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The Paleolithic Diet

The Paleolithic diet, although it seems to be a recent phenomenon, was promoted in the mid-1970s by gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin – and by generations of cave me before him.

The part of the Paleolithic Era in which humans lived spanned a time period from about 2.6 million years ago to about 10,000 years ago. It was a period during which Homo habilis foraged, hunted and ate, gradually changing to become full-blown Homo erectus at about -1.8 million years. By -500,000 years, that human model had morphed to Homo sapiens neanderthalis; and these people were bred out and killed off by Homo sapiens sapiens, who must have occurred about the same time in order to have been able to do so. During these eons when our ancestors changed so much, we can only logically conclude that the life forms they used for food changed a great deal, as well. Therefore, anything we call a ‘paleolithic diet’ is, in fact, going to be a modern approximation of what was eaten by Homo anybody, in all permutations, over the last 2.5 million years.

Meat, vegetable matter, seeds, and fruits were the staples of human-type creatures up to the dawn of agricultural 10,000 years ago. The meat was largely grass-fed, unless it was derived from aquatic animals or birds, or fruit-eating animals such as monkeys and bats; the vegetables, fruits, and seeds were, on the whole, smaller than their modern counterparts; and no dairy products were eaten because the forbearers of the animals we milk today were killed and eaten before they were milked.

The modern equivalent of the diet is straightforward: eat meat from grass-fed animals,fish & other sea foods, fresh fruits and veggies, eggs, nuts and seeds, and healthful oils (and there is much controversy as to which ones are healthy and which are not). At the same time, avoid cereal grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, and salt: these were not part of our ancestral bill of fare. There is a low-carb version of the paleo diet containing only 23% carbohydrates and a higher carbohydrate version which allows for a significant consumption of root vegetables. Theoretically, with a very minimal dietary change we remove the foods that are at odds with our health and increase our intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.

A diet of very lean, pure meat and untainted wild plants would probably benefit anyone who could achieve it but to duplicate the diet with modern equivalencies will be difficult. Since the agricultural and industrial revolutions, our foods have become increasingly produced by intensive measures, increasingly refined, and increasingly fatty, salty, and sugary. This makes the glycemic load, fatty acid composition, micronutrient composition and density, acid-base balance, sodium-potassium ratio, and fiber content of our diet vastly different from that of our ancestors.

The following group of bullets I have taken from the web on multiple sites. Should the original author request I take them down, I will gladly comply. For now, however, I think they are helpful to this article.

The Paleolithic Diet provides the following:

  • Higher protein intake – Protein comprises 15 % of the calories in the average western diet, which is considerably lower than the average values of 19-35 % found in hunter-gatherer diets. Meat, seafood, and other animal products represent the staple foods of modern day Paleo diets.
  • Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index – Non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables represent the main carbohydrate source and will provide for 35-45 % of your daily calories. Almost all of these foods have low glycemic indices that are slowly digested and absorbed, and won’t spike blood sugar levels.
  • Higher fiber intake – Dietary fiber is essential for good health, and despite what we’re told, whole grains aren’t the place to find it. Non-starchy vegetables contain eight times more fiber than whole grains and 31 times more than refined grains. Even fruits contain twice as much fiber as whole grains and seven times more than refined grains.
  • Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats – It is not the total amount of fat in your diet that raises your blood cholesterol levels and increases your risk for heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, but rather the type of fat. Cut the trans fats and the Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats in your diet and increase the healthful monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats that were the mainstays of Stone Age diets. Recent large population studies known as meta analyses show that saturated fats have little or no adverse effects upon cardiovascular disease risk.
  • Higher potassium and lower sodium intake – Unprocessed, fresh foods naturally contain 5 to 10 times more potassium than sodium, and Stone Age bodies were adapted to this ratio. Potassium is necessary for the heart, kidneys, and other organs to work properly. Low potassium is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke – the same problems linked to excessive dietary sodium. Today, the average American consumes about twice as much sodium as potassium.
  • Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid – After digestion, all foods present either a net acid or alkaline load to the kidneys. Acid producers are meats, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, and salt. Alkaline-yielding foods are fruits and veggies. A lifetime of excessive dietary acid may promote bone and muscle loss, high blood pressure, and increased risk for kidney stones, and may aggravate asthma and exercise-induced asthma.
  • Higher intake of, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals – Whole grains are not a good substitute for lean meats, fruits, and veggies, as they contain no vitamin C, vitamin A, or vitamin B12. Many of the minerals and some of the B vitamins whole grains do contain are not well absorbed by the body.

The underpinning premise of the paleolithic diet is that modern human beings have remained, for the most part, genetically unchanged since the dawn of agriculture and that genetically, we are predisposed to a pre-agriculture diet. This supposition is supported by the observation that modern human populations that have diets similar to pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers are largely free of ailments that plague populations that enjoy the diets afforded by agriculture.

I quote S. Boyd Eaton (whom you may Google if you would like to know who he is): "We are the heirs of inherited characteristics accrued over millions of years; the vast majority of our biochemistry and physiology are tuned to life conditions that existed before the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago. Genetically our bodies are virtually the same as they were at the end of the Paleolithic era some 20,000 years ago."

It must be noted that researchers acknowledge that our ancestors engaged in levels of physical activity inherent to maintaining life in paleolithic times that we don’t necessarily engage in on a daily basis now. It is hypothesized that the genes that are so well attuned to a paleolithic diet are also attuned to the exercise thresholds that it took to obtain food for that diet. The human metabolic process evolved with the requirement of physical activity-rest cycles that are no longer our daily patterns in contemporary times. Prolonged endurance hunting activity may have been the dictating condition; or short, high-burst energy expenditure may have been required. I would anticipate that the type of game to be hunted in an area would determine which physiological facility was capitalized on. Whatever type of energy expenditure was genetically ensured, we don’t do either much today: we are, by and large, “sedentary.” Hence, modern humans have more body fat and less lean muscle than our hunter-gatherer ancestors, hence more problems like insulin resistance. Eaton’s conjecture was that ancestral humans expended one third of their caloric intake on physical activity in an average of 60 minutes per day of moderate-intensity exercise. I don’t get that much exercise; do you?

The paleolithic diet has met with controversy. Some argue against the basic genetic premise for it. Others point out that it could potentially pose health risks, mostly due to cholesterol. The lack of evidence of civilized diseases in pre-agricultural populations, both contemporarily and archeologically, could be attributed to shorter life spans for these people, or simply reduced (from modern standards) caloric intake rather than from the diet, itself.