Would eating a Palaeolithic diet be beneficial to us now?
Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Have you ever wondered what our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived 10,000 years ago used to eat? Many people, even today, are currently following this ‘Palaeolithic diet’ (also known as paleo). The Oxford Dictionary definition of a hunter-gatherer is someone who hunts, fishes or harvests wild food.
To mimic what hunter-gatherers ate, the diet comprises of fruit, vegetables, lean meat, fish, eggs, as well as nuts and seeds; foods which can be hunted and found naturally. The diet excludes refined sugars, dairy, legumes, cereals, potatoes and added salt (foods which would not have been consumed thousands of years ago, when agricultural processes were not used).
At a glance, the foods which the Palaeolithic diet promotes appear to be the food groups which are seen as “healthy” choices. However, is this really the case?
The theory behind the Palaeolithic diet:
The theory behind the diet is that eating what our ancestors used to eat is beneficial for our health. Archaeological evidence shows them to be lean and fit and, as they share the same genes as us, adopting their diet may be beneficial to us to in a world where there is an obesity epidemic. There has been recent evidence backing this up: it has been suggested that when hunter-gathers, living nowadays, the transition to a “Western diet” diabetes, obesity and heart disease become more common.
Problems with the theory behind the Palaeolithic diet:
Throughout the article, one should be aware of the limited evidence-base which has contributed towards the formation of the Palaeolithic diet, with regards to the same gene argument mentioned above. Genes are sections of DNA and each gene affects characteristics we possess. An example of this would be the colour of our eyes. Likewise, there are genes which play a role in determining our nutritional wants and needs.
Our ancestors’ intake of food was directly proportional to the energy they needed for their daily activities which one may imagine included: running away from predators and finding food. It has been suggested that our ancestors used to run 5 to 10 miles a day! The same can’t be said for humans nowadays. So, whilst our genes and our wants for calorific foods have remained the same as our ancestors, our present-day lifestyle has evolved. With the invention of cars and other machines, the need for physical activity - which used to be a necessity-is optional. This tilts the scale of balance between energy intake and energy consumption. This is further exacerbated as the cravings we get are generally for high energy foods, which are programmed in our genes, courtesy of our ancestors. During this caveman era, it would have been advantageous to eat fatty foods as they are high sources of energy and would have increased chances of survival when our ancestors needed this energy for their active lifestyle. However, nowadays these cravings we get have backfired as we are surrounded by a wide variety of such foods which are very easily accessible and therefore, it is very easy to give in to the temptation. This is also exacerbated by a theory called the Thrifty Gene Hypothesis. This is the idea that our bodies cling onto fat very tightly because during the Palaeolithic time period, gaining such food was rare. However, again, being in the modern era, where there isn’t a scarcity of such foods, it is no longer a beneficial evolutionary trait. Therefore, the idea that we share the same genes as our ancestors doesn’t necessarily mean that we should be eating the same foods as them.
Also, there is an ongoing debate on whether cavemen actually ate the foods included in this diet. This could be due to the fact that a cavemen’s diet varied depending on where they lived, the environment they lived in, and the proximity of certain foods, which is something the modern diet doesn’t take into account.
Furthermore, it is difficult to know whether the diet of our ancestors can be relevant for us in this day and age. Nowadays, it is common to live up to 80 years old whereas turning 40 years old during that era was quite an achievement. Age is also known to be a risk factor for developing chronic conditions, including heart disease. Therefore, age may have been a confounding factor, masking the incidence of potential heart disease as the population simply weren’t living long enough to see the effects of it.
Bearing these points in mind the benefits and drawbacks of the different components of the Palaeolithic diet can be looked at in greater depth:
Overall, the components of the Palaeolithic diet are those which are generally recommended by health experts. However, the exclusion of certain food groups from the diet can result in dietary deficiencies of certain nutrients. The table below outlines an aspect of the paleo diet and the effect of this on health. One should also note that the Palaeolithic diet doesn’t specify quantities of certain food groups. This can be problematic as foods should be eaten in moderation and when benefits are mentioned below, this is in the context of eating them as part of a balanced diet.
The aspect of the Paleo diet Evidence-based consequence
Fresh fruit and vegetables Fruits are known to be goods sources of fibre (helps with digestion) and other nutrients such as potassium. Different fruits and vegetables contain different nutrients which have different effects on the body. For instance, fibre is linked with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Nuts and seeds Nuts contain a high amount of monounsaturated fats, (given that they are eaten which are labelled as “good” fats. Foods like these
in their raw natural form) have anti-inflammatory properties. They have been
shown to reduce the risk of developing diabetes. Nuts and seeds also have high levels of fibre, protein and nutrients such as folate.
Nuts and seeds may also contain phytochemicals which are antioxidants and may be linked to having cancer-fighting properties.
One should note that the above is relevant for nuts and seeds which are consumed in their raw, natural form. Also, nuts can be calorific, so the quantity of consumption should be monitored.
Lean meat This is a good source of protein, which is important for growth and red meat can also be a good source of iron.
However, during the Palaeolithic period, the meats they consumed would have been different from the meats available nowadays. For example, nowadays a lot of processed meat is available which often contains added salt. Therefore when looking at the health benefits of meat one should consider the composition of the meat.
Seafood Certain seafoods contain long-chain fatty acids which are associated with reduced risk of coronary heart disease.
Eggs Eggs are a good source of protein.
Exclusion of refined sugar, for example through the exclusion of fruit juices and soft drinks
Excessive sugar intake has been associated with obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Low salt intake Excessive consumption of salt is associated with getting high blood pressure, which in turn increases the risk of heart disease as well as stroke.
Exclusion of alcohol Excessive alcohol consumption can lead to short-term effects such as road traffic accidents as well as having more long-term repercussions affecting the liver and heart. There are also links to alcohol consumption with developing certain cancers.
Exclusion of dairy products Dairy products often contain high amounts of saturated fats which-unlike unsaturated fats- are “bad.” Therefore exclusion may be positive.
However, the recurrent message from the literature was that: dairy is a good source of calcium and so the exclusion may result in low calcium levels. Lack of calcium increases the risk of osteoporosis which is a medical condition, resulting in weaker bones and increased risk of them breaking.
Exclusion of legumes, Legumes can be important sources of fibre and such as kidney beans and peas minerals, such as iron as well as protein.
They are typically low in cholesterol and contain “good” fats. They may be protective against heart disease, diabetes and weight loss. However, a few pro-Palaeolithic diet website suggest that certain legumes can be difficult to digest. That said, soaking legumes before consumption has been shown to make them more tolerable and so the health benefits of eating legumes can outweigh the potential harm.
Leading a paleo diet Due to the emphasis on fresh, unprocessed food the can be expensive diet may be expensive and so difficult to commit to.
Overall, due to the nature of the Palaeolithic diet, there is less emphasis on carbohydrate intake and also sugar intake. This can result in weight loss, however, the evidence for this is conflicting and limited. One study showed it be an advantageous diet for those suffering from diabetes due to the benefits mentioned above. It has also been shown to lower blood pressure.
In conclusion, the limited evidence-base behind the theory of the Palaeolithic diet questions the validity of it. That said, it promotes the consumption of unprocessed foods, which results in decreased intake of salt and sugar and has been proven to be beneficial, particularly in patients with diabetes. However, it can also lead to nutritional deficiencies, most notably in calcium. Therefore, one should view the Palaeolithic diet- as with all diets- with caution, and it should be tailored to suit your individual needs. This can be done by talking with your GP or other healthcare professionals to try and incorporate it as part of a balanced diet.
Written By: Adi - Purpose Print Team
Disclaimer: Information in our blogs are as accurate and a comprehensive as possible. This is general advice and should not be used as a substitute for the individual advice readers might receive from consulting their own doctor. For other medical professionals reading, it is advised to use your own clinical judgement when interpreting the information and deciding how to best apply this to the treatment of their patients. Please see our terms and conditions page for further information on this.