The Paleo Diet (sometimes called The Caveman Diet) has become very popular lately. Those who practice the diet swear that it improves their health, increases energy, improves insulin sensitivity, and helps shed unwanted pounds. (1) But others believe that the diet's insistence on quality local or organic foods is all just elitist foodie nonsense. (2) Who's right?
In this post, I'll explore the basic Paleo diet idea, what evidence may support its main arguments, and how far the diet itself as has evolved. Ultimately I'll answer the most important question: Is it just a fad?
Paleo Diet 101The basic idea behind the Paleo(lithic) diet is to simply eat the foods that humans evolved to eat. Because it is believed that human growth, development, and health were calibrated to the various wild plant, animal, and insect foods available during the Paleolithic Era (the time period between 2.6 million to about 10,000 years ago), a person should experience optimal health by primarily consuming these foods. (3)
However, if a person deviates from this diet, chronic degenerative disease (e.g., diabetes, heart disease, cancer, obesity) will follow. In fact, creators of the diet blame the recent rise in these once rare degenerative diseases on a fundamental shift in the quality of the modern diet from fresh whole foods to new agricultural foods (e.g., grains, legumes, dairy) within the last 10,000 years. (4)
Consequently, since it is also believed that today's humans are genetically similar to Paleolithic humans, a person should be able to reduce--or eliminate--any chronic diseases they might have by going back to eating a Paleo-like diet that the human body is designed to eat (comprised primarily of fresh and whole plant and animal foods). (5)
Is the Paleo Diet a Fad?When it comes to understanding whether or not a Paleo-like diet is faddish, I like looking at human evolution using a human calendar. (6) If our evolution spans 365 million years, then:
- January 1: Amphibian ancestor
- March 5: Reptile ancestor
- June 10: Early Mammal
- July 20: America starts to separate from Europe and Africa
- October 28: Primate ancestor
- Christmas Eve: Bipedal Ancestor (hominid)
- New Years Eve:
- 19:30:00 - Homo sapiens (modern humans)
- 21:30:00 - Some of us leave Africa
- 22:45:00 - Some of us go to New Guinea
- 23:00:00 - Some of us go to Europe
- 23:40:00 - And even Scandinavia
- 23:45:00 - Agriculture starts in Middle East
- 23:52:00 - Agriculture starts in Scandinavia
- 23:53:00 - The Ice Man dies in the Alps
- 23:59:00 - The Black Death (the European pandemic of plague)
- 23:59:50 - Cardiovascular disease appears
As I will discuss in a later section, humans were likely eating a diet comprised of locally-sourced meats, eggs, insects, vegetables, root vegetables, and fruit since sometime just before Christmas Eve (or about 2.6 million years ago). By contrast, certain humans have only been exposed to a grain-based Neolithic diet for about 15 minutes (about 10,000 years).
Americans (and much of Europe) have only enjoyed a more industrialized diet for about 8 seconds (or about 92 years). And the low-fat, low-cholesterol, and/or low-carb diets that are popular now have been utilized for only about 3 seconds (or about 30 years).
So, if we look at what the human diet should be from an evolutionary perspective, it seems that the basic belief that humans should eat fresh animal and plant foods is not faddish at all. However, as I will talk about throughout this post, there are certain faddish aspects to the Paleo Diet that should be better understood or avoided completely (e.g., Low/Zero-Carb, fear of all things Neolithic).