What Is Paleo?

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.

Some history

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!

what is paleo diet

 

So what does a modern Paleo diet look like?

What is Paleo?

Paleo Diet Foods

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.

What is Paleo? What are  Primal, PHD, WAP Diets

Comparison of Paleoesque Diets

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.

 

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41 comments on “What Is Paleo?
  1. Rob Denehy says:

    To use what our ancestors ate as a guide to what we should eat today is rather silly. In Paleolithic times, our ancestors ate WHAT THEY COULD FIND. Does that mean we should restrict ourselves based on their inability to farm effectively, or raise domesticated animals?

    • Ruth Almon says:

      Rob,
      There’s a very dire obesity crisis going on all around us. The incidence of many diseases – diabetes, heart disease, cancer, etc. – are going through the roof. Whatever we are doing just isn’t working.
      People find when they go on the paleo diet that these diseases of civilization get better or even disappear. Your skin looks better, your nails are healthier, weight comes off and energy levels go up. The fact that the inspiration for the diet came from the Paleolithic era really isn’t the most important point. The point for each of us is what food we choose to put in our bodies and what it does for us. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Alma says:

    I eat paleo, but I eat paleo according to MY ancestry and what works for my body. What causes inflammation/problems in some might not cause it in others. We are all different, from different backgrounds, and therefore different tolerances. I don’t agree with blanket statements such as “we can’t drink cow’s milk”, because although some cultures did not drink it, some did! For me, milk does no harm to my body. Even when I did follow the more popular paleo plan strictly and didn’t drink milk for over a year, when I did finally drink it, it gave me no issues. My stomach was still able to digest it. Whereas a friend of mine (who is of Irish and German descent), became lactose intolerant as a result. Obviously, her ancestors were naturally not milk/dairy consumers, so it made sense for her to remove it from her diet. I think as long as you stick to the rule “if it grows from the ground or is provided by nature, eat it”, then you should be fine. After all, that’s what people of the paleolithic era did, and their food depended largely on which part of the world they were living in.

  3. Sarah says:

    We are the only animal (and for those nay-sayers, yes, we are a part of the animal kingdom) that drinks another animal’s milk and we are the only animal that drinks milk after infancy. I just don’t believe that we were meant to drink cow milk or goat milk or their products. Breast milk from humans is the only milk we were meant to drink.

  4. Veronica says:

    I think this is all very educational. I have an aunt who is 104. Still lives alone and prepares her own meals. She likes milk and I have asked her since my own health issues and been very confused by people like you… her response. Everything in moderation. She does eat hot dogs, she eats turkey and brown bread, she loves jelly and apple pie and ice cream. She eats eggs and bacon on occasion too when my dad bring her some from the pigs they butcher and my uncle brings meat from his fresh cows. People..she is 104 and can tell you off in a fashion…think about what you are doing folk..life is too short!! Gotta go my long grain rice and veggies are almost done simmering in my veggie broth. Happy Thanksgiving all!! yup I am having stuffing!!!

  5. Siobhan says:

    I really hate the new fad of the generation, the researcher(s) who want to get on the cover of “Time” magazine, AMA Journal or the Lancet for his latest discovery, etc, etc, ad nauseum. My father, he was an electrical engineer and, in the interest of good physical fitness and diet, over 35 years ago had me bake the whole wheat bread in the family when I was 17, ate roasted soy nuts like one who would eat peanuts or popcorn, sprinkle soy lecithin over cereals and in shakes, did calisthenics and ran every day, rode his bicycle almost as many days, a healthy PHYSICAL specimen up until the day he died at the age of 90 but his mind was as such he could not recognized his daughter or grandson because the last 10 years were spent in nursing facilities because of Alzheimer’s. All because of the “health” fad that the soybean was the “wonder” food, the “perfect” protein. And now, all that was said to be bad then (butter, eggs, meat, and coconut oil) is good now. It makes me really angry that I have lost my father to selfish, egotistical, researchers quick to get their recognition and fame.

    • Ruth Almon says:

      I know how you fell, Siobhan. Just yesterday I was thinking about someone who passed away all too soon, and I’m pretty such diet was a major factor. Had I known 20 years ago what I know now…

  6. Kris says:

    What is the reasoning to avoid legumes?

    • Ruth Almon says:

      Legumes have nutrients, but they also have a lot of anti-nutrients that make us unable to absorb them. There’s a reason that lots of people have gas when they eat them. :)
      There are methods of soaking them properly that make them much healthier, i.e. greatly reduces the amount of anti-nutrients. If you really want to eat legumes, look for good Weston A. Price organization sources on how to prepare them.

  7. Ginny says:

    just to clarify: “It is still called ‘Newton’s theory of gravity’, but no-one considers gravity to potentially be incorrect.”

    Actually, it is still a theory because, if it were truly fact, then the planets would not rotate around the Sun, in the manner that they do. They would crash into the Sun and/or each other. But, they don’t! It is a mystery that science has yet to solve. Meantime Newton’s theory is still just a theory.

    • Ruth Almon says:

      Ginny, I think if you ask a physicist, he or she will explain to you exactly why the planets don’t crash into the sun. I don’t think this is a mystery at all. What is the source of your information?

    • Jen says:

      I am a physics teacher and can say that yes, physics has actually figured out how gravity works. Albert Einstein helped us out there.
      I am not impressed by this diet either. It’s not proven or practical.

  8. AJ says:

    I agree with katie…even carbon dating is a circular argument which a lot of scientist (secular ones) are realizing carbon molecules in bones wouldn’t last that long. I agree a less processed diet is healthier, but grains/carbs are needed for energy and fuel for our cells. Our bodies don’t need just unprocessed foods or another “fad diet” our bodies need nourishment. Our bodies also need moderation. McDonalds is easy…that’s why I make extra when I make dinner and freeze it…so the temptation for “quick and easy” can be in my freezer too :)

  9. Tracy L Wager says:

    Milk is not a food for anyone over the age of 2. In the animal and human world, milk is for the youngest who are not able to get complete nutrition otherwise. Nowhere in the animal community do you see adolescents drinking milk from their mothers let alone strangers or other animal types. Any basic biology/chemistry class will show that milk is actually biologically a poison to a person over the age of 2/3.

    • Anonymous says:

      Do you see animals talking like humans? Just an observation if you are comparing us to animals lol.

      Back in the olden days milk wasn’t over processed like it is today. My parents bought milk from farms where the milk was in a huge pail and we skimmed the cream when it separated. This milk nowadays is extremely over processed and I can see why studies show milk isn’t good for you. However, it is still an excellent source of calcium which you do need for strong bones…. I know you can also get calcium from other things but it is an excellent source where I am concerned!

      • Anonymous says:

        dumb response

      • Anonymous says:

        There are plenty of excellent plant based sources of calcium. Most of them dark green and leafy. I don’t think fresh natural milk is unhealthy for the human body for those who can digest it, but I don’t think the stuff you see in the supermarket should be considered natural food any more than dry cereal, sugar, or pancake syrup should be. The way they feed & treat the cows alters the formulation of the milk and the way they process it alters it even further. I became lactose intolerant as a teenager and fully eliminating dairy from my diet has a much larger positive impact on my feeling of well-being than taking lactase enzymes or buying lactose-free dairy products. I don’t continuously avoid dairy but when I am dairy-free I feel better. Why I don’t do it continuously is a mystery. I was working with my PCP in a weight-reduction attempt and I was given a diagram outlining how I should balance my plate for weight loss. When I followed it, I was not hungry rapidly, I felt well overall, and I was losing weight. Eating my foods in this ratio led me to eating 2-3 servings of grains per day and 0-1 servings of dairy per day (the one dairy food I still ate was yogurt, usually plain with fresh fruit).

      • Twigwoman~ says:

        Calcium from milk is not easily digested by humans. Look at any large boned animal: they no longer drink milk once weaned… they eat dark leafy greens and there is no compromise on bone health!

    • Sonja says:

      Your comment about milk is not for anyone older than 2 reminds me of an old Texan man (who, btw, is still alive) I remember him saying when I asked him why so many cases of Coca-Cola, he said, “Well, milk is for babies and water will rust your stomach”. BTW, I drink no sodas, I drink water.

    • Debbie says:

      I strongly believe the only milk suitable for babies is mother’s milk, and that cow’s milk is not suitable for babies or children under the age of two! A relative insisted I give my son cow’s milk after my son stopped nursing. To shut up the relative (that’s another story), I gave in. My son became very ill and I never gave him cow’s milk again at any age. It turns out that he can’t have it at all. I never gave my middle and youngest cow’s milk. They tried it on their own when they were older and drink it on occasion. I don’t eat any dairy. I’m as anti-milk as one can be!

    • Anonymous says:

      My dog eats my cats poop. I love him but clearly he’s not that bright. My point is we can’t base decisions about what is good for us by looking at what animals do. I’m sure drinking cows milk is healthier than eating cat poop but maybe we should cause the dogs doing it and they should know what’s right for their nutrition.

    • David says:

      “Any basic biology/chemistry class will show that milk is actually biologically a poison to a person over the age of 2/3.”

      That’s interesting. Do you have any sources for that claim, that milk is “poison”, or do you just pull stuff out of your ass all the time?

      It’s a fact that most people cannot drink milk, i.e. lactose intolerant, but for those who are not lactose intolerant, do show me research that milk is bad for you. Conclusive research based on meta-studies, please. Do you know what that means?

  10. Amanda says:

    I agree it is extremely important to eat healthy and cut out processed foods. Now, I did not read this article from start to finish, but what I can not fathom is why this diet says not to eat grains, potatoes, or dairy? It is natural food that is on this earth to be eaten by humans, we know it is food because going way back to “our roots” They ate it! If I was a cave-woman and I some how came across a chicken- I would eat the eggs! I am all for eating all natural “raw” foods, but it is just ridiculous to say you should not eat what this earth naturally produces to be food.

    • Anonymous says:

      I agree!!

    • Maya says:

      Eggs are fine– as you say, hunter-gatherers definitely could have eaten eggs they found. Dairy = milk products… I once saw Mongolian people on a documentary lassoing wild horses to drink their milk, and let me tell you, it was NOT easy… unless you have domesticated animals, milk isn’t going to be a staple of your diet. Most ethinic groups are more or less lactose intolerant, anyway– Northern European peoples are an exception (and so some people do eat dairy when following a paleo eating plan). Grain and bread are both relatively new, entering our diet about 10,000 yrs ago, post agricultural revolution, so it’s actually not there if you go back to “our roots.” Potatoes are more of a gray area– they’re just so starchy and carby that they’re likely to throw your carb/protein/fat balance out of whack. That’s my understanding, anyway. Hope this helps!

    • Anonymous says:

      Organic sprouted grains are great. Ezekial breads are
      amazing.
      Most grains today are so overly processed.
      Loaded with chems and GMO’s.
      One must educate themselves and READ LABELS.

      • Ruth Almon says:

        You are so right. Sprouted or soaked grains, or sourdough bakery bread is much, much healthier than the average supermarket loaf. And if it’s organic too, then even better. But if you have a sensitivity to grain, you’re still better without grains at all. Even without sensitivity, I don’t think grains add to health, so I, personally, make the choice to skip them. But if you include grains in your diet – choose wisely! Always read labels. Excellent advice!

  11. Katie says:

    So I’m not bashing the diet ideas, I mean healthy food is important. But what gets me is the evolution theory. People just automatically lump this theory into their world view as if it’s common place and irrefutable fact. There’s a reason it’s still considered a “theory” and should be treated as such. So there’s that. But then in the next paragraph the author says “our bodies were designed for…” designed? If we’re talking about a diet theory based on the theory of evolution, there’s no designing involved. And why haven’t our bodies adapted to our neolithic diets and “evolved?” Just semantics but really I think we ought to be more careful with how we apply our world views to these kinds of publications if we want an educated audience to be receptive to our ideas.

    • Like it but... says:

      … good points Katie!

    • Anonymous says:

      It is a common misconception that evolution is merely a theory, and therefore debatable. Firstly, evolution means ‘change over time’, and there is no question that humans have changed over time – there is archeological evidence to prove it. The theory you are talking about is ‘natural selection’, which is the theory of how humans have changed over time. A theory does not mean s not proven – it is a term used in science to say that it is widely accepted as truth, has been vigorously tested by science and has never been proven wrong, but has not been around long enough to call fact. It is still called ‘Newton’s theory of gravity’, but no-one considers gravity to potentially be incorrect.

      • Anonymous says:

        Excellent clarification about the appropriate definition of ‘Theory’.

      • Kelle says:

        There is also evidence to prove that evolution does not exist. I immediately stopped reading this explanation of the Paleo diet the minute I read the words, “Homo sapiens have been evolving for a couple of million years.” According to the Bible, humans have been around for approximately 6,000 years. Since I believe the Bible is 100% true, I will not be reading this article.

    • Bonnie says:

      The makers diet is based of if what God told the Israelites they could eat. Who better to know what we should eat then the creator.

      • Anonymous says:

        Bonnie:

        The “creator inspires” many contradictory writings in the bible. Good luck straightening that out.

        • Me says:

          Like what contradictions for example? Maybe you’re taking the scripture out of context. If you don’t believe in the creator God how can you hope to interpret the Bible- His Word as it was intended?

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