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Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
19 Feb

We Don’t Know What Constitutes a True Paleo Diet

Cave PaintingCritics often lambast the Primal Blueprint and other ancestral/paleo ways of eating for what they see as fatal flaws:

First, that we don’t know what our ancestors were truly eating.

Second, that there wasn’t just one paleo diet.

Third, that even if we could know exactly what our ancestors were eating, it doesn’t mean those foods were the ideal foods; they were trying to eat whatever was available, not whatever was most nutritious or synergistic with their genome.

Before I address these, I want to make an important point. The anthropological record provides a framework for further examination of nutritional science; it does not prescribe a diet. It gives us somewhere to start so we’re not flailing blind men dropped off in the middle of a strange city. That is why we’re interested in what early humans ate (and didn’t eat).

It may surprise you to know that I think the first assertion is absolutely right. We don’t know exactly what our ancestors were eating. There are no pleistocene food journal entries scrawled on a cave wall someplace, and many of the primary sources we can access – phytoliths (which indicate the presence of vegetal material) and stable carbon/nitrogen isotopes (which indicate the source of dietary protein) – require analysis and interpretation, thus becoming secondary sources. If you thought food frequency questionnaires were unreliable, try figuring out if the phytoliths found on Neanderthal dentition originated from the direct consumption of plants or the consumption of fermenting plant inside a recently hunted animal’s stomach, or whether the isotope analysis of African hominins from a few million years ago indicate diets high in grass seeds or diets high in grass seed-eating herbivores.

However, we absolutely do know what early humans did not eat:

We know these things because these foods either didn’t exist until the late 1880s (seed oils like corn) or only graduated from expensive luxury item to widely-used staple food in the 1700s (white sugar).

As to the second claim, of course there is no one true ancestral diet with a strictly curated, specific list of dietary DOs and DON’Ts. Humans have managed to populate every barely hospitable nook and cranny of this planet. If living things grow, slither, crawl, flap, swim, or otherwise reside there, we will set up shop in order to eat them.

However, patterns do emerge. First, there’s the aforementioned total absences – seed oils, sugar – plus a dearth of cultivated grains. Wild versions of grains existed (after all, the first agriculturalists needed something to domesticate), but there’s little evidence to suggest they were major parts of most early human diets.

Second, there’s animal consumption. We just love eating sentient, mobile organisms. There’s never been a traditionally vegetarian culture, and every hunter-gatherer population ever studied consumes animals (PDF).

Third, there’s plant consumption. Plants are trickier than animals because they keep fighting back after you’ve killed (and sometimes cooked) them.

There are other patterns, which I’ll discuss in future posts.

The third charge is a common one, and it takes many forms. The one I get a lot is that early humans were desperate scavengers, just barely skating by and eking out a diet of diseased rodents, chitinous bugs, tree bark, and lichen. Since he didn’t “know any better” and was just eating what he could without regard for nutrients, what early humans ate shouldn’t inform our dietary choices. Well, it’s a specious argument. Whether our ancestors were dumb brutes stumbling through life without ever considering what they ate (they weren’t) or unaccredited ethnobotanists with intricate knowledge of medicinal, toxic, and nutritious plants and animals (they probably were) doesn’t matter in the slightest.

Let’s say that natural selection adapts an organism to a given environment by selecting for an advantageous trait. What if the environment shifts, as they do, and the trait the original environment selected no longer works the same way? This is an evolutionary mismatch. It can happen with any environmental shift, like a change in diet.

Mismatches between an organism and its environment are core concepts in evolutionary biology. They aren’t controversial. In fact, evolution requires evolutionary mismatches, because mismatches represent selective pressures on an organism that lead to adaptations (which of course lead to more mismatches, and so on).

It’s easy to see how diet fits in: if environment shapes an organism’s evolution (via natural selection and evolutionary mismatch), and diet represents an aspect of the environment, then diet (in addition to many other environmental factors) must affect how an organism develops. I don’t see how you can argue against that. You can argue that this specific food was or wasn’t part of the ancestral dietary environment, or that Grok had no idea what he was doing, but you can’t argue against the relevance of the ancestral dietary environment.

There were no “ideal foods“? Okay. That’s not the point. I’m just establishing that there were simply “dietary patterns that shaped the metabolisms, nutritional requirements, endocrine systems, and brains of the walking, talking, loving, pondering collectives of cells and microbes we call ourselves.”

I don’t know about you, but it seems like examining these dietary patterns might offer helpful clues for modern humans currently embroiled in a classic case of evolutionary mismatch. Mismatches are very interesting when you’re a detached academic observing the trajectory of another species, but on the ground level, to the organism experiencing it, mismatches lead to diseases, pain, and suffering. They’re awful.

Luckily, there’s evidence that dietary changes are relevant. When zookeepers noticed the gorillas were getting diabetes and heart disease on scientifically-formulated gorilla chow, they said, “Hey, let’s try providing a diet approximating the one these great apes might eat in the wild. I’m thinking leafy greens, alfalfa, green beans, and tree branches.” The gorillas thrived. So did the grizzlies and the elephants when placed on diets that approximate (rather than replicate) their wild diets.

Are we so different?

In future posts, I’ll explore some of the evidence for what we do know about our ancestors’ diets. For now, let’s agree that whatever early humans did (or didn’t) eat is important to consider, yeah?

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You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. meat, fish, eggs, lots of organ meat, lots of saturated fat, bone broth, vegies all kinds, rice rarely, no processed food, nothing that comes out of a box or a window, birthday cake on my birthday (but it didn’t taste very good this year, so maybe done with that). No more diabetes either, so I’m sold.

    Maryj wrote on February 19th, 2014
  2. I don’t care what humans were eating back then. I want to know: what’s good to eat NOW?

    Rip wrote on February 19th, 2014
  3. I do not see this as knock against Mark. You just made a post full of nebulous truisms, and then prefaced your post with the phrase, “What Mark does not understand” in order to create false controversy. None of this constitutes an argument.

    Mark Meyers wrote on February 19th, 2014
    • Are you commenting on my post? If so, let me try to clear up my position for you:
      From what I gather, Mark argues that there are certain dietary patterns our ancestors adapted to way back when, thus maximizing their reproductive fitness. I am with him there. I just don`t think that emulating “Grok” beyond the basic “real food” premise is necessarily the optimal solution to our modern “evolutionary mismatch conundrum”, because I believe that conditions back then – as opposed to conditions now – promoted a disconnect between “maximum fitness” and “maximum healthy longevity” – and taking the actual in vivo data we have available concerning healthy contemporary populations into consideration, I can`t for the life of me understand why (properly prepared) grains and legumes should be under general suspicion.
      Anyway, none of this is meant as a “knock against Mark” – so we seem to agree on that. And while I certainly don`t presume to know what Mark does or “does not understand” – the “preface” to my post simply expressed disagreement with his “line of reasoning” – , this topic truly does seem “controversial” to me – I am truly sorry for being so spectacularly inept at making a case for my doubts that all you could see were “nebulous truisms”.

      Justus wrote on February 19th, 2014
  4. Justus, I think you underestimate the evolutionary importance living long and healthily past reproductive age. Humans have definitely evolved to be participants in the survival of their family and community past just passing on their young genes. Though studies on the epigenetic consequences of the paleo lifestyle would interest me very much, I don’t think that longevity and vitality while young will be found to be directly opposed to each other. There could very well be minor tradeoffs, like an excess of IGF-1 contributing to cancer, but I have little fear that the primal way will not be vindicated.

    Chyrhopyro wrote on February 19th, 2014
    • Chyrhopyro,

      you are misunderstanding my position. I am not claiming that our paleolithic forebears have evolved to “reproduce and drop dead”; what I am saying is that the high rate of extrinsic mortality they had to grapple with makes adaptations that optimized early survival and healthy longevity simultaneously exceedingly unlikely; genetic quirks like the preservation of sickle-cell anemia alleles in certain populations are some of the more obvious and linear examples. Thus,while certainly having the SAD beat by a wide margin, the “hunter-gatherer lifestyle” sensu stricto need not constitute the absolute apex of healthy living; based on the available data, more “evolutionarily novel modi operandi” like those of the “Blue Zoners” appear to fare even better than the ways of life of,say, the Masai or Inuit (though the evidence is, of course, circumstantial, and confounding factors abound; only significant breakthroughs in the field of nutritional genomics will settle these matters conclusively, I think.)

      Justus wrote on February 19th, 2014
  5. Hello everyone,

    OK. Call me paranoid but I sincerely believe that the S.A.D. has been purposely designed to dumb-down people and make them sick.

    The “Medical-Industrial Complex” only makes money when people get sick. What better way to increase profit margin than to CREATE sick people. The government LOVES dull subjects who can not think… so they work hand-in-hand with the big food companies to slowly poison us.

    These folks are high-criminals. Look at the suffering they cause. They should be punished for the crimes they have committed. About the only way you can punish them is to NOT BE THEIR FOOL.

    If you are still eating sugar, aspartame, etc. you are being a fool to the system. I think most people here are past that.

    People living to 100 years of age in good health with their minds intact? Absolutely possible if a person begins life ON TRACK and stays that way.

    OK, have a nice day and don’t eat the poison they want to feed you.

    Rich wrote on February 19th, 2014
    • The “Medical-Industrial-Complex” ie the modern medical system is not designed to keep us healthy – it is designed to treat us when we are sick. It reacts to illness, rather than preventing them.

      I don’t think the SAD has anything to do with trying to make us sick – it is simply designed to make lots of money for the food processors and their shareholders. Same with the food agencies recommending lots of grains in the diet – the government subsidizes the farmers to such an extent that they then have to get rid of all this cheap grain they have produced so they feed it to animals and encourage people to eat more of it.

      salixisme wrote on February 20th, 2014
  6. We used to call such language academic masterbation. It makes you feel good but doesn’t do any good for anyone else.

    Harriet wrote on February 19th, 2014
    • I don’t know if you are referring to me or not. I will say this though.

      If you think it makes me “feel good” to have to make the comment I made, you are dead wrong. What is going on makes me SICK.

      I don’t know how you can come to such a conclusion as you did… if in fact you were addressing me.

      Rich wrote on February 20th, 2014
      • I believe she was replying to Justus, not you Rich. Also, you should check out Mike Adam’s newest article on this subject on naturalnews if you havent already, it goes into much greater detail on your point above.

        Caitie wrote on February 20th, 2014
        • Thanks so much for the reference, which I agree with 100%!

          Rich wrote on February 20th, 2014
  7. Just saw – yet again- the Subway commercial running during the Olympics, where the athletes are pitching “Frito’s-enhanced” subs. Sugar and seed oils, anyone? With processed meat and cheese thrown in? Whatever Grok ate, it most definitely was not that.

    Sialia wrote on February 19th, 2014
  8. It seems bizarre in a discussion about where nutrition and ideal foods start, the opponents would strike off the past (Paleolithic) as being irrelevant. How do we find links of relevance by eliminating nutritional outcomes anywhere in our history?

    Chris wrote on February 19th, 2014
  9. what a great post!!! love it! looking forward to the next on in the series!

    PaleoDentist wrote on February 19th, 2014
  10. Blimey ! Great replies and debate, never expected to become so absorbed first thing in the morning. Afraid i can’t do any of the science stuff, there appear to be enough smart people doing that already, but i would like to give some simple personal perspective. Since moving to a paleo style diet 14 months ago, i have lost two stone, the chronic ibs i have suffered with for 10 years or more has gone completely, and i look and feel better as well. I have been unwell less, no colds or flu etc.

    It does not need to be rocket (or any other kind of) science, eat better, feel better.

    it does not need to be rocket science, i


    jonnyred wrote on February 20th, 2014
    • Sorry for the random floating comment, damn technology… .

      jonnyred wrote on February 20th, 2014
  11. Thanks for engaging in this debate and making the necessary common sense points about paleo. As most of us probably agree – knowing exactly what was eaten in the Paleolithic is impossible but inferring what food groups were eaten is actually very easy, and it is the food groups, not the actual species that we need to look at.

    Owen wrote on February 20th, 2014
  12. Excellent post Mark, thanks! The final paragraph is brilliant.

    Jade wrote on February 20th, 2014
  13. Excellent post. I love the bit that we know what our paleolithic ancestors did not eat. I.e. they did not eat the Standard American Diet.

    The criticisims against Paleo are one of the reasons why I very rarely say that I am Paleo – instead I tell non-paleo people that I eat a nutritionally dense diet that is both biochemically and physiologically sound. More of a mouthful that Paleo, it is true, but they can’t use the strawman arguments against that.

    salixisme wrote on February 20th, 2014
    • Less of a mouthful: LCHF (low carb, high fat)

      Roy wrote on February 20th, 2014
  14. I’m a little disappointed Mark ‘caved’ so quickly on the first argument against Paleo, (that we don’t know exactly what ancient humans consumed). And I certainly would not have gone so far to say the criticism is “absolutely correct”. It’s not. This web site sparked my interest in the subject and I have read several books on Primal man. The findings in cave and camp site dumps show very clearly what specific tribes were consuming while the genetic mapping of plant life reveals what types of grok veggies were available as well. Sure, we don’t know EVERY SINGLE THING that went in their mouths, but we know more than critics are suggesting.

    Dano wrote on February 20th, 2014
    • At the end of the article Mark says he will address what we actually know about our ancestors’ diets in future posts. This was a first of a series.

      Katerina wrote on February 20th, 2014
      • +1

        We don’t know *exactly* what Grok ate, but we do know quite a lot. Stay tuned.

        Mark Sisson wrote on February 20th, 2014
  15. We all have a perfect control group at our disposal – OURSELVES. I’ve been strict paleo for 2 yrs. But between October and January I had a series of back -to-back events (house guests, extended travel, the holidays, etc.) that took me off my normal eating plan for a few weeks each time. And I felt like total crap within just a few days of deviating. Gloomy, no energy, gained weight….you name it…felt bad, bad, bad. I’ve been back on track for the last month and I feel great again. So, there you have it. My body is my expert. (Btw, I have no known food allergies; I started eating paleo soley because it made perfect intellectual sense to me, and I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been in all my 52 years).

    Peg wrote on February 21st, 2014
  16. Looking forward to the future posts in this serious. Loving the logic in your thoughts, Mark.

    Gary Deagle wrote on February 21st, 2014
  17. There were two glaring assumptions in the article, and one missed option.

    The missed option; those plant chemicals get on these artifacts thru a natural means of contamination. It has to be considered, or the study is flawed. We already know that when we touch unearthed artifacts they are immediately contact!niated by us, and the environment.

    The assumptions. Early man knew what he was doing when it came to eating the right materials. Was he bumbling around completely unawares? No, he’d figured things enough to survive, but was always in a state of guessing what to eat and why. The other was having intricate knowledge of the medicinal, healing, etc qualities of plants, foods, etc. What was learned and at some stage inculcated into a
    cultures knowledge base took thousands and thousands of years – and most of it was and still is hokum! Eating the heart of the enemy doesn’t give you their powers! Eating antlers of any species doesn’t give men a hard-on! No more than throwing a woman in cold water can confirm her status as a witch!

    While I heartily support the basic frame work of the Paleo/other similar diet, and the notions that our processed food stuffs are mostly bad for us – its specious and obvious that the author is severely skewing his arguments to his singular side when he fails to recognize proper options and tweaking the scientific method to his side.

    One more point – humans have not stopped evolving. We re not locked into a particular stage that is thousands of years old. Its a continual process that for all we know us eat right fanatics are gonna die off because of evo, not in our attempts to eat right. Like George Carlin said, the planet needed plastic so it created humans to make it.

    tom LI wrote on February 22nd, 2014
  18. You know, I really don’t care whether or not we know how our ancestors ‘really’ ate because since going Primal almost a year ago every single ailment of mine has disappeared. I’m 42, been working out since I was 10, but for the past 15 years or so I’ve had digestive issues, had two mini-strokes, all sorts of crap I couldn’t really get a handle on. I was lifting heavy weights trying to bulk up when my doc told me to lose weight and with CW diets I lost roughly 40 pounds, but my stomach still bothered me constantly, even though I had cut out eggs and dairy years earlier. Then I went Primal just for the hell of it and BAM! I lost 27 pounds in 15 days! And I have NEVER felt better, never had this level of energy, and my gut is feeling awesome. This lifestyle works for ME, period, and that’s all I can ask for.

    Ed wrote on February 22nd, 2014
  19. > we absolutely do know what early humans did not eat:
    > Industrial seed oils…
    > … refined sugar … 17% or 15% of the total caloric intake.

    To which I would add:

    They didn’t get 60% of their calories from high glycemic carbs (as the USDA advocates, which is mostly from so-called wheat today).

    They didn’t actively try to eat “low fat”, or actively avoid saturated fat.

    They didn’t eat mutant semi-dwarf hybrid goatgrass at all (sold today as “wheat”; nor the genetically similar modern barley or rye).

    They didn’t consume l-fructose (from fruit) year-round in most places, and didn’t eat free d-fructose at all (the fructose in HFCS today), much less at the levels you mentioned.

    They probably didn’t consume much bovine dairy (bovid dairy is a topic of its own).

    They didn’t eat foods bearing a payload of anti-biotics, nor hormones other than what the critters naturally had.

    They didn’t eat plant cultivars created by radio-mutagenesis, chemo-mutagenesis and embryo-rescue, which “non GMO” techniques amount to recklessly random gene insertion.

    They didn’t eat plants with pesticide and herbicide uptake, much less actual (explicit gene insertion) GMO plants designed to tolerate that uptake – if not actually express insecticide, with who-knows-what chronic consequences for gut biome.

    They didn’t eat transfats at all, nor a longer list of other isolated or synthesized chemicals used for color, preservative, flavor enhancement, etc.

    On the contrarian side, you didn’t mention, but other responders here have, the obvious observation that paleo lifespan was about half of what we expect today, despite the SAD modern diet. The question of what role, if any, paleo diet played in paleo lifespan, needs to be considered.

    Today’s chronic ailment health trend charts are all headed in unhappy directions, some even accelerating. Exactly how does what Paleo Person DIDN’T eat contribute to today’s problems? My bet is: a lot. In time, we’ll know. Meanwhile, y’all, individually, need to decide what’s for lunch.

    Boundless wrote on February 23rd, 2014
    • Adding to the list of things our prehistoric paleo pals didn’t consume:

      They didn’t consume carbonated beverages of any kind. Entirely apart from what else is in modern fizzies, I’m not sure the water and carbonation alone are wise to routinely drink.

      They didn’t consume foods laced with endocrine disrupters added by someone else; in particular compounds adverse to thyroid function, such as those that out-compete iodine.

      Do we have a canonical list yet?

      Boundless wrote on February 24th, 2014
    • In general, I agreed with your post. There is just one detail that I find erroneous. The vast majority of our human ancestors would have year round access to fruit. On paleo-type sites there tends to be a strong focus on how Northern Europeans evolved, but that represents only a portion of the world population. Also, for most of our evolutionary history, ALL human primates evolved in places that had a significantly different climate from Northern Europe. And yes, in tropical climates there are large amounts of fruit available ALL YEAR ROUND.

      Patrice wrote on February 25th, 2014
  20. Great article. However, I have to point out that organisms do not evolve. Organisms can certainly acclimate to the environment, but they do not adapt in the evolutionary sense. Populations evolve in response to changes in the environment.

    Populations. Populations are the unit of evolution.

    Camdilla wrote on March 9th, 2014
  21. Not sure if this will all pan out but this summer I might be camping with a friend rather than alone like I expected and she wants to get two rabbits to breed so we have free rabbit meat (also not sure how that will be accomplished). Around a couple years ago I started to get her into primal eating and now she wants to live organic and more natural and slaughter and butcher her own meat.. awesome. If this plan comes to fruition I’ll be munching on warm, still-living rabbit organs.

    Animanarchy wrote on March 10th, 2014
    • Forgot to mention we’d also have a garden and do some foraging. I’m going to try to learn more about edible wild plants in my area and I want to grow vegetables this year whether I’m camping with someone or not. I’ll be eating some ants like usual. Last year I had a herb garden (well, smoking-herbs) and found two others. I want to grow and seek out a variety of herbs this year too. It should be a decently primal season.

      Animanarchy wrote on March 10th, 2014
    • So much for that plan. I think I’ll be camping alone. This friend is continually disappointing me and not being dependable, as well as being hypocritical and irrational. I think she thinks I’m waiting around on her as her backup caregiver until her failing relationship with her boyfriend is finally entirely over and she needs another guy to lean on. Seems she is indecisive about the plan because the guy who gets mad and breaks her belongings who she suffers to be provided for by has an apartment for her to live in and gives her money and buys her drugs. She must not be that happy with him seeing as she kissed me there when he went out briefly and recently wanted to move in somewhere with me. I guess I should avoid her and her inner sociopath and should have figured making living arrangements with her was tentative. Last time we camped together, though we got along great, I pretty much took care of her (and a number of her friends). I think this year I’ll just be a happy hermit again. I could go on about this for a while. It’s frustrating me, but I’ll stop there.

      Animanarchy wrote on March 16th, 2014
  22. Love that a blog about a particular lifestyle/eating choices can spawn debates about evolution and generic names for humankind!

    I don’t personally believe in evolution, but I do do believe that the best way to eat is to choose natural, unprocessed foods grown without chemicals. It’s not easy to stick to, but is certainly good.

    Preparing meals from scratch using natural ingredients and then sitting down together as a family to eat them makes for good health and good family life!

    Ruth wrote on July 30th, 2014

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