Have you heard of the paleo diet? Chances are you have, and today I want to dive a little bit into what makes up the paleo diet, and if it really is as “paleo” as you might have heard. Let’s look into the science, and uncover some facts - and dispel some myths - with today’s deep dive into whether or not the paleo diet is really that paleo.
The Paleo Diet
In 2013, we saw the introduction and a spike in popularity surrounding “the paleo diet.” While it might have cooled off a bit recently, I thought now was as good a time as ever to uncover some of the information which has informed the structure of this diet.
The general idea of this “caveman diet” goes all the way back to the 1960’s and 70’s. This was based on research which suggested that early humans lived primarily off of animal protein. At the time, this was basically discredited, proved as invalid and ignored. This is important to remember, especially because of what eventually inspired today’s version of the paleo diet.
Later on, in the 80’s, New Guinea tribes - the Kitavans - who were horticulturalists were studied (1). As opposed to agriculturalists, or farmers, these people were specifically planters. The researched showed they had an almost nonexistent history of:
- Heart attacks
- High blood pressure
- High lipids
They actually had little to no cardiovascular problems what so ever. What was the most interesting part of all this? Well, a large segment of this population (both male and female) smoked - about 76 - 80% of the population. Smoking was the norm, yet they had little to no cardiovascular problems - kind of extraordinary, right?
Bottom Line: The research into the Kitavan people revealed a lean populace, with a small body mass index (BMI) than similar control groups researched. Many feel that this study is what would eventually inspire and grow the modern paleo movement by Dr. Loren Cordain in his book “The Paleo Diet” (2010) (2).
So, what did the Kitavans eat?
If the Kitavans did so well, even though almost all of them smoked, it would help to understand just what they were putting into their diets. What made them so lean, with such a small BMI, and how did this eventually inspire a generation of diet-conscious consumers to try and emulate them. If we wanted to reach a definition of what the Kitavans actually ate, we would understand the basic foundation of their diet as:
- Very high in carbohydrates (69%)
- Very low in fats (21%)
- Even lower in protein (10%) (3)
As we can see, the Kitavans had a diet extremely high in carbohydrates. As I mentioned before, the carbohydrates that these people were eating were based on what they were planting. They were a horticultural society, not paleolithic, so the majority of what they were eating included:
- Sweet potatoes
These are all tropical forms of root vegetables, and this is what made up the majority of the Kitavans diets. Because of this, they were lean, they had good dental structure and they were free of acne and heart disease.
Bottom Line: It’s not surprising that the Kitavans inspired others to follow the ways in which they ate - the proof was in the good standing of their health! It is important that we borrow traditions from cultures who led long, prosperous lives, so that we can learn more about our own diets today. It is important, however, that we actually stick to what they actually ate.
The Modern Paleo Movement
If the suggestions are correct, and that the paleo diet was inspired and informed by the Kitavan people, the paleo diet took a big zig where the Kitavan diet would have zaffed. Even though they were cited time and time again, as a pre-modern culture that was doing the right thing, the structure of the paleo diet really did not borrow much from what the Kitavan people were actually putting into their diets.
Instead, the paleo diet proposed the following breakdown:
- Very low in carbohydrates (23%)
- Higher in fat (roughly 40%)
- Higher in protein (roughly 38%)
Even though the Kitavans actually did have game meats, poultry and seafood, they did not have much in the way of heavy, fatty mammal meat at all - even what they did consume was not much, because proteins made up about 10% of their overall diets.
Bottom Line: As we can see, the outlined model for the paleo diet actually stands in pretty stark contrast to what the Kitavans actually ate. While the difference might be fine on its own, it is the fact that the Kitavans were cited time and time again as the model, or the inspiration, which is troubling when it comes to people associating one with the other.
Understanding Real “Paleo” Cultures
At this point I thought it might be helpful to look into what real, paleolithic cultures actually looked like - did they mirror the same picture of health that the Kitavans did? The answer is actually pretty clear: they did not share the same health standards as Kitavans.
The average lifespan of paleolithic peoples was 30 - 35, which is obviously not a long time to live at all. At this point in time, people died from:
- Trauma (due to tribal warfare)
- Food poisons (due to poor food safety)
- Infectious diseases
Key Insight: While it is true that paleo people lacked chronic disease, this is mostly because they did not live long enough to actually develop it. There were so many other factors causing these people to succumb, they often did not live long enough to actually experience a heart attack at all.
The Kitavans, on the other hand, had a low enough infant mortality rate and a lack of infectious diseases that they had many people live well into adulthood. These people were remarkably free of chronic disease, at the same age where these diseases might show up for you or I (in the modern world).
Bottom Line: The real question should be not what did our paleolithic ancestors eat, but of the food that we have available to us today, what diet will best protect us from the most common causes of diet-preventable death in the modern world?
What do we really know about the paleo diet?
I want to turn our thoughts toward results, and what we really know from what has been researched about the paleo diet and the effect it can have on our bodies. As of the time of this article, there have been 6 studies done on the paleo diet. None of them focused on the long-term, instead focusing on short-term results - a few weeks to eight weeks, in total.
Each and every one of these studies showed some sort of benefit for those actually on the paleo diet. Whether it was weight loss or better blood sugar control, those who were on the paleo diet simply had better results. But are these results skewed in some way - is there more to the story? Turns out there is a bit of a wrinkle when it came to these studies, and it has to do with the calorie targets. When it came to comparing the paleo diet with its counterpart, the caloric targets for the paleo diet were always lower than its counterpart.
Key Insight: During each of these studies, those actually on the paleo diet were consuming overall fewer calories than their dietary counterparts (who were on more “modern” diets). Basically, the people on the paleo diet were consuming fewer calories and therefore losing more weight - they ate less, so they lost more, which essentially skews the entire study.
We have seen before that anything you do in the short-term, when it comes to cutting down your calories, can cause weight loss and better blood sugar (4). The problem is that it does not always correlate to long-term health - which is obviously something we want to preserve even more, and at the same time as we are guaranteeing our short-term wellness.
Bottom Line: In the short-term, lowering your calories can create a sort of “smokescreen” effect, whereby you are losing weight and your blood sugar is better. This, however, does not work out in the long-term. Until we get longer studies, this is always going to complicate what we know about the paleo diet and its implications for long-term health.
When we start thinking back on what we have talked about the paleo diet, it all comes from inspiration. There have been plenty of well-researched cultures, throughout time, which the paleo diet has tried to emulate (in an inspirational sense). These are:
- The Kitavans
- Those on Mediterranean diets
- Those on rural Asian diets
We have numbers and facts which allow us to see how the diets of these populations have influenced their health in the long-term. They have led longer lives, with less chronic disease, and we should be inspired by them. It just so happens, though, that their main inspiration - the paleo diet - does not borrow from them whatsoever (beyond an idea of “before modern times” eating).
Bottom Line: All of these are really great diets to model after, but it is simply not what we are left with when it comes to the paleo diet. It does not mirror the best parts of the Kitavan, Mediterranean or rural Asian diets, yet it is inspired so thoroughly by them.
Inspired to know more about your health?
After all, we have talked about today concerning the paleo diet, you might think it is time to reevaluate the way you think about your health. Do you know all that you can about your body? Why not start with one of the most important aspects of your health: your thyroid. Take the thyroid quiz today (5), get to know a little bit more about yourself and do what is right for your body.
As I mentioned before, it is all about results when it comes to our health. Do your research, understand the facts and then act on them. Your body deserves it, so avoid keeping yourself in the dark any longer and make the move towards better health today.
Dr. Alan Glen Christianson (Dr. C) is a Naturopathic Endocrinologist and the author of The NY Times bestselling Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. C’s gift for figuring out what really works has helped hundreds of thousands of people reverse thyroid disease, lose weight, cure diabetes, and regain energy. Learn more about the surprising story that started his quest.