Demystifying The Paleo Diet- Eating Like A Caveman Shouldn’t Be Rocket Science
One of the most frustrating things about the internet is that while it provides a bounty of information, there’s nearly as much conflicting information or misinformation as there is useful information, and for the average person it’s incredibly difficult to differentiate between the wheat and the chaff. It’s almost as if a blind man got dropped off on an island populated by 50% gorgeous women and another 50% trolls in corsets, Spanx, and sexy clothing- it’s gonna be hard as hell for him to determine which broad would get him high fives from his bros and which would get him mocked on Facebook for the rest of his life. Tragically, I think the worst subjects in this regard are training and diet, both of which are written about extensively, but at least half of the missives penned seem to be the produce of minds rocked by people with IQs below room temperature.
Paleolithic dieting is perhaps the worst of sub-subjects to diet, because even outside of the internet there appears to be no consensus among authors about what, exactly, paleo dieting is. In fact, the debate about what actually constitutes paleo is frankly more mind boggling than the fact that anyone finds Jack Black to be amusing. To date, I’ve read the following paleo books:
- The Paleolithic Prescription: A Program of Diet and Exercise and a Design for Living– S. Boyd Eaton, Marjorie Shostar, and Melvin Konner. If not the first, it was one of the first paleo books, and is shockingly the least “paleo” of any of them. I doubt these people are even clear on what the Paleolithic Era was.
- NeanderThin: Eat Like a Caveman to Achieve a Lean, Strong, Healthy Body– Ray Audette. In my opinion, the seminal work on paleolithic dieting, Audette recommends what seems to be the closest thing in print to what actual paleolithic man ate.
- The Paleo Diet– Loren Cordain. Initially, Cordain allowed for the inclusion of sweet potatoes and beans, neither of which are paleo for reasons I’ll list later in this article. He later backed away from that stance, but this book is a pile of crap.
- The Paleo Diet for Athletes: The Ancient Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance– Loren Cordain. Even higher carb and less paleo than his original book, this useless tome recommends sweet potatoes, bananas, and a post workout recovery drink with high-glycemic carbs post workout. Apparently, Cordain is unaware that there are athletes disinterested in running ultra marathons out in the world.
- The Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable– Peter Ungar, ed. An academic text on paleolithic eating habits in which Loren Cordain directly contradicts his mainstream work, this one is pretty much a gem if you want to find out what paleolithic man actually ate.
- The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet– Robb Wolf. My second favorite paleo book in which Robb Wolf not only gives a paleo drink recipe (it’s basically just tequila and lime), but he makes recommendations much more in line with the archaeological record and Audette’s recommendations.
- The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us about Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging– Arthur DeVany and Nassim Taleb. Trash on par with the Paleolithic Prescription- this book was seemingly written for vapid housewives so whacked out of their heads on Vicodin they can’t tell cow crap from chocolate pudding.
- The Primal Blueprint: Reprogram your genes for effortless weight loss, vibrant health, and boundless energy– Mark Sisson. I was underwhelmed. Certainly not as bad as NED, but it was too touchy feely and not informative enough for my liking.
I’ll hardly assert that having read the above makes me some sort of an expert on the subject of paleolithic dieting, but I’ve done a tremendous amount of research into the actual archaeology and into the evolution of fruits and vegetables, which puts me heads and shoulders above all but perhaps three of the above listed authors. Before we delve into the actual archaeology, however, I felt it necessary to employ some aid from renowned internet paleo author J. Stanton, author of Gnoll Credo, to help me flesh out the divisions in the paleo community. You know, so I can eviscerate half of the internet for being the dumbasses they are thereafter. As such, the following portion was cowritten by both Stanton and myself.
The Main Paleo Categories
“I determined, therefore, to eat only those foods that would be available to me if I were naked of all technology save that of a convenient sharp stick or stone.” (Ray Audette, Neanderthin) As mentioned above, this is for all intents and purposes the paleolithic dieting bible for anyone actually concerned with dieting in the manner of our ancestors. In practice his statement means meat, fat, organs, and any other unprocessed animal product from animals fed and finished on grass (or forage, in the case of non-grass-eaters like chickens); fish and shellfish; eggs; tree nuts; vegetables; roots; berries; mushrooms. Cooking is permitted, but dairy products, legumes, grains, potatoes, sugar, added salt, and processed foods of any kind are not. For reasons that will be covered later in the article, fruit is allowed but limited. Raw honey is allowed but very strictly limited to small amounts.
My two cats, Clean and Sober, just think I’m TOPS!
This trend is currently exemplified by Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution and the Hartwigs’ It Starts With Food / Whole 30. Building upon strict paleo, it brings the additions of delicious, delicious salt, and other spices (except soy sauce and other grain-derived sauces), sweet potatoes (but not white potatoes), cooking oils made from animals or fruits (tallow, coconut, palm, olive). Clarified butter gets a hall pass, as do limited amounts of coffee, tea, mate, etc. Red meat is encouraged over white, eating the entire animal (offal and all) is encouraged, and there is a bit of fat-phobia in Wolf’s book, though he’s backed away from that position somewhat over time. This diet is also more tolerant of processed food, but it doesn’t allow for “Paleo” junk food nonsense like “paleo cookies” and “paleo pizza”, even if it is made with coconut flour, arrowroot, or other technically “legal” ingredients, no matter how much people who “have been on paleo for 4 days and just feel TOPS” might whine.
This pic pretty much sums up the word primal, even if the diet doesn’t.
Primal is Mark Sisson’s brainchild, and is explained in his book Primal Blueprint. Primal includes all of the Traditional paleo foods with the inexplicable additions of white potatoes (an explanation on why white potatoes aren’t paleo is forthcoming. Just keep yer britches on.), dairy if you tolerate it well, and gluten-free soy sauce is OK. Though he’s apparently a glutard, his diet is fat-tolerant, as his general recommendation for carbs is around 150g/day depending on one’s goals. Completely counter to Audette, for whom cheating on a diet is tantamount to (and possibly worse than) cheating on one’s spouse, primal is more tolerant of occasional cheating (the famous “80/20 rule”). It’s essentially paleo-lite for housewives. In spite of that, Sisson was the first paleo source to cover issues like sleep and exercise in addition to diet, which makes his approach not entirely crap.
Captain Potato there in the middle is 3 years old and weighs 154 lbs. One potato, two potato, three potato, CHOMP.
Perfect Health Diet
The PHD is essentially Primal with the addition of white rice and a few other tropical “safe starches” (e.g. cassava, sago, taro, tapioca). This diet recommends a starting point of appx. 15-20% protein, 50-60% fat, and 20-30% carbs, with modifications to suit various specific goals like hypertrophy or weight loss. It’s focused on nutrients like a fat kid with Prader-Willi syndrome on an ice cream cone, with specific recommendations for quantities of organ meats, bone broths, fatty fish and shellfish, etc. It’s more in line with Audette, even if the food choices aren’t, because the PHD is less tolerant of outright cheating but more tolerant to occasional low-fructose sweeteners like dextrose and rice syrup.
Specialized and obsolete versions of “Paleo”
Being something of a fad diet, certain versions of paleo have gone the way of reel to reel, the Dreamcast, the RCA video record player, and the Shake Weight. Before anyone gets their panties in a twist, stop and consider the fact that paleo is, for all intents and purposes, a fad diet. It arose out of a series of articles in mainstream journals about “Ancestral Diets” in the 1980s, turned into “Evolutionary Medicine,” and then became a diet with something of a cult following in health food stores. Later, CrossFit boxes abandoned the archaic Zone diet and pushed paleo’s popularity further, but since everyone has the attention span of either Lindsey Lohan or a gnat (they’re basically the same thing), paleo was dropped like a fat girl in swing class when everyone decided that gluten was the enemy and moved on to glutardation. I’m certainly not suggesting that the paleo diet isn’t useful, but rather that, like any other diet, its popularity will wax and wane with media coverage and, sadly, internet message board discussions.
Autoimmune paleo was essentially traditional paleo minus all of the nightshade vegetables such as tomatoes, all peppers, both sweet and hot, eggplant, white potatoes, and the few common allergens remaining in a paleo diet, like eggs, nuts, and shellfish. This diet was typically only used by people with autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis, and although it was generally very helpful for them, it fell out of fashion faster than two polo shirts worn at once with popped collars.
Cordain’s original Paleo Diet
This is perhaps one of the saddest books ever produced, because Cordain created a trend that flew in the face of his own research harder than that bird that smashed Fabio’s nose. It’s likely that Cordain wishes he could gather up all of those books and burn them, because what he essentially did was try to combine the low fat-faddism of the 1990s with paleolithic eating, which essentially created a horrifying chimera of diets that resembled the monster at the end of The Thing. In spite of the fact that Cordain suggested in “Implications of Plio-Pleistocene Hominin Diets for Modern Humans” that hunter gatherers’ diets (which he believe mirror paleolithic diets in many ways) contained between 19% and 35% fat, the original Paleo Diet includes bizarre admonitions like “cut all the fat off your meat and then fry it in flaxseed or canola oil.” Luckily, he managed to get his wits about himself in the last ten years and replaced his original pile of trash with a much more sensible and accurate book, The Paleo Answer.
Though these diets are all fairly disparate, they have a number of critical features in common:
- No grains. That means no bread, no cereal, no crackers, no tortillas or chips. (Exception: Perfect Health Diet allows white rice in moderation.) Grains (wheat, corn, rice, barley, oats, rye, and other seeds and grasses) weren’t eaten much in the paleolithic because they require milling and long cooking to be made edible. Raw grain plus water essentially equals paper mache, and there’s not a primate on Earth that can eat paper mache without crapping their proverbial pants.
- No grain products. This means no “vegetable oils” like corn, soy, sunflower, grapeseed, and canola, no corn syrup or Frankengredients like TVP (textured vegetable protein). That pretty much puts 75% of the supermarket off limit if you’re any kind of paleo.
- No peanuts or peanut butter. They’re a legume, not a nut. Plus they’re only 18% poor-quality protein (PDCAAS = 0.5) with boatloads of inflammatory linoleic acid (“omega-6 fat”). Peanuts, like corn, also contain a fungi called aflatoxins which is one of the most carcinogenic toxic substances known. There’s no treatment for aflatoxin infection, either- once you have it, you have it. Cooking can kill aflatoxins, but it’s not 100% effective- for some reason ancient man knew this, but flight attendants don’t.
- No sugar except what naturally occurs in fruit, and limited amounts of honey. Obviously, ancient man had little access to sugar cane, and they certainly weren’t going to tangle with a bunch of bees for honey on a regular basis. Thus, sugar and honey are pretty much out, which basically eliminates all junk food from one’s diet when combined with the grains.
In short, no matter what kind of paleo you’re doing, you’re essentially limited to the meat counter, the produce section, the spice rack, and maybe a stop in dairy. As J Stanton puts it “Eat anything you could pick, dig, or spear. Mostly spear.” He’s got an article to that effect called “Eat Like A Predator, Not Like Prey.” One caveat to the “dig” portion of Stanton’s quote I’d like to point out, and one to which I alluded earlier, is regarding modern tubers and fruits. Agriculture does funny things to food, and fruits and tubers are perhaps some of the best- they in no way resemble their ancestors. Tubers, for instance, were basically oblong pieces of bark with a tiny bit of meat in the middle. According to Loren Cordain (the academic, not the dogcrap author of pandering diet books), most of tuber eating was chewing on and digesting insoluble fiber- paleolithic man got over 100g of fiber daily from gnawing on tubers .
Apparently, there is a trend among hippies to engage in “aboriginal birch bark biting.” I just don’t even know what the hell is going on in the world anymore.
Because eating tubers was so time intensive (and likely led to more TMJ than the world has seen out outside of a San Francisco bathhouse), tubers were likely the initial objectives of cooking (Ungar 36). Tuber consumption increased concomitantly with meat consumption and was likely the fallback food for primitive man, no doubt because that fiber filled up empty bellies (Ungar 203). That, however, is a far cry from the sugary-sweet sweet potatoes with Saran Wrap-thin skin upon which you’ll see your typical paleo advocate munching.
They might look like funny-colored cherries, but those are actually what apples looked like in the paleolithic.
Similarly, white potatoes in no way resemble their ancient ancestors. The wild potato, which still grows in Peru (where it was originally domesticated 7000-10000 years ago), is more bitter than a fat girl on prom night, more gnarled than your great grandma’s arthritic hands, and thicker skin than what’s likely on your palms. Apples in the paleolithic were little larger than cherries and were incredibly tart- in fact, they were far more like the crab apples that litter your driveway every fall than the Granny Smith you see in the grocery store. If you want to see what an ancient strawberry looks like, look no further than a wild strawberry- they’re basically the size of blueberries and about as tart as a lemon. In short, none of the produce you’re eating is paleo, and tubers and fruits are the worst culprits in this regard.
I’ll continue this insanely lengthy article soon and hash out more of the reasons why people who eat paleo aren’t, in fact, eating like paleolithic man. Unfortunately, the introduction to the disparate types of paleo dieting took so long it left me with little room for explication of the difference between modern paleolithic eating and the actual diets of paleolithic man. In any event, there’s plenty more to cover, so we’re going to school these paleotards like they’re sitting in those tiny chairs with the desk attached. Luckily, their legs are so goddamned skinny form all of the cycling and jogging that they can probably fit- let’s just hope they’ve eaten enough calories to hold onto their crayons as they take notes.
One final note- I love the idea of paleolithic dieting. I just hate the people who make out like it’s going to cure cancer or involves a lot of nonsense.