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Topic summary contributed by volunteer(s): Dawn Handschuh

The modern Paleo Diet is based on the simple idea that the diet humans ate in pre-agricultural, Paleolithic times is best suited for human health. Whether what these short-lived humans ate is truly the optimal diet for people today is a matter of considerable debate.

At first glance, the assumption that our nutritional requirements were established in the prehistoric past seems reasonable. But the question is, which period should we base our diets on? A key shortcoming of the Paleo diet rationale is that it ignores the first 90% of our evolution. Why consider just the last 2 million years of our existence when mankind may have broken off from their last primate ancestor more like 20 million years ago? 

Analysis of human paleo feces and undigested plant remains strongly suggests that for most of our existence, people ate a fiber-filled, plant-based diet. Our hunter-gatherer days occurred only toward the end of our evolution.

There is definitely a big difference between the food consumed today and that eaten in the Paleolithic era. The wild animals eaten then provided about 6 to 16 percent of calories from fat compared to about 40 to 60 percent in today’s domestic animals—even those that are grass-fed. Prehistoric meat was also free of hormones, antibiotics, and environmental contaminants. Insects were a significant protein source.

Hybrid strains of fruits and vegetables are chosen today based on how easily they’re transported and a blemish-free appearance rather than nutritional value. Wild or uncultivated plants, it should be noted, provide about four times the fiber of commercially grown plants.

Today’s Paleo Diet eschews grains and legumes, despite these foods having a long history as a valuable protein and calorie source around the world, including those regions where the people are among the longest and healthiest on the planet. 

The Paleo Diet may harm heart health by impairing arterial function. Studies have shown that diets typified by high protein and fat but low carbohydrates were associated with poorer peripheral small artery function.

At the same time, the Paleo Diet’s emphasis on consuming bone broth ignores the heavy lead contamination. Even broth made from organic chicken bones was found to contain markedly high lead concentrations.


Image Credit: Arleevector / Thinkstock. This image has been modified.

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