The Paleo Diet – Comprehensive Review

When I was a kid, my favorite relative was Uncle Caveman.  After school we’d all go play in his cave, and every once in a while he would eat one of us.  It wasn’t until later that I found out that Uncle Caveman was a bear…  Jack Handy

I have been getting asked quite often about the Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet; specifically if it works and if it should be seriously considered for those struggling to lose weight.  With its ever-increasing mainstream popularity, I’d like to give it a somewhat objective review with some moments of subjectivity sprinkled throughout.

Paleo Diet Principles

Most mainstream Paleo guides will be based around the principle that humans (genus homo) were designed, and evolved, to eat a specific way.  As the theory goes, humans had an agricultural revolution starting ~10,000 years ago in which our species became dependent on grain-based foods overnight (from an evolutionary standpoint).  According to most Paleo experts, the widespread consumption of these new food sources has led to an increase in chronic diseases as we are consuming things that our genetics are not optimized for ([1]).  The industrial revolution furthered our reliance upon unhealthy foods as manufacturing and processing became further automated, and thus more readily available.  We’ll talk a bit later about why this entire premise is somewhat flawed though.

In contrast to reliance upon a grain-based diet, the somewhat simplified Paleo principles allow for the copious consumption of the following food sources which could theoretically be hunted or gathered during the Paleolithic era in which followers of the diet are trying to emulate:

        Lean Meats

Followers of the diet are then generally advised to avoid the following caloric sources:

        Sugar (allowances for honey and limited fructose)
        Vegetable Oils (trans fats)
        Non-water liquids (some variants allow for tea consumption)

Macronutrient breakdowns vary, however the most popular Paleo opinions are that it should break down into a high protein (20-45%), low carbohydrate (5-25%), high fat (30-75%) intake ratio.  In addition, there is an emphasis on sourcing food from reputable places, meaning that natural is preferred over processed.

Paleo Diet History

The first mainstream reference to a diet based on the principles of prehistoric humans may have been Walter Voegtlin’s The Stone Age Diet which was published back in the 1970s.  Unlike most modern Paleo evangelists, this book’s theme was based on the fact that humans were meant to be carnivores and consume little to no carbohydrates.  He backed up his theory by comparing the digestive tracks of both humans and canines (dogs) versus herbivores like sheep and cows.  Although it is very dated, it did set the groundwork for more modern versions of the diet.

In the 1980s, researchers from Emory University published a paper on Paleolithic Nutrition in the New England Journal of Medicine, and subsequently revisited it in 1997, ([2] [3]) which again brought this lifestyle into the public’s eye.  It even led to an entire book being published titled The Paleolithic Prescription which was based on the diet and exercise principles they discovered while writing their paper.

Although Ray Audette’s NeanderThin book beat it to press, most attribute the modern Paleo movement to Dr. Loren Cordain who is a professor at Colorado State University and author of The Paleo Diet.  In fact, his website ([4]) calls him the “world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets” and his paper on evolutionary diet ([5]) is one of the most often cited works in the Paleo community.  His impressive resume of peer-reviewed literature ([6]) further speaks to the legitimacy of his work.

In part two, I’ll begin discussing some of the various strengths, weaknesses, and other considerations associated with the Paleo movement.


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