The Paleolithic Diet (“Paleo” is a common abbreviation) is based on eating foods that our Paleolithic ancestors ate. The “Paleolithic” refers to the Paleolithic Age, which is a formal time period on Geologic Time Charts from about 2,500,000 years ago to about 10,000 years ago. The premise is that during the Paleolithic, we evolved a specific genome that has only changed 0.01 per cent in these last 10,000 years. However, during this recent time span mass agriculture, grains/grain products, sugars/sugar products, dairy/dairy products, and a plethora of processed foods have all been introduced as a regular part of the human diet. We are not eating the foods we are genetically and physiologically adapted to eat (99.9% of our genetic profile is still Paleolithic); and the discordance is an underlying cause for much of the “diseases of civilization”, “syndrome X”, obesity, andÂ “diseases of old age” that are so epidemic in our society today.
As Dr. Cordain and others’ scientific research reveal – the evolutionary, genetic, and clinical evidence point to a natural (i.e., unprocessed foods), omnivorous diet as the healthiest way to eat. Dr. Cordain’s research shows that 70% of the average caloric intake of Americans is from foods that did not even exist for our Paleolithic ancestors. This discordance is having tremendously negative health consequences for our society as a whole.
Our genes determine our optimum diet, and our genes evolved according to the environments in which our ancient ancestors lived, including the foods they ate. Our Paleolithic ancestors did not eat just one single diet, but rather they ate within a range of natural, unprocessed diets – depending on variables like geography, climate, competition, ecologic niche, season, and glaciations. All of these Paleolithic diets did share some universal characteristics, though:
Some Paleolithic Diet Details – the ingredients
1) The vegetable sources were:
Â· Roots and tubers
The most obvious plant food missing is grains and grain products. If you can concentrate on fresh versions of the plants above – and eliminate or drastically reduce grains, grain products, sugars, and sugar products – you will be well on your way to eating the plants that fit your genetic consitution.
2) The animal sources were:
Â·Wild terrestrial animals (including the muscle tissue, fat and organs, although the total amount of fat and the fatty acid composition were quite different than that found in modern domestic animals).
Â· Fish and seafood
Paleolithic Diet; an outline from Dr. Loren Cordain
Below is a short excerpt from Professor Cordain’s book, outlining and summarizing some of the salient points about what Paleolithic Era people’s ate:
â€¢ Paleolithic people hardly ever ate cereal grains. This sounds
shocking to us today, but for most ancient people, grains
were considered starvation food at best.
â€¢ Paleolithic people ate no dairy food. Imagine how difficult
it would be to milk a wild animal.
â€¢ Paleolithic people didnâ€™t salt their food.
â€¢ The only refined sugar Paleolithic people ate was honey,
when they were lucky enough to find it.
â€¢ Wild, lean animal foods (relative to today) dominated Paleolithic diets, so
their protein intake was quite high by modern standards,
while their carbohydrate consumption was much lower.
â€¢ Virtually all of the carbohydrates Paleolithic people ate came
from nonstarchy, wild fruits and vegetables. Consequently,
their carbohydrate intake was much lower and their fiber
intake much higher than those obtained by eating the typical
In many historical accounts (i.e., Ethnography), European explorers and early settlers are amazed at how healthy native people were, how vital their old people were, and how ailments such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, auto-immune diseases, and obesity didn’t exist (or were extremely rare). These cultures were without exception each on a “Paleolithic diet” …until trading posts and western food goods, and then they started switching to our “modern”, western diet. Following are just a few of these early ethnographic accounts:
1772; Captain Cook speaking of the New Zealand Maori
â€œ … strange that these people enjoy perfect and uninterrupted health…we never saw a single person who appeared to have any bodily complaint…the great number of old men that we saw. . . . appeared to be very ancient , yet none of them were decrepit; and though not equal to the young in muscular strength, were not a whit behind them in cheerfulness and vivacity…”
1527: Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer, speaking of how impressed he was with the health of the native inhabitants of Florida
” …wonderfully well built, spare, very strong and very swift…
1564; by the North American French explorer. Rene Laudonniere
â€œ … agility of the women is so great that they can swim over great rivers, bearing their children upon one of their arms. They climb up, also, very nimbly upon the highest trees in the country. . . . even the most ancient women of the country dance with the others…â€
1869; Begert speaking of aboriginal Californian’s health vs. gold-diggers during the Gold Rush era
â€œ …the Californians are seldom sick. They are in general strong, hardy, and much healthier than the many thousands who live daily in abundance and on the choicest fare that the skill of Parisian cooks can prepare…â€
1832-39; George Catlin describing the Crow tribe in the Great Plains
â€œ … are really a handsome and well-formed set of men as can be seen in any part of the world. There is a sort of ease and grace added to their dignity of manners, which give them the air of gentlemen at once. I observed the other day, that most of them were over six feet high…” (note: some academicians of the time say the Great Plains Indians were the tallest cultural group in the world).
There are many more historical accounts of explorers, early settlers, and academcians encounters with hunters and gatherers, still on a Paleolithic diet – and their obvious amazement at the overall health of the indigenous people.
To understand and appreciate the basic premise of the Paleo Diet – that our genetic composition has not substantially changed since the geologically recent times of mass-agriculture and industrial age food – it is very helpful to have a clear perception of the magnitudes of time (both very large and very small) involved.
A change in magnitude (in math or science) is a number written in scientific notation that is at least one power of ten more or less. So, 20 and 40 (written scientifically as: 2 x 101 and 4 x 101) are actually of the same magnitude, or often stated as being the same â€œorder of magnitudeâ€. However, 20 and 400 (written scientifically as: 2 x 101 and 4 x 102) are one power of ten different and therefore one order of magnitude different. It is much more than mere doubling or exponential change (it must be a change in exponents of ten versus any smaller base number), and it is not uncommon in the natural world or science.
The graph below illustrates the magnitudes of the time our ancestors ate a Hunters and Gatherersâ€™ (H-G) Diet versus when our ancestors consumed a Mass-Agriculture Diet. The specific times used in this graph are 2,000,000 for the H-G Diet and 10,000 years for the geologically recent Mass-Agriculture Diet. Although exact dates and amounts can be argued, and would change some among different ethnic groups and regional histories, the graph would always look very much the same – because regardless of the specific dates you utilize, it always would very definitively involve magnitudes of change difference.
Figure 1: Bar graph illustrating the ratio of geologic time: 2,000,000 years vs. 10,000 years. These times are good representations of the magnitude of time of the Paleolithic Era foodstuffs of our ancestors as compared to the time our ancestral lineages have been on a Mass-Agriculture Diet.
It is startling to see the Mass-Agriculture Diet as a nearly flat, non-existent bar. In a mathematical sense one could almost say it is approaching the inverse of infinity â€¦ or that it is â€œinfinitesimally smallâ€ in comparison to our earlier foodstuffs. It is more than a full 2 magnitudes smaller. As a decimal ratio of 2,000,000: it is .005.
While we can continue to debate (and we should) the exact amounts and rates of change in human physiology and the dietary amount of animal products vs. fruits/vegetables, etc. – an obvious fact is that the amount of time we and our ancestors have had mass agriculture and industrial era food is incredibly small indeed â€¦ and not debatable.
When we talk about â€œevolutionary discordanceâ€ in regard to our modern diet vs. the Paleo Diet, this is what it means in one very real sense. A diet based on the way humans ate for a couple million years will lead to optimum health and greatly reduce the risk of degenerative disease.