The History of The Paleo Diet
Researchers noticed that our Paleolithic ancestors were’t obese, and they didn’t suffer much from cardiovascular disease (CVD), diabetes, cancer, autoimmune diseases or other major killers in modern society. They were also several inches taller on average.
The Paleolithic period preceded farming, so our Paleo ancestors didn’t eat grains or dairy. They ate hunter-gatherer diets: meat, veg, fruit, nuts and seeds. Their day-to-day activities were also different to the modern day. They spent long periods walking and doing other low intensity exercise, interspersed with short periods of intense activity e.g. running from a lion or after a deer.
Eventually the researchers hypothesised that the massive increase in these disease could be a result of modern dietary and lifestyle factors. The Paleo diet was originally popularised by Loren Cordain in the 1990s. His initial recommendations are quite dated by today’s standards. Since then the science and the Paleo community has moved on. But that’s a fact of life in this area: what we know, or what we think we know, is constantly evolving.
What Paleo Means Today
The idea behind the Paleo Diet is that our bodies have gradually evolved over millions of years. We only started farming 20,000 years ago, in the Neolithic era, and our bodies aren’t well adapted to eating Neolithic foods i.e. grains and dairy. Before that, in the Paleolithic era, we ate a hunter-gatherer diet i.e. meat, fruit and vegetables.
On its own that sounds like a nice story to justify a fad diet. However the Paleo Crew maintain that there’s a large and growing body of research showing that diseases such as cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc. are actually “modern” diseases that we have exhibited because of poor diet and lifestyle choices. The problem is not just that we haven’t adapted to eating these Neolithic foods, many of them are inherently dangerous, and they are killing us.
By taking a more “primal” approach to diet and lifestyle we can increase our life expectancy, reduce our chances of getting major diseases, improve our likelihood of reproducing (apparently 1 in 8 couples in the US need medical intervention to conceive!), stay healthy and active longer, and generally enjoy life more.
The Paleo Diet
I’m not going to explain every facet of the Paleo Diet and lifestyle here and now. Instead, I’ll expect a couple of principles and go into more detail in the coming weeks.
Real/Whole Food not Processed Food
Real food is food in its original form. Chicken breasts, steak, pork chops, organ meats, fruit, veg, mushrooms, herbs, nuts, seeds, mushrooms etc. They can be cooked however you like (probably not in a microwave!).
Processed food is not food in its original form. Potato chips, frozen pizza, anything in batter or breadcrumbs, any microwaveable/ready meal, any baked goods, carbonated drinks, store-bought soups and salad dressing, crisps and confectionery etc. If it has an ingredients label on it, it isn’t real/whole food.
No Grains, No Dairy
Wheat, barley, oats, rye, and rice are grains. Food with any of these on the ingredients label is off the menu. That’s breakfast cereal, pasta, noodles, bread, pastries and any baked products. One of the main issues with these foods is that they contain gluten. Gluten is a protein which irritates our intestines and is associated with a host of autoimmune diseases. We didn’t eat gluten before we farmed and we haven’t evolved ways of digesting it. Grains are also highly processed and refined foods, so by the first principle they’re also out.
Dairy is anything made from animal milk. Milk, cheese, yoghurt etc. Dairy isn’t as bad as grains, but some people are sensitive to it. Dairy that comes from grass-fed animals can be quite good for you, but if you’re gonna do the Paleo Diet you should start strict and add stuff back in after a few weeks.
There are many grey areas. Some foods are strictly Paleo (legumes, nightshades), but many people react badly to them. Other foods clearly aren’t Paleo (white rice, butter, hard cheeses), but most people can eat them without any side-effects, and the sane members of the Paleo Crew don’t have much of a problem with them. Potatoes, coconut products, beans, dried fruit, tea and coffee, all fall in to these categories.
But we won’t get bogged down in the grey areas. For now I’ll just say that we’re trying to create a diet that promotes health, longevity and performance, and we’re using evolutionary biology to inform that. We’re not trying to accurately re-create the diets of our ancestors.