The healthiest diet for today and tomorrow may very well be the eating habits of the past
It goes by a variety of names—the Paleolithic, Stone Age, Caveman, Hunter-Gatherer, and Ancient diet. In a nutshell, it’s a modern attempt to replicate the diet of our earliest ancestors. You don’t have to eat exactly the way cavemen did—the key is picking and choosing contemporary foods that are comparable to what people ate back then.
If you’re overweight or you’ve got health problems, adopting a Paleo diet can lead to dramatic improvements. In a Swedish study, researchers asked people to follow either a Paleo diet or a Mediterranean diet for three months. All of the subjects had advanced heart disease, plus either type 2 diabetes or some other form of glucose intolerance. By the end of the study, subjects on the Paleo diet averaged a 26 percent decrease in blood sugar levels, compared with only a 7 percent decrease among those on the Mediterranean diet. Paleo dieters also had an average 2-inch decrease in their waistlines, compared with a 1-inch decrease in the Mediterranean group.
Origins of the Paleo Diet
S. Boyd Eaton, MD, of Emory University, wasn’t the first person to think about the benefits of ancient diets, but he was the first to give it scientific credibility with a 1985 article published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Eaton made the argument that human genes coevolved with their surrounding nutritional environment. In the process, our genes and biochemistry became dependent on nutrients in those foods. Colorado State University’s Loren Cordain, PhD, author of The Paleo Answer, expanded on Eaton’s work.
Both Eaton and Cordain explain that modern eating habits—heavy on sugar- and carb-rich convenience foods—are incompatible with our genetic heritage. As modern foods crash into our ancient genes, we run a high risk of becoming overweight and developing diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and many other degenerative diseases.
Eaton and Cordain base their research largely on anthropological surveys of 229 different pretechnological hunter-gatherer societies and 50 20th century hunter-gatherer societies who ate much as their ancient ancestors did. These societies were free of modern diseases, often called the “diseases of civilization.”
Granted, ancient eating habits varied by geography and season. The members of landlocked societies hunted for game, whereas those near the ocean caught seafood. In addition, they all ate plants native to their habitat. The ratio of animal-to-plant foods varied, with some societies consuming more animal foods and others more plant foods. It might come as a surprise that none of the societies was completely vegetarian, according to both Eaton and Cordain.
The Original Organic Diet
In effect, the Paleo diet was the original whole foods diet. Notably absent was the consumption of grains and sugars, with the exception of honey, which was difficult to obtain. Early people didn’t eat muffins, pasta, pizza, candy, or soft drinks—no junk foods at all.
Our diets started changing around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and the consumption of large amounts of grain products—including flour, bread, sugar, and alcohol. Because human teeth can't effectively chew hard grains, the seeds had to be pulverized before consumption. Such processing boosts the glycemic effect of grains, leading to a higher risk of weight gain, diabetes, and heart disease.
There are other problems with wheat. In Wheat Belly, William Davis, MD, notes that modern wheat is a different plant from ancient wheat, known as einkorn. Einkorn has only 14 chromosomes (containing genetic material), whereas modern wheat contains 42.
Eaton, Cordain, and other advocates of the Paleo diet believe that we can maintain a healthy weight and reduce our risk of disease by eating more like our ancestors. So how does the average Paleo diet stack up to the average American diet today?
Protein. Animal protein in Paleolithic times provided 19–35 percent of total calories, compared with 16 percent today. However, most Paleo meat came from grass-eating animals, so it was lean and comparable to grass-fed beef or venison.
Plants. Ancient peoples consumed an average of 100 types of vegetables and fruits over the course of a year, providing a diversity of nutrients and antioxidants. Most modern people consume a much narrower range of plant foods.
Carbohydrates. Early humans' carb intake came from whole foods, including roots, nuts, and seeds. Because carbs were part of a fibrous matrix, only small amounts were actually absorbed. Today, refined carbs (including sugars) account for 80 percent of calories consumed.
Fiber. Ancient people consumed more than 100 grams of plant fiber daily, compared to less than 20 grams today. According to Eaton, most of the fiber in ancient diets came from roots, nuts, and fruits; it did not contain the mineral-inhibiting phytic acid found in grains.
Grains. As they foraged, ancient peoples likely consumed small amounts of the seeds that were the ancestors of modern grains. However, they didn’t consume substantial amounts of grains, which were originally the seeds of wild grasses.
Fats. Paleolithic humans used no cooking oil, so they consumed only the fats naturally found in meat, fish, and vegetables. That resulted in a relative balance of pro-inflammatory omega-6 and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Today’s grain-fed cattle contain a higher percentage of omega-6 and saturated fats. With the widespread consumption of oils from cereal grains (e.g., corn and soy), the omega-6 to omega-3 ratio is at least 20:1, which is pro-inflammatory and disease-promoting.
Dairy. With the exception of infants who were breast-fed, ancient humans did not consume dairy foods. Humans today are the only species on Earth that consumes the milk of other species. Many people are sensitive to casein, one of the proteins in cow’s milk.
Vitamins and minerals. On average, the amount of vitamins and minerals in ancient diets was several times higher than today’s governmental “recommended” amounts. Because foods weren’t processed (other than sometimes being cooked), nutrient density was far higher than in today’s foods.
Sodium-potassium imbalance. Both minerals are essential for normal heart function. In ancient times, people consumed far more potassium than sodium—roughly 7,000 mg of potassium and 600 mg of sodium daily. The typical adult American now consumes about 4,000 mg of sodium daily, most of which is added during food processing Potassium consumption is lower than in the past, about 3,000 mg daily, mainly because most people eat few vegetables.
Acid-alkaline balance. The body’s acid-alkaline balance, or pH, affects kidney function and the integrity of bone and muscle. Vegetables and fruits help create a neutral to slightly alkaline body pH, which is healthy. Most other foods create an acidic pH, which leads to the breakdown of bone and muscle to buffer the acidity. Ancient diets contained 35 percent or more plant foods, which Cordain believes helped maintain a normal pH.
The Paleo Payoff
Adopting a modern version of the Paleo diet can lead to improvements in health. Here are some general guidelines.
- The Paleo diet is a moderately high-protein diet with lots of fruits and vegetables. In general, you want to eat at least two to three times more vegetables than protein.
- For your protein, try fish, grass-fed meat, and eggs rich in omega-3 fats. For fruits and vegetables, the keys are fiber and diversity.
- Limit your intake of grain-based products, particularly those that contain gluten. Many people are sensitive to gluten, which is also found in many processed vegetarian and vegan foods.
- Minimize your intake of dairy foods, especially if you are sensitive to them. Although both whey and casein come from dairy, the former is less allergenic Olive oil and butter are better than grain-based oils such as corn, soybean, and safflower oils. But as a general rule, use as little cooking oil as possible.
- Limit your intake of refined sugars, including processed foods and drinks.
Like any successful diet, it requires some discipline. The toughest part may be eating fewer sugary and carb-rich beverages and foods. Odds are, however, that you’ll begin to see the payoff in just a few days—you’ll simply start to feel better. And after several weeks, your blood sugar will likely improve and you’ll see some weight loss. And there are plenty of recipes, from cookbooks and online, to help you enjoy all of the wonderful foods that are allowed on a Paleo diet. Turn the page for a decadent Paleo-friendly brownie recipe.
Modern eating habits are incompatible with our genetic heritage
Jack Challem has been writing about research on nutritional supplements for more than 35 years and is the author of more than 20 books, including No More Fatigue. Visit him online at nutritionreporter.com and jackchallem.com/photography.
Jane Barthelemy, author of Paleo Desserts, has perfected the art of gluten- and grain-free baking. “After 20 years on a low-carb diet—all the while still craving sweets—I decided to finally do something about it,” she says. Barthelemy discovered that using Paleo- friendly ingredients such as coconut flakes and cacao powder allowed her to enjoy many favorite desserts without the regret, lethargy, moodiness, and brain fog that always ensued after eating sugary, high-carb desserts. Her new book is filled with classics, from Spicy Carrot Ginger Cake with Crème Cheese Frosting to Dutch Apple Pie with Streusel Topping and Whipped Crème. Here is the author’s Paleo-approved recipe for Awesome Fudge Brownies (also in her book). —Nicole Brechka
Awesome Fudge Brownies
Yields: 20 brownies
These brownies will satisfy even the most serious chocolate cravings. Do not over- bake: they may seem wet, but they continue to bake after they’re out of the oven.
1 ½ cups walnuts or pecans
3 cups Just Like Sugar Table Top natural chicory root sweetener, divided
1 cup medium-shredded unsweetened coconut flakes
¾ cup pure cacao powder
1 Tbs. roasted carob powder (optional)
1 ½ tsp. coffee powder
½ tsp. unprocessed salt
½ tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. nutritional yeast (optional)
½ cup warm water (or unsweetened coconut milk)
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 ½ tsp. chocolate extract (optional)
1 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
½ cup roasted almond butter
2 Tbs. raw yacon syrup (optional)
1/3 cup coconut oil
Powdered Organic Zero Erythritol, for dusting (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 9-inch square pan with parchment paper. Chop nuts coarsely in food processor, and place in large mixing bowl.
- In dry food processor fitted with “S” blade, grind 1 cup Just Like Sugar to fine powder. Add shredded coconut. Spin 1 minute until mixture forms fine powder. Stir, and grind again until powder is uniformly fine.
- Add cacao powder, roasted carob powder, coffee powder, salt, baking powder, and nutritional yeast. Mix well, place in bowl with nuts, and mix again.
- Place remaining 2 cups of Just Like Sugar in empty food processor, and grind to a fine powder. Add ½ cup warm filtered water (or coconut milk). Mix until the sweetener is dissolved. Add eggs, chocolate extract (if using), vanilla, almond butter, yacon syrup (if using), and coconut oil. Mix until all ingredients are totally incorporated.
- Pour wet ingredients into dry mixture. Stir briefly. The batter will be very thick. Spoon batter into prepared baking pan, and spread evenly.
- Bake 24–25 minutes, and remove from oven. Allow to cool completely, 1–2 hours, in pan on a rack. Use paper handles to lift cake onto a cutting board. Dust with powdered erythritol, if using. Cut into 20 squares, and enjoy!
PER SERVING: 203 cal; 6g pro; 17g total fat (8g sat fat); 35g carb; 28mg chol; 86mg sod; 32g fiber; 1g sugars