What Is Paleo?

While the paleo diet has grown in popularity the last several years, there’s still confusion about what paleo does and doesn’t promote. Does “being paleo” mean living as close to our hunter-gatherer forebears as possible? Is it simply casting off processed food? Or is it somewhere in between? 

These are questions worth asking, as paleo holds very similar principles to the Primal Blueprint, the model for healthy living I’ve dedicated this blog to for over a decade. Today let’s explore the modern development of the paleo movement, the key principles guiding it these days, and where it’s likely to go in the future. 

A Brief History of the Paleo Diet

To understand the underpinnings of the paleo movement, we need to reflect on the biological history that inspired it. Let’s start there.

For over two and a half million years, our Paleolithic hunter-gatherer ancestors foraged, fished and hunted for their meals. Their survival depended on whatever they could pick, catch or spear. Their diet included a wide range of fresh, and wild grown vegetables, tubers, fruit, nuts and seeds. When available, they also ate a variety of eggs, meat, seafood, and fowl. Such a wide range of food provided our ancestors rich and diverse sources of nutrition—from copious antioxidants, polyphenols and minerals, to ample protein, and nourishing, sustaining fats, not to mention exposure to a diverse population of probiotic and prebiotic microorganisms.

It is easy to forget how long the human species spent as hunter-gatherers (from 2.5 million years to 12,000 years ago for the Homo genus). Consider next that human history since the time of the Neolithic Era through the present day, is only 12,000 years, a mere blip on the radar in terms of our entire existence, yet the Neolithic Era forever transformed what humans ate and how they lived. Millions of years prior to that, early humans were nomadic hunter-gatherers subsisting on a wide variety of natural food that was wild-grown or caught. What may be surprising to learn is that the while the Neolithic Era actually marked the beginning of mass food production and storage, it also led to a narrowing of food choices (as well as nutrients) as humans settled down and began devoting themselves to domesticating animals and cultivating and storing a limited number of grains and plants.

In spite of the dramatic dietary changes caused by the agricultural revolution, the truth is we are still genetically closely related to our paleo ancestors, which means our metabolic and nutritional needs are essentially the same today as they were in the Paleolithic Era. Yet, these same ancestors (not to mention much more recent relatives) would never recognize the modern processed food of the Standard American Diet (SAD). (Remember our modern manufactured food system only traces its origins back to the mid-1800s with the rise of industrialization.)

Sadly, refined grains and industrialized foods, such newcomers in the evolutionary scheme of things, appears to dominate the human diet at the same time that such chronic illnesses as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, obesity and autoimmune diseases seem to appear alongside. Why? The modern diet does not promote optimal gene expression. In other words, the nutritional deficiency of SAD cannot provide the proper nutrition that triggers proper gene expression for health instead of disease. It appears that the nutrients from natural ingredients and whole foods readily found in the Primal or paleo diet are still required by humans for proper metabolic, endocrine and neurological functioning and gene expression. Unfortunately, many of these essential nutrients have been stripped from, or simply don’t exist, in our modern manufactured food.

That slow but sure plummet into dietary woe from the agricultural revolution onwards seems to have gone largely unnoticed until the 1939 publication of Weston A. Price’s Nutrition and Physical Degeneration: A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects. Most paleo enthusiasts are familiar with the now-legendary observations of Dr. Price, an American dentist who visited several non-Westernized cultures across two decades and made detailed records of their diet and health in general. To cut a long story short, Price’s observations painted a sad picture for the modern diet, showing that those non-Westernized cultures had better teeth, stronger bones, magazine-worthy physiques and a notable lack of disease. Whenever these cultures adopted a modern way of eating, however, things took a dramatic turn for the worse.

Dr. Price’s work may have fallen on relatively deaf ears in the nutrition world at the time, but to some it inspired a revolutionary thought: perhaps the solution to optimum health was not looking forward but backwards. On the heels of Price’s publication came a slow surge of tentative scientific forays into evolutionary, and more specifically paleolithic, nutrition: De Vries’ Primitive Man and His Food in 1952, Voegtlin’s The Stone Age Diet in 1975, and Eaton’s The Paleolithic Prescription in 1988. In particular, Eaton’s book was the first comprehensive publication to take empirical and observational data from pre-agricultural times and apply them to a modern-day, “paleo” type of diet.

Since then, the paleo movement has slowly evolved into what we see today. As research on the subject intensified, the paleo diet as a modern model for optimal nutrition was further refined. 

The Core Principles of Paleo

The premise of the paleo diet is relatively simple in theory: eat as our hunter-gatherer ancestors did. In practice, however, this becomes a little more difficult to emulate in the modern day Western world, due to confounding factors like food availability and nutrient depletion, not to mention the starkly divergent eating practices we live with today.

But despite the mismatch between ancestral eating principles and modern food culture, the core principles of paleo aren’t all that complicated.

  • Get plenty of clean protein.
  • Enjoy healthy, stable fats (particularly monounsaturated and saturated fats).
  • Avoid grains.
  • Avoid all processed foods.
  • Avoid polyunsaturated seed oils.
  • Eat lots of fresh vegetables.
  • Enjoy fresh fruit (in moderation because of their natural sugar content).

These, incidentally, are the same principles guiding a Primal way of eating, but where the two differ is with regards to full-fat dairy, coffee, legumes and (to a lesser degree) nightshades. Whereas paleo advocates often move away from these foods, Primal incorporates them (in moderation, when an individual tolerates them well, and when they come from good sources).

But Primal and paleo proponents agree that insufficient time has passed since the Agricultural Revolution for our digestive systems to have adapted to the grains, refined sugars, additives and processed fats that now make up over 70% of the modern diet. As this study notes, “our genome can have changed little since the beginnings of agriculture, so, genetically, humans remain stone agers—adapted for a paleolithic dietary regimen.” The paleo diet, then, is based on the sound reasoning that our bodies expect and will optimally thrive only when we eat as similar a diet as possible to pre-agricultural times.

The Proven Benefits of Paleo Eating

When you manage to get over the inevitable shock of ditching grains and shirking processed foods, there’s actually nothing strange about paleo eating. It advocates plenty of high quality sources of protein and fat, lots of fresh vegetables and fruit, and eliminating refined sugars. Ultimately, it’s a diet rooted in whole foods, and there’s bound to be improvements in one’s health when shifting away from the ultra-processed rubbish most Westerners are used to eating.

Most research has focused on the potential for a paleo way of eating to improve markers of cardiovascular disease – and most of the results are very promising indeed. In a small 2009 study, for example, 13 patients with type 2 diabetes were placed on a 3-month paleo style diet, then on a 3-month standard diabetes care diet. At the end of the trial, the paleo diet showed huge improvements in cardiovascular risk factors when compared to the diabetes diet.

A 2012 study showed via a larger group of 406 patients diagnosed with coronary complications that a “Paleolithic style diet” was more effective in improving cardiovascular symptoms than a conventional low-fat diet, with a significantly lower mortality rate in the paleo group. Perhaps if the diet had been truly paleo (patients still ate whole grains and only lowered amounts of refined breads, biscuits and sugar), the results may have been even more impressive.

Recent trials also indicate paleo is superior to conventional diets in addressing markers of metabolic syndrome. A 2014 Dutch study put 32 subjects with metabolic syndrome on either a paleo-type diet or a diet prescribed by the Dutch Health Council. After two weeks, the paleo group showed a greater reduction in metabolic syndrome precursors, including blood pressure and triglycerides, and an increase in HDL (“good”) cholesterol. A literature review published a year later concluded that, across 4 applicable trials, a “Paleolithic diet resulted in greater short-term improvements in metabolic syndrome components than did guideline-based control diets.”

Then there’s research that shows a paleo style diet can improve or reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, systemic inflammation, and even cancer. Generally speaking, most people tend to experience notable improvements in overall health when making the shift from a conventional Western diet to a paleo  diet.

The Paleo Diet: Current and Future Trends

Unlike the Primal Blueprint, which encompasses a whole way of life, “going paleo” means simply adjusting the way you view and eat food. But as far as diets go, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it has long ago shed any semblance of fadism. Paleo is definitely here to stay.

Over the past 5 years, Google searches for “paleo” have shown a slight decline over time. But rather than indicating a decline in interest, it’s more likely that paleo has become more mainstream. Most people are familiar with the diet now, and many have tried it or embraced it, drawn to the wholesome, common sense dietary values the paleo diet embodies. The paleo movement has likewise influenced conventional conversation around nutrition, including helping dispel the erroneous messaging that saturated fat intake (rather than excessive carbohydrate intake) was the primary dietary link to heart disease. 

We likewise see paleo’s growing presence in grocery stores, restaurants, and online food purveyors. Food manufacturers have been quick to respond to public interest in the paleo diet, with a 12% rise in paleo sports nutrition products, 13% increase in paleo sports bars and 26% rise in paleo protein powders just from 2015 to 2016. While these products aren’t the stable foundation of a healthy paleo diet (whole foods themselves don’t have brands behind them), they generally embrace the nutritional values of paleo eating in their ingredients, and their proliferation speaks volumes about the continuing popularity of paleo.

And don’t expect the paleo diet’s forward momentum to slow any time soon. Global Paleo forecasts estimate an annual growth rate of 5.1% between 2017 and 2021, driven by Western consumers’ increasing interest in natural, nutrient-based ingredients as well as sustainable, organic production of produce and the ethical treatment of livestock. This means you can count on seeing more grass-fed, pastured, free-range animal products for purchase as well as greater selection of organic and pesticide-free produce in addition to packaged paleo-focused products.

For a list of paleo foods, click here.

And for more information about the Primal Blueprint (and the differences between Primal and paleo), check out these resources:

The Difference Between Primal and Paleo

Primal Blueprint 101

The Definitive Guide To the Primal Blueprint

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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