The Paleo Solution. Everyday Practical Paleo. Paleo Comfort Foods.
Paleo Slow Cooking. The Paleo Diet for Athletes. Paleo Desserts.
Dozens of books tout the wonders of the “original human
diet.” But how certain are we that there was an original diet? And
if there was, exactly what did it include? More importantly: Did
cavewomen and cavemen really eat dessert?
Q: Is the Paleo diet our natural diet?
A: Some people claim that the cause of our so-called “diseases
of civilization” that are diet related, such as diabetes or high
blood pressure, is that our diets have changed radically since the time
that human beings evolved hundreds of thousands of years ago. If we
could go back to the way we were eating before, then we would be much
healthier, they say.
It sounds pretty reasonable that if human beings evolved living a
certain way and eating certain foods, and if we suddenly and rapidly
change from those circumstances, there’s a risk of eating foods
that are not necessarily the healthiest for us.
This idea is supported by looking at modern foraging peoples, who
don’t eat Western diets and who certainly don’t seem to suffer
as much from conditions like diabetes or hypertension. So,
superficially, a Paleo diet makes a lot of sense.
Q: But not when you look deeper?
A: Right. The problem is that it’s really a fantasy to try to
construct what early humans were eating.
First of all, what do you mean by early humans? The word
“Paleo” doesn’t mean much from a scientific perspective.
Are you talking about the ancestors of the genus Homo, such as
Australopithecus? Are you talking about other members of the genus Homo,
like Homo erectus? Or do you mean humans in Africa before they migrated
out of that continent? Or is it after they left Africa? Or are we
talking about people who were living the way that contemporary
hunter-gatherers do–people who forage and hunt but don’t use
Q: What difference would that make?
A: Because so far as we can understand, the diets of all these
different early humans were really different. What people were eating
10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, for instance, was doubtless
not what people were eating 100,000 years before that.
Q: Didn’t their diets also depend on where they were living?
A: Yes. Picking a specific place or time to say, “Oh yes, we
should be eating like those people,” doesn’t make sense. Is
seafood okay on a Paleo diet? I suppose it depends on whether you think
Paleo people were living on the northwest coast of North America, or
whether you think they were in central Africa, in which case I
don’t think there were a lot of shrimp available there.
Take the ancestors of the Inuit First Americans living in the
Arctic. They get a lot of attention from Paleo enthusiasts because they
relied on meat and seafood for food since so few edible plants grow up
there. But the fact that nothing grows there just means that people can
adapt to living without a lot of plant food. It doesn’t mean that
they should live that way if they have a choice.
Q: The Paleo diet seems to assume that we’ve stopped evolving.
A: No. It’s clear that we are not the same as our Paleo
ancestors. We’ve changed radically in some ways, like our
resistance to diseases such as malaria, and not so radically in others,
like the structure of our spines.
We didn’t evolve, evolve, evolve to a certain point and then
go, “Phew! Done with that! We’re now perfectly adapted to our
environment, and we can eat the same diet from now on. Then dang!
Somebody developed agriculture, which was a mistake, and now we’re
There just wasn’t an ideal time and ideal diet from which we
are now deviating.
Q: What’s an example of how humans continue to change?
A: People say that humans are the only mammals that continue to
drink milk past weaning, which is absolutely true. Some of them then
conclude that it’s unnatural for mammals to do this, and that
it’s therefore much healthier for us to not consume dairy foods.
Well, the fact is that a great number of human beings have evolved
an ability to keep digesting the lactose in milk throughout their
lifetimes. That change happened just over the last 5,000 to 7,000 years,
which is really quick from the standpoint of evolutionary change.
So saying that we should eat only what our ancestors ate before
this genetic change happened makes as much sense as saying that we
should eat only what our mammalian ancestors ate before they came down
from the trees and started living on the ground.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some people who have
trouble digesting milk, but that’s different from saying that all
people, all the time, would be better off without it.
Q: The Paleo diet shuns grains. Did early humans ever eat them?
A: The absence of starchy foods on a Paleo diet is really
interesting because it’s based on a fantasy of what our ancestors
ate. Over the last 10 years, after Paleo diets started to become
popular, scientists have discovered traces of seeds and grains on the
teeth of fossilized early humans. They’ve also found remnants of
grains on stone cooking tools.
It’s looking like some early humans not only ate grain, but
they also were grinding it into a crude flour and cooking that into a
primitive form of pita bread.
There’s also good evidence now for a continued evolution in
amylase genes. Amylase is an enzyme in our saliva and our small
intestine that breaks down starches so we can absorb them. If you look
at populations today that eat a lot of starch, they’ve evolved more
copies of amylase genes than populations that don’t eat much
starch. Extra copies make the digestion of starchy foods even easier.
The moral is that you’re really on shaky ground every time you
try to set up a “this is how it was and that’s how we should
be” standard. We’re always revising our ideas of what early
humans were like, and that is a worthwhile endeavor. But we
shouldn’t do it to find what we’re supposed to emulate.
Q: We’re now learning that our microbiome can affect our
health. Has our microbiome changed?
A: We are quite different from our ancestors in our microbiome, the
billions of microorganisms that reside on and in us that we didn’t
know existed 25 years ago when the Paleo movement began.
Think of yourself as a coat hanger of humanity on which are draped
this huge number of microbial cells. The microbiome is a part of who we
are and it’s essential for our normal functioning. But it differs
from person to person, from place to place, and probably over time.
We don’t know how much or in what ways our microbiome has
changed from that of our ancestors, although we do have a hint that
there have been enormous changes. Some of this probably has to do with
changes in the atmosphere or diet, not evolution. It’s more
evidence that we are not who our ancestors were.
Q: Does Paleo food exist today?
A: Not really. Even if you wanted to try to eat what people were
eating a long time ago, the majority of those foods are simply not
available. Early humans were not eating plants or animals that resembled
very closely the plants or animals that we eat today.
Human beings have been influencing the foods they eat ever since
there were people. For example, the ancestors of apples were nasty,
horrible, little tiny bitter things that, really, why would one eat
The ancestor of corn that was used by peoples in the Americas for
quite a long time was called teosinte. It looked like the head of a
grass seed, which it basically was, and nothing like what people eat
The meat in the supermarket, even grass-fed beef, has also been
modified from its ancestors by breeding. People underestimate the degree
to which human beings have affected everything in their environment.
Q: Don’t some people say that they feel healthier eating a
A: I’m not arguing with people who say, “I started eating
this way and I feel great.” More power to you. But it’s also
perfectly possible that people who eat in a variety of other ways, as
long as they’re not subsisting on Coke and Cheetos, would be
healthy as well.
The way to find that out is not to look more closely at what early
people were supposedly eating. It’s to gather evidence about who we
Q: S. Boyd Eaton, the Emory University professor who co-wrote The
Paleolithic Prescription in 1988, which helped start the Paleo movement,
says that he eats a “soft version” of the Paleolithic diet,
which includes whole grains, low-fat dairy foods, and wine. Those are
foods that are usually forbidden on a strict Paleo diet.
A: That’s exactly the point. You can call the diet Paleo, but
let’s take as an inspiration what we think was a healthy way to
live and then figure out which aspects of the diet make the most sense,
relying on science, not on an idealized version of our earlier selves,
for the answers.
Marlene Zuk is professor of ecology, evolution, and behavior at the
University of Minnesota and author of the new book Paleofantasy: What
Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (W. W. Norton
& Company). Zuk spoke to Nutrition Action’s David Schardt by
phone from St. Paul.
Paleo in Comparison
“If it wasn’t on a caveman’s menu, it shouldn’t
be on yours.” That’s the basic premise of a Paleo diet.
Translation: plenty of meat, poultry, eggs, seafood, vegetables,
fruit, honey, and nuts, but no grains (breads, cereals, pasta, rice,
oatmeal, cookies, pastries, cakes, muffins, etc.), beans, dairy foods,
refined sugars, caffeine, or alcohol.
What does a Paleo diet look like? Most books give no specifics
(like “eat 20 ounces of meat, poultry, or seafood and 12 cups of
vegetables and fruit a day”). But we did find this sample
day’s worth of food (2,200 calories)for a young woman in The Paleo
Solution, by Robb Wolf (Victory Bell Publishing, 2010), one of the
best-selling Paleo books on amazon.com:
Broiled salmon (12 oz.)
Cantaloupe (1 3/4 cups)
Broiled lean pork loin (3 oz.)
Salad–lettuce (1/2 cups), carrots (1/2 cup), cucumbers (3/4 cup),
tomatoes (1 1/3 cups), walnuts (5 halves), lemon juice (2 Tbs.)
Lean sirloin tip roast (8 oz.)
Steamed broccoli (3 cups)
Salad–mixed greens (3 cups), tomato (3/4 cup), avocado (1/2 cup),
almonds (35), onions (1/4 cup), lemon juice (2 Tbs.)
Strawberries (1 cup) for dessert
Carrots (1/4 cup)
Celery (1 cup)
How healthy is the Paleo diet (assuming this sample is typical)? On
the plus side, it’s rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, vitamins,
potassium, and magnesium. It also has no refined sugar or white flour
and it’s low in sodium (unless you pour on the sea salt).
But the diet has some drawbacks. Red meat–and especially processed
meats (like sausage, ham, and bacon)–may raise the risk of colorectal
cancer. The red meat (and the coconut oil and butter in some books)
could be high in saturated fat. (Paleo books recommend lean meats, but
the meats in their recipes often aren’t.) The diet is also high in
cholesterol and low in calcium and vitamin D.
A safer bet: the diets used in the OmniHeart study, which lower
blood pressure, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides.
They’re similar to the Paleo diet in that they have far more fruits
and vegetables and far fewer grains and sweets than the average American
diet. But the OmniHeart diets limit red meats, saturated fat, and
cholesterol. (See Nutrition Action, Oct. 2009, cover story.)
NUMBER OF DAILY SERVINGS *
Food (serving size) Paleo Diet OmniHeart
Meat, poultry, fish (1/4 lb.) 8 4
Vegetables, fruit (1/2 cup) 27 9
Nuts (1/4 cup) 1 1/2 1
Grains (1/2 cup or 1 slice bread) 0 4
Low-fat dairy (1 cup milk) 0 2
Oil, mayo (1 Tbs.) 0 4
Sweets (1 small cookie) 0 2
* We converted Paleo servings into OmniHeart servings for
Source: JAMA 294; 2455, 2005.
Shed Pounds on Paleo? No Evidence
Earlier this year, US News & World Report asked a panel of 22
diet experts to rank 28 popular diets. The criteria: Were they effective
for short-term or long-term weight reduction? Were they easy to follow?
Were they safe and nutritionally balanced?
Topping the list was the DASH diet. (A variation of DASH called
OmniHeart is the diet recommended by most health experts. See Nutrition
Action, Oct. 2009, cover story.)
Dead last? The Paleo diet, which the panel noted was supported by
studies that were “few, small, and short.”
Loren Cordain, an exercise physiologist at Colorado State
University and author of The Paleo Answer: 7 Days to Lose Weight, Feel
Great, Stay Young, disputed the panel’s conclusions.
“Five studies, including four since 2007, have tested
ancestral–or Paleo–diets and have found them superior to Mediterranean
diets, diabetic diets and typical Western diets in regards to weight
loss, cardiovascular disease risk factors, and risk factors for type 2
diabetes,” he wrote to the magazine.
But all five studies cited by Cordain were just as US News said:
small and short term. Three of the five didn’t compare people who
were randomly assigned to either the Paleo diet or another diet (1-3)
Without that “control group” following another diet,
researchers couldn’t tell if people lost weight because they were
on a particular diet or simply because they were participating in a
In one of the two studies that did compare Paleo with other diets,
Swedish researchers randomly assigned 29 middle-aged or older men with
heart disease and pre-diabetes or type 2 diabetes to an “Old Stone
Age” diet (lean meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, root vegetables,
eggs, nuts) or to a “Mediterranean” diet (whole grains,
low-fat dairy foods, vegetables, fruits, fish, oils, margarine). (4)
After 12 weeks, the Paleo eaters had lost no more weight than those
on the Mediterranean diet. However, the Paleo group did have lower blood
sugar levels after a glucose tolerance test, which measures how well
insulin controls blood sugar.
Two years later, the same researchers looked at 13 men and women in
their 60s with type 2 diabetes. The volunteers were told to eat a Paleo
diet for three months and then a standard diet for people with diabetes
for three months, or vice versa. The Paleo diet had more fruits,
vegetables, lean meat, fish, nuts, and eggs, and no grains, dairy,
beans, refined fats, sugar, candy, soft drinks, or beer. (5) They ended
up eating 300 fewer calories a day on the Paleo diet, which may explain
why they lost seven more pounds during those three months. And their
triglycerides were lower. But there were no differences in blood sugar
levels after a glucose tolerance test.
The bigger question: What happens over the long run? At least three
trials have compared diets that were either high or low in protein,
carbohydrates, or fat–such as Atkins, Ornish, Weight Watchers, and The
Zone–on a total of more than 1,200 people. (6-8)
After one or two years, none of the diets outshined the others.
What mattered most was whether people stuck to them. (The more extreme
diets–like the high-protein Atkins and the low-fat Ornish–were the
hardest to stay on.)
The bottom line: There’s no good evidence that the Paleo diet
will make those extra pounds vanish.
(1) Diabetes 33: 596, 1984.
(2) Eur. J. Clin. Nutr. 62: 682, 2008.
(3) Eur J. Clin. Nutr. 63: 947, 2009.
(4) Diabetologia 50:1795, 2007.
(5) Cardiovasc. Diabetol. 8: 35, 2009.
(6) JAMA 293: 43, 2005.
(7) N. Engl. J. Med. 360: 859, 2009.
(8) Ann. Intern. Med. 153: 147, 2010.