We can’t help but recall that humans evolved over millions of years on a very different diet, eating a wide range of wild and unprocessed whole plant and animal foods. For more than 98% of our time as hominids we ate simply what we could gather or hunt in any given location, during any given season. Our entire physiology evolved in adaptation to these nutritional parameters.
Today we have almost exactly the same genetic machinery and the same physiological requirements as early humans. However, how we nourish ourselves is dramatically different. This nutritional discord between our evolutionary diet and today’s eating patterns bears great consequences for our health and contributes to the rise of chronic, degenerative diseases.
Nearly all of the last 2 to 3 million years of human evolution occurred in what is known as the Paleolithic or “Old Stone Age,” a time of widespread use of stone tools and other hand-made implements for successful hunting and gathering. The Paleolithic period covered millions of years with diverse environments, climates, and varied nutrient sources. Nonetheless, anthropologists have been able to reconstruct an “average” Late Paleolithic eating pattern.
Paleo nutrition vs. contemporary nutrition
Our Paleo ancestors’ diet was rich in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium. For most nutrients, vitamin and mineral intake was 2-8x higher than today’s diet, except for sodium, which was 5 times lower. Fat intake was about 2/3 of ours today, and our current diet has reversed this to a much higher ratio of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3s, containing a large amount of unhealthy processed oils and tans fats.
Refined sugar intake was almost zero, with natural fruit sugars or honey as the only source of sweet. Today we average 20 teaspoons of added sugars a day, about 15% of total caloric intake, including 10% of our calories from fructose. Dairy beyond infancy was nonexistent and carbohydrates were from whole, unprocessed, wild foods, not grains.
Paleo diets were largely alkaline forming due to the high potassium intake from vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. On the other end of the scale, contemporary Westernized diets are low in vegetables and fruits yielding a daily excess of acid.
The Paleo Edge
While the Paleo diet was nutrient dense, our diet today is nutrient depleted.
Today the average American consumes about 32% of his or her calories from nutrient-stripped refined grains, 15% from added sugars, 30% from fats (largely refined), and often another 7% in alcohol, leaving only about 15% of one’s caloric intake for nutrient-dense foods.
When we compare the average Paleolithic nutrient intake with that of contemporary societies, we find that basically the same human body is now being asked to run on a very “low octane” fuel. The impact of this nutritional downgrade can be seen in the degeneration of the human skeleton as well as in the rise of today’s other degenerative diseases.
Ten steps to regaining the Paleolithic nutritional edge
Most of us are not going back to eating grubs, gnawing on bone marrow, or savoring seemingly endless types of wild plant roots. Yet there are many changes most of us could easily make to give our physiology more of the nutrition our bodies evolved to thrive on. Here are 10 things you can do to “Paleo-Up” your eating patterns in order to build health and reduce your risk of today’s degenerative diseases.
1. Increase your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant phytochemicals from plants
2. Up the fiber
With the move to a more plant-centered diet your fiber intake will reach at least the current USDA recommendation of 21 to 38 grams a day. While still a far cry from the Paleo fiber intake of 100 to 150 grams, you are moving in the right direction.
3. Increase your intake of alkalizing, high potassium foods
These include vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds. Strive for a minimum of 10 one-half cup servings a day of these foods to reach or exceed the current recommendation of 4,700 mg potassium/day (which is still less than half the intake of our Paleo ancestors).
4. Reduce sodium
Reduce from our average 4,000 mg/day to the recommended 1,500 mg/day or less (unless you have low blood pressure). This can be accomplished by cutting back on processed foods which contain high amounts of sodium. Our Paleo ancestors consumed less than 800 mg sodium/day, so our kidneys were designed to conserve sodium.
5. Use alkalizing, mineral-rich root crops
Limit your intake of breads, pastas, and other acid-forming, denatured flour products.
6. Consume adequate protein
Consume a minimum of 1.0 gram per every 2.2 lb. of body weight (a 135-lb. person would consume 61 grams protein). The acidifying effect of any excess protein will be balanced off by the alkalizing effect of vegetable foods high in potassium.
7. Increase Omega-3 fats
Sources of omega-3 fats include coldwater fish, grassfed beef, walnuts, flaxseeds, and Omega-3 supplements. Eliminate processed trans fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil) altogether, and favor high quality oils like olive and coconut oils.
8. Dramatically reduce intake of all sugars
Consume much less than the current 15 to 20% of your calories from sugar. Favor small amounts of natural sweeteners. Eliminate all sugared drinks, including fruit juices.
9. Alcohol in moderation
If used at all, try not to exceed 1 or perhaps 2 servings a day.
10. Use nutrient supplements as necessary
Nutrient supplements can help fill the nutrient gaps in your diet and ensure adequate nutrient intake.
For Further Reading:
CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey NHANES 2003-2004, Atlanta, Georgia.
Cordain, L., et al. 2005. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81:341–354.
Eaton, S. B., and M. Konner. 1985. Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine 312:283–289.
Eaton, S. B., and D. A. Nelson. 1991. Calcium in evolutionary perspective. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 54:281S–287S.
Eaton, S. B., and S. B. Eaton III. 2000. Paleolithic vs. modern diets—selected pathophysiological implications. European Journal of Nutrition 39:67–70.