at starches....

I'll be sticking with the med diet and I suggest everyone to do the same as it seems the one that makes most sense.

Matt said...

"Original Poster" here ... to me, a paleolithic-"style" diet seems like the best way to portray how I have been eating lately. Emphasis on grass-fed beef, local produce, eggs, and free-range chicken/lamb, berries, nuts and seeds, and limited grain. Cooking with coconut oil, olive oil, bacon grease and butter, to restrict the omega 6. Some yogurt, and I'm thinking of going with raw milk but currently don't drink much milk so this wouldn't have a large impact. I feel great, and my seasonal allergies and asthma are no longer in the picture much at all. It just seems "right" for me.

True, our fruits are sweeter today because they have been bred for that. So, I don't indulge in a great deal of fruit. An orange or some berries at breakfast, maybe some more fruit later in the day seasonally, but no more than two "servings".

Also important is supplementation since I'm not consuming the fortified grain products. I go with a daily multi, some flax and fish oil, and 5K IU of D. I think I need to get E in the mix as well.

tomas said...

To Manu: there is no need to overdo it, of course it is paleolithic style meal. Chicken breast is just like lean game meat, broccoli is a green that can be eaten raw and although wild apples a smaller they still are quite like the ones we eat today. They also ate organs like brain and kidney is true, but we today can eat them too.

Paleolithic food mean: lean-like-game meat, fish, fruits and greens, and nuts, which are the foods that were available in those times, and not dairy products, cereals and legumes, that only came after the agricultural revolution 10.000 years ago, and the complex processes of farming and agriculture.

The consumption by the indians of cereals and starchys is not as old as you say, is more recent than the western society.

Mankind have had a hunter-gather diet for 3.000.000 year till 10.000 years ago, so that is our natural and more healthy diet. Just think in any kind of omnivore mammal as we are, bear for example, do they eat dairy products after weaning?, or cereals, or legumes? No, they don't collect cereals nor legumes, they don't make bread, they are hunter-gatherers as all omnivore mammals are, and as we are.

I humbly suggest you to inform more about the paleodiet through Loren Cordain's books or other sources in the internet.

caulfieldkid said...

No beans? That's a deal killer for me :)


Laura in Arizona said...

No one today can really eat exactly like our ancestors did. The vegetable material is different, the fruits are different and the animals are different. That being said, we are adapted to consume meats, fish, eggs, fowl along with vegetable matter and limited/seasonal amounts of fruits and nuts.

For myself, when I speak of paleo or primal style of eating, I mean eating paleo in today's world. I forage for my food at the grocery store and the farmer's market. I hunt dinner at the butcher shop. I do not find it in the least restrictive and enjoy making new recipes. For whatever I want, I can come up with something that is paleo that approximates it AND tastes good too! - muffins made with flax, lemon curd over berries, almond crackers, spaghetti squash pasta, even pizza.

I do not follow it 100% (yet) so I do have occasional dairy, alcohol, legumes. I have been rewarded with complete normalization of blood sugar, plummeting LDL and triglycerides and increases in HDL and well being. Plus I have shed 30+ pounds of fat.

Is it perfect paleo? No. I would need to eat the whole animal not just the muscle meat. Things like kidney, brain, heart, liver, gonads, tongue. Also insects and grubs. I doubt I will ever get there but who knows.

This is the diet that I believe makes the most sense, is easy to follow, is very satisfying and gives excellent results. I started with Loren Cordain but don't worry about saturated fats and don't go goofy with the fruits. He has a lot of good research behind him and is coming out with lots more in the future.

For those that want to consume grains or beans, there are ways to prepare them so the toxins are reduced and makes them less harmful. These things such as soaking and fermentation are procedures that healthy primitive cultures do. They might not know the science behind it but they knew they needed to do these things to make them into good eats. We are now just learning how smart they were.

For those interested, here is a link to a short video about paleo eating that says it all in a nutshell.

Angela and Melinda said...

I'm with Manu on this. Further, we've discussed Dr. Cordain's ideas previously on this blog (and at length), and found they do not coincide with scholarly archaeological and anthropological understanding of conditions of life in the Paleolithic period. Following his diet is fine, but historically speaking, it's not Paleolithic.

Bryan - oz4caster said...

I think it's important to learn as much as we can from the diets of our ancestors. I say diets, because they are hugely varied. Our challenge is to learn which foods and in which proportions confer optimal health. I don't believe that one diet fits all. There are probably many diets based on what our healthy ancestors ate that can work well for most people.

My feeling is that the most important improvements to diet for most of us involve minimizing highly processed manufactured foods and returning to more traditional foods that have been eaten for hundreds, if not thousands of years or more. That includes minimizing sugar and vegetable oils, which are relatively new to the human diet. In this context, choosing foods by taste and by how they make you feel should probably work well. I don't believe in eating foods that I don't like :)

Unknown said...

I don't follow paleo because of an ideology and I realize that my diet is not they way real paleo humans ate. But Paleo lets you look at more recent additions to the human diet in a skeptical way. For me, I do paleo because of health problems. But I am not 100% paleo because I do some fermenting and sprouting of grains, because hey...I need some cake occasionally. If you are food sensitive, as I am, it can take a long time to find a diet that is right for you. My "paleo" diet is leaves, fruit, and fish.

Unknown said...

World's Oldest Spears

Anonymous said...

I'm no anthropologist but it seems to me the best way to find out about the paleolithic man diet would be to study tribes that have had minimal contact with the modern world. Probably some in the deep amazon rain forest, africa (can only think of the masai but I'm sure there are more) and some in pacific islands.

I'm pretty sure the real paleolithic diet would show an amazing spectrum of foods, populations in coastal areas their diets would emphasize seafood and in tropical areas fresh fruits.

The 'paleo' diet people describe here seems to be a sensible and healthy diet but my problem is people claiming it to be the 'optimal diet for humans' and that 'it was what our ancestors ate', forgive me but that seems severely misleading and it smells more like another fad diet with ill defined guide lines.

You say you are taking nutritional supplements then I ask you how can you consider it to be a 'optimal diet'?

" Cooking with coconut oil, olive oil, bacon grease and butter, to restrict the omega 6. Some yogurt~"

" muffins made with flax, lemon curd over berries, almond crackers, spaghetti squash pasta, even pizza."

I think we need to face facts: no one in the western world would be able to really eat like our ancestors did in the paleolithic period. The best we can do is emulate but why call it 'paleo' when it sounds pretty much like the south beah diet or atkins with a little more carb?

Bix said...

Is it possible to tell anything about diet from the teeth and jaw of this skull? (I'll say one thing, those teeth are beautifully preserved.)

Perovskia said...

Hmmm. I don't know much about this Paleo diet aside from what I've read here. I think people are trying to adhere to a diet used hundreds of thousands of years ago. Our body compositions are (slightly) different now than they were then - am I wrong? To switch drastically from one to the other would be a shock to the modern-day/western diet system.

Though I'm not totally disagreeing with it! I understand about eating better, with a more native type diet, less processed foods. I understand food restrictions/sensitivities. I'm trying to understand at this point what the Paleo diet is exactly about (fire, no fire? pre-farm?) .

Now, I'm going to put a different spin on it - it resembles and seems similar to a fancied up 100-mile diet. You're being conscious to eat local, simple, clean food. One may or may not agree with me. Maybe it's more than that, I don't know. I just believe eating a balanced meal of local, fresh foods is best (dietary restrictions not withstanding).

My 2 cents.

Btw.. Manu.. when you said 'med diet'.. do you mean Mediterranean diet? I was on that last year and loved it, never felt better (hope to again soon).

Perovskia said...

Ha.. Bix. Yeah, I hope I look like that in 100,000 years :)

Anonymous said...

Perovskia yes, and I've also eaten 'paleo' style and I was much more strict than the people defending the diet seem to be. Basically nothing processed, and that meant absolutely no dairy, no sausages, no cooking oils, anything that require man to process was striken out.

It was a good diet but I seem to do better on a med diet, I don't eat dairy or grains but I do eat lots of fruit and legumes, garbanzo beans are my favorite, lots and lots of fish, I try to not eat meat more than twice a week and I drown my salads in olive oil.

I also am able to eat 500 grams of walnuts and 500 grams of almonds 2 hours later and if they weren't so expensive I'd eat them everyday.

Anonymous said...

"Is it possible to tell anything about diet from the teeth and jaw of this skull? (I'll say one thing, those teeth are beautifully preserved.)"

when anthropologists claim that they died at a young age I wonder if it's just that their skeletons are so robust that misleads them into thinking they were younger when they died.

As for the teeth a diet with no refined sugar or flour, I guess they didn't even eat grains, a diet like that is really healthy for the teeth

Perovskia said...

Manu.. When I followed a Mediterranean diet last year, it was because I thought I was having heart problems (turns out I didn't; it was pernicious anemia giving me bad heart palpitations), it had a double-bonus effect. Not only did the heart palpitations lessen, but I could breathe better and I lost weight. I don't remember feeling better.

Maria Verivaki said...

great discussion, must come back and read more in detail

i'm happy to eat an 'evolved' diet - after all, animal skins in the winter and a tanga brief in the summer just has no pull these days!

Bix said...

okay... okay... I had to look up "tanga brief." Cute. Minimal, isn't it.

Matt said...

I'm glad my comment sparked so much interest. As a little followup, for more info on check out Mark Sisson's website and blog. It's a great reference full of unconventional common sense.

Bix said...

I ran into a Cordain article the other day. (Loren Cordain has written extensively about the Paleolithic diet.):

I knew the Paleo diet was meat-based, but I didn't know just how much meat a follower consumes. According to Cordain, someone eating a Paleo Diet gets between 56% and 65% of their calories from meat. Wow. That's meat at every meal.

It's for sure a restrictive diet. Most people in the world don't have access to this amount of meat, let alone non-farmed, wild meat.

Matt said...

Wow, I have a lot of catching up to do on this site. Great articles, Bix.

I think we all have different ideas of what a Paleo Diet is, or at least I do since I have no experience with what that means. It is interesting that they had high meat counts in their diet- since the Inuit ate at least that amount in meat and were very healthy. But of course it is impossible to eat a Paleo Diet today because we no longer have the same varieties of game or plants and if they do they are eating different varieties and breeds of food. At the least, we could mimic these diets with higher amounts of wild edibles (burdock roots, nettles, berries). The population is far too great to support that kind of diet, but there are also tons and tons of wild edibles that go unused.