The name of the Paleo Diet stems from the word “paleolithic,” referring to a 2.5 million year long period in our history during the early Stone Age, when people used primitive stone instruments and lived in caves. The Paleolithic Era ended with the start of the agricultural revolution, just some 11,000 years ago. Most people assume then, that the Paleo diet is supposed to be an attempt to eat exactly like the cavemen, only allowing yourself to have the foods they had. Because of this assumption, I often hear skeptics arguing that the Paleo diet is very misleading, impossible, and “half-baked.” There are opinion pieces coming out left and right from people misunderstanding Paleo, but eager to criticize it, such as Mother Jones’ article “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong With the Paleo Diet” and Scientific American’s “Why the Paleo Diet is Half-Baked.” The single argument in all these critiques is this: there is no way the vegetables and meats you find at the store today are in any way similar to those our ancestors could get their hands on millions of years ago.
Even if nothing changed and we still lived in caves, we would not be able to get our hands on the same foods our ancestors ate, because evolution. The roots and tubers they gathered 2.5 million years ago are no longer around, instead they have evolved into modern-day potatoes, turnips and beets, and while they may be similar to their ancestors nutritionally, they look, grow, and taste differently. The meats cavemen consumed were also very different from those available today – after all, they didn’t have cows or other modern cattle back then. Instead, they hunted whatever mammals were around, and ate everything but fur and bone, meaning their meals consisted of more organs and other highly nutritious parts of the animal. Today, that “game” lives on farms and doesn’t need to be hunted. Our ancestors’ diets were also heavily dependent on their geographic location, since they were limited to whichever foods available in their particular terrain during that particular season. Today, we have a vast network of global exports and imports, allowing food from virtually anywhere in the world to be sold at your local supermarket.
It would be silly to attempt to mimic our ancestors’ menu exactly in the year 2015, and those assuming that’s what the Paleo diet is about, are simply misinformed.
So, if we know we will never eat like our ancestors, why are we promoting this diet? Is it all just a big fad?
Of course, not.
The Paleo diet was never about turning back time and living like cavemen. It was never about going to the woods and gathering berries, or hunting the exact species of animals that somehow haven’t changed since the Stone Age.
The Paleo diet is based on the idea that human beings ate certain types of foods for a very long time – over 2.5 million years. Our bodies have been changing all throughout that time to become better adapted to those foods. Then, the agricultural evolution happened, and we were introduced to new food groups, those we haven’t been prepared for, such as grains, legumes, large quantities of dairy, and processed foods. And today, we’re adding even more new food groups – hydrogenated vegetable oils, processed sugars, and artificial ingredients that are added to packaged foods to keep them “fresh” and “tasty”. These things are not properly digested and broken down in our bodies, which causes chronic illnesses, fatigue, and weight gain. It is only logical to want to eliminate these harmful food groups and go back to eating those our bodies are equipped to handle.
We know we aren’t eating the exact food our ancestors ate. But we are eating the same food groups they ate. We are focusing on eating food close to its source – no additives, no processing, no preservatives. We cook everything from scratch and focus on eating meats, vegetables, fruits, and nuts while avoiding packaged, processed, high-sugar or grain foods.
The problem with processed foods is that they’re highly modified from their raw state, causing them to lose their nutritional value. In addition, processing removes the flavor and color of food, necessitating addition of artificial flavors and colors, all of which are things previously foreign to our bodies. Then, food is packaged to last months on the shelves of supermarkets, which is accomplished by adding preservatives, many of which are known hormone-disruptors.
Grains have their own set of problems: 80% of their protein content is gluten, they contain high amounts of lectins – which accumulate in your body and damage your gut lining, and they lack any other nutrients by the time they are done being processed. Once you understand that the Paleo diet promotes healthier food groups, as opposed to specific foods from 2.5 million years ago, then and only then can you make an educated critique of the lifestyle.
Despite the arguments against Paleo, the diet has been overwhelmingly celebrated by people who managed to improve their health, lose weight, clear up their skin, improve their autoimmune conditions, and feel generally better after going Paleo. Unlike most diets, Paleo isn’t damaging – you’re not starving yourself or depleting yourself of nutrients. In fact, it’s the opposite – you’re eating foods high in nutrients and avoiding “empty” calories.
It’s very simple really, Paleo is about cooking with foods closest to their natural state – raw, not preserved vegetables; raw, not processed meats; raw, not processed milk; raw, not processed sweeteners (such as honey), and so on. It’s about weighing the risks of different food groups, and selecting those that are known to be the most beneficial (or least harmful) to your health. It’s about learning about how our bodies interact with the chemistry of food, and choosing what is best for your unique metabolism. The Paleolithic Era is simply an inspiration for a cleaner, healthier lifestyle, untainted by agricultural advancements and processed foods, which gives this diet its commonly misunderstood name.