What is Paleo? The short answer is this: Paleo is the diet humans were designed to eat.
If you ran a zoo and an unfamiliar animal arrived that needed to be fed, you’d want to know what this creature’s natural diet was. Humans have a natural diet too: The paleo diet is what humans were meant to eat in the wild, and we’ve strayed very far away from this ideal. Paleo looks to the Paleolithic era for insight on what the natural diet of human beings really is.
Homo sapiens have been evolving for a couple million years. Agriculture is believed to have originated some 10,000 years ago; not a long time, in comparison. In some ways, the advent of agriculture was a good thing. The cultivation of grains along with the domestication of animals made it possible for humans to settle down in one place. This created the conditions for the development of civilization – music, art, architecture, reality TV … all of it.
What did the change from a Paleolithic diet to a Neolithic one do in terms of health
We can learn a lot from analyzing the bones of our ancestors.The average height of Paleolithic man (and woman) was greater than that of their grain eating descendants. Significantly and surprisingly, their lifespan was also longer. This is an indication that our bodies were designed for a diet similar to that of Paleolithic man and woman, not that of the Neolithic diet that followed.
Eating paleo today is not about reenacting the caveman lifestyle. No one in the paleo community is saying you can’t have a cup of coffee because cavemen weren’t sitting in their caves sipping a strong espresso from a demitasse. Information about the Paleolithic era diet provides us with guidelines, not a rigid prescription of what to eat. As Mark Sisson puts it,
We’re not cavemen. This isn’t about reenactment, and it never has been. We’re all here because we recognize the value in viewing our health, our food, our exercise, and our everyday behaviors through an evolutionary lens. The evolutionanary is simply a helpful way to generate hypotheses, hypotheses that can then be tested and, if successful, integrated. At the very least, it’s interesting to think about what might be the “right” or “biologically appropriate” way to do something. [Full article here]
Speaking of reenactment, I’m not exactly sure how it came to pass (someone forgot to pack the cutlery?), but here’s my daughter sitting in a cave during a hiking trip, eating steak with her hands. You won’t get much more paleo than that!
So what does a modern Paleo diet look like?
Looks pretty simple, right? But paleo goes beyond a simple swap: wheat and dairy out, meat and healthy fat in. The quality of those meats, vegetables, fats etc. is vitally important. Our friendly Paleolithic cave dweller certainly wasn’t eating chicken full of antibiotics or grapes coated in pesticides and pumped with growth hormones, and we shouldn’t be either.
How is Paleo different from Primal, The Perfect Health Diet, or the recommendations of the Weston A. Price Foundation?
These four diets have a lot more in common with each other than with the typical, modern diet. All are based on real food, not manufactured food-like products. Both Weston A. Price, on one end of the spectrum, and Loran Cordain’s version of paleo on the other, recognize that the grain products and dairy commonly sold in supermarkets are highly problematic. The Price people believe that these foods can be healthy if they are grown and prepared correctly, while the paleo answer is to steer clear of them altogether. Here’s a summary of what each of these diets recommends.
Cordain was the only one to favor low-fat, however his stance has shifted on this issue since the publication of The Paleo Diet in 2002 (the book that set the paleo diet movement in motion).
Basically, your decisions – such as including or excluding dairy, opting for a low carbohydrate diet, or allowing yourself “safe starches” a la Perfect Health Diet – should have more to do with whether you as an individual thrive with these foods or not. In the end, it’s less important to find the ideal label to put on your diet than to find the optimal diet for you personally.