The paleolithic diet is a modern nutritional plan based on what we believe our ancestors would have eaten before the development of agricultural methods more than 10 000 years ago. It is also known as the hunter-gatherer diet, and is based around the consumption of meat, fish, fruit, nuts, vegetables and roots. Advocates of the diet claim it reduces the risk of heart disease, but critics argue that it is a faddy diet which does not address modern nutritional requirements.
History of the paleo diet
The paleo diet was first introduced into contemporary culture in the 1970s by Walter Voegtlin. The theory behind adopting paleolithic eating habits rests on the premise that the genetic identity of humans has remained virtually unchanged since the dawn of agriculture, so modern humans remain genetically adapted to survive on a hunter-gatherer diet. This approach is controversial among experts on nutrition, but has experienced a recent revival since its adoption by the elite fitness program CrossFit, followed by military units and professional and elite athletes worldwide.
What is the paleo diet?
Paleolithic humans consumed all the edible parts of the animals they hunted, including fat, internal organs, brain and bone marrow. As a result, their intake of fat represented about 35% of their total energy intake, which is higher than the accepted limit of 30% set by a number of modern authorities on nutrition. However, saturated fat intake was lower, since wild animals tend to have a lower proportion of saturated fat than their farmed counterparts.
Due to the large contribution of meat to the diets of out ancestors, paleolithic humans are believed to have gleaned around 30% of their energy requirements from protein, consuming around 3g/kg bodyweight per day. This is well above the recommended modern consumption of 0.8g/kg per day. Carbohydrate consumption was lower in hunter-gatherer diets, contributing only around 35% of total energy requirements, compared with a typical value of 50% in modern diets. This increase in carbohydrate intake is due largely to the consumption of cereal grains, with dairy products and sugar also contributing.
Modern paleo diets involve the consumption of meat, chicken and fish, eggs, fruit and vegetables and nuts and berries. Followers of paleo diets should aim to increase their consumption of root vegetables such as carrots, turnips and parsnips, and eat more organ meats such as liver and kidneys. Foods to be avoided include grains, beans, potatoes, dairy products, salt and sugar.
Health implications of the paleo diet
A number of studies have been carried out demonstrating that the hunter-gatherer diet has a range of tangible health benefits. For example, Frassetto et al (2009) demonstrated that consumption of a paleo diet can cause decreased blood pressure and glucose tolerance and reduced cholesterol levels, suggesting this diet is likely to decrease the risk of developing conditions such as heart disease and diabetes. Sebastian et al (2002) also proposed that the acid load of modern diets contributes to so-called “diseases of civilization,” and adoption of the paleo diet is said to reduce acid load.
There is some concern that the paleo diet may result in a decrease in calcium levels, both due to decreased intake through avoidance of dairy products, and increased urinary excretion which has been observed in some studies (Lutz, 1984). This has led some to suggest that the paleo diet may result in an increase in risk of developing osteoporosis, and low calcium has also been linked with colorectal cancer (CalciumInfo.com).
A sustainable solution?
Leaving aside the debate about the nutritional value of the paleo diet, it is unrealistic to suggest widespread adherence to this nutritional plan is sustainable. Grains are necessary to feed today’s modern humans: it is inconceivable to suggest the world could produce enough meat, vegetables and nuts to feed the ever-growing global population. As such, the paleo diet is likely to remain the faddy food choice of a few of the world’s richest individuals rather than a realistic alternative for the masses.