Is the Paleo Diet Really Better For You? Modern man vs. caveman

Slug Signorino

I’ve been scouring the web for healthy recipes, and one term I keep coming across is “Paleolithic diet.” How is a caveman’s diet better than modern man’s just because of the absence of grain and gluten. Is there any benefit to going paleo? —Sarah

Having a fair idea what I’d find, I googled “Paleolithic diet skeptic” and found comments such as the following: “The ideas behind this diet are...moronic and must be mocked with the fury of a thousand suns.” That pretty much sums up my gut response. However, we can’t just go around saying things are stupid. We must calmly and systematically examine the claims, and then we can say they’re stupid. So let’s get on with it, starting with the obvious counterargument:

How can anyone possibly claim a Paleolithic diet is better than ours, when the average cave person didn’t live much past 30?

Average life expectancies for past eras can be deceptive. Until 1900 or so they were low, but that’s mostly because of high infant and childhood mortality. Modern hunter-gatherers who survive to age 15 typically live into their 50s and often well beyond; it’s reasonable to suppose people in Paleolithic times did the same.

No one doubts people in the developed world live longer now than they used to because of modern medicine, good sanitation, and so on. But it’s also obvious that were it not for our crappy eating habits (I’m thinking of high-fat diets and overconsumption in general), we’d live longer still. The Paleolithic spin on this line of argument goes like this: benefits of modern civilization – modern bad habits + paleo diet = better life, although better how is a little vague.

The value of eliminating bad habits I’ll buy. The question is whether a specifically paleo diet (lots of meat, no grains or dairy) is better than the currently recommended food-pyramid diet (lots of grains, moderate meat and dairy).

Is paleo the same as gluten-free?

There’s a lot of overlap, but these are two different fads.

What’s a paleo diet supposed to do?

The Paleolithic diet is an outgrowth of evolutionary medicine—examining how we evolved to guide our diet. The concept was introduced by a gastroenterologist in 1975 and gained popularity after a report in the New England Journal of Medicine 10 years later.

Paleo advocates claim our current eating habits are responsible for “diseases of civilization” such as cardiovascular problems, diabetes, prostate and colon cancers, obesity, etc. Their premise is that the Paleolithic period was a time of rapid human evolution, lasting from about 2.5 million years ago to roughly 10,000 years ago—in other words, from the development of stone tools to the beginning of agriculture.

At that point, proponents claim, human evolution essentially ceased. Therefore—and here the argument starts to get shaky—we should return to the diet our bodies evolved to eat.

Shaky how?

We don’t really know what Paleolithic peoples ate. Paleo proponents say our stone-age ancestors subsisted mostly on game, fish, insects, eggs, fruit and berries, vegetables, and nuts. Dairy products, sugars, raw fats, seeds, and legumes were rarely if ever eaten. Fiber content and omega-3 fat would have been high, sodium intake low. Water was the only beverage.

Granted, that seems healthy. A low-saturated-fat, low-glycemic-index diet high in fiber, vitamins, and minerals hits most of the recommended nutritional targets.

As an example of a Paleolithic diet’s benefits, boosters point to the people of Kitava, Papua New Guinea, where plenty of paleo food is available. And Kitavans do exhibit low rates of obesity and diabetes, and lower blood pressure and cholesterol than Western adults.

But it’s silly to say the Kitavans eat precisely what humans evolved to eat. They get 75 percent of their diet from carbohydrates. As hunter-gatherers go, that makes them an outlier—one survey of 229 modern H-G societies found carbohydrates accounted for 3 to 53 percent of daily calorie intake. Surely the reality is that ancient diets varied widely from place to place, as they do now, based on what was locally available.

Never mind what cave folk ate. What I want to know is, will the paleo diet do me any good?

There’s little evidence so far. As is common with diet fads, experiments to date have been small-scale and inconclusive. Some of them suggest eating paleo makes it easier to lose weight, but that’s a side issue. The core question is: If you’re healthy and fit on the pyramid diet, will going paleo make you healthier and fitter?

I’m not seeing it. Looking at the big picture, we don’t lead anything like a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer lifestyle. One analysis estimates prehistoric humans estimates burned three to five times as much energy per day as we do. Never mind diet—paleo-style caloric intake with zero hunting and gathering means in no time you’re pulling a woolly mammoth’s weight. —Cecil Adams

Our Readers Say


This article from Chris Kresser might help your quest for learning - Paleo is not really a "diet" - it's more of a "template" that should be individualized and based on the principals of what our ancestors ate not the details:

Here's another:
Cecil, As you can not even get the date correct, what chance do you have of getting your facts straight? People eating "Paleo" today are just trying to approximate what our ancestors ate because many of the foods are just not available in grocery stores or butcher shops.

Two years ago I gave up wheat, rye, barley and oats. I lost 62 lbs in nine months and was able to stop taking two blood pressure medications, asthma inhaler, and, when I learned about cholesterol, statins too.

We do not have to hunt to get some exercise. Walking and a bit of high intensity bodyweight strength training two or three times a week (total 60-45 minutes) will do.

I honestly do not think you have researched this subject but rather just offered your opinion. Having an opinion is fine but if you are going to write on a subject I believe you should get your facts straight and not just cherry pick one or two that suit what you want to say.
The Scary News About the Paleo Diet
...those who ate the animal-protein heavy diet fared way, way worse than others: They were 74% more likely to die early than those who followed a low-protein diet.

This is why Al Gore went vegan!
WARNING: Meat and Dairy Can Rapidly Alter Gut Bacteria and Cause Inflammation
"...the study unlocks a potentially new avenue for treating intestinal disease. I would add that it likely unlocks ways to treat other inflammatory diseases in the body. Heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and even cancer..."

100 Scientific Reasons to NOT Eat Meat
Ignorance is bliss.
Keep eating your "heart healthy" whole grain cereals.
"Never mind what cave folk ate. What I want to know is, will the paleo diet do me any good?"

that is a much better question, imo.
Don't listen to what jc has to say. He's a moron who goes around posting on every paleo article.
You really think cutting out empty carbs, sugar, and processed food , chemicals etc won't make you healthier? What planet do you live on.
You are completely retarded. And probably weak as well.
you must be a vegan fag.
You clearly did no real in depth research. The diet is supported by a ton of research. Spend 5 minutes and look up Loren Cordain, Robb Wolfe, Chris Kresser, or how about any of the doctors, nutritionists, biochemists and other highly educated individuals that support paleo. Also the diet does not recommend just eating a ton of meat, were did you pull that piece of crap info. All the experts in the field recommend focusing primarily on vegetables! So how about next time you half-ass a crap written article you spend more then 5 minutes doing the research and talk to a few experts or maybe someone who literally had their life saved by changing to a paleo diet. Try telling them that there's no merrit to the diet. Feel free to email me I'd be happy to continue to school you on why you clearly wrote this article from your ass.
jc: The paleo diet says to avoid milk, so why are you citing evidence "WARNING: Meat and Dairy Can Rapidly Alter Gut Bacteria and Cause Inflammation" that the paleo also states is bad for you?

limit salt intake. limit sugar intake. stay away from milk (which is for meant for babies of that particular species). makes sense to me.

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