What Is The Paleo Diet?
Paleo is a simple dietary lifestyle that is based on foods being either in or out. In are the Paleolithic Era foods that we ate prior to agriculture and animal husbandry (meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, tree nuts, vegetables, roots, fruit, berries, mushrooms, etc.). Out are Neolithic Era foods that result from agriculture or animal husbandry (grains, dairy, beans/legumes, potatoes, sugar and fake foods).
Optimal Foraging Theory says our ancestors mostly ate foods that were easiest to hunt or gather at that specific locale. As nomads we would have adapted to various mixes of foods. Under the paleo concept the quantities consumed of each “in” food is up to the individual. You can make it meat heavy if you want, or more fruit and veggies if you prefer, as long as the foods you eat are paleo. Fruits in the Paleolithic would have been tart and smaller, and you may want to limit modern fruit because of this.
Acceptable oils should be restricted to those from fruits (olive, oil palm, avocado) or tree nuts (coconut, walnut, almond, hazelnut, pecan, macadamia). No high-tech industrial seed oils could have existed back then. Wild game meat would be the ideal, but grass-fed meat is used as a practical substitute. The grass-fed is needed to get the proper balance of Omega 3 (from green plants) and Omega 6 (from seeds) fatty acids. Organ meats and bone marrow are very paleo. No processed meats. Consumption of fat from grass-fed animals need not be restricted. See Gary Taubes’s Good Calories, Bad Calories. Fish should be wild-caught. For everything else organic is preferred, as this is the best we can do to get food free of modern pollutants and with the original micronutrients.
The effort to collect most seeds would not be as optimal as collecting other foods, unless collected as a condiment for the seed’s taste. Some meaty seeds, like sunflower, may have been a food. To protect their reproductive cycle, plants put anti-nutrients in seed coverings to discourage animal consumption (phytic acid, lectins, and enzyme inhibitors). Fruit seeds are not supposed to be digested, but to pass through and still be viable. They would never have been a food.
Eat the greatest variety of foods possible. Bush hunters kill whatever they find moving. Foragers note that there are more than 300 edible plants that our ancestors would have known about. Many are leafy greens. A wide range of herbs and spices is encouraged.
Salt should not be added to food. They did not have salt shakers. After removing added salt from your diet your taste buds will lose the tolerance they developed for salt. The same thing happens after sweetness is removed.
The only beverage that is truly paleo is water. You need to drink only when you are thirsty. The best is spring water that has been certified to be free of pharmaceuticals, with no chlorine or fluoride added. Buy in large PET bottles. See report on: Pharmaceuticals lurking in U.S. drinking water. If you want caffeine, organic green tea is the most paleo. It is the least processed. Coffee is a seed inside a fruit and is not edible raw. Fruit juice is concentrated fructose that would not have existed and would not be paleo.
Agave “nectar” is just the marketing name for High Fructose Agave Syrup. It is highly refined and it should be avoided. The only paleo sweetener is raw honey, and only in limited quantities. You could argue that very dilute maple syrup is paleo. If you must have sweetness, another possibility is coconut palm sugar. But best is to get all sweets out of your diet and get over it.
The inclusion of alcohol in the paleo diet is controversial. Our ancestors would have come upon and eaten fermented fruit. Even spurned male butterflies get drunk on fermented fruit. Some have issues with the yeast. In Wild Fermentation (p. 127 in Amazon.com’s Look Inside) there is a recipe for spontaneous hard cider that requires no added sugar or yeast. Now the resulting product (6% ABV) does not last long, but it would be paleo! No published paleo diet includes alcohol. But if you are going to drink it, pick one from fermented fruit and water it down to 6%. Another paleo high would have been eating cannabis leaves.
Paleo foods are nutrient dense. Supplementation would not be needed, and would not be paleo. There is one exception: Vitamin D. At least it should be supplemented for those of us that don’t live outside year round, and don’t eat liver regularly. See recommendations at the Vitamin D Council. If you don’t eat fish often, fish oil is another way to get Omega 3 fatty acids, though some prefer krill oil.
Food should be eaten when hungry – not at set times of the day. They hunted and gathered foods in anticipation of, or in response to, hunger pangs.
This is also called the Caveman Diet, though there is little evidence that many of our ancestors actually lived in caves. Caves with paintings were only visited once a year. The name “Caveman Diet” implies a brutish character that thrived on meat. Stone Age Diet, besides sounding a bit old fashioned, is not correct. The Stone Age also covers part of the Neolithic. Hunter-Gatherer Diet is descriptive, but cumbersome.
Who is following the diet?
There are two main groups of followers:
- The most vocal are the group that follows the paleo diet to get maximum athletic performance and health. Art DeVany was an early proponent of this. Then this group got a big boost with the publication in 2005 of The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance by Loren Cordain and Joe Friel. Then the Crossfit: Forging Elite Fitness organization (with its 1,000 affiliates) picked up on it and incorporated the diet into their program. It is also becoming popular among triathletes.
- The others are the original group that eat paleo to avoid “foreign proteins” and prevent the diseases of civilization (cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, osteoporosis, acne, gastrointestinal disease, depression, migraine headaches, and autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis). See Staffan Lindeberg’s Food And Western Disease. Some in this group are already gluten-free being celiacs, and a subset is already dairy-free (e.g. for control of autism spectrum disorders or allergies).
Variations of the Paleo Diet Practiced Today
- Loren Cordain: He emphasizes lean meat, limits eggs, allows artifical sweeteners, and recommends canola and flaxseed oils based on their chemistry. His two books: The Paleo Diet and The Paleo Diet for Athletes are best selling paleo books.
- Ray Audette’s NeanderThin. He puts no limits to saturated fat and he asserts that foods must not be processed. He writes “My definition of nature is the absence of technology. Technology-dependent foods would never be ingested by a human being in Nature. I determined, therefore, to eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone.” Despite this he does allow for cooking. All editions of his book are out-of-print, but are available on the used market.
- CrossFit Diet is high in lean meat and protein. Unlimited vegetables. Easy on the nuts, seeds, and fruit. They basically follow a blend of Cordain and Barry Sears’ The Zone (40% carbs, 30% protein, 30% fat).
- Raw Food Paleo Diet: Everything is raw, especially meat and fat. Their main website is Raw Paleolithic Diet & Lifestyle and its associated forums.
- Instincto Diet (Anopsology). This fringe diet was started by Guy-Claude Burger in France. This is a system of sequential mono-eating (one food at a time), guided by the senses. Food is selected by smell (and other senses), and one eats until there is a “signal” from your body, to stop eating. In practice, instincto diet often centers on raw fruit, seafood, meat, with some vegetables, and excludes dairy and grains.
- The Wai Diet started by Wai Genriuu is all raw. They eat primarily raw fruit, raw fish and raw eggs. The diet discourages raw vegetables and prohibits cooked-/processed foods.
- The No-Carbohydrate diet is all animal-based and excludes all carbohydrates. The diet is ketogenic and could be good for weight loss, epilepsy, diabetes, stopping tumor growth, preventing gestational diabetes, reducing oxidative stress, and improving lung function because the CO2 exchange would be much lower. See Arguments In Favor Of Ketogenic Diets.
- The Low-Carb Paleo diet would be the merger of paleo and Atkins. The foods eaten would all be paleo, and you are counting the carbs to lose weight.
- Intermittent Fasting: This is most often practiced by eating just once a day. In this NY Times article The New Age Cavemen and the City the fellows undergo 36 hour fasts. A general overview is at: Is Intermittent Fasting Healthy?
- Paleo plus Calorie Restriction. There is also Paleo-CRON: Calorie Restriction with Optimal Nutrition, as described on Sie’s blog. She has become only paleo-inspired, as she has gone raw vegan. She is always snacking and she takes supplements. [CR and CRON people are generally not paleo. CRON people track their diet with great care using software like the CRON-O-Meter.]
- Also avoiding New World paleo foods. Our ancestors would not have been exposed to these foods. This does not tend to be very practical. Too many are New World foods! More practical is the next variation.
- Also avoiding nightshade vegetables, the Solanaceae family. All, except for eggplant (from Asia), are from the New World (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, tobacco). Nightshades are often rich in alkaloids, which can be toxic, especially for people with arthritis/osteoarthritis.
- Also eating insects. Eating insects goes back to before the Paleolithic era. The high protein and nutrition that they provide would have been needed for us to have developed into such brainy creatures. The best book on this: Man Eating Bugs: The Art and Science of Eating Insects.
Paleo Inspired Diets Practiced
- The diet part of Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint is basically as I define it, with the exception that dairy is allowed as an indulgence. He puts dairy in “Primal limbo.” The only dairy I could see eating is grass-fed ghee, as practically all dairy protein is removed, and we know the Omega 6:3 ratio is correct. He recommends a high-fat diet and also recommends high-tech protein powders for athletes which could not be paleo.
- The Weston A. Price Foundation diet encourages dairy, preferably raw. But there is no dairy on a paleo diet. To get dairy products one would have to have domesticated livestock, which did not happen during the Paleolithic Era. Any diet that allows dairy is a Post-Paleo diet. And they recommend whole grains, which they have you soak, sprout, or ferment to neutralize phytic acid and enzyme inhibitors. The basis of this diet is Price’s 1938 classic Nutrition & Physical Degeneration.
- PāNu, short for Paleo Nutrition, is a modified paleolithic diet espoused by Kurt Harris, MD. It is an animal-based diet high in fat and low in carbohydrates and cereal grains. On his 12-Step List he does not necessarily eliminate all dairy. This is sometimes called lacto-paleo.
- Aajonus Vonderplanitz’s Primal Diet: His basic philosophy is that (a) food is to be eaten in a live, raw condition; and (b) a diet rich in raw fats and raw meats from natural sources is essential to health. However this includes massive amounts of raw dairy. His book: We Want to Live.
- Zero-Carb Diet: This group eats only from the animal world and nothing from the vegetable world. An overview can be found on Zeroing In On Health’s What is Zero-Carb? page. It is not paleo as dairy is included.
- Fruitarianism. You can see on this page Hunter Gatherers And The Golden Age Of Man that Fruitarians can argue for a paleo diet, then find a way of ignoring the meat part. Some meat or fish is required on the paleo diet. There has to be adequate protein and vitamin B12, which only comes from animal sources. And today’s fruits are bigger and sweeter, and a diet heavy on them would not have been possible in the past.