This guide is something that probably should have been created a long time ago. There is so much ambiguity and confusion about the Paleolithic (Paleo) diet, that it leads to wasted time and energy arguing and inappropriately being dismissed altogether.
There have been dozens of recent articles that “debunked” the Paleo diet, where the author has completely misunderstood major tenets of the diet, and then draws inappropriate conclusions. I am a proponent of nutrition discussion, but as with any discussion if the topic is not understood by both sides it is a wasteful exercise.
I myself was extremely skeptical of Paleo before I really dug in, mainly because my first exposures were to material making seemingly hyperbolic claims (perfect health, curing cancer, etc.) with no concrete sources or clear explanations. I believe the subject needs to becow eating grass approached with more rigor if the lessons learned from Paleo eating are ever to be accepted into mainstream nutrition.
It is my hope that this guide will serve as a learning tool for those new to paleo, or even those who feel unsure about certain aspects of the diet.
Note that the scope of this guide is to the diet itself, not on achieving ideal macronutrient balance, athletic performance, or even health necessarily. Those topics rightfully have full books written on them and will continue to be studied in the future. I will include additional resources to refer to for these purposes at the end of the guide.
- 1. The Paleolithic Era
- 2. Paleolithic People and What They Ate
- 3. Paleo Misconceptions
- 4. The Paleo Diet Defined
- 5. Caveats of the Paleo Diet
- 6. Using the Paleo Diet as a Framework
- 7. Further reading
Why do We Need to Learn About the Paleo Diet?
The current standard diet for most people is in one word – disastrous.
Obesity has been on the rise for decades and is now commonly described as an epidemic. This is not just an American problem, but a global problem that has affected most developed countries.
Along with obesity comes a slew of health risks, including:
- Coronary heart disease
- Type 2 diabetes
- High Blood pressure
- and much more…
However, obesity alone does not account for all of the increased health risk, as there are thin, “healthy” people that are more at risk for the above health problems now than just a few decades ago.
This is not to say that diet is 100% responsible for the current situation, however, along with exercise and lifestyle it is one of the biggest contributing factors.
Problems with the Modern Diet
Agriculture has been a part of human life for thousands of years, however, it has made up an increasingly large portion of the diet over time. The graph below shows the rise of carbohydrate intake plotted against the rise of obesity.
Do not make any conclusions that carbohydrate intake must cause obesity solely because of this graph, it is simply a correlation.
The reason I included that graph is to illustrate that our diet’s have shifted significantly in recent decades. The main shift has been to grains and processed/fast foods, away from meat and fatty foods. I will refer you to Mark Sisson’s guides on Fats and Cholesterol if you want to learn more, as it is outside the scope of this guide.
The cause of this huge shift is mainly the result of wrongly vilifying fat and dietary cholesterol based on bad science and poor interpretation, in favor of promoting “healthy” whole grains. Modern wheat is far different from the wheat of even a century ago, a subject that has been discussed in detail in the books Wheat Belly and Grain Brain. Wheat Belly is often dismissed because of the plethora of anecdotal evidence presented by Dr. William Davis, however there is a significant amount of scientifically backed assertions that should be taken into consideration.
The Paleo diet, if you did not already know, references the diet of our Homo ancestors in the Paleolithic era, which occurred from approximately 2,600,000 years ago all the way up to about 10,000 BCE.
This era encompassed much of human evolution and progress, and the beginning is signaled by the first sign of tools. To help you get a picture of how massive this time period is to human development I made a basic timeline, shown below (to scale).
In case it is hard to see, there’s a sliver of red on the right to indicate the start of agriculture (9,500 BCE) and the time elapsed until the present (the very thin green line on the end). While human evolution continues to occur, our genetics are very similar to those of our Paleo ancestors. This is why it is important to understand how they lived, and more relevant to this guide, how they ate.
To sum up this section, here is a quote from Loren Cordain:
Because the human genome has changed relatively little in the past 40,000 years since the appearance of behaviorally modern humans, our nutritional requirements remain almost identical to those requirements which were originally selected for stone age humans living before the advent of agriculture.
Here is where the controversy begins and a lot of confusion occurs. The Paleolithic era spans over millions of years, and naturally there have been many different groups of people in different areas. This means that the variety of groups did not in fact have the same diets, because of availability reasons of food depending on climate and terrain.
As we’ll soon see this adaptability is an excellent trait of humans. We can live and thrive in a fairly wide array of conditions.
Anyway…back to the challenge at hand; how do we know what paleolithic people ate?
There are two ways of doing this, either by examining remains of paleolithic people for indications of diet, or by studying modern hunter and gatherer tribes.
1. Examining remains
This is the most promising option, but a difficult one. Bodies are rarely well maintained over time of course, so in the rare event that we uncover a body from tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago we are typically left with bare skeletal remains. The other thing we can find are tools specifically made for food.
2. Study modern tribes
In theory it is a good idea, but even the smallest amount of modern human interaction has a large effect on their way of life, even if it is indirect. Some tribes, like the Hiwi (modern South American hunter gatherers) have been studied. The modern diet by these hunter gatherers is not the same as they were in the Paleolithic era.
The current Hiwi in particular have been exposed to modern grains and processed goods by surrounding cities and tourists. The Hiwi are not considered the epitome of good health compared to other modern tribes. What we cannot say for sure is what the exact cause of this is, because there are many different factors. it is better to look at other groups of people who have a diet more similar to their ancestors, but unfortunately there are not many.
What Do We Think They Ate?
Even though we cannot be 100% confident about the complete diets, that does not mean scientists have no idea what we ate. By looking at people in the two ways discussed above, we can have a good idea at what they ate, even if we do not know the exact frequency. The chart below looks at a rough breakdown of four different hunter gatherer tribes.
Perhaps the most interesting are the Inuit people, who survive (and are healthy) almost solely on meat and fish. The small amount of fruits and vegetables come from any grass, tubers, roots, weeds, or berries found naturally. The Inuit are arguably the best example of a Paleo diet that has stayed relatively consistent over time. Iwona Rudkowska performed a study of current Inuit tribes who share similar (although probably not the exact same as Paleolithic tribes, like the Hiwi), and found that they had lower triacylglycerol (TG), lower LDL (bad cholesterol), lower total cholesterol; overall lower cardiovascular disease risk factors.
There are two other things that should be observed from this graph. First, people can live in good health on drastically different diets. They were able to adapt and evolve along the food available in their travels.
Secondly, in no culture were tribes able to eat a high amount of carbohydrates, even if they wanted to. This is due to availability of carbohydrate sources. Fruits and vegetables were eaten when found, but animals, nuts and seeds are much more common in nature. This means that humans evolved on a variety of low carbohydrate diets.
There is now some evidence of eating wild grains approximately 30,000 years ago in Europe. However, we have no idea how available these grains were. I will also point out again that many of the modern grain intolerance problems seem likely to be linked with the unnaturally cultivated dwarf wheat that dominates current agriculture. It is very likely that humans could have encompass a small portion of wild grains in their diet without any health detriments, but that is my own speculation.
Plant to Animal Ratio
In a study by Loren Cordain, 181 different hunter gatherer tribes were examined. What was found was that most (73%) obtained at least half their energy from animal sources, compared to only 15% that obtained over half from plant sources. In all situations where there was a choice, tribes opted for a high intake of animal sources for energy. Fat is the primary energy source, followed by a mixture of protein and carbohydrate. While protein is not a preferred energy source it can be converted by the body if needed.
After outlining the basis for the diet it seems appropriate to address common misconceptions. If you have been around Paleo resources (read:blogs/forums) for a long time, you probably understand most of these already. If you would like you can skip ahead to the next chapter.
Misconception #1: I’m adapted to my current diet, eating Paleo only works for people who have always eaten that way.
It is not about being used to the diet. Humans have evolved while eating these types of foods for millions of years in order to survive in good health. Just because you have eaten a heavily processed diet for many years of your life does not mean you cannot apply diet changes based on the Paleo Diet.
In the 1930s, authorities claimed that while an Eskimo’s diet works well for them, it would most likely hurt the health of a European. As a response to this, The Russell Sage Institute of Pathology at Bellevue Hospital ran an experiment using Vilhjalmur Steffansson and Karsten Anderson as test subjects. For a full year they only ate meat, similar to the eskimo diet. Steffansson had already had a similar diet for years, and experienced no significant changes. Anderson on the other hand finished with a much higher level of physical health by the end. Here is the full study.
Misconception #2: Paleo is a high protein diet
There is no single paleo diet, and there is no specified amount of protein. While paleo diets consisted of eating a lot of meat, most of it had a significant amount of fat. It is really difficult to eat too much protein unless you are only eating very lean meats or fish like tuna. Technically, you can eat as little or as much as you want on a Paleo diet.
Misconception #3: We should eat exactly like the Paleo tribes did
As we’ll see in the coming chapters, even if we wanted to we cannot eat exactly like the Paleo tribes did. The main goal is to learn about what and why people ate what they did in the paleolithic era, and how we can apply those lessons to our modern diet.
Misconception #4: The Paleolithic diet is a low carbohydrate diet
As discussed in the next chapter, the Paleo diet is neither a high or low carbohydrate diet. We saw that there were diverse diets of the people in the Paleolithic era, with a component of fruits and vegetables (carbohydrate containing). Combining knowledge of nutrition with fitness allows us to find a diet that suits each individual’s needs. There is no one saying that you have to switch to a Inuit-style diet.
Misconception #5: People in the Paleolithic era were lucky to make it past 30, so why would we want to eat like them?
This misconception comes from what most would consider common sense. Secondly, it also comes from the fact that life expectancy has increased consistently over time. The problem is that looking at the life expectancy and diet alone is simply a correlation, one with many confounding factors.
We do not know how long the average ‘old’ Paleolithic person lived to. On top of that, there were a very high infant mortality rate, which skews the average significantly. Finally, you have to remember there was no modern medicine or protection from threats.
Overall, the age of the people tens, hundreds, or millions of years ago does not really have anything to do with the Paleo diet.
Here is where we create the exact diet Paleolithic people ate…did you buy that? By now hopefully you didn’t.
There is no single “Paleo diet”, which is for all intents and purposes a good thing. What we want to do instead, it to examine what typese of foods were and were not around for most of the Paleolithic era.
What Foods are or are not Allowed on the Paleo Diet
Here is a table of what would have been part of a Paleo diet, the specific foods would have depended on availability. The foods with an asterisk (*) are explained in more detail below.
There is some evidence supporting legume consumption during the later parts of the Paleolithic era. Also, the Hiwi tribe looked at earlier consumed a wild legume named Campsiandra comosa as part of their diet.
Legumes are not to be consumed in large quantity due to their phytic acid and are also FODMAPs. There is potential for health benefits in small amounts, which suggests (but definitely does not prove) that legumes were only sparsely available during the Paleolithic era.
Most brands contain preservatives, sugars, and sometimes even wheat derivatives. If you can find some without any of this it would be considered Paleo. For example, bacon is simply think strips of pork belly, which you can often get from butchers.
Nightshades are any members of the Solanaceae family and weren’t often eaten until the domestication of them around 10,000 years ago. In general, nightshades are poisonous to eat, but there are a few, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and white potatoes that are not poisonous to healthy humans.
However, these foods still contain alkaloid and lectins, and if you are gut and intestinal health is compromised, they can cause significant problems. Here is an excellent detailed write-up on nightshades.
The short answer is that the above mentioned nightshades can be tolerated just fine by most people. If you have an autoimmune disorder you may benefit from excluding these from your diet.
Our paleolithic ancestors had some tools, but these were primitive. They did not have the Juicemaster 2000 or other juicing tools.
This will be discussed in more detail later on, but sufficed to say dairy is not Paleo. Cows were not farmed or milked during the Paleolithic age.
Most alcohol is derived from grains. Red wine is an interesting case, as it is technically possible that paleolithic people were able to make it from grapes in a simple fermentation process. However, there is no current evidence supporting that these people ever did make wine, so for now at least it is not part of a Paleo diet. Note that many red wines today are processed with grains while being made.
While Maple trees existed in the Paleo era, as well as honeybees, people did not have the capability to have either maple syrup or honey often. On the other hand, highly processed “healthy” sweeteners like agave nectar would not be obtainable during the paleolithic era. Feel free to to chew on an agave leaf if you want to though.
There are some important limitations of the information presented so far that I will now address.
Foods change over time
The topic of genetic modification is far outside the scope of this guide, but in the same vein foods naturally change over time through slow breeding processes and natural selection. While the components are still similar, their proportions have changed. For example, apples are bigger and sweeter than they were during the paleolithic era. This does not mean you will not be able to digest them well, but you may want to limit the quantity that you have.
In a similar fashion, the animals that we eat today are for the most part descendants of extinct species. There were not the same domesticated cows that we have now back in the paleolithic era. However, there were similar animals like Aurochs, which would have very similar nutrition.
Naturally fed animals
For the same reasons that we want to eat similar foods to our ancestors, the food that we eat should also do the same. Beef is one of the most popular meats around the world, which has led to terrible corporate practices to maximize profit. The most common practice is to feed them grains to fatten them up instead of letting them live normally on a pasture eating grass and other plants. There is a difference in fat composition, the most telling of which is that grass fed beef has a healthy Omega 3:6 ratio, while grain fed beef has a poor ratio. Overall grass fed is much better than grain fed where nutrition is concerned.
This same principle applies to all animals that we eat. Chickens should not be stuffed into cages and force-fed while being injected with hormones. Although chickens do in fact eat grains and seeds, they also need to be able to move around and eat the occasional bug.
It is understandable if you cannot afford all grass-fed or independently raised meat, but if you can you will be much closer to a real paleo diet.
People in the Paleolithic era did not have constant food sources. Instead, they traveled with herds and ate whatever else was available. Climate change throughout the year affected not only animal composition but also the availability of fruits and vegetables.
For this reason it is a good idea to vary your diet throughout the year if you want to mimic that aspect of the paleo diet. One way to do this is to stick with in-season foods that you enjoy, here is a list of when foods are in season.
We do not know exactly what foods were available at what times
While we do know some foods that were eaten during times in the Paleolithic era, our information is very far from complete. This is why it is so important not to use the Paleo diet as some sort of gospel, but instead to use it as a framework, as discussed in Chapter 6.
Hopefully the pieces of the Paleo puzzle are all coming together now for you. We have looked at what the Paleo diet is, what it is based on, and what it encompasses. Now it is time to look at actually applying the information in your life.
It is my contention that the paleo diet should be used as a framework for our nutritional decisions. By combining our knowledge of the paleolithic diet and modern scientific analysis, we can break down foods and see how modern foods compare with the foods of our ancestors. What you should be looking for is to get as close to Paleo as possible.
Many paleo diet enthusiasts include butter and cheese in their diet, because their fat content is similar to animal sources. Here is a great example of a breakdown on butterby Mark Sisson. Just because it is not strictly Paleo does not mean it is necessarily bad for you, it is important to apply some critical thinking.
There is finally the question of health versus enjoyment. If you really love pizza, does it make sense to stop eating it altogether? Unless you are a high performance athlete, you may decide that once in a while you want to enjoy some pizza at the expense of your health. The key is to find the right balance for you.
Very early on in this guide I mentioned that diet is not the end all of the health problems at hand in modern society. Lifestyle has a huge impact on health, both in terms of exercise and activities like work and sleep (that affect hormone levels among other things).
Based on the same principles of the Paleo diet, there are also benefits from mimicking certain parts of the Paleo (or Primal) lifestyle. You can minimize any harm to your health caused by uncontrollable things in your modern life, like an office job, by incorporating aspects that make sense to you. Just like using the Paleo diet as a framework, you should do the same for the Paleo lifestyle.
I have mentioned Mark Sisson several times in this guide, who is an extremely knowledgeable and authoritative proponent of primal living. If you want to learn more about the primal lifestyle i suggest you head over to his site (MarksDailyApple) and start reading.
I had to limit the scope of this guide to keep it from getting out of hand. It is meant to be a rigorous look specifically at the Paleo diet. Just like you should use the Paleo diet as a framework for eating, you should use this guide as a framework for your nutrition education and build out from this.
At this point I would recommend you keep reading about specific situations that interest you, but more importantly start examining your diet and see where you can improve it based on the information presented in this guide.
There are many great resources about Paleo related nutrition, and I have included my favorite below:
MarksDailyApple.com – Already mentioned before, but it has played a significant role in my nutritional education and deserves another mention.
RobbWolf.com – Robb is a former research biochemist and between his articles and podcasts he looks at incorporating lessons from our paleo ancestors into modern life. He is very much into sports, and has information on how Paleo can be incorporated into athlete’s diets.
EverydayPaleo.com – Looks at how to incorporate paleo nutrition and fitness into your life. Less sciency compared to the above, but well written and researched when needed.
Nomnompaleo.com – Michelle Tam posts tons of great paleo friendly recipes. They are not always strictly paleo, but if you are looking to introduce the main lessons of the Paleo diet into your personal diet these can be great.
reddit.com/r/pale – A community about the paleo diet and recipes.
If you made it this far I really appreciate you reading, feel free to leave any comments or questions below in the comments section.