The Paleo diet is an abbreviation of ‘Palaeolithic diet’ – which in turn is a diet designed to mimic the eating habits of prehistoric man. Thus it is also known as the ‘caveman diet’ or ‘stone age diet’, and involves the consumption of wild plants and animals with minimal preparation. Specifically the food is of course aimed to mimic the Palaeolithic era, which lasted around 2.5 million years and ended roughly 10,000 years ago due to the introduction of early agriculture.
So what’s the reasoning behind this diet? Is it a fad diet? And what does it consist of? Here we will examine the facts.
Is the Paleo Diet Good for You?
The idea was first made popular by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin in the 1970s and the information came largely from the ‘Ethnographic Atlas (5)’ which was an examination of various sources written by 20th Century ethnographers. The Paleo diet is a source for controversy among dieticians and researchers.
On the one hand the general underlying concept behind the Paleo diet is sound – and it is certainly true that we would have evolved to rely on such a diet (similar to the way in which we evolved to run bare footed which is proving to be better for our joints as well as more energy efficient), and some studies have indeed shown that a hunter gatherer style diet can have positive effects on health.
However on the other hand, the precise recommendations of those proponents of the diet are not always logical and can be somewhat arbitrary and the source of recommendations – the Ethnographic Atlas – is not the most reliable relying on information that was collected with little interest in diet and which looked at modern hunter gatherers who were few in number and presumably different from those that would have contributed to our evolutionary history. One of the assumptions of the Paleo diet is that we would have eaten mostly proteins with only roughly 27% of our diet being taken up by carbohydrates. This is not something that is necessarily true however, as it’s likely that ancient man would have relied largely on fruits and nuts while hunting for prey and would have feasted on meat only relatively rarely.
One claim by the Paleo diet is that it could help to eliminate the majority of ‘illnesses of the modern world’. Again this is a claim with little foundation – as it is unlikely that our diets per se have much to do with the most commonplace illnesses. The problems come when people eat unhealthy quantities or ratios within the confines of the modern diet, and are caused by many other factors as well such as environment and genetics. Finally, it is important to remember that our evolution stems back much farther than the Palaeolithic era and stretches back to times long before we were even human, and furthermore it is still continuing (proportions in our gut seem to be indicative of the fact that much of our food comes now ‘pre-digested’ by technology). Finally the Paleo diet is largely just too difficult for most people to stick to and isn’t really practical.
What to Take From All This
The general concept behind the Palaeolithic diet is not wrong. It is just overly simplistic and in many cases arbitrary, specific and hyperbolic. The reality is that yes – many modern techniques such as adding sugar and salt to things has resulted in health problems such as increased obesity. Sticking to fresher foods, leaner meats and higher quantities of fruits and vegetables is advisable – it’s just that the Paleo diet generally describes an incorrect way to go about this. Furthermore, there is no harm in many cases in taking advantage of the benefits of modern science in order to eat food that is more convenient or that is designed with our current lifestyles in mind. As always with these things, learn what you can from them, but practice common sense, read other views and exercise moderation – don’t blindly trust a diet with a fancy name even if it sounds logical.