The concept of “Paleo Diet” is frequently heard in the health and nutrition industry.
In this era of hyper-communication (and, paradoxically, also of great misinformation), there are many myths around this way of eating that create confusion in people.
Let’s analyze, what History and Science say.
What does Paleolithic mean?
Paleo or palaios (Greek): ancient and, lithic or lithos (Greek): stone. The compound term, “Paleolithic” is used to refer in Anthropology, the science that studies the evolution of the human being, to the Old Stone Age.
It was at this time that the first hominins (ancestors of Homo sapiens, the current human being) arose, who began to make and use stone tools (source).
The consensus among Anthropologists regarding the origin of the first hominins was established about 1.8 – 2.8 million years ago. (source).
The Paleolithic Era coincides with an era of great glaciations (source) where most of the planet was ice. In these severe conditions, the hominins had to spend long time in caves.
They would just go hunting and collecting what they could on rare occasions. They were nomadic, so that they had to travel from time to time seeking for new resources to survive.
End of glaciations
The end of the last Ice Age dates back about 10,000 years (source). Large areas of land were exposed that later became forests and fields, which were used by the first humans to cultivate.
They no longer had to travel looking for food, but themselves were able to produce and maintain it. The domestication of plants and animals had began, the so-called Neolithic Era or Agricultural Revolution (source).
In the next thousands of years, the cereals (wheat, rice, corn, etc.) and dairy products are incorporated into the human diet. The first techniques of food processing arose. For example, wheat grains are milled to obtain flour and make bread (source).
Small settlements of people emerged, which would later give rise to large cities.
In the middle of the eighteenth century, manual work in farms was gradually replaced by work in factories. Food is further processed and mass produced. At this point, bread is a staple food in all social classes.
Consumption of refined sugar is being promoted worldwide.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, large processed foods corporations like Kellog’s, Pepsico, Nestlé, etc. emerged, which introduced new food substitutes that lowered production costs. An example is the High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) gradually incorporated from the 1970s to the present day (source).
Food available in Mankind History
If we represent as a percentage what has been explained so far we have:
- 99% of existence as hominins in the Paleolithic Era: we ate meats, eggs, vegetables, small fruits and insects. Approximately 2 million years.
- 0.9% of existence as hominins in the Agricultural Era: we added cereals and dairy products to our diet. The last 10,000 years.
- 0.001% existence as hominins in Industrial Era: highly processed foods, sugar, refined flours, hydrogenated fats. The last 150 years.
To understand it better, I propose the following comparison:
Imagine a calendar year, 365 days. From January 1 to December 28 at 4 in the afternoon we only ate fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs. From 4 pm onwards, we incorporated cereals and dairy products. Finally on December 31 at 11:40 pm we started to eat highly processed foods.
Which, between all these foods, do you think you would be more adapted to? I think there is no doubt.
So, if 99% of our existence we spent in the Paleolithic Era, why do we have to follow the following recommendations?
We survived for more than 2 million years on meat, vegetables, fruits and eggs.
Why suddenly now, according to some specialists, we “need” to eat 2-3 servings of dairy products per day or 4-5 of cereals? Why meats and eggs are less recommended if we have been eating them for 99% of our existence?
Paleo “Diet”: The 4 Fundamental Foods
The first thing to highlight is that it is not a diet (if we consider the usual definition of diet in the context of nutrition as something that begins and ends in a period of time). I prefer to call it a concept, philosophy or approach to eating.
A Paleolithic Concept proposes that we should feed ourselves with what was only available at that time. At this point of the post you should have already realized what those foods are but let’s quickly review them:
- Meats of all kinds: beef, pork, poultry, fish, seafood, etc.
- Fruits and vegetables: all kinds. This also includes some underground organs such as tubers (potatoes), starchy roots (sweet potato, kumara, etc.) and mushrooms. Also nuts such as walnuts, almonds, etc.
Any ‘Paleo’ food is one that decomposes over time and which does not come packaged. In other words, as close as possible to how you would find it in nature: something that can be obtained through hunting, fishing or gathering.
What do I propose?
As in most aspects of life, extremes are bad.
It is not necessary to be an obsessed ’24/7 paleo’ depriving yourself of social events or traditional ‘no Paleo’ meals from your culture.
What I definitely recommend is that most of your food to come from the 4 Fundamental Foods.
Following a diet based on our evolution guarantees an improvement in your health:
- Less systemic inflammation and oxidative stress (source)
- Improvements in glucose control and lipid profile in patients with Type 2 Diabetes (source), (source).
- Greater short-term improvements in components of metabolic syndrome than diets based on official recommendations (source), reduced risk of colorectal cancer (source), acne, myopia, weight loss, waist circumference, blood pressure (source)
- Improvement in several cardiovascular risk factors (source)
- It would promote a healthy microbiota like that of non-westernized populations (source)
- Also with this type of food you get rid of gluten which in many people increases intestinal permeability and inflammation (not to mention the enormous benefit for those with Coeliac Disease) (source), (source).
You can read yourself here more than 200 studies about the Paleo concept.
On the other hand, there are foods incorporated later in our evolution which, moderately consumed, have proven to be safe (which does not mean that they are essential).
Such is the case of rice (better white than brown because of the arsenic that may be in the latter’s bran) (source) or some fermented dairy products such as yoghurt, kefir or cheese which are easier to digest than milk (source) (source) (source).
There are even a few processed foods such as whey protein shakes (actually supplements) that are perfectly safe and recommended for example for those who regularly do physical activity and want to gain muscle mass or in the case of older adults who are prone to muscle loss (source), (source), (source).
Refined wheat flour and sugar are highly questioned by science and are associated with a higher incidence of obesity, insulin resistance, Type 2 Diabetes, Heart Disease, chronic inflammation, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s etc. (source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source), (source).
You want to put it simple?
At least 85% of your meals should follow the Paleo Concept.
In numbers: if we think of 21 big meals a week (3 per day), 2 or on rare occasions up to 3 maximum can be ‘cheat meals’. You have that credit, choose wisely where to spend it.
Absolutely all the nutrients we need are contained in the 4 fundamental foods: fruits, vegetables, meats and eggs.
The statement that an adult should eat 3-4 servings of dairy or 4-5 cereals a day is false, it lacks of any evolutionary logic.
What I suggest is to follow a way of eating (not a diet) based on those 4 foods without getting obsessed.
Unless you got Coeliac Disease, you won’t have any issues for eating some pasta with your family on a Sunday lunch or eating some pizzas and cake at your friend’s birthday party.