If you’re interested in wellness, health, or nutrition, you’ve undoubtedly come across the paleo diet, also called the caveman or stone age diet.
According to its followers, it has a range of health benefits.
There are myriad books, podcasts, and websites dedicated to the paleo diet, and the attention is working. Experts predict that the global market for paleo products will reach $12.6 billion by 2027.
The paleo diet in brief
The paleo diet is designed to mimic what our ancient hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era, when humans first evolved.
The first modern human, Homo sapiens, appeared around 300,000 years ago. And the Paleolithic era ended around 11,650 years ago, at the end of the last ice age.
After this, agriculture and farming began in earnest, which changed how and what we eat forever.
Paleo diet prophets argue that our genes haven’t had a chance to catch up with these changes, which explains the increases in “diseases of civilization,” like obesity and diabetes.
In this article, we’ll investigate whether the paleo diet really reflects how our distant cousins ate.
But before we dig into this meaty question, let’s do a quick recap on the paleo diet.
What can you eat on the paleo diet?
If you're following the paleo diet, you can eat meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds.
In particular, there’s a big focus on upping your meat intake.
Before the birth of agriculture, we didn’t eat grains or grain products. So, you can’t eat bread on this diet.
Because there was no farming, dairy products are off the menu, too.
And, of course, refined sugar and heavily processed foods weren’t around back then, either.
What about legumes?
On the paleo diet, you’re not allowed to eat legumes, including peas and beans. Why?
In this case, it’s not because our ancestors didn’t eat them. To get more info, we need to go to the source: Loren Cordain.
The idea of following more traditional dietary patterns isn’t new, but the 21st-century resurgence in interest is partly attributed to Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet, published in 2002.
In an article on legumes, Cordain says that you should avoid them because of the “antinutrients” they contain.
But that’s no reason to skip these foods. We won’t delve into it here, but we have a feature on antinutrients that covers some of the concerns.
It’s a similar story for starchy tubers, like potatoes. Tubers were available during the Paleolithic era, but Cordain has struck them off the menu.
This, he explains, is because of their antinutrients and the fact that they can spike blood sugar for some people.
Is it healthy?
In this feature, we’re not going to dive into the health effects and risks of the paleo diet.
But briefly, there’s some evidence that following a paleo diet could benefit some people, especially compared with a standard Western diet. However, there’s not enough research yet to draw firm conclusions.
Ultimately, everyone’s different. So what works for one person might not be best for another.
Now to the main question: Is the paleo diet really a fair representation of what we ate all those thousands of years ago?
What did our ancestors eat?
Because people in the Paleolithic era didn’t leave written records, it’s very difficult to know exactly what they ate.
As the author of one review writes:
“The evidence for the relative proportions of animal and plant foods in the diets of early humans is circumstantial, incomplete, and debatable.”
Still, to get a better idea of what people might have eaten back then, we can get some clues from hunter-gatherer tribes living today.
It’s likely that their dietary patterns are more similar to those of our ancient forebears. So, what are they eating?
The authors of a review on health and nutrition in hunter-gatherer populations across the world write:
“Dietary diversity among hunter-gatherers is so vast that dietary universals are few. [...] Dietary diversity is the rule. Across the globe, the human diet is dictated by geography and local ecology.”
The only things that most of these groups have in common are:
They cook their food. And they’ve probably been doing so for around 250,000 years.
They eat a mix of meat and plants. In a review of 265 populations, only one ate no fish or meat.
This diversity makes sense. Hunter-gatherers can only hunt and gather what’s living around them. There’s no single diet that these people follow.
As we mentioned earlier, Cordain’s book, The Paleo Diet, sparked the most recent interest in the paleo pattern of eating.
He also published papers that help form the foundation of the modern paleo diet. In them, he writes that up to 50% of hunter-gatherers' calories come from meat.
This would suggest that our modern diet is much lower in meat and overall protein than it used to be.
However, according to the authors of a review, the dietary assessments in Cordain’s papers “rely on rough and often methodologically opaque approximations of food intake” drawn from a book written in the 1960s by an anthropologist named George Murdock.
The assessments don’t align with the findings of more detailed studies of hunter-gatherer diets.
A short but sweet aside
One important oversight in Murdock’s work is honey — he doesn’t mention it. However, because honey is so energy-dense and delicious, it’s no surprise that people eat it when they find it.
For instance, the Hazda people of Tanzania derive an average of 15% of their daily calories from this sweet treat.
Although honey is allowed on the paleo diet, proponents of the diet would balk at such a high intake of simple carbs.
Going back to meat, studies have found that the intake varies significantly between groups of hunter-gatherers.
A study that looked at nine hunter-gatherer populations found that meat consumption made up anything from 29–79% of males’ daily calories.
And no discussion of hunter-gatherer diets would be complete without mentioning populations in the far north, like the Inuit.
With vanishingly few plants to choose from, their diet consists almost entirely of meat. Because of this, an estimated 50% of their calories come from fats.
To summarize, modern hunter-gatherers have a wide range of diets depending on where they live. There’s no single hunter-gatherer eating pattern.
What about our closest living relatives?
Another way to gauge what our ancient cousins were eating is to look at species that we’re closely related to.
Our closest relatives are the great apes, so that’s orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and bonobos.
Of these, we’re genetically closest to chimpanzees and bonobos. We share a common ancestor, who lived 8–6 million years ago.
So, let’s investigate what chimps eat.
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A chimp’s diet
Chimpanzees absolutely love fruit. A study found that chimps spent 65% of their feeding time eating fruit and 20% eating leaves. They also eat insects, like termites, and other species of primates.
Chimps also occasionally eat infant chimpanzees. Paleo diet enthusiasts are unsurprisingly quiet on the topic of cannibalism.
Overall, chimps' diets are low in meat. And, as with human hunter-gatherers, their diets vary by region.
For instance, researchers studying a population of chimpanzees in Ngogo, South Africa, found that they hunted an average of 1.8 times each month.
And scientists studying chimps in Taï, Côte d'Ivoire, found that they hunted an average of 2.9 times a month.
There are sex differences in meat consumption, too. Females have less access to meat, and they only eat around 13% as much meat as male chimps.
There’s some evidence that females make up for it by eating decaying wood — another food group not entertained by the paleo diet.
We do have some direct evidence of true Paleolithic diets. Again, they vary. And aside from geographical differences, there are climate shifts to contend with.
The end of the Paleolithic era coincides with the end of the last ice age. This extended cold snap ran from roughly 115,000–11,700 years ago.
The authors of one scientific paper write:
“Late in the [last ice age], the human diet in many parts of the world changed dramatically. Wild plant and animal foods that were previously not heavily exploited became important, sometimes as the dominant elements of the local diet.”
Although diets changed throughout the Paleolithic, and we don't know granular details, we can see snapshots of what some people were eating at scattered archaeological sites.
Next, we’ll cover a few of these findings.
An ancient buffet
Research shows that ancient humans ate a wider selection of animals and fish than Neanderthals.
But because this evidence comes from isotope studies on bones, we don’t know how much of their diet was meat.
And as we learned from our glance at hunter-gatherers, it likely varied from place to place and between the sexes.
Some of these foods are interesting because they’re either unpleasant to eat or toxic without preparation. So, our Paleolithic cousins were already processing food tens of thousands of years ago.
As you probably remember, starchy tubers and legumes are prohibited on the paleo diet.
And sites in China show that they relied on tubers during very cold periods.
Bread is another foodstuff that’s off the table with paleo. But there’s evidence from Jordan that people were making bread-like products 14,400 years ago, at the tail end of the Paleolithic.
These products were made from tubers and the wild ancestors of domesticated cereals.
So, although this is just small selection of the archaeological evidence, we can already see that it doesn’t match the modern “paleo” diet.
A paleolithic pantry
A final thorn in the side of the paleo diet is that most food today (even if it’s allowed on the paleo diet) is different from how it existed thousands of years ago.
We’ve domesticated chickens, cows, sheep, and other animals. In doing so, we’ve massaged their genes to turn them into much more efficient producers of meat and eggs.
And while some Paleolithic populations probably did eat more meat than modern humans, that meat was likely quite different — wild meat tends to have less saturated fat than meat from domesticated animals, for instance.
In the same way, we’ve domesticated crops, selecting only those with the biggest fruits, the fewest pips, and so on.
Also, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, collards, and kale didn’t exist 10,000 years ago.
Humans created these plants around 4,000 years ago, in a similar way that we managed to turn wild wolves into breeds as diverse as sausage dogs and St. Bernards.
The bottom line? Replicating the precise diet of Paleolithic humans is impossible.
Even if we knew what they were eating, many of the plants they consumed likely don't exist in the same form — at least not at your local store.
The paleo diet can’t be a faithful replication of what our ancient cousins ate because there was no single Paleolithic diet — their diets varied wildly.
Also, the plants and meat we eat today differ from those available to our ancestors. And the paleo diet bans legumes and grains, which some Paleolithic people did eat.
However, the paleo diet does encourage you to eat more plants, which ZOE is fully behind. A variety of plant foods is key to a well-rounded diet.
But there’s no need to cut out grains, dairy, and legumes.
Although today's standard Western diet certainly isn’t ideal, it doesn’t mean that every modern morsel is bad for us.
The fact that humans now inhabit virtually all regions on Earth demonstrates that we are adaptable. It’s one reason why we’re the only species of bipedal ape left.
Our ability to adapt to environmental and dietary changes has kept us thriving for thousands of years. This quote from anthropologist Dr. William Leonard says it well:
“Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet. What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat.”
“We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the Earth,” he continues, “consuming diets ranging from almost all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes.”
Humans have weathered apocalypses, famines, and climate shifts. If we hadn’t adapted to these changes between the end of the Paleolithic and now, we would have gone extinct.
Yes, much of our modern food system is dedicated to pumping additives, sugar, and salt into our bodies. We need to make smart nutritional choices.
But removing all traces of the agricultural advances of the last 10,000 years is unnecessary, and it means that you're missing out on nutrients. Not all advances are bad.
And just as no single dietary pattern suited all Paleolithic people, no single diet is best for everyone living today. We’re all different.
If you’d like to learn how your body responds to food and what diet might help you reach your health goals, start by taking our free quiz today.
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