My superficial reading of the paleo diet literature led me to think Loren Cordain, Ph.D., was the modern originator of this trend, so I was surprised to find an article on the Stone Age diet and modern degenerative diseases in a 1988 American Journal of Medicine by S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., et al. Dr. Cordain started writing about the paleo diet around 2000, I think.
What’s So Great About the Paleolithic Lifestyle?
In case you’re not familiar with paleo diet theory, here it is. The modern human gene pool has changed little over the last 50,000 years or so, having been developed over the previous one or two million years. Darwins’ concept of Natural Selection suggests that organisms tend to thrive if they adhere to conditions present during their evolutionary development. In other words, an organism is adapted over time to thrive in certain environments, but not others.
The paleo diet as a healthy way to eat appeals to me. It’s a lifestyle, really, including lots of physical activity, avoidance of toxins, adequate sleep, etc.
The Agricultural Revolution (starting about 10,000 years ago) and the Industrial Revolution (onset a couple centuries ago) have produced an environment and food supply vastly different from that of our Paleolithic ancestors, different from what Homo sapiens were thriving in for hundreds of thousands of years. That discordance leads to obesity, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, and some cancers. Or so goes the theory.
What’s the Paleolithic Lifestyle? (according to Eaton’s 1988 article)
- Average life expectancy about half of what we see these days
- No one universal subsistence diet
- Food: wild game (lean meat) and uncultivated vegetables and fruits (no dairy or grain)
- Protein provided 34% of calories (compared to about 12% in U.S. in 1988)
- Carbohydrate provided 46% of calories (only a tad lower than what we eat today)
- Fat provided 21% of calories (42% today)
- Little alcohol, but perhaps some on special occasions (honey and wild fruits can undergo natural fermentation) , compared to 7-10% of calories in U.S. today [I didn't know it was that high]
- No tobacco
- More polyunsaturated than saturated fats (we ate more saturated than polyunsaturated fat, at least in 1988)
- Minimal simple sugar availability except when honey in season
- Food generally was less calorically dense compared to modern refined, processed foods
- 100-150 grams of dietary fiber daily, compared to 15-20 g today
- Two or three times as much calcium as modern Americans
- Under a gram of sodium daily, compared to our 3 to 7 grams.
- Much more dietary potassium than we eat
- High levels of physical fitness, with good strength and stamina characteristic of both sexes at all ages achieved through physical activity
[These points are all debatable, and we may have better data in 2011.]
The article authors point out that recent unacculturated native populations that move to a modern Western lifestyle (and diet) then see much higher rates of obesity, diabetes, atheroslcerosis, high blood pressure, and some cancers. “Diseases of modern civilization,” they’re called. Cleave and Yudkin wrote about this in the 1960s and ’70s, focusing more on the refined carbohydrates in industrial societies rather than the entire lifestyle.
Paleo diet proponents agree that grains are not a Paleolithic food. The word “grain” isn’t in Eaton’s article. The authors don’t outline the sources of Paleolithic carbs: tubers and roots, fruits, nuts, and vegetables, I assume. Legumes and milk are probably out of the question, too.
The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living was published in 1988 by Harper & Row (New York). The authors are S. Boyd Eaton, M. Shostak, and M. Konner.
Eaton and Konner are also the authors of “Paleolithic nutrition: A consideration of its nature and current implications.” in New England Journal of Medicine, 312 (1985): 283-289.
Mat Lalonde, Ph.D., in an interview with Jimmy Moore suggested that Cordain would credit S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., with the recent trendiness of the paleo diet.
Paul Jaminet wrote at one of my other blogs: “In 1975 a gastroenterologist named Walter L. Voegtlin published a book called The Stone Age Diet arguing for a low-carb Paleo diet. S. Boyd Eaton was second. Not much happened for a time, then it picked up in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Ray Audette with Neanderthin was first to market…Oh, and I forgot Jan Kwasniewski’s Optimal Diet, which was first published in Poland around 1970. Not exactly a Paleo diet, but close.
If you have evidence that the “modern paleo” diet goes back further than this, please leave a comment.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Kuipers, R., Luxwolda, M., Janneke Dijck-Brouwer, D., Eaton, S., Crawford, M., Cordain, L., & Muskiet, F. (2010). Estimated macronutrient and fatty acid intakes from an East African Paleolithic diet British Journal of Nutrition, 1-22 DOI: 10.1017/S0007114510002679. Note that one of the authors is Loren Cordain. Good discussion of various Paleolithic diets.
Eaton, S., Konner, M., & Shostak, M. (1988). Stone agers in the fast lane: Chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective The American Journal of Medicine, 84 (4), 739-749 DOI: 10.1016/0002-9343(88)90113-1
Cordain, L., et al. Plant-animal subsistance ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 71 (2000): 682-692.