Doug Cook RD
Nutrition Demystified. Health Exemplified
Nutrition advice that makes sense. Separating hype from reality.

Paleo, Primal, Ancestral. What’s The Essence Behind This Eating Plan?


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Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve no doubt heard of the Paleo diet. Other words used to describe this way of eating include primal and ancestral, and as the names imply, attempt to exploit the benefits of how our species ate before the dawn of agriculture. There have been several books on this topic and it all started with the first The Paleo Diet by Lorne Cordain, Ph.D.. Since then, others have penned similar work such as The Paelo Solution by Robb Wolf, The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, and Primal Body, Primal Mind by Nora Gedgaudas to list but a few.

What is the Paleo (Primal, or Ancestral) diet?

In a nutshell, the Paelo diet is meant to be a way of life, and not just a diet, that is loosely based on eating the foods that was likely consumed by our ancestors of the paleolithic era, some 2.5 million years ago. In addition to eating more in align with our ancestors, the Paleo lifestyle also stresses exercise [active living] that is more natural in that it tries to reproduce both the intensity and movement that early humans would have engaged in during day to day survival. It also stresses the importance of quality sleep, one that is based more on the natural rhythms of day light and our internal clocks [translation, 8-9 hours if you can get it].

Discouraged are those foods that were recently [relative in evolutionary terms] introduced with the agricultural revolution estimated to have started about 10,000 years ago. These foods include grains and grain products [rice, corn, wheat, spelt, rye etc], added sugars [sucrose, honey, syrups, high fructose corn syrup, fructose], excessive amounts of the omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids due to the introduction of grain and seed oils [corn, soy, cottonseed, grape seed, sunflower, safflower, hemp, sesame, canola etc], grain feed livestock like cows, pigs, and chicken that are now feed lots of corn and soy resulting animal fats that are lower in omega-3 fatty acids.

What’s the rationale behind the Paleo approach?

The main argument for a Paleo style of eating is to eat foods that are similar to those that would found in our natural environment, during our evolutionary development, that helped to shape our genes which were selected to get the most from those foods. Anything that wasn’t around during those times have a greater potential to negatively affect our health because, in simplest terms, we weren’t designed for them. There is a growing body of robust evidence to support this and which challenges much of our current conventional wisdom around diet and health such as ‘gluten need only be avoided by those with Celiac disease’, ‘dairy should be included for a healthy diet and appropriate for everyone’, ‘there’s no evidence that sugar is bad as long as it doesn’t contribute to more than 25% of total enery [calorie] intake’, ‘grain-fed meat is seen as healthy’.

The big three

One of the best blogs on the net, albeit it a little technical for anyone without a science background is Archevore by Kurt Harris MD. He feels that the biggest changes to the human diet that are contributing to diseases of civilization rest on the the big three of: gluten from modern day gluten-containing grains, primarily wheat [I wrote a post on that here], excessive fructose from added sugars and high amounts of fruit consumption [my post here] and excessive amounts the omega-6 polyunsaturated fat, linolenic acid [because of their pervasive use in food manufacturing and as cooking oils], his post here.

The main ‘rules’ of a Paleo approach to eating

The guidelines vary but for the most part include the following, in no particular order

  1. the Paleo diet is high in fat, moderate in animal protein and moderate in carbohydrate
  2. eliminate sugars and caloric beverages including soft drinks, fruit juices, table sugar, products with added sugars, honey, syrup, milk, sport drinks etc, this will also help to reduce excessive fructose
  3. eliminate gluten containing grains and wheat flour, cake, cookies, pastries, bread or pasta, whole grain or otherwise.
  4. eliminate pulses [chickpeas, lentils, peas and beans]
  5. eliminate grain & seed oils such as soy, corn, sunflower, safflower, canola, grape seed, hemp, walnut oil, flax etc. Eat or fry with with ghee, pastured butter, animal fats, or coconut oil.
  6. go easy on tree nuts and common legumes like soy and peanuts.
  7. it’s preferable to eat grass-fed beef and lamb as they will have more omega-3 fats
  8. choose nutrient-dense animal proteins like fish [few times per week], eggs, chicken, pork, bison, etc and organ meats like liver
  9. limit or eliminate milk to avoid casein, or it may be more likely the type of casein that might be a problem, many modern cows contain a type of casein [A1] that can be problematic, consider changing to goat or sheep milk which still has the preferred A2 type of casein
  10. don’t go crazy with the fruit, limit to about 3 pieces/servings per day
  11. if you’re vitamin D levels are low, supplement since we’re not out in the open like our ancestors supposedly were

Religion or guidelines?

Like any dietary philosophy, the Paleo approach is meant to be a guideline and not necessarily followed to the letter. The reality is, not all modern foods are necessarily bad for our health nor is deviating a bit from a lifestyle that our ancestors lived necessarily bad or unhealthy as well. Some have suggested that taking a multi-vitamin/mineral is somehow un-Paleo but truth be told, many of the advancements we’ve made as a species are beneficial, like dietary supplements where appropriate. We also live in a world with a plethora of modern conveniences and foods, most of which are unavoidable and many of which one wouldn’t want to avoid. The key is consistency. What we do 80-90% of the time will either make or break our health, the experts in this field, the biochemists and endocrinologists, feel that if we were to follow the basic principles, avoid the big three ‘evils’ of the modern diet, 80% of the time, not only would there be a huge improvement in the rates of chronic disease, the few times we did ‘deviate’ would not have a negative impact on our health…so ya, I will definitely have the occasional piece of chocolate cake!