The Modern Take on the Paleo Diet: Is it Grounded in Science?

Q. Is the Paleo diet for real?

A. The modern idea of the Paleo diet (also known as Hunter/Gatherer or Caveman diet) has been around since the 70s, but it’s resurfacing with a vengeance. Written by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., The Paleo Diet proposes that you go back to your ancestral diet, to a time before the advent of modern agriculture about 10,000 years ago. Cordain says that over a 2 million year-period our genes adapted to a diet in which all food was hunted, fished or gathered from the natural environment. Today, we eat from a vastly different food supply with processed foods full of refined sugars, high-glycemic carbs, saturated and trans fats and salt, resulting in a society riddled with obesity and disease. So what’s the diet that Cordain suggests sustained cavemen?and might benefit us today? It’s a diet rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, lean meats and seafood, and low in refined sugars, grains, saturated and trans fats, salt, high-glycemic carbs, processed foods and dairy products. Cordain speaks eloquently about the Paleo diet, even publishing articles in scientific journals. In a January 2004 article in Mayo Clinical Proceedings, he outlines his theory that a hunter-gatherer diet better matches our genetic makeup and supports the healthier lifestyle that our early ancestors enjoyed.

A lot to like about Paleo. It’s hard to disagree with the fact that our food system has changed drastically since the advent of agriculture, and even more so in the last few decades. Many health experts believe that the culprit of our rising rates of obesity and chronic disease is our dependence on highly processed foods and our sedentary lifestyle. Our genes have not been afforded time to react to this dramatic shift. Thus Cordain’s appeal to return to a more whole, unprocessed food stream and to become more physically active won’t find disagreement here.

Things not to like about Paleo. Where critics diverge with the Paleo diet has to do with Cordain’s evolutionary and dietary theories. For example, the Paleo diet discourages grain intake, yet scientists believe that wild grasses providing seeds and grains emerged 65 to 55 million years ago. Since early man probably ate nearly everything that crossed his path, seeds and grains were likely part of his diet (although not a large part due to seasonal availability.) In addition, some cultures like the Europeans have had 400-500 generations to adapt to a grain-based diet. While Cordain does stress limiting saturated fats in meats, his Paleo diet is high in animal protein and he strongly argues against vegetarianism. Yet many cultures with the lowest disease rates eat a diet based on whole plant foods and sparing use of meat.

It seems inconsistent to pick out characteristics of the supposed Paleo diet, such as avoidance of grains, yet import modern diet ideas like eating meat bred in factory farms (a far cry from wild game early humans hunted) and highly refined canola oil into its version of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. EN‘s bottom line: Take the best of the Paleo diet and eat a diet that is more in balance with our evolutionary past; one that focuses on whole foods rather than highly processed foods stuffed with ingredients your grandmother never heard of.

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