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Paleo Diet – its Roots and Logic

Adopting a ‘primitive’ hunter-gatherer diet, better known as a Paleo diet, is gaining increasing popularity among health enthusiasts wishing to break free from the ‘toxic‘ fodder that typifies the contemporary Western eating pattern. Those who adopted this dietary approach report of how well they feel as a result of simplifying their diet to the most basic of food stuffs that our ancient ancestors used to eat. Let’s take a closer look at the evidence and arguments in favour of the paleo-diet principle.

This concept is based on an assumption that the departure from the physical activity patterns and traditional nutrition of our ancient ancestors has over years contributed to the rise of incidence in chronic diseases of modern civilization. Such diseases include hypertension, cardiovascular disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes and various types of cancers among others. The theory has it that our genetic make-up was shaped over millions of years of evolution to determine our nutritional and physical activity requirements. Although our genetic set-up remains virtually unchanged since the agricultural revolution which took place circa 12,000 – 10,000 years ago, our lifestyles and diet have gradually diverged from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Therefore, socially, we are 21st century people, but genetically, we remain stuck in the Paleolithic era.

So, what did a Paleo diet actually look like? Back then humans lived off a diet of wild and unprocessed food for which they foraged and hunted. That included wild meat, fish, plants, berries, fruits and nuts. This diet was abundant in ‘good’ unsaturated fats, lean protein, fibre, carbohydrates with low glycemic index, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals but low in salt, refined sugars and trans fats. It was strikingly different from our contemporary diets. Compared with the average modern Western diet, a Paleo diet contained twice as much poly and monounsaturated fat, two to three times more fiber, four times more omega-3 fats but 60% to 70% less saturated fat. Protein intake was two to three times higher and potassium intake was three to four times higher while sodium intake was four to five times lower than it is today. In comparison with grain-based modern diets, hunter-gatherers derived their carbohydrates primarily from vegetables, fruits and nuts. And, as one might have expected, refined carbohydrates and concentrated sugars played practically no role in the diet of our ancient ancestors.

But we cannot restrict our thinking just to the food our ancestors ate, otherwise we miss the important point. Securing food required walking and running on average five to ten miles a day as well as climbing, stretching, lifting and carrying. Hence, our hunter-gatherer ancestors ‘cross-trained’ with aerobic, flexibility and resistance exercises so that the aerobic fitness of average hunter-gatherers corresponded to that of a modern day professional athlete. That was a lot different from a typical physical activity of a modern day Westerner.

Indeed, anthropological studies show that hunter-gatherers were generally fit and healthy individuals and they were virtually free of the cardiovascular diseases common today. But it would be inconsiderate to adopt their diet purely on the basis of historical and anthropological evidence. More scientific evidence is needed, ideally coming from randomized controlled trials but these are relatively sparse at the moment. However, two small randomized controlled trials have found that following a Paleo diet may promote greater improvements in glycemic control and cardiovascular risk factors than either a Diabetes diet or even a Mediterranean-style diet. Nevertheless, it is too early to say if a Paleo diet truly beats other modern-day diets such as the traditional Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet. This evidence is simply lacking at present, which is in stark contrast to the weight of research backing those two.

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