Skip to content

Why Is Everyone Talking Paleo and Primal?

January 18, 2010

American food habits are nothing if not trend-driven. We want to eat without restraint, we want to be slender with glowing good health, and we want easy-to-follow rules. And, if possible, we like to have an overarching philosophy to guide (or justify?) our dietary decisions.

Nothing is trendier now than vegan food except its polar opposite: caveman food, better known as the Paleolithic, Primal, or hunter-gatherer diet. The boom and bust cycle of diet fads lends great appeal to the idea of getting back to our roots: eating the wild plants and animals that hominids evolved on in the Paleolithic era, from about 2.5 million years ago to the dawn of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

The New York Times and The Washington Post ran feature stories on modern-day caveman food within a week of each other early this month, so you know it’s only a matter of time before Grok meets Oprah. (For now, the queen of the talk shows seems to have fallen under the spell of Kathy Freston, who advocates a 21-day “cleansing” vegan diet.)

Is the Stone Age trend something you should take seriously? What are the advantages of Paleo/Primal eating, and how does it differ from low carb? Just who is this Grok, anyway? And do you have to wear a loin cloth?

Lots of overlap, differing philosophies

There is considerable overlap between “living la vida low carb” (to borrow a phrase from low-carb blogger Jimmy Moore), and living the Primal lifestyle. Both emphasize meats and fish, eggs,  nonstarchy vegetables, nuts, and low-sugar fruits such as berries. The Paleolithic diet includes root vegetables, perhaps a bit of raw honey. What’s generally excluded is grains, dairy, legumes, processed oils, refined sweeteners, sometimes peanuts and cashews. Some versions of the diet exclude or minimize salt. The more extreme view is to eat only what you could hunt with a stick or gather with your bare hands, which would exclude such nutritious delights as lacto-fermented vegetables and bone stock.

Both Paleo and low carb promise to help normalize weight and provide relief from modern medical scourges such as metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and degenerative diseases and freedom from food cravings. They tend to diverge on dairy and artificial sweeteners (low carbers often include both), and each group has varying opinions on whether to eat lots of fat or little. Both overlap with the Weston A. Price Foundation’s nutrient-dense, traditional foods philosophy, which teaches preparation techniques to make the dietary latecomers grain and dairy more digestible and nutritious, while recognizing wide variation in healthful, native diets (and pointing out that none excluded animal products and all prized certain animal foods such as cod liver oil and organ meats). Neither low-carb nor Paleo necessarily include lacto-fermented vegetables—so important for good digestion and a strong immune system—but those would fit in either plan, except perhaps for the most extreme interpretations of Paleolithic nutrition.

Each respective philosophy could be simplified as:

Low carb: “Eat no sugar or starch to stay thin—it’s not fat that makes you fat!”

Paleo/Primal: “Eat only foods your paleolithic ancestors could have eaten—with a spear!”

WAPF: “Eat local, nutrient-dense foods, prepared to maximize nutrition and good digestion—preferably with butter!”

Cordain, Audette, Hunt

Credit is often given to Loren Cordain for starting this trend with the publication of The Paleo Diet. He actually followed Neanderthin by Ray Audette. One reviewer summed up Audette’s message as “eat no technology-dependent foods;” another deemed it “like low carb, only more difficult.” I read Neanderthin as well as Charles Hunt’s Diet Evolution way back when. I was impressed, but was soon beguiled by vegetarianism, thanks to Diet for A Small Planet (yes, I read it when it first came out in paperback! I’m that ancient), and later, macrobiotics.

Now, while eating my veggies dripping with butter I think, what a waste! All those years I skimped on fat because everyone “knew” it made you fat, and prone to keel over from heart attack at any moment.

Somehow surviving those trends, I made my way to fat-laden, nutrient-dense eating, thanks to an accidental encounter with Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon at the book section of the Berkeley Whole Foods Market.

Two Favorites

For my money, the best of the Paleo/Primal guides are Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind, and The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, author of the popular blog MarksDailyApple.com. Sisson, who named the prototypical Paleolithic man “Grok,” advocates a holistic lifestyle encompassing a fat-loving ancestral diet, stress reduction, low-intensity exercise spiked with sprints and brief, intensive weight lifting, mimicking the demands Stone Age survival placed on the body and mind. Gedgaudas pairs clear explanation of high-fat Primal nutrition with a discussion of the wonders of neurofeeback (which I’m dying to try, if only I had the money and a practitioner nearby) for fixing whatever ails your brain. The two books are very much in harmony; each is worthwhile. Sisson’s work is better written and edited; both are amply documented and emphasize plenty of natural fats in the diet, moderate protein and minimal carbohydrates to shift the metabolism from sugar-burning to fat-burning. Both specify natural animal and WAPF-friendly fats (coconut oil, anyone?) and grass-fed meat and eggs, plus non-starchy vegetables as the best dietary foundation.

IF Only…

A related twist found in many Paleo-type diets and blogs is IF, or intermittent fasting. Grok didn’t necessarily eat 3 square meals a day, plus regular snacks. The idea is that eating higher fat, moderate protein, and sparse carbohydrates keeps blood glucose levels steady and allowed Grok to make it through missed meals without distress, as he was adapted to using his fat stores for fuel rather than needing a sugar hit every couple of hours to function. (Remember, all carbohydrates are broken down to glucose by the time they reach your bloodstream.) Cycles of abundance and scarcity are nothing new, after all, and when we’re eating 4, 5, 6 times a day, our digestive systems never get a chance to rest.

Just a Spoonful of Sugar

As Gedgaudas and Sisson both point out, the amount of glucose needed in the human bloodstream at any given time is less than one teaspoon! Further, it’s not the brain that absolutely must have glucose, as we’ve been taught (the brain can function on ketones quite nicely, thank you very much), it’s our red blood cells, which, as carriers of oxygen from the lungs throughout the body, must run anaerobically so they don’t burn up their precious cargo (oxygen) for fuel! That was an “aha!” moment for me. Apparently there is actually no metabolic need for carbohydrates in the human diet. Both proteins and fats can be broken down into glucose for the brain or the bloodstream, whichever it is that really needs it—in tiny amounts. (The “no need for carbs” idea is highly controversial, but I have become convinced of this by my reading on Paleolithic nutrition, both ancient and modern.)

While it seems wise to base our diets on what our ancestors thrived on, not all of agriculture has been a total bust, and simple cooking technology (fire!) predates agriculture. Fermented foods (and drinks!) are thought to be some of the earliest foods developed in the Neolithic (agricultural) era.

The contemporary version of Paleolithic eating recognizes that both plant and animal species have evolved along with us, and human-guided breeding of plants and livestock has drastically changed the selection and quality of foods available to modern folk. Fruits have become sweeter, juicier and larger, hybridized vegetables are less fibrous and more varied, and tubers are fatter, as are food animals. Early human menus also included insects, reportedly a wonderful protein source, though I’ll have to take Grok’s word for it.

Advocates say eating our ancestral diet will help us to easily achieve ideal weight and avoid the degenerative diseases and myriad maladies of modern civilization, from allergies and arthritis to diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases. (Consult footnotes in the above books for scientific citations, or see resources below.) Concentrated carbohydrate foods were just not available before agriculture, and subsequent mechanized food processing, and the careful cultivation of grasses-turned-grains. Sugar is mainly derived from grain (corn), and most meat is fattened with grain (corn and soy), unless we seek out grass-fed/pastured meats and eggs.

Raw or Cooked

Paleo doesn’t necessarily mean raw. According to Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, by Richard Wrangham, the taming of fire about 1.8 million years ago changed human diets and drove anatomical changes including bigger brains and smaller guts, as we didn’t need to spend so much energy chewing cooked food and were able to extract more nutrition from it. We adapted to eating cooked food just as cows adapted to eating grass. Other scholars have said the increase in fat content in the human diet helped us to grow bigger brains—which are, after all, mainly built of fat.

There really should be nothing radical about eating the diet for which we are biologically adapted. Sounds obvious. Yet the dawn of agriculture, with the cultivation of grains and keeping of livestock, began a process of worsening the health of humans in many respects, leaving subsequent generations of grain eaters shorter in stature, with fewer teeth, more wear and tear on the skeleton, and shorter lifespans. According to Professor Jared Diamond of the UCLA School of Medicine (and author of Guns, Germs and Steel, among other terrific books), the invention of agriculture was “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” A Whole Health Source blogpost from March 2009 by Stephan Guyenet covers similar ground.

The work of Weston A. Price, detailed in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, (and in more accessible form in Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine, by Ron Schmid), reveals the best practices devised by varied traditional cultures to overcome the shortcomings of agriculture. Price taught the modern world how those “primitive” people revered certain sacred foods such as butter and cod liver oil, which bestow in concentrated form the blessings of animal foods that our ancestors thrived on.

Food writer Michael Pollan famously boiled his nutritional advice down to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” One rebuttal to that by a New York Times blog reader was, “Ate plants. A big heap. Still hungry.”

Added a WAPF editor in a review of Pollan’s In Defense of Food: “Eat plants. Always with butter. Or cream.”

UPDATE:

Primal Blueprint Cookbook
Primal Blueprint Cookbook

I got my early copy of The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, by Mark Sisson and Jennifer Meier, the other day and I love it. Amazon.com isn’t yet shipping it yet, but you can buy it from Mark’s blog, Mark’s Daily Apple and it ships directly from the publisher. What’s good about it? It has very WAPF-friendly, Real Food recipes, just no grains and little dairy (“cheese optional” in a few recipes), and low carb. Plus, great photos, simple but flavorful recipes that are easy enough for me, and nicely organized. I’m not earning anything by recommending it, I just think it’s just a terrific source of ideas for easy meat-and-vegetable meals (with lots of coconut milk, fresh herbs, healthful fats like butter, ghee, coconut oil, lard), and chock full of useful info. David spent Sunday reading it through and we started cooking from it on Memorial Day. I expect it to be our new bible—after Nourishing Traditions and Jessica Prentice’s Full Moon Feast, that is.

* * * * * * * *

Further reading:

http://www.paleofood.com/ is a recipe collection put together by the Paleolithic Eating Support List. A companion site, http://paleodiet.com/, on the Web since 1997, gives extensive references and resources on “what our Hunter/Gatherer ancestors ate.” Dr. Cordain’s site is http://www.thepaleodiet.com/. His other books are The Dietary Cure for Acne, and The Paleo Diet for Athletes.

Loren Cordain and T. Colin Campbell, author of the infamous China Study, debated human needs for protein in these papers and rebuttals: http://thepaleodiet.com/pdf/proteinDebate%20Final%20Published%20Version.pdf. (The China Study is infamous if you’ve read the Chris Masterjohn review of the book in Wise Traditions. Sally Fallon reviewed The Paleo Diet here.

The Warrior Diet: Switch on Your Biological Powerhouse For High Energy, Explosive Strength, and a Leaner, Harder Body, by Ori Hofmekler, is given a Thumbs Down review on the Weston A. Price Foundation site.

This Thumbs Down review by Sally Fallon of Nutrition and Evolution, by Michael Crawford and David Marsh, is very instructive on the role of pre-formed Vitamin A (from animal foods) and its role in the human diet and health. For a more scholarly treatise on the subject, try The Evolution of Hominin Diets: Integrating Approaches to the Study of Palaeolithic Subsistence, and report back to me!

Parallel to the interest in Paleolithic nutrition is a new field called evolutionary medicine, “the application of modern evolutionary theory to understanding health and disease.” An interesting-looking book on the subject is Revolution Rx: A Practical Guide to Harnessing Our Innate Capacity for Health and Healing, by William Meller, M.D. He advocates, among other things: eating more, not less, fat to fuel weight loss; eating fewer carbohydrates; increasing sun exposure for Vitamin D; letting children get dirty to build their immune systems; and NOT stretching before exercise. For some reason he makes fun of yoga, though. Hmmm. The Skepticality podcast featured two interviews with Dr. Meller on Evolution RX. Search the iTunes store or go to http://www.Skepticality.com/p_listentopast.php, podcasts #116 and 117.

From → Books, Food

4 Comments
  1. Great overview – have always been into eating natural foods but I am just embarking on the rediscovering fat journey and have just got Nora Gedgaudas’s Primal Body, Primal Mind out of the library.

    Like your blog – will continue to follow.

    • Jeanmarie permalink

      Thanks, Janine! I am just struggling with finding the time to post more regularly. I still have a lot to say! Currently I’m reading Jimmy Moore’s 21 Life Lessons From Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb, and I’ve also read most of The Primal Blueprint and The Primal Blueprint Cookbook, by Mark Sisson. What books or other resources have you found useful on the “rediscovering fat journey”? I’d love to hear.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Surf and Turf: A Great New Online Cooking Class « Random Acts of Green
  2. Links from the week « The Complete Body

Like what you read? Please comment, I'd love to hear from you.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: