First, I want to say that, if I could call this approach by another name, I would. Calling it ‘paleo’ opens it up to many criticisms – no, of course we can’t eat exactly as our paleolithic ancestors ate and we can’t live exactly as they lived. We don’t even know exactly how that was. And, although we don’t have the details, does anyone really believe our ancestors were baking muffins with coconut flour? But, the term ‘paleo’ has stuck and my own efforts to change it would likely be fruitless. And, I do believe in its basic principles. So, when I refer to a paleo-diet, I am referring to its use as a starting point, not as a strict diet to follow for the rest of our lives. There is real science backing this approach, and it’s much more than a romantic idea of returning to our roots.
When humans adopted agriculture about 10,000 years ago, we replaced nutrient dense foods such as meat, fruits, vegetables and starchy plants with nutrient-scant foods such as wheat, rice and corn. As a result, we lost 4 inches from our average height, prevalence of iron deficient anemia increased, our bones weakened and infectious diseases became more rampant. (1) Extant hunter-gatherer populations exhibit far superior health than other modern day humans. This is evident in lower blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, fewer bone fractures and improved physical fitness. (2) Finally, early explorers consistently report on the superb health of traditional populations, seemingly free of chronic disease. (3) And, no, this isn’t because they all died by age 30! These people were living lifespans similar to our own, but remained healthy for the majority of their lives.
A common perception of the paleo approach is that it’s a meat and potatoes kind of diet. While meat is valued for its nutrient density, abundant consumption is not necessary. Diets of traditional populations vary greatly. The Inuit in the Arctic and the Kitavans in the Pacific Islands represent two of these extremes, as the types of available food were drastically different. Due to the harsh climate, the Inuit hunted for most of their food and around 90% of a their traditional diet consisted of animal products. The Kitavans subsisted almost entirely on root vegetables, non-starchy vegetables, fruit, fish and coconuts, resulting in 70% of their calories coming from carbohydrates. Both of these groups enjoyed long healthy lives, free of chronic disease. So, despite popular opinion, meat-eaters and vegetarians alike can thrive on a paleo approach.
The research is clear that our ancestors enjoyed paramount health. And, today’s statistics are clear too – we do not. There are many differences between their lives and ours and we aren’t able to replicate all of their ancient practices. While emulating their dietary practices is an important piece of the puzzle, we can also mimic their activity levels, sleep habits and valuable social interactions.
As for how I apply this approach – the resulting food plan and lifestyle will be individualized. While following a paleo diet is typically an excellent starting point, there is no need for everyone to stay on this diet forever. Many people thrive on dairy, or on properly prepaired grains and legumes – foods that are entirely avoided on a strict paleo-diet. The trick is figuring out which foods make you feel the best and sticking to those. By customizing your diet, I believe you can regain your health.
Watch for more posts on dietary specifics and other lifestyle changes to incorporate! This one was meant to introduce some major concepts, while I hope to go into more detail in the future.
- Price, Weston A. “Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.” The Price-Pottenger Nutrition Foundation, Jan. 2008.