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The Paleolithic Diet: Putting Healthy Nutrition in Context

Keoni Teta, ND, LAc. and Jade Teta, ND, CSCS

Today, we remain the genetic equivalent of a caveman, yet the environment in which we live is vastly different than the world our genes evolved in. For millions of years our ancestors lived in a state of complete connectedness with the natural world. They woke with the sun and slept with the moon. They ate what they could forage from the woods or kill in the fields. Today, we have lost that health-giving connection with nature.

The poor health of modern day humans is directly related to the modern diet. Evolutionary, historical, anthropological, and observational studies of past and present hunter gatherers show they did not have heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or other chronic degenerative diseases that afflict so many people today. Our ancestors enjoyed good health not from better genes, but from a better way of living and eating that has become lost in our modern world.

For millions of years, historical humans ate sugar-rich foods in very small amounts and usually during brief periods of time like the late summer and fall. Ten thousand years ago the agricultural revolution introduced grain products to the human genome for the first time. With the beginning of grain cultivation, humans were exposed to sugar-rich foods in amounts they were not designed to handle. Historical man, previous to the agricultural revolution, ate very little grain because the technology to process it was not available. If you have ever tried to eat unprocessed grain you will quickly learn it is nearly impossible to digest. During the 19th and 20th centuries, with the advent of the industrial and technological revolutions, the high sugar insult on our genetics began to rise exponentially. This trend continues to rise with no end in sight. Today, starchy processed foods are unfortunately the mainstay of the modern world.

The agricultural revolution also allowed us to domesticate animals for the first time. As a result, milk consumption became common. The prospect of milking a wild animal would have made milk consumption from animals unlikely and extremely dangerous before the agricultural revolution. Both grain and dairy products represent foods that our genes have not fully adapted to due to their recent introduction into the human diet. Because of this recent alteration, there are many people today with intolerances and allergies to gluten (a protein found in most grain products) and dairy.

Other insults on our genes occurred with the introduction of salt around 5000 years ago, the introduction of widespread grain-fed livestock around 200 years ago, and the introduction of synthetic foods like trans-fats, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners around 40 years ago. Also, now our genetics and the environment has to deal with GMO foods. The table below is a summary of the evolution of the modern diet.

 

Evolution of Man and the Modern Diet Years
Appearance of our first ancestor (Homo habilis) 2,400,000
Appearance of Homo Sapiens (modern day humans) 200,000
Agricultural Revolution in Middle East beginnings of large scale grain consumption 10,000
1st evidence of dairy consumption 6,000
1st evidence of salt consumption 5,000
Industrial Revolution grain-fed livestock and processed sugar become widely available 200
Processed foods become widely available 80
Introduction of high-fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, and trans-fats 40

 

From an evolutionary prospective, the genetics of our species has had very little time to adapt to the modern day diet. To help you understand the impact of the agricultural revolution, consider this. If we distilled all of human evolution down into one 24 hour period, we have been eating starchy grain and dairy products for about nine seconds. That simply is not enough time for our genes to adjust fully to their use in our diet.

The human ancestral diet did not contain cereals, milk, breads, pasta, cookies, crackers, cheese, and other processed foods of the modern day. However, it is not so much that these foods are bad for us as it is that they have replaced and displaced the healthier foods from our modern diet like fruit, vegetables, and lean animal meats. When compared with the ancestral diet, our modern diet is extremely high in sugar and salt, low in healthy fats (omega-3’s and monounsaturated fats), low in fiber, low in vitamins and minerals, and extremely low in phyto-nutrients. This displacement of healthy foods in our diet is the main cause of chronic degenerative disease today.

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So what is the diet our genes evolved on like? It is a diet rich in fibrous vegetables, fruit, and lean animal protein. It is a diet that contains only complex carbohydrates as opposed to refined carbohydrates. It is a diet that contains animal products from animals that have been raised on their own ancestral diet of grasses and vegetation rather than grain. It is a diet that has an abundance of health promoting nutrients as well as a healthy ratio of fats. It is a diet that allows for healthy genetic expression.

Sugar and Fiber

The diet of our ancestors was lower in sugar-rich foods and higher in fiber because it was mostly a vegetable diet. Although people in our culture conceive grains as being high in fiber, they don’t hold a candle to vegetables or fruit. The body functions in relatives and not absolutes; meaning the amount of fiber compared to the amount of sugar is most important. Refined grain products are almost all sugar, and whole grains are mostly sugar compared to fiber. Fruit has higher amounts of fiber relative to sugar when compared to grain and grain products, and vegetables have the highest amounts of fiber relative to sugar. Our ancestral diet was extremely rich in fiber and contained very little sugar.

Sodium and Potassium

Like sugar and fiber, the body needs a relative balance between sodium and potassium. Refined and processed foods tend to elevate sodium and lower potassium while vegetable and fruit diets do the reverse. This leads to optimal potassium and sodium ratios that have favorable effects on nervous function, fluid balance, enzymes systems, and many other physiological processes.

Nutrient Content

A diet with optimal amounts of lean animal protein and large amounts of fruit and vegetables is synergistic in its healthy effects on the body. This diet leads to nutrient content that greatly exceeds the typical starch rich diet of the modern western world. It is estimated that our ancestral diet had double or even triple the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of all nutrients in the diet.

Of interesting note, grain products are known to have high levels of B-vitamins, but many of these vitamins do not get absorbed adequately for use by the body. This is especially true of vitamin B6 and biotin.

Animal Protein

Our ancestral diet is considered by many to be a high protein diet. A high protein diet, without the balancing effect of plenty of fruits and vegetables, is not optimal; but a diet combining protein and vegetables has been shown to be protective against obesity, heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and many other chronic diseases.

Today it is known by many that a diet low in animal protein can lead to deficiencies of iron and vitamin B12. On the other hand, not many people know that there are many other healthy nutrients in animal protein that cannot be found in plant foods, like carnitine, taurine, and carnosine. Carnitine is best known as a fat burning nutrient, and is known to balance thyroid function. Taurine is needed to regulate nervous function, while carnosine is getting a lot of press as an anti-aging nutrient.

Phyto-nutrients

A grain-rich diet, especially one that is high in refined grains, is extremely low in phyto-nutrients when compared to a diet rich in fruit and vegetables. Phyto-nutrients are chemicals in plants that have been shown to be extremely beneficial. They act as antioxidants, genetic modifiers, and have many other health-giving functions that science is only now beginning to understand. Many of these phyto-nutrients have been shown to prevent and in some cases treat cancer. A diet high in vegetables and fruit is a diet high in phyto-nutrients.

Healthy Fats

High amounts of omega-3 fats are present in the ancestral diet. The animals our ancestors ate were free roaming, therefore grass-fed, as opposed to grain-fed. As a result, this meat had a fat profile similar to fish in its omega-3 fat content. It is only when you feed animals foods they are not designed to eat, like grain, that they began to store large amounts of saturated fat. Ironically the way you produce fat cows is the same way to produce fat humans; feed them large amounts of processed starchy grains. Furthermore, grains are high in omega-6 fats, which enhance inflammation when consumed in excess.

Other extremely healthy fats include the monounsaturated fats found in foods like nuts, olives, and avocados. The copious amount of olive oil used in the Mediterranean Diet is one of the reasons it is so healthy. Our earliest ancestor’s primed our genes to the healthy fats by eating foods like brain and bone marrow, which are extremely high in omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. Thanks to them, our genes express themselves in a healthy way when we eat foods that include omega-3 and monounsaturated fats.

6 points to eating the ancestral diet in the modern world

  • Eat plenty of vegetables and fruit and eat a wide variety
  • Eat foods that contain healthy fats
  • Avoid/minimize refined grain products (choose only whole grain products)
  • Avoid/minimize conventional dairy products (choose only organic dairy products)
  • Try to choose animal products from animals that have been raised in a sustainable way.
  • Make water your drink of choice and avoid sweetened drinks

Conclusion

There is no such thing as a diet that has benefit for the whole population because we are all uniquely different and require different foods to keep us healthy. However, the Paleolithic approach to diet is the closest thing you have to understanding the diet your genes evolved on. It serves as a good starting point in the quest for your optimal diet. Our ancestral diet serves only as a nutritional template for good health around which individual eating plans can be constructed. Unlike other popular dietary approaches, it is without bias, steeped in science rather than politics, and uses the natural world as a guiding context.

There is plenty of research showing the ancestral diet promotes healthy gene expression. For more information on the Paleolithic diet, our ancestral diet, go to www.thepaleodiet.com.

Disclaimer: Since food is medicine and all medicines have the potential to be harmful, please check with your healthcare provider before switching to the ancestral diet.

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