Consider that every single one of the trillions of cells in your body were built using the foods you ate, and it’s easy to see that diet is perhaps the biggest lifestyle factor that affects health.
Paleolithic nutrition is slowly starting to gain some traction thanks to organizations like CrossFit. Also known as the Paleolithic diet, caveman diet, stone age diet, or simply “eating clean”, it can be summed up as the optimal human diet for lasting health.
It’s an evolving framework of nutrition principals shaped by emerging research. It is a customizable eating plan that can be modified to fit individual needs and goals (e.g. weight loss, mass gain, athletic performance, health restoration, etc.). No calorie counting necessary.
The Paleo diet endorses eating foods we’ve evolved to eat while avoiding foods which don’t work with our genetics. This allows for effortless maintenance of health, weight, and energy while providing a higher micro-nutrient density than any other diet/nutritional plan.
But perhaps most importantly, it may allow you to avoid death! (Well sorta. More on this in a bit…)
Zealots Advocates of the diet, myself included, tend to view it as a way-of-life — a lifelong nutritional plan — and not a diet in the traditional sense of being temporary or faddish. (For simplicity, I’m going to continue to refer to it as a “diet” when I really mean “lifelong nutritional plan”. Capisce?!)
Many of the tenets of the diet are directly opposed to conventional wisdom and political correctness. If you subscribe to standard food industry dogma, prepare to have your mind blown…
Evolution: The Basic Premise of Paleo Nutrition
To understand the science behind this diet, we need to take a look back in time — like 2,510,000 years. That would put us roughly at the start of the Paleolithic “hunter-gatherer” period of evolution. During this era, humans nourished themselves via… *ahem*… hunting and gathering. This necessitated a genetic adaptation to digesting animal proteins, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. And oddly enough, these are the same foods recommended by modern Paleo diets.
The Paleolithic era ended about 10,000 years ago with the advent of the Neolithic period. With the Neolithic came agriculture, farming and the popularization of grains. Known as the Agricultural Revolution, this dramatic shift in human nutrition underlies the problem: 10,000 years has not been enough time for natural selection to allow humans to genetically adapt to these Neolithic foods — most notably: grains, legumes, dairy. (To put the evolution rate into perspective, only 0.02% of our genes have changed over the last 40,000 years.)
As one of the foremost authorities on evolutionary nutrition, Dr. Loren Cordain says:
The most powerful and pervasive idea in all of biology is evolution through natural selection. It has only been in the last decade that this organizing template has been applied to nutrition and health. Great strides are now being made in understanding how clinically demonstrated principles underlying proper nutrition can be traced to our genome. Our genome was conditioned and shaped by environmental selective pressures that occurred long before the Agricultural Revolution.
To be clear, supporters of the Paleo diet are not suggesting that people eat like Paleolithic era man. An impossibility, considering that our soil, atmosphere, food, and water supplies have been tainted for centuries by human intervention (through the liberal use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, industrial waste, synthetic hormones, drug residues, and other toxic pollutants).
Our Stone Age ancestors had vastly superior food quality because they did not have to deal with
any of that shate modern toxins. Nor were they subjected to eating genetically modified plants or selectively-bred animals fed unnatural diets.
By eating Paleo, we are approximating the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors using the foods available to us today.
Okay, maybe you can’t avoid death altogether by eating Paleo. (**Spoiler Alert**… you’re gonna die no matter what you eat.) But you’re much more likely to avoid death due to Diseases of Civilization.
These are chronic illnesses that are commonplace today but are not evident in hunter-gatherer populations. The fundamental dietary changes that came with the Agricultural Revolution have been implicated in the rise of these diseases.
These include the biggest health problems in the U.S.: heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer. But also include stroke, arthritis, depression, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, infertility, metabolic syndrome, gout, myopia, acne, IBS and all autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, lupus, celiac, etc.).
The underlying cause of these diseases stem from destructive adaptations by the human body to Neolithic foods (again: grains, legumes, dairy, industrial seed/vegetable oils, and sugar). These maladaptations include:
- Systemic/Chronic Inflammation. Current research points to systemic inflammation as the likely culprit behind many Diseases of Civilization, including the leading cause of death in the US: heart disease. In fact, statin drugs which are prescribed for cardiovascular disease, work precisely because of their anti-inflammatory effects.
- Insulin Resistance. Here’s how it goes… Neolithic foods raise insulin levels and keep them elevated. Chronically raised insulin leads to insulin resistance which leads to metabolic syndrome, obesity, etc.
- Intestinal Permeability. Also known as leaky gut, it can lead directly to autoimmune disease and food allergies.
Everyone has individual needs, food sensitivities, and health issues that need to be considered. So there really isn’t a single definition of what constitutes a Paleo diet. There are some basic principals common amongst most Paleo researchers (such as avoiding gluten grains entirely) and there are gray areas for certain foods (such as dairy).
The preferred approach to start the diet is with an initial 30 days of strict Paleo eating. This acclimation period restores gut health and allows the body to kick the sugar/grain addiction. After that, one may reintroduce ‘gray area’ foods into their diet and see if they cause any issues.
For instance, many people will have no problems with reintroducing white rice. Others may find that they’re sensitive to Paleo-approved foods like tomatoes and eggplant.
What To Eat On The Paleo Diet
Eat whole, unprocessed foods while avoiding Neolithic foods.
- Eat lots of animals: Seafood, poultry, eggs, pork (bacon too!), beef and other ruminant and game meats. Why? High quality source of protein; full range of essential amino acids; full of healthy fats.
- Eat lots of healthy fats. Animal fats, coconut oil, avocado, fish oils, olive oil, nuts & nut oils. Why? Anti-inflammatory; great source of fuel; promotes satiety. Fat — even saturated fat — is good for you. Yes, really.
- Eat lots of veggies and fruit. Why? Tons of micro-nutrients; high nutrient density.
- Avoid grains: wheat, barley, oats, corn, rice, etc. Whole grains or not, they’re both equally toxic. Why? See the truth about grains for details.
- Avoid industrial oils: corn oil, canola oil, margarine, soybean oil, vegetable shortening, cottonseed oil, sunflower, and safflower oils. Those containing trans fats and partially hydrogenated fats are the worst. Why? Heavily inflammatory.
- Avoid legumes: beans, soy, peanuts, etc. Why? Similar downsides to grains: anti-nutrients, gut irritants.
- Avoid added sugar: sodas, fruit juices, candy, etc.; artificial sweeteners and stevia are no better. Why? Spikes insulin, irritates the gut, reinforces addictions to simple carbs.
- Avoid dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, etc. Why? Pro-inflammatory, gut irritant, spikes insulin.
- Avoid excessive salt. Why? Excessive salt leads to acid-base imbalances & leeched calcium from bones. Stroke risk, hypertension and even insomnia may improve on a low-salt diet.
So Glazed Wheat Donuts Fried In Corn Oil, Topped With Peanut Butter And Whipped Cream Are Out?
Um, let me think… Yes, that’s out. So are the majority of breads, pastas, cereals, noodles, beans, sweets, and most processed foods (which are typically full of grains, sugar and excessive salt).
Yep, I understand the these things are convenient and delicious. But those indulgent moments of fleeting gluttonous bliss are likely killing you.
But the science is there and the body of evidence is growing.
This post really only scratches the surface of Paleo Nutrition. If disease-avoidance interests you at all, I encourage you to do your own research and educate yourself. For the nitty-gritty details on the how’s and why’s, check out the best resource on the topic.
But there is no better teacher than experience. Try it for a strict 30 days and see if you don’t look, feel, and perform better, with increased energy and less hunger pangs. (I’m actually in the middle of doing a strict 50-day Paleo experiment and will post the results, including the challenges I’ve encountered and some implementation tips.)
If you consider your body as your temple, put down that plate of Neolithic food and take this spear.
Let’s go hunting and gathering.
Do you eat Paleo? If yes, have you noticed any changes in your body, mood, or energy levels? If you haven’t tried a Paleo diet, would you? Share your thoughts in the comments!
(Photo by: Ozzybeef)