Melvin Konner and S. Boyd Eaton wrote a review article for Nutrition in Clinical Practice that update’s their seminal New England Journal of Medicine paleo nutrition article of 1985. They took a fresh look at recent data on modern hunter-gatherer societies as well as advances in anthropology.
NEJM likely has much wider circulation, so it’s too bad the update wasn’t published there.
I’ve written previously about the history of the modern paleo movement. I consider S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner two of the founders.
I wanted to share a few tidbits from the new article:
- The transition from hunting/gathering to farming (about 10,000 year ago) saw a decrease in body size and robustness, plus evidence of nutritional stress
- Modern humans migrated away from Africa between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago
- Levels of muscular and aerobic fitness in ancestral groups are much higher than modern societies, with a concomittant higher level of calorie consumption
- Average life expectancies in pre-industrial hunter-gatherer (H-G) groups was only 30-35 years, but much of this low number simply reflects high infant and child death rates
- H-G deaths overwhelmingly reflect infectious diseases
- H-G groups had a high degree of dependence on plant foods
- Cooking has been important to humans for at least 230,000 years, if not longer
- Fish and shellfish are more important food sources than these authors thought 25 years ago
- Ancestral H-G groups derived 35 to 65% of diet (calories, I guess) from animal flesh
- Game animals have more mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids than supermarket meat
- H-G diets are higher in fat than they once thought: the new range is 20 to 35% of calories
- H-G diet omega-6: omega-3 ratio was 2:1, in contrast to the modern Western ratio of 10:1
- H-G groups eat more protein than they once thought
- Carbohydrate consumption of H-G groups varied from about 35 to 65% of calories. (I’ve written elsewhere about the carb content of paleo diets.)
- Nearly all H-G carbs are from vegetables and fruits, which have more favorable glycemic responses than grains and concentrated sugars
- Uncultivated fruits and veggies have much more fiber than commercial ones (13 versus 4 g fiber per 100 g of food)
- H-G diets have at least 70 g of fiber daily
- Sodium in H-G diets is very low: 800 mg/day
The Diet-Heart Hypothesis is the idea that dietary total and saturated fat, and cholesterol, cause or contribute to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), leading to heart attacks and strokes. Konner and Eaton still believe the theory is valid for fats, but not cholesterol. The latest evidence is that even total and saturated fat are minimally or unrelated to atherosclerosis.
They also believe total fat, due to its caloric load, is an important contributor to obesity and type 2 diabetes. (I agree that my be true if you eat a lot of carbs with fat.)
Konner and Eaton review the very few clinical studies—a grand total of four—that apply a paleo diet to modern humans. Results support their theory that paleo-style eating has healthful metabolic effects.
Their conception of a paleo food pyramid is a base of high-fiber vegetables and fruits, the next tier up being meat/fish/low-fat dairy (!?) (all lean), then a possible tier for whole grain (admittedly very unusual), with a small peak of oils, fats, and refined carbohydrates.
They recommend high activity levels, including resistance exercise, flexibility, and aerobics, burning over 1,000 cals/day exclusive of resting metabolism.
They also seem to favor small amounts of alcohol—not generally considered paleo—to reduce heart disease risk, admitting that “…the HG model cannot answer all questions.”
Eaton and Konner suggest the following as the “estimated ancestral diet“:
- Carbohydrates, % daily energy 35-40
- Protein, % daily energy 25-30
- Fat, % daily energy 20-35
- Added sugar, % daily energy 2
- Fiber, g/day >70
- EPA and DHA*, g/day 0.7-6
- Cholesterol, mg/day 500+
- Vitamin C, mg/day 500
- Vitamin D, IU/day 4,000 (sunlight)
- Calcium, mg/day 1,000-1,500
- Sodium, mg/day under 1,000
- Potassium, mg/day 7,000
*Eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid
Konner and Eaton call for more randomized controlled studies of the paleo diet. These studies will need to define the paleo diet carefully. Their definition is probably as good as any, if not the best. Of course, the listed nutrients should come from minimally processed, natural foods. We just need Loren Cordain‘s and Staffan Lindeberg‘s input on a concensus definition of the paleo diet, then we’re ready to rock’n'roll.
Steve Parker, M.D.
Konner, Melvin and Eaton, S. Boyd. Paleolithic Nutrition: Twenty-Five Years Later. Nutrition in Clinical Practice, 25 (2010): 594-602. doi: 10.1177/0884533610385702
Eaton, S.B. and Konner, M. Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine, 312 (1985): 283-289.