The paleo (or primal) hypothesis is that the longer humans have been exposed to something the more likely they are to be well adapted to it and tolerate it. It’s a basic part of natural selection. It doesn’t prove anything is harmful or healthy, but it provides an excellent starting point, and generates good default answers that end up surprisingly accurate when tested across various fields of science and medicine. In the absence of other data, the paleo/primal approach is the safest and most accurate.
Applying the paleo/primal approach to food is simple: the more traditional the better—100 years old is good, 1000 great, and 10,000 or 100,000 excellent. There are certain fundamental guidelines to following a paleo/primal approach:
- Eat a diet that is as consistent with primal/paleo conditions as possible, unless there is evidence that non-primal/paleo foods are safe (the default is that they are not)
- Avoid refined products as much as possible, especially starchy or sugary products
- Avoid refined, industrial, or non-traditional fats
- This includes plant oils and fats that cannot be traditionally produced in a pre-industrial society… seed oils, nut oils, grain oils…
- Avoid grains
- Try and avoid things that were originally primal/paleo, but have been heavily modified via agriculture/breeding/human selection and find ancestral/traditional versions
- Example: modern corn has changed hugely in just the last 50-250 years… starch content has quadrupled in 250 years, vitamins and minerals have been cut by more than half… compared to the corn humans could find for 99% of our history, modern corn is basically candy.
- Same goes for modern American whole milk from large-scale Holstein cow farms… they’ve been bred for high-volume milk production, but nutrient density has suffered greatly
So what do you actually eat? #1 is the only one above that isn’t an ‘avoid’ statement. That’s largely because my advice isn’t telling anyone what to do—it’s about understanding what’s bad for you and knowing what not to do. I don’t like having a one-size-fits-all set of things people should eat or do, and it’s inconsistent with human culture and experience—there are a huge number of human groups eating very different (but completely primal/paleo) diets who are all healthy, and you don’t have to copy any of them.
That being said… I can definitely provide some general guidelines of what to eat, consistent with the above:
- The more natural and traditional the better… the hunter-gatherer test is always a good one.
- Mostly fat (by calories, not volume or mass). Seriously. Without sugar and starch you just cannot get enough calories to meet your daily needs without eating most of your calories from fat. In Indian culture, this was accomplished primarily via butter, cream, milk, cheese, coconut, and perhaps eggs (I’m less sure of the last one). Broths and sauces and soups.
- And, with the exception of coconut and palm oil/fat, and to some degree olive oil, the fat needs to come from an animal source. For Indians: dairy fat. There is a reason why Indian culture holds cows in such high regard—their dairy products are the cornerstone of a healthy Indian diet. Dairy cows are indeed unbelievably important and valuable to humans.
- A good amount of protein—though this will basically happen automatically… “high protein” diets are somewhat nonsensical, since you can’t really burn protein for significant amounts of energy. Low protein is very bad, however, since you’ll starve your body of amino acids. So just make sure you get enough…
- Very low sugar, very low starch (ancient potatoes and starchy tubers were far less starchy than modern ones, much like modern corn, and higher in nutrients as well)
- Herbs, spices, flavors—all great stuff, the thing variety is made from.
The end result will likely be 5-25% carbohydrates by calories, but, depending on how you do it, it can still appear to still be mostly vegetables. That’s because veggies are very low calorie—nutrient dense, but low sugar and low starch. If you have a cobb salad (mmm, delicious!) almost all the calories are from the egg, cheese, oil in the dressing, and bacon (well, if you have it with bacon). Salads may be mostly veggies, but the fat dominates in the calorie totals, which is absolutely a good thing. Anyhow, I make this point here to emphasize why I don’t start by describing my diet as a low-carb diet. It ends up almost always being a low-carb diet… but I find that’s the wrong way to look at it. You don’t start there, you end up there.
Also, this is all pretty consistent with the PaNu guidelines I like to point people to.
The explanation of why for each of these guidelines is, of course, a much longer article. However, let’s take a very short attempt at summarizing some of the key examples…
Indian culture has an amazing culinary history, with a diet primarily based on (depending on where in the country you are) dairy and cream, coconut, and tons of amazing spices. Lots of great veggie dishes for nutrients and flavor. Wonderful food. The modern Indian diet has changed hugely in the last 20 years, 50 years, 100 years… even if you compare 100 years ago to 500 or 2000 years ago you will see huge changes. The same issues arise here as in other cultures—the arrival of flour and sugar, and introduction of agriculture resulted in increases in disease prevalence, decrease in height, decrease in bone density, and general reduction in nutrition. Agriculture had political and economic benefits, however, and allowed the building of great civilizations due to the ability to grow and store much larger quantities of food. But for individual people, it was a step backwards in health. Industrial processing (processed oils, food byproducts, frankenfoods, HFCS, refined everything, etc) has taken that one step further in reducing individual health for societal gain (economic, political, etc). As a group we win, but as individuals we lose.
Looking at agriculture or industry, I’m not saying that all things from either are unhealthy. But, on the whole, they reduced health outcomes. And when you look at the data it starts to become clear which aspects of each are harmless (or healthy) and which are not. And it’s very consistent with the primal/paleo default principle. In almost every case, the new things that became possible that were novel in terms of human consumption or experience were harmful, and those that were consistent with previous selective pressures were very well tolerated and healthy. Like what, you say? In terms of agriculture, growing things you could find as a hunter gatherer in the wild—but doing so in a garden with predictability—would be the healthy and well tolerated things; using agriculture to grow and produce foods that pre-agricultural man could not find, process and consume would be the unhealthy things. Specifics? Many herbs and spices, leaves (spinach, lettuce) and similar natural vegetables have been around forever, and are completely harmless if they’re grown in a garden, or found in a forest. On the other hand, grains are completely a product of agriculture. You can’t eat wheat if you find it wandering in a field, you’ll get indigestion and it will leach minerals, in a raw form. It requires large scale agricultural production and processing (malting, or heat and cooking, removal of the seed/bran via milling or crushing, etc) to make it edible. But even though it’s edible, it’s a completely new experience for us as a species… and the evidence is that this new environmental factor has been a major selective force through all kinds of negative health responses.