As we notice the contemporary shopping basket brimming with denatured, processed, and even synthetic foodstuffs, 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 of our early human, Late Paleolithic, ancestors of 90,000 years ago. 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. More successful hunting allowed humans to survive in colder, even glacial climates, hence the popular image of Paleo folks as Ice Age big-game hunters. 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 and this reconstruction demonstrates that our physiological and genetic machinery evolved in adaptation to a very nutrient-dense diet.
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 to 8 times higher, except for sodium, which was 5 times lower than today’s diet. Fat intake was about 2/3 of ours with a 1 to 1 ratio of Omega-3 fats to Omega-6 fats. Our diet today has reversed this to a much higher ratio of Omega-6 fats to Omega-3s and contains a large amount of unhealthy processed oils and tans fats.
A Paleo diet contained twice the protein and 5 to 8 times the fiber than today’s diet. 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
Some 10,000 years ago we entered the Neolithic or New Stone Age, a period marked by agriculture and animal domestication that allowed for permanent urban centers with dense populations. Grains and cereals, which were absent during the vast majority of human evolution, became the predominant source of calories and nutrition, and the human diet changed substantially. The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, only a mere 200 years ago, further dramatically transformed our dietary patterns with the advent and dramatic expansion of food refining, processing, and agribusiness.
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 denatured); 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, the same genetically determined human physiology, is now being asked to run, as it were, on a very “low octane” fuel. And it is being asked to run for decades more than it did in the past. 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. We all know the statistics—25% of us now die of heart disease and another 25% from cancer; 75 % of the population is overweight or obese; more than 1 out of 4 Americans aged 65 and older has diagnosed or undiagnosed diabetes; half of women over 50 will experience some sort of needless fracture; and on and on the list goes.
Ten steps to regaining the Paleolithic nutritional edge
Most of us are not going back to eating grubbs, gnawing on bone marrow, relishing organ meats, 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 in response to. 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.
Increase your intake of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant phytochemicals from plants. Make the greatest volume of your diet plant-based with at least two cups of low carbohydrate vegetables (greens) for lunch and dinner, and consume root crops once or twice a day (yams/carrots/turnips).
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.
Increase your intake of alkalizing high potassium foods such as 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). Our ancestral diet was high in potassium, thus our kidneys were designed over millions of years to easily excrete potassium while retaining sodium—which they still do!
Reduce sodium 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.
Use alkalizing, mineral-rich root crops instead of breads, pastas, and other acid-forming, denatured flour products.
Consume adequate protein with a minimum of 1.0 gram per every 2.2 lbs 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.
Increase Omega-3 fats from sources like coldwater fish, grassfed beef, walnuts, flaxseeds, and Omega-3 supplements. Eliminate processed trans fats (hydrogenated vegetable oil) altogether, and favor high quality, fresh, cold pressed oils, like olive and coconut oils.
Dramatically reduce intake of all sugars from the current 15 to 20% of calories. Favor small amounts of natural sweeteners. Eliminate all sugared drinks, including fruit juices.
Alcohol in moderation if used at all, not exceeding 1 or perhaps 2 servings a day.
Use nutrient supplements as necessary to insure adequate nutrient intake.
Cordain, L., S. B. Eaton, A. Sebastian, N. Mann, S. Lindeberg, B. A. Watkins, J. H. O’Keefe, and J. Brand-Miller. 2005. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 81:341–354.
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