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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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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219 thoughts on “We Don’t Know What Constitutes a True Paleo Diet”

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  1. I think we can say with confidence that ancestral diets fell within a particular range, and we are now eating well outside that range.

    1. Indeed out of the ancestral range! Good point.

      Some things are easy to spot – sugars, processed foods, preservatives, colours and so on. Others less so, and therefore more difficult for us to “get back” to a less processed diet. I’m thinking about farming chemicals, depletion of minerals out of farmland soil, additives in drinking water and so on. Paleo as a broad concept helps us to wrap our heads around what we are aiming for…. it is a concept to help us get back into the ancestral range of diets, rather than a rule.

      Great article.

      1. Speaking of eating out of range, my neighbor came by yesterday for a chat. She was so proud of herself for finally getting in the habit of packing lunch for her husband’s work. The menu? 2 cans of soda, 2 bags of chips, 1 Little Debby cake of some variety or other, and a full-size Snickers bar!

        I didn’t say a word out loud, but in my head, i was shreiking, “where’s the FOOD?”

        This woman also complains about her gray hair (even though she’s a few years older than me, but WAYYYYY grayer), her weight, her bladder problems, her trouble concentrating…oh, and her almost-total devotion to Dr. Oz.

        When I read in yesterday’s news that the good doctor had been endorsing the Paleo diet for rapid weight loss, I kinda hoped my neighbor would climb aboard this wagon, but no. She was more concerned about who stole her Tupperware Velveeta container at the church picnic!

        (All hail Velveeta, I guess)

        She’s another one I tried to help with books (PB, Paleo, etc.), but obviously they didn’t get read. Now I just wave to her as she descends down the wrong track to miserable golden years.

        1. I’m with you on everything but the grey hair thing.

          I’m 31, and mine is about 1/3 grey. It started out red, then brown.

          I’m thinking it’s genetic or due to some pretty nasty stress I had a few years back when I went into business for myself.

          Anywho, there seem to be a lot of people looking for a quick fix for their health issues in pill or “this one weird trick” form. This is the Great and Powerful Oz’s main audience I think.
          Frankly, I don’t think most people are willing to invest the time it takes to become knowledgeable about health issues and diet, and would rather just be told what to do by a doctor.

        2. Dr. Oz has endorsed so many things it’s tough to keep track, but I’m relatively sure he never endorsed the soda and snickers diet. That makes fast food look good, at least some veggies tend to sneak into the burgers…

        3. Dr. Oz is always selling some product or another. It’s a 60 minute commercial. He swore up and down just a few days ago that barley was going to cure your appetite and make you skinny. He’s all over the place. It’s weird that a doctor is always pushing weight loss gimmicks.

        4. If I saw that, I would wonder if she’s trying to do him in for insurance money. Who doesn’t know by now how bad that kind of “food” is for anybody, let alone somebody you love?

        5. I too agree with everything apart from the grey hair. Mine started going grey when I was 14, it runs in the family. Now I am mid-30s and almost completely grey, which trend is not reversed by eating better for a significant while.

          If anyone knows of a dietary tool to reverse the loss of hair pigmentation, I’d be more than grateful to hear about that though. But for now, I doubt it exists.

          The best product of modern day chemistry is undoubtedly the blue-black hair dye. (And at the risk of getting grilled for this comment: the next best thing are artificial sweeteners.)

        6. I don’t even think Dr. frickin’ OZ would approve of the lunches she’s packing for her husband!




        7. I started going grey at 20…all the women in my family do…and was close to 100% grey by 40… and, no, we’re not packing candy bars and Little Debbie cakes for lunch 🙂

        8. Can lead the horse to water but can’t make her drink.
          Maybe Velveeta will notice the differences in health between you and herself and begin to be interested in what you do, and don’t do.

    2. All I can say that I feel like a million dollars since I made the change. No matter who you are there will always be people who will disagree with you. To me I feel like saying “Try if for yourself!!” and then come back with your interpretation. I did just that and I cannot THANK You Enough for my new way of eating. Keep fighting for your beliefs and cause.

  2. Anyone who can’t see the logic behind the Primal lifestyle simply wants to be “right” so badly they are willing to be wrong to do it.

    1. Um, what?
      I just had a Twix, and my brain clouded over, emulating a stereotypical “dumb Neanderthal.”

      Seriously, you almost touched on the advanced family structure, specifically grandparents’ roles in infant survivability to reproduction. I think because of this alone, humans are less susceptible to the usual evolutionary pressures (the least fit die, then don’t propagate.) So I feel at this point most of the argument should now encompass every-increasingly complex social structures.

      This is really getting at the crux of anthropology.

      Now to my Twix bar – I need a nap. In the span of an hour, (not a generation,) I’d gone from a functioning person to BLEH. I feel Mark’s argument seems to deal more with an individual’s overall capacity, not just reproductive success. This happens to reconcile the “native” vs. “SAD” question of evolutionary success. They BOTH work. This makes a personal choice; I should’ve thrown traded the darn candy bar for real food.

      1. Sure, grandparents improve the fitness of their grandchildren (and, ipso facto, their own, of course); still, the extent of their influnce is highly context-dependent – the degree of protection they can grant their grandchildren from a virulent infectious disease, for example, is limited if there is no sophisticated medical infrastructure.
        Through the lens of evolution, “an individual`s overall capacity” is indistinguishable from “reproductive success”; every single one of your “personal choices” affects your fitness in a milieu-dependent manner – going “from a functioning person to BLEH” decreases your capacity to adequately deal with whatever life throws at you.

        1. …”the extent of their influence”…
          PS: This post was meant to reply to “Tom”.

      2. Darwin said that evolutionary fitness comes down to how well a population responds to change.

        Homo sapiens sapiens and its predecessors in the Homo genus have been primo adapters all along and have become indigenous to more environments than has any other land animal. We couldn’t have done that without being ready responders to change.

        Grandparents, no grandparents, diseases or not… with low technology we’ve come to be “native” to every continent except Antarctica. No small feat. Because (1) we’re omnivorous–frankly, even if we were wholly carnivorous it would have been the same advantage; (2) we rely more upon culture than instinct; and (3) we can make and use tools.

        It makes up for a LOT of what we would think of as evolutionary disadvantages when we can simply invent our way into compensating for them.

    2. While I am sure you are thrilled with the intellectual self-gratification of your post, could you have made your point a little clearer and less academic? You’re not writing a thesis.

      I think I get what you’re saying: That ancient peoples had just has many negative outcomes tied to genes that controlled multiple traits, but only really selected for reproductive success. If so, I agree.

      I also think that a paleo diet doesn’t have to be that complicated. I think it’s more about eating natural, whole food and steering clear of processed foods and excessive sugars. Pretty simple. We should keep it that way.

      1. Sorry for sounding pompous; it isn`t on purpose. The thing is, I am not a native speaker, and not used to expressing my thoughts in English; I just read American/British textbooks and blog posts every once in a while .
        I hope that my second post – in response to “Zenmooncow” above – manages to illustrate what I mean in a more intelligible manner.

        1. For Justus: I, for one, have enjoyed reading your comments. Each is well thought out and intelligently presented. Thanks to everyone for making this a highly entertaining and interesting morning.

    3. This is an English Blog and an English blog comment section. I don’t know what language this is but if you’re going to post here please use English! Thank You.

  3. I’m content with the knowledge that there’s something wrong with the modern sugar and grain based diet. Reduce and eliminate just those two things, replace with healthy fats, and we would be much healthier as a species. It matters little what Grok had for lunch on Tuesday.

    1. Roy I agree with you. The argument that we can’t know what ancient humans ate is a distraction. One doesn’t have to have a single degree to embrace the absolute fact that the food eaten dictates a quality of life one leads. If there is any hesitation to this elegantly simple truth I can only believe it is because most are so disconnected from their body and cannot connect that what they eat either builds or destroys. We have adopted without question that as we grow older it is a natural progression that medications are a given. This isn’t an accident, it’s a business model and a lucrative one. So let ‘experts’ argue all they want. I for one am the lead researcher in my own life and while I find the endless information fascinating and helpful (most of the time) it is a tool. Some arguments just don’t interest me and this is one of them. The proof is in the pudding. I feel wonderful with no processed food, refined sugar and minimal carbs in my daily diet. When I do eat franken food there is an undisputable impact ito how I feel. Any expert or professional arguing otherwise is a tool of a culture driven by profit with no regard to quality of live. Let the experts argue. It keeps them distracted and gives ‘regular, ordinary’ people who have made the connection “you are what you eat” spread the message.

  4. The criticism listed at the beginning against Paleo reveals that most people don’t understand Natural Selection. It is absolutely true humans were eating whatever they could get their hands on. Whatever they could get their hands on is what they adapted to. If they could just get that concept, then it seems like it would clear up a lot of the skepticism. Then again, 1 in 4 Americans don’t understand the Earth orbits around the Sun…

    1. What do you expect? 1/3 of Americans utterly reject the concept of evolution. Of course I’ll bet that almost every one of those would be completely incapable of explaining the concept of evolution!

      Until that changes, we have little hope of getting the general public to embrace evolutionary nutrition. Although, it doesn’t really matter to me if they continue believing that on day 6 they appeared with a pair of Nikes on their feet and a loaf of Wonderbread in their hand….

      1. I find your comment rude, as a YEC who eats a “paleo” style diet. Personally, I see the observable results of eating a certain way, which convinces me of its effectiveness far more than “why” this way of eating produces optimal health results.

        1. Then why can’t you see the observable results of evolution and be convinced that humans didn’t ride dinosaurs?

        2. If you find comments about the intellectual abilities of people who reject the overwhelming scientific evidence because they believe a sky fairy created the world using magic rude, then maybe you should reexamine your beliefs with a little more critical thinking and logic, instead of objecting when people describe them accurately.

          Just a thought.

        3. As a YEC are you even allowed to use the word paleo?

          I am genuinely curious, though. Since you do not believe in evolution (at least the way the word is properly used), what lead you to try eating a paleo-style diet? Anecdotal evidence sounded encouraging so you figured you’d give it a whirl even though the entire theory of evolutionary nutrition is a direct contradiction of your beliefs?

          The whole paleo / primal / ancestral concept is about creating a lifestyle framework based on the evolutionary history of our genes. To simply follow someone else’s lead and be satisfied with the results may have allowed you to get lucky this time but it really is the antithesis of the very principles from which you are now benefiting. You could have randomly followed a vegan or fruititarian, each of which would have seemed like a great short term improvement over a SAD before revealing their own set of problems.

          There is a reason the diet you are following is so effective. I find it odd that someone would be content not fully understanding the reasons behind that.

        4. I do not understand why anti-evolutionists follow an evolutionary nutrition blog.

          I am very much pro-science, but I am not anti-faith. How people choose to fill in the unanswered questions, whether with Jesus or Qi or star stuff, is nobody’s business but their own. I respect that.

          If people choose to ignore every answer we’ve discovered because it’s just Satan tempting us from the straight and narrow… well, I guess that’s their prerogative. But why follow a science-based blog about a science-based diet? Why not take up the Maker’s Diet? Do they just like shellfish too much…?

        5. To bcflyfisher – I did say “paleo” in quotes for a reason…we are indeed “allowed” to say any word we want. I initially changed my diet from SAD to low-carb after watching the movie Fathead – the observable science convinced me to give it a try (e.g. blood sugar not spiking, fat providing satiety that empty carbs do not, etc.). Somewhere on that movie’s blog I saw the “paleo diet” and stumbled onto this blog.
          For me, it’s not working from the past to the present (e.g. studying our ancestors and recreating their diet), it’s working with what we observe happening in the present (low carb natural food diet > low fat high processed carb and sugar). The “why” that MDA gives (this diet is superior b/c of Grok) is less important to me than the “what/how” (certain foods are better fuel, etc.). So I do follow the science (observable, not historical) and the data of the blog, but not the explanation. Saying “God made xyz like this” does not end the scientific inquiry, there are YEC scientists/engineers/etc who do plenty of research into how things work…but the “why” will be different from the evolutionist’s POV.
          True, I could have “randomly” chosen any diet, but I would say I’ve never chosen a diet “at random,” rather I chose diets based on how convinced I was by the arguments and evidences given by those who followed or created the diets.

          To em: I’ve never heard of The Maker’s Diet before now…at a glance it sounds interesting but I’ll keep doing what works for me. As I said above, I’m more interested in how a diet currently works w/ my body than “why” it does.

        6. SB, far be it from me to tell you what to believe. Do ya thing, rock on alright? 😉

          But I do feel the need to point out to folks here that the concept of a “great creator” does not have to necessarily conflict with the concept of evolution. Certain belief systems, even Judeo-Christian ones, though not yours obviously, have married the two concepts beautifully.

      2. The concept of evolution:

        Billions and billions of years ago, nothing existed, not matter, nor energy, nor time. Suddenly and without a cause, all these things began to exist at the Big Bang. We do not observe uncaused events now, but it must have happened then.

        Over billions of years, matter organized itself, without any guidance or design, into celestial bodies, solar systems, galaxies…

        Many millions of years ago, amino acids mysteriously developed, and somehow grouped themselves into the precise structures required for life, with huge amounts of information encoded into DNA. From these non-living proteins, life spontaneously generated. We don’t see this happen now, but it must have been that way.

        In spite of the law of entropy (things run down, order devolves into chaos), this first single-celled organism reproduced, and over millions of years, became more complex and orderly, and grew into multi-celled organisms. All plants and animals descended from that first single cell. We don’t know how it came to be, but it must have happened that way.

        Organisms became increasingly diverse, and in the process, for some of them, reproduction came to require two participants–cross-pollination for plants, sexual reproduction for animals. Reproductive organs evolved simultaneously and in complementary fashion. Separate but similar species (dogs and cats, say) cannot cross-breed; or if they can (horses and donkeys), their offspring are sterile. This all happened via random, purposeless, undirected mutations.

        Fossil layers show no transitional forms, nor is there agreement on which organisms descended from which others. Indeed, organisms appear “suddenly” and in distinct groups (the “Cambrian explosion”), more or less as the species we see now. We do not observe organisms today transitioning into totally new species, despite the huge number of organisms that exist. But we know there could have been no design involved. It just happened that way.

        How’s that?

        1. You clearly have very little comprehension (if any) of the concepts of evolution. All your information seems to have come straight from young earth creationists.

        2. You just revealed all your cards when you used the words “random” and “Cambrian Explosion”.

          I just finished reading a fantastic book: “Creationism’s Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design” by Barbara Forest and Paul Gross. It, along with Dawkins’ “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution” do a very nice job of making evolution easy to understand and countering the usual I.D. arguments.

        3. Actually…the basic components of life can be formed very easily. We’ve replicated experiments that formed phospholipid membranes, and amino acids are not mysterious at all.
          And the Earth is not a closed system, so the second law of thermodynamics doesn’t apply at all to evolution.
          As for reproduction, try looking up the anthropic principle.
          Yes, mutations are random. But the results of them are not. A horse has 64 chromosomes, and a donkey has 60 chromosomes. They can produce viable offspring, but those offspring are often sterile. This is similar to two humans (each with 46 chromosomes) producing a viable but sterile offspring, such as a man with Klinefelter’s syndrome (a man with two X chromosomes and one Y chromosome). Chromosomes can end up in the same cell and make a baby, but that baby doesn’t necessarily have the right complement of chromosomes to reproduce on its own. Take a genetics class.
          The Cambrian explosion was not as “explosive” and random as people assume. It was linked to warming and a more oxygenated atmosphere, both of which were caused by photosynthesizing organisms.
          People used to expect to see gradual evolution in the fossil record. Let me tell you, it is DAMN HARD for a dead organism to be preserved. We have a tiny, tiny fraction of what lived on Earth preserved. But the idea of punctuated equilibrium has made all the difference in understanding macroevolution. Organisms didn’t evolve slowly, they often evolved in rapid bursts. Why would a tiny mutation make a big difference in survival and cause it to be selected for? See why it makes sense that things would evolve more drastically? Punctuated equilibrium–look it up. You’ll find better descriptions of it than I can give–I’m a biologist, not a paleontologist.
          And lastly, we DO ABSOLUTELY see organisms evolving today. For example, there is a species of fruit fly that diverged into two separate species within the last 200 years. Each live in the same region, but live off a different kind of fruit, so they don’t breed at the same times or on the same plants. Therefore, they’re reproductively isolated, and continue to differentiate from each other. Every time separation happens, allopatric speciation has an opportunity to happen. That’s why the Galapagos, and other islands, are such biodiversity hotspots. Etc. Etc. Etc.

          Whatever you believe, I won’t stop you. That’s not my place. But everybody, please take a class in evolution if you have access to one. In any kind of biology. Science is such an incredible thing that becomes so much simpler (and so much more complex) when you truly study it instead of just accepting what someone in a church or some scientist on TV tells you. Go learn for yourself. You’ll never regret it.

        4. O.K. Let’s try something different…

          Somewhere out there, we don’t know exactly where, there is someone or something, we’re not exactly sure what, but it is a super being with super powers that nobody has ever seen or heard or seen evidence of, except people claiming to find this being inside their souls.
          This super being decided to make a universe where nothing existed before (except the super being who existed without the help of anyone-universes need a creator, super beings do not) with galaxies and stars and planets because, uhm, we don’t know why, perhaps he/she/it was in need of toys, and then decided to create life on a planet so that he/she/it could spend time watching his/her/its numerous creations struggling to survive and killing each other for food.
          Meanwhile, although this super powerful being is well, omnipotent, he/she/it probably messed up while creating so many creations therefore after letting them live and procreate for a few thousand years he decided to bring in newer models, so goodbye Homo sapiens neanderthalensis, welcome Homo sapiens sapiens or goodbye Pliohippus hello Equus (modern horse) for which of course (Neanderthals and extinct horses) we do have fossils, so can’t deny they existed when their modern counterparts didn’t.

          How’s that? Surely that’s the way to go if we want logical answers.

          P.S. Could have made it longer, have a lot more to say to deniers of evolution, but getting tired of it.

        5. Whether you believe in creation or you believe in God, you still believe in one common thing. Are bodies must be designed to eat a certain way. That’s what the diet is all about……eating the way were supposed to. It doesn’t really matter if we agree or not about why that is. At least that’s what I think.

        6. I’m a geologist that specialised in palaeontology. Take it from me when I tell you that your explanation is simplistic and somewhat inaccurate.

      3. What about a Creator that allows life (and this conversation) to evolve?

        1. +1

          And for Rebekka, be careful about using the phrase “overwhelming scientific evidence” for anything — that’s exactly what the govt thought they were using when giving us the supposedly nutritious “four food groups” or food pyramid recommendations.

          I teach research methods, and I appreciate good science, but there’s a LOT of crappy research (and politically driven research) out there too. Indeed, a great deal of the nutrition “science” (as MDA has pointed out on this very blog many times) is some of the shoddiest.

          A final thought–science is not a democracy, and good “knowledge” is not about “consensus” or the number of people who believe in something. Indeed, the best knowledge comes not from closing off inquiry (or shutting up nonbelievers) once we think we “know”; rather it comes from continually engaging in intense debate, constant questioning, and reexamining the data. 🙂

        2. Dorothy, take a bow! Especially with that last line. Hit the nail on the head.

        3. I can assure you I am plenty careful about using the term overwhelming scientific evidence, which there definitely never was for the food pyramid. But which there absolutely is for evolution.

        4. Dorothy, you’re quite right. Science isn’t about how many people believe in something. That’s what religion is all about. Science isn’t about belief at all. It’s about compiling the best available evidence, formulating a TESTABLE hypothesis based on that evidence, then trying to disprove the hypothesis. It’s out there, fair game, and anyone is free to take a crack at it.

          Evolution is a testable theory and, to date, the theory has held up to the scrutiny of many, many people.

          At the end of Origin of Species, Darwin stated exactly what would be required to destroy his theory of evolution by natural selection. One simple thing. 155 years later, the theory stands.

          Whether or not other people choose to learn about and understand it is their choice. I don’t begrudge anyone choosing to close their eyes to the available scientific evidence – I actually feel sorry for them – but I don’t welcome their opinions in scientific discussions.

          The idea of a creator is never presented as a testable theory and can’t be included in scientific discussions. I don’t care what someone chooses to believe but I’m not required to take those beliefs seriously and I’m certainly not required to give them equal consideration in a scientific discussion on an evolutionary nutrition blog.

      4. You don’t even have to accept the concept of evolution to reject vegetable oils and excess sugar. As Mark pointed out, you only have to go back to the 1700’s.

      5. I utterly reject the idea of evolution. That doesn’t make me doubt the nutrition information that Mark presents. Why would one rule out the other? Examining a tooth is the same whether the tooth is 40million years old or 3,000. Testing the effects of x or y on a lab rat today has the same result whether God created the rat or the rat descended from a cosmic explosion.

    2. That is because the vast majority of North Americans believe in creation and deny that evolution ever happened.

  5. Mentally bookmarking this one. I’ve said much of this before, but this says it better. thanks!

    1. Good luck with that…the last 10k years has led to too much adaptation. Maybe in another 10k years?

  6. Over time wouldn’t this mismatch (sugar/grain ~ human diet) select for those who would thrive on said baddies and down the evolutionary road, one day, find ourselves having a conversation a la “… you know, we used to eat wheat and lots of refined sugar”. I’m not saying this is the way to go, I’m just saying if we let evolution work its magic we could all be eating at Dunkin’ Donuts instead of steaming some broccoli and scrambling to find some grass-fed butter for it.

    1. Natural selection only works when reproduction is affected by the selection pressure. Those with celiac disease and insulin resistance generally don’t die off before reproducing and passing their genes down the line. Short of a eugenic program that refuses medical care and possibly reproductive rights to those with low tolerance for grains and high sugar diet, it’s extremely unlikely that we could evolve out of this problem. And lets be honest, the long-term treatment of related health conditions are making our hospitals and pharmaceutical companies very wealthy, and unrestrained reproduction is considered a basic right of human existence in most of the world.

      1. Well, the most common autoimmune disease in women is Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, and it leads to fertility problems in a large number of those that have it. So there you, go, I suppose you could call that natural selection at work. But I definitely prefer to eat a diet that helps me be the healthiest I can be. No one wants to be an individual that natural selection is acting on 😉

        1. Except that the Hashimoto’s usually kicks in after the childbearing years. So no help there.

        2. Not for me it didn’t. Often, yes. Mostly? I’m not sure about that.

        3. Hi WrySmile,

          While lower thyroid function is common in elderly women, Hashimotos – specifically the autoimmune cause for low thyroid function – usually kicks in in the 20s.

          Sincerely, a Hashimotos sufferer since 21.

        4. To suggest that adapting to the baddies is a possible positive for our species down the line is to hope that the baddies will always be available. In 10,000 years, will we be able to counting on the availability of seed oils, giant monocultures of grain, and sugar? Or will we need people who can survive on less as before? Who knows? But I won’t be there then, and I want to feel good now.

      2. I don’t know. Kids are fatter and sicker these days. Who knows if they get a chance to reproduce. We’re just on the tip of the iceberg with these health related problems. If we continue down this path (which as you say and I wholeheartedly agree fills big pharma’s pockets ~ implication being no inclination to stop it) I think we can become Ronald McDonald.

        1. These are the kids who will grow up and end up running to IVF to breed.

      3. But you’re looking at just reproduction, and not reproductive success. The less-adapted couple who drops $20k on ART per baby will have fewer children and fewer respurces to raise them compared to the more-adapted couple who conceives naturally.

        Fertile couples who are nevertheless sick all the time will also spend resources on health care and simultaneously lose earnings, while healthy couples can invest those resources in the children / more children.

        Also couples with sick or debilitated parents will not only be unable to rely on gramma and grampa for childcare and financial help, they may also be responsible for elder care (physical and/or financial), which will, again, draw resources that could have been invested in the children.

        It won’t take much more than a few generations to see that the better adapted couple has a much fuller family tree.

        1. Reproductive success when discussing natural selection is generally defined as increasing the portion of the population with the favorable gene(s) under the specific selection pressure. So quantity is success in evolutionary terms.
          I might agree with you that low fertility would gradually do the job, if we also saw those with the fewest health concerns also being the people producing the most children. However, most couples are choosing to have fewer children across the board regardless of their health status, thanks to birth control and delayed reproduction. There are outliers, but the big picture trend is towards less children. So for that to work, we need to offer more incentive to healthy people to reproduce in numbers, because our massive total world population is going to require a huge number of those offspring to swing the genetic statistics enough to matter.
          Now, if you’re defining reproductive success as your genetic lineage going on to one day rule the world, that’s a different subject all together.

        2. It’s true, the trend of voluntarily limiting the number of children does undermine the process.

        3. The typical SAD might lead to health problems, but it clearly isn’t a paleo diet that gives you an edge regarding reproduction and stuff. The fastest growing populations in the world are in Africa (where people tend to eat rather little meat because it’s expense and a lot of carbohydrates/grains like millet, corn, legumes), China (lots of rice, millet, soy products) and India (legumes, wheat, basmati rice and generally a vegetarian diet because of religious beliefs).

      4. I find this an interesting point. It seems logical that if you get badly sick before reproduction (or even die) then natural selection will be fast at reducing or eliminating the gene that is the cause of this. However, we do know that up to 95% of many Norther European populations (e.g. Swedes) and some African populations have genetic adaptation for lactase persistence. This is not an epigenetic change but an actual genetic change. I would assume that having lactose intolerance in a society where milk is consumed past weaning would mean the individual was perceived to be weak and less attractive as a mate. Diarrhoea isn’t an aphrodisiac! Therefore that is the selection pressure Willdcat mentions.
        But what I find interesting is why there is no evidence for genetic adaptation to gluten. If you had celiac disease or a wheat allergy you would probably not look like a potentially good mate.
        It may be evolving so you can break down a sugar (lactose) is easier than developing the ability to properly break down a protein (gluten). Does anyone have some scientifically based thoughts on this?

        1. Humans, like all mammals, are born with the ability to break down lactose so that they can breastfeed, which is necessary to survival. Lactose intolerant adults are similar to all other mammals in that they gradually lose the ability to process lactose after maturing past the point they would be completely weaned from breast milk. The gene that makes the lactase enzyme is probably as ancient as the mammal lineage, the mutations are to it’s “on/off switch” control gene. It may be as simple as a point mutation which leaves the switch “on”, and it is unlikely that there was ever a strong selection pressure encouraging the switch to turn “off.” If ancient primates retained the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, but didn’t need it, there doesn’t seem to be any downside. This lack of selection pressure encourages variation in the gene, by not killing off the variants; perhaps giving populations of early humans enough variety that when someone thought to milk a goat or musk ox and drink it, a few tolerated it and it made the difference between life and death.
          Gluten, on the other hand, is chemical warfare. It is a protein specifically designed by plants to protect their offspring seeds, and deliver them safely through the carrier’s gut to be deposited with a fresh load of manure at some distant site. There are no grass-seed eaters closely related to us, any genetic capability to overcome gluten and other protective proteins coating seeds was either developed after our ancestors branched off or so long ago we lost the genetics. In addition, modern wheat has been bred to have much more gluten than its wild ancestors, and several hundred years of grain cultivation is the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Finally. large populations evolve much more slowly than small groups, and as previously discussed gluten intolerance isn’t slowing sufferers down much in the reproductive scheme of things.
          Just my 2 cents, I’m no evolutionary biologist, just a biology nerd.

    2. Haha – good point, basil. There may be some truth to that. However… As someone who doesn’t do well on certain neolithic foods, it doesn’t sit well with me to eat the industrial food and let evolution take its course in the hope that somewhere down the line, someone else’s kids can eat Dunkin’ Donuts AND have a long life.

  7. I dig the part where we don’t know what people ate, but know what they did NOT eat. When people ask what the should eat and what type of variety I tell them to go to their local farmer’s markets and eat whatever is there. Whatever is grown in your region is probably what you should be eating now, regardless of if it existed thousands of years ago or not.

    1. Trouble is, our local farmers market includes sweet sugary homebaked cakes made with vegan shortening, and artisan cold-pressed rapeseed oil. It’s not quite that simple!

      1. Sorry Dr.G, we just can’t give doctors the respect they might deserve. If not for the ties with Big Pharma ….who knows.

    2. Corn did not exist before about 10,000 years ago.
      There is no fossil record of corn. It was created
      by a cross of teosinte and a plant that is no longer
      in existence.

      But you’ll probably find corn at your local farmer’s

      If you do, don’t eat it.

  8. The term “Paleo” as relates to the modern diet is in error, as the article pretty much points out. For one thing, we don’t have access to the same foods people ate then. Even if we did, we might not want to eat it (insects, worms, grubs, rotten dinosaur haunch–whatever they could get their hands on to avoid starvation).

    For me, the term “Paleo” or “Caveman diet” just means eating as close to nature as possible. This means avoiding processed foods and sticking with whole, fresh foods usually prepared as simply as possible. I eat anything that can be roughly construed as a nonpoisonous vegetable, as Grok probably did, as well as mostly seasonal fruit that didn’t have to travel halfway around the world to get to me. I eat a minimal amount of dairy (butter, cream, cheese), a lot of eggs, fish, nuts, and plenty of fatty meat. I avoid sweets and grain products, which for me are a sure way to pack on the weight.

    This might not be “pure Paleo” but it’s my idea of Paleo. It’s a healthy way to eat that isn’t all that hard to understand or interpret, and it doesn’t require splitting a lot of hairs over what to eat or what not to eat.

    1. Totally agree. I think stress is a big factor in today’s health issues and the all this splitting hairs about what is and isn’t ‘allowed’ on the Paleo diet is causing stress!! Just eat close to nature, cut out most grains and sugar and live life.
      Maybe what we need is a different name other than Paleo. It’s ‘caveman’ connotations really turn a lot of people away before they understand what it’s all about.

      1. But if we called it “The Retro Diet,” that would garner a lot less backlash, I’m sure. Anything with the word “retro” in the name usually draws flocks of Boomers wanting to relive their glory years…which means we might have gotten an AARP seal of approval (gack!).

        Then all journalists and nit-pickers would have to write about is what to fill in the blank with: retro WHAT? Who’s retro? How long ago?

      2. Not sure i agree. It’s the whole caveman connotations that got me thinking that this isn’t just another hippie diet, and that there might an actual scientific basis for it. If it was called the “retro diet”, I probably never would have looked at it twice.

  9. Brilliant as always, Mark! Keep doing what you’re doing. 🙂

  10. I feel better, stronger, healthier, happier following the paleo lifestyle than ever before. That’s good enough for me!

    Mark, I appreciate very much your contributions and research and
    common sense.

    1. Amen to that sister! I feel wonder eating more paleo (80/20). Proof is in the pudding 😉

  11. I believe another contributing factor is that many people who are paleo are extremists who preach and speak as if their choice is the only right one. Eating carbs is like having premarital sex! Straight to hell! Haha

    I like MDA because its very reasonable.

  12. We don’t need any scientific studies to prove real food is healthier than Frankenfood. Why is this even an argument? If it came from Earth, eat it; if it came from man, don’t. End of study.

    1. +1.

      And thanks for putting up a petroglyph of Newspaper Rock heading the article. This is right before you go into the Canyonlands. One of the most magical spots on earth.

    2. Ok Kelly, I’ll be sure to eat my oleander, because I know it came from the Earth. 😉

  13. What Grok and his friends ate or didn’t eat in reality is besides the point. Science established a theory based on what we think they ate and the paleo/primal way developed from that hypothesis. The Jaminets Perfect Health Diet is pretty scientifically compelling when you look at its foundation based on molecular biology. Then, of course, is the way we all feel and the results we’re getting by modifying our diets and lifestyles… the proof, as they say, is in the blood pudding!

  14. well i can damn sure guarantee you that Grok was not eating bagels, scones, croissants, doritos, potato chips, soda, gatorade and cheetos…for pete’s sake why can’t people just admit the SAD is well, truly….sad

  15. Those who criticize the loudest are probably those who are trying to justify their poor dietary choices. We may not know what Grok ate but we do know it wasn’t microwave dinners or lunch at MacDonalds, chowing down french fries and a Mastodon burger.

  16. Well I agree that eating real food is the common sense approach. I only eat meat, fish, seafood, foul, eggs, fat and vegetables. A little dairy and no processed or any kind of grains. Three weeks after eliminating grains my persistant hip bursitis completely disappeared. Spent $$ on physical ther.
    And I believe that eating grains added inflammation. I feel great and am satiated on less.

    1. Americans don’t need to be taught to think. They already know how. Trouble is, they get lazy and would prefer to let someone else do it for them.

      1. Or they use their vast intellectual abilities to perform the mental gymnastics necessary to justify why they should just keep on doing the same old thing they have been. Regardless of its destructiveness.

  17. The real question: Will the evolutionary pressure to change adapt our species to potato chips and corn syrup before we kill ourselves off?

    1. In our current state, no. Modern medicine keeps us alive as kids, helps us reproduce, let’s us raise our kids. We are continuing to ‘stay’ relatively the same despite our current mismatch with SAD.I’m not complaining, hey I’ve benefitted from that.

    2. It is already happening. So many people are taking part in the scientific discovery phase of which genes lead to gluten intolerance and insulin resistance. Get your genes sequenced and you add to the statistics. As it gets cheaper and cheaper to do, eventually enough people will have done it such that a pattern emerges. Then the clever scientists and statisticians can show a causal relationship between the ‘bad’ genes and these so-called lifestyle diseases. What’s next?

      It won’t be long until science allows the average person to select which embryo to implant based on whether they have the ‘good’ genes or the ‘bad’ genes.

      Would you like fries with your baby?

  18. Thanks for the insights Mark. For some reason I tend to get into arguments with nutrition students and one point that they make that is actually pretty good and I’ve never heard a good response for is that “How do you know the primal diet is good for living a long time? We have records that these cave men you are trying to mimic didn’t live very long.” I usually just try to make a joke out of it and tell them that “if only they had their Wheaties, that lion wouldn’t have caught up to them!”

    I would be interested in hearing some thoughts on the subject if anyone has them.

    1. I believe I read somewhere that the presumably short lifespan for our caveman ancestors is primarily due to the fact that the lifespan number is an average. For every child that died at birth, you would have someone else living to 80. Given the dangers that accompanied his existence, I guess, if Grok could actually survive the first few years, he could live to a ripe old age.

    2. As Thomas said. Perinatal death would have been high and would certainly skew the average but can’t really be attributed to nutrition.

      Also, we must consider the harsh environment they lived in. Death would often be the result of serious traumatic injury. Back then, breaking a major bone would likely be a death sentence. Nowadays, you get a lollipop and all your friends get to sign your cast. Back then, a serious wound would easily become infected and lead to death. Nowadays, you slap on some Polysporin and a Band-aid.

      Unless the person arguing against you is aware of a population living on a Western Diet AND in the absence of all doctors and modern medicine then they’re in no position to compare life expectancy and attribute the results to nutrition.

      1. Just imagine what life would be like if Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s couldn’t be had with a helping of the modern medicines produced by big pharma, served by their pushers (most doctors).

        I don’t think it would be a very long life, and it certainly wouldn’t be a good one.

      2. Many would have died of famine. That’s dying of not eating, not eating Paleo/Primal.

    3. I’ve heard this argument before. As someone else here has said, lifespans are averaged and infant mortality can and will bring the average down. So that is one aspect to consider. Another is that we have to remember that Grok and kin were out bringing down WILD animals most of which, as cave walls attest, were larger and stronger than themselves. Meanwhile, the hunter would have himself been hunted in those days and accidents could have had a much more detrimental effect then than they do now. So, to me, ancient lifespan is not a particularly good indicator of overall health, imho.

    4. As I recall, Mark wrote about the fact that yes, many died young on average, but there were also many that lived long lives.
      I also remember seeing some wonderful pictures of older Aboriginal men, who lived what we would call a paleo lifestyle, who had incredibly vibrant and muscular physiques that appeared to be every bit as developed and lean as the younger men in the pictures, they just had older faces.
      I think one obvious answer for those nutrition students is that there is good evidence that on average the teeth and bones of paleo people, whether they were from younger or older specimens are often denser and healthier appearing than the skeletons of more modern men of similar ages. This does not jive with the idea that they were in constant struggle with nutritional deficiency, and it supports the idea that the main reason for such a high early death rate was more likely violence, broken bones, infected cuts, etc…

    5. Ask those same students how many times they’ve used antibiotics then watch them ponder!

    6. Early humans had some very common causes of death that we mostly avoid in the developed world – trauma, infection, childbirth and murder. These brought down the life expectancy considerably. Among the survivors who lived to be elderly, there is little evidence that they routinely succumbed to cancer, diabetes, heart disease or Alzheimer’s disease (these are rarely described among current or historically recent hunter gatherers.)

      It seems likely that if, like us, they had social systems and basic medical treatment that reduced those four causes of death, their diets and ways of life would have resulted in longer and healthier lives than we live, on average.

    7. The lifespan of our stoneage ancestors would have included babies and young children who also died as well as those who lived to a ripe old age. It is just an average. It also would have also included those who died of accidents or infections, and women who died in childbirth as well. Modern medicine has artificially increased our average lifespan that is all. I am sure that if Grok had access to the kind of medicine that we do, he would have lived just as long.

      1. So true. The average life expectancy of the generation that was around during the American Revolution was pretty low. Yet the actual lifespan of the most prominent founding fathers was on par with ours. Why? They were among the most educated and wealthy. They had access to the very best medicine, food, shelter and modern conveniences. The poorest of the poor and slaves didn’t do so well.

  19. I got into a similar argument the other day, with a vegan. I had her stymied with the idea that we should be the only animal (she admitted we should be included as animal) not allowed to eat other animals. Cats eat mice, bears eat salmon, etc. But I could see she wanted to then extend that “humans shouldnt eat meat” to house cats and bears. I let her “win” the discussion with “animals are stupid so they dont know any better”. I didnt bother to remind her that she’d already admitted to being animal.

  20. Mark: for the first argument: we also we absolutely do know that early humans did not eat Primal Fuel. A typical pattern of modern day society to put anything in a powder or a pill.

    How do you argument that Primal Fuel is as much part of a paleo diet than vegetables, fruits, fish and meat?



    1. He doesn’t argue that.

      You’ve built a strawman argument – now you can attack your own argument.

      1. Mitch,

        Seems Mark understood my Grok English like I wanted to express myself 🙂

        I am here to learn, I am not here to argue nor discuss: because without proof of what Grok was exactly eating, and with the knowledge what he surely wasn’t eating – apples are one of them as well – , we need to make, eat and live our best guess based on what we do, what we know, what we have and how we make a living.

        1. Ok.

          Yes protein powders are not as good as real food.

          But good quality protein powders can be a convient alternative when time to prepare real food is limited.

          So no they are not Paleo – what ever the exact definition of that is( primal being a bit different).

          Eat real food and if in this modern world, that some supplementation is helpfull then it sounds reasonable to do so.

  21. I start with the evolutionary nutrition perspective when making dietary decisions. And I do not mean what Grok ate and how he evolved. I start at the cellular level, that which comprises Grok was evolving millions of years before the first primate, way before the first Grok.

    What are the needs of the cells to function perfectly? An example: Vitamin D is over 500 million years old. How old is iodine, magnesium? The cells of our bodies have particular constituents and environmental factors for their optimal performance that over ride a debate on macro nutrient rations.

    By constantly reframing the discussion to deeper and more fundamental levels of what we laughingly call “our bodies”, we can have a much clearer picture. Food is simply units of energy that effect cellular function.

    Evolution is not about what we identify as our bodies. Everything alive is evolving. And by examining the interactions of the trillions of different entities that composed “us” we may have a scientific bases for nutritional decisions.

    The questions could be proposed as example, what do the cells comprising the thyroid gland require for optimal performance and how can that be provided by diet?

  22. Everyone gets caught up on what to eat. Really seems like exclusion is more important than inclusion IMO.

    1. Amen!

      I just finished “Death by Food Pyramid,” and the major conclusion the author comes to is that all healthy populations, no matter how different their diets may be, tend to exclude refined sugar, highly processed food, and seed oils. And they eat plenty of vegetables.

  23. I think this quote from Gary Taubes “Why We get Fat” is relevant to the comment about knowing (or not) what stone age or Paleolithic man ate:

    “In 1919, a New York cardiologist named Blake Donaldson began prescribing mostly meat diets to his obese and overweight patients—“fat cardiacs,” he called them, because even ninety years ago these men were obviously prime candidates for a heart attack. As Donaldson told it, he had visited the local Museum of Natural History and asked the resident anthropologists what our prehistoric ancestors ate, and they told him “the fattest meat they could kill,” with some minimal roots and berries for variety. So Donaldson decided that fatty meat should be “the essential part of any reducing diet,” and this is what he prescribed to his patients: half a pound three times a day, with a small portion of fruit or potato to substitute for the berries and roots. Donaldson continued with this prescription until he retired forty years later, successfully treating (or so he claimed) seventeen thousand patients for their weight problems.*”

    Excerpt From: Gary Taubes. “Why We Get Fat.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/Gb7bz.l

  24. Mark, I love you. Please don’t use sexist phrasing like, “That is why we’re interested in what early *man* ate…”

    Some may accuse me of being petty, but it is my belief that semantics are important and that eliminating female pronouns from language, and referring to all humans as “men” is one more way that women are undermined in society. It’s like saying we don’t even exist.

    We do exist, and there are many of us in your readership. And it’s not appropriate to refer to us as men. If you are referring to the human race, comprising both genders, please say something like “humans” or “humankind” instead of “man” or “mankind.”

    I would be appreciative if you changed the wording in today’s piece.


    1. Me too. Early humans isn’t so much harder to type, and as women typically provide most of the calories in hunter gatherer diets, it would be nice to include us 🙂

        1. In all known hunter gatherer societies, there is strict gendered division of labour. In most hunter gatherer societies (Arctic societies being an obvious exception) more than 50% of the calories in the diet come from what the women gather. I thought that was widely understood, but if you need more information, this paper is a good starting point: https://www.uwyo.edu/nmwhomepage/pdfs/ameranthr.pdf

      1. That is really petty. “Man” includes us all. No one can make you feel unimportant except you, if you choose to be offended by harmless things like that (and yes, I’m female, but not ever offended if you refer to me as “man”). I can promise you that HG societies didn’t bother with being PC!

        1. Richie and Keen–opine however you want, but please know that your responses to my post are rude and counterproductive. If you think your opinion holds merit, I suggest you learn how to express yourself in a more thoughtful way. (See, language matters–because you express yourselves in a thuggish way, instead of expressing your ideas thoughtfully, I do not take what you say seriously.)

    2. Yes, semantics are important, but so is knowing what you are talking about. Using the masculine gender to apply to both male and female is quite common across many languages and eras. It has nothing to do with sexism. I guarantee that neither the author nor any reader not looking for a problem reads it the way you suggest.
      I don’t mind if he changes it to keep politically correct, but you should not read something into it that was not intended, asking someone to change because you have a faux-problem with it.

      1. Ha, ha, ha. Because I disagree with you, I’m a thug! What happened to being PC – lol!

    3. This is what irritates me about feminism. Women in the Middle East are being executed for the crime of being raped. 13 year old girls in Bountiful BC (Canada) are being forced to marry 50 year old men who already have a dozen other wives, Canada and the US are some of the biggest players in the sex trafficking industry. Yet we’re more concerned with a manhole should be called a humanhole?

      1. Don’t get me wrong, I have the same issue with environmentalists and religion, not just feminism. Turning molehills into mountains, while turning a blind eye to the real mountains.

  25. It’s funny watching all of the progressions of ‘Paleo’, ‘Primal’ or whatever you want to call it. Started out higher in ‘lean’ protein, lower in carbs and moderate fat.

    Then: Lower protein, still low in carbs and then high in fat.

    Then: ‘Safe Starches’, higher in protein again and back to moderate fat.

    Then: ‘Resistant starch’, lentils, legumes, potatoes, meat, dairy, fats….pretty much
    anything goes but wheat (gluten) and junk food.

    I’ll take the latest installment – Thank You ‘Free The Animal’ and Tater Tot!!

    Let the ‘Paleo Purists’ worry themselves in to a tizzy!

    1. I think that’s called learning and growing. Don’t see any “tizzy” in that.

  26. The only problem with using Evolution to explain to the general public what Paleo is/is not, is that almost half of Americans think Intelligent Design is a legitimate science and Darwinism/Evolution is only a competing theory.


    Not to mention that 1 in 4 Americans think the sun goes around the earth.


    God created this flat Earth at the center of the universe for us, created in his image, 5000 years ago?


  27. There’s a theory that one reason we have such lovely big brains is because at a critical point in our evolution we were semi-aquatic, therefore had access to the very nutritious, abundant, and high-in-omega3 foods of the shorelines. We could “afford” to have big brains, and good thing too because we needed big brains to adapt to a new reality; semi-aquatic as opposed to semi-arboreal. I think it makes a lot of sense.

      1. Aliens also seeded earth with life, then waited patiently for it to develop, then helped humans build all kinds of stuff we weren’t smart enough to do on our own, and even (according to some) set off nukes in ancient India.

        Are magic mushrooms primal?

        1. There is a TED talk (I think it is TED) that puts forward an interesting case for semi-aquatic human evolution. The earth was once flat! I agree, magic mushrooms are Primal. I await the post from Mark about it. Perhaps he could test it on a worker bee.

        2. No need to put the staff at risk. I volunteer. Give me extra, just in case.
          Haven’t run into a merchant of those delightful fungal delicacies in three and a half years. Destitution, destitution!

  28. I completely agree that we were semi-aquatic creature for a significant evolutionary time. Examine our blood. And the high level of DHA in our brain.

    Speaking of the brain, it became so large that we had to deliver our babies before they were more physically ready because the head was growing to large for safe delivery.

    Many of the most important chemicals in our body originated in the oceans.

    Much of what we identify that separates us from primates we owe to our time spent with the ocean. And by time I do not mean a week at the beach!

  29. The trouble with Mark`s line of reasoning is that reproductive success, which evolution ultimately selects for, ist not necessarily synonymous with healthy longevity; in fact, paleolithic man`s average life expectancy – references to which are often ridiculed in the “Paleosphere” – is highly relevant in this regard, because the higher the rate of extrinsic mortality is in a certain environment, the more central adaptations that favor simply reaching reproductive age become (even at the possible expense of longevity), thus positioning antagonistic pleiotropy with regard to diet-genome-microbiome-environment-interactions as a progressively favourable bargain. In other words: People tend to forget that the profoundly negative aspects of a paleolithic hunter-gatherer existence are likely (but at least potentially) just as relevant as the positive ones with regard to epigenetic emulation; who can really say how many unwitting epigenetic trade-offs made by “Grok” yield a completely different return of investment in modern society with its (comparably) low infant mortality rate, parasite load, infectious disease and trauma fatality rate, etc.? What strikes me as intriguing in this context is that, while traditional peoples like the Inuit or Kitavans are clearly healthier than “SAD-Westerners”, the “Blue Zone populations” appear to live decidedly longer still while enjoying the same compression of morbidity – and they are, by and large, semi-vegetarian consumers of grains and legumes.
    All in all, it seems to me that – beyond “Pollanesque common sense”, at least – the waters are muddier than many in the “Paleosphere” are prepared to acknowledge – which does not in any way change the fact that the concept of “evolutionary nutrition” – or rather, “evolutionarily adequate nutrition” – offers an array of fascinating hypotheses deserving of thorough investigation.

    1. Infant mortality is lower but infant illness and disease is much higher today. Better? Progress?

      Reproductive success and good health seem coupled in a way that your hypothesis doesn’t address, thought I agree reproductive success and good health don’t necessarily equal longevity(one can be ill and childless and still live for a long time).

      1. Whether or not reproductive success and good health are coupled depends on the evolutionary milieu/context. Take sickle-cell anemia or hereditary hemochromatosis, for example: When/where malaria/plague are endemic, the respective conditions provide a net fitness gain for (heterozygous) allele carriers, even though they most certainly don`t improve a person`s “general health” in and of themselves. Here, a certain degree of resistance to a specific, highly dangerous infectious disease outweighs long-term low-grade detriments to both “general health” and longevity from a fitness perspective; the higher the extrinsic mortality rate in a certain evolutionary environment, the better the pay-off antagonistic pleiotropy such as this delivers – and the extrinsic mortality rate in “Grok`s” evolutionary milieu was way higher than it is today (for westerners, at least). That is the point I was trying to make: It isn`t necessarily feasible to reassemble the pieces of the puzzle, because the surface you are trying to put said puzzle together on might have changed enough that the pieces don`t interlock like they used to, thus distorting the picture you were trying to recreate.

        1. You obviously know evolutionary biology at a high level. The miscommunication seems to be that Mark is suggesting that evolution is leading to or meant for some utopian perfection , which is simply not the message.

          It’s a lens ,”antagonistic pleiotropy” helps us better understand certain diseases not because it answers every question about every illness , but because it allows us to ask better questions.

          So the ” evolutionary mismatch” is not the answer , it’s the lens to help ask better questions.

        2. Zenmooncow,

          I agree that the “evolutionary perspective” can be a “lens to help ask better questions”, and I realize Mark isn`t spuriously glorifying the process of evolution; my disagreement lies with his assumption that emulating “Grok`s” “methods” of maximizing his reproductive fitness in the Paleolithic age inevitably yields “maximum healthy longevity” today – why not recognize that several of the – if not the – healthiest human populations in this day and age thrive not necessarily in spite of, but possibly even due to “neolithic lifetsyle elements”?

        3. …”neolithic lifestyle elements”…(e.g. : A plant-based, semi-vegetarian diet rich in legumes and grains will leave you fat, sick and frail in your old age?”Chronic cardio” will destroy your joints and make your heart explode? Tell that to the Sardinians/Tarahumara – they don`t seem to have gotten the memo.)

      2. Got any evidence for the claim that infant illness and disease are “much higher” today? No? Didn’t think so.

    2. Where do you get your “blue zone populations” from? ansel Keyes?

        1. Oh, and by the way: Good old Ancel died two months before his 101st birthday – thus one-upping Jack LaLanne and most other “healthy living gurus” – , so it appears he did pretty well for someone who wasn`t into “optimizing his gene expression” in accordance with “Paleolithic parameters”. (“Disclaimer”: I am personally no more enthusiastic about low-fat diets than I am guessing you are.)

  30. While I believe scepticism is essential to help sift and refine the concepts we keep in our cognitive toolkit , at a certain point , you have to wonder if its just contrarianism or are the critics really still not getting it.

  31. I believe that the primary goal of evolution is reproduction, staying alive. And the the neocortex separates us from other animals and allows us to overcome many epigenetic influences that tilts the balance toward our longevity in the ratio between reproduction and longevity. But there is a cost. And how we use our knowledge to maximize health and longevity optimally is a goal yet to be achieved.

    And what we eat is a small part of that optimal equation.

  32. I’m interested in the rest of this series. As part of crafting my own diet, I’ve been attempting to research (ok, desktop research only) what constituted a Northern European traditional pre-agricultural diet, especially in terms of indigenous vegetables/fruits and have found resources very scarce.

  33. “KISS”….no factory food….lots of sunshine….sprint/lift/sleep….repeat.

  34. Eienstein used to perform “thought” experiments – how about this one. Take all the humans on the planet now eating whatever they eat, but remove all modern advantages of non diet related mortality and reproduction – ie medicine, life saving surgery, IVF, etc – let this run for a about three generations, and lets see whose left, and who is thriving, and what they are eating. Without modern medicine keeping us alive, i know several people already who would have “bought it” already.

    1. Interesting for sure. I’d put my money on the Primal crowd any day over the couch sitting, fast food crowd. Let’s not forget that the modern medicine crowd live longer, but I would use the word exist longer, instead. 10 years in an old folks home is scary.

      1. actually – yuo can count the nursing home as a “modern advantage”, so, basically when you get to nursing home stage you can count that as game over – your on your own.

    2. I eat my medicine (derived from a plant, as it happens). Why should I have to consider it different to the cheese (also derived from a plant, via an animal) I just ate?

      There is really no biological distinction between “medicine” and “food”. A “medicine” is just a food that is eaten for a specific effect rather than for general nutrition.

      I think\ that most Joe Mc’Sixpacks and their MacDonalds guzzling kids could easily survive three generations without needing “medicine, life saving surgery, IVF, etc”. That doesn’t mean they’d enjoy it though.

  35. Mark, one thing that sets MDA apart— aside from the excellent content—is the quality of writing. Well-crafted prose is a hallmark of MDA.

    May I humbly suggest an edit for clarity? 1, 2, and 3 in the post are propositions, or more colloquially, claims. They are claims the opposition makes. They use those claims, in turn, to make arguments against the Primal/ancestral philosophy.

    What you want to concede is their claims, not their arguments. Because their arguments are against the Primal/ancestral philosophy, which you of course support.

    So your strategy is logically solid, just made unclear by the language of the post. You are granting the opposition’s claims, but denying that those claims support their anti-Primal arguments.

    Sorry to go all “egghead” in the comments, but I think it’s an important distinction that clarifies what’s going on here.

  36. “Plants are trickier than animals because they keep fighting back after you’ve killed (and sometimes cooked) them.”

    Sounds like a zombie apocalypse scenario to me! Come on Spielberg, what are you waiting for? Hey, maybe Brad Pitt has an opening in his schedule.

  37. 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.

  38. I don’t care what humans were eating back then. I want to know: what’s good to eat NOW?

  39. 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.

    1. 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”.

  40. 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.

    1. 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.)

  41. 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.

    1. 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.

  42. We used to call such language academic masterbation. It makes you feel good but doesn’t do any good for anyone else.

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

  43. 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.

  44. 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?

  45. 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


  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

    1. 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.

  49. 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).

  50. 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.

  51. 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.

  52. > 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.

    1. 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?

    2. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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.

    1. 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.

    2. 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.

  55. 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!

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