Over the last 10 years, the Paleo and Primal diets have steadily risen in popularity. Unfortunately, alongside this increase in practice, there has also been a great deal of criticism of the 'supposed' science surrounding the claims of these approaches.
It is important to note that, like most commercial nutrition solutions (a.k.a. diets), the premise has to be sold. It is rarely enough to tell people that an approach is beneficial, rather they need to be convinced of why. For that reason, the claimed origins of almost any diet should be taken with a pinch of salt, as they may have more than a little marketing spin in their heritage.
That said, the broad claims of the paleo or primal propositions are as follows:
- Our ancestors were generally healthier than we are
- Our ancestors ate healthier than we do
And that's it. Other than the above assertions, none of the primal diets claim anything specifically, although many practitioners of the diet will claim it prevents various health issues and diseases. The diets and their authors themselves however, claim very little.
Assessing the two main claims of the diets reveals the following:
Our lifestyles are nothing alike - Trying to compare modern life to that our ancestors experienced thousands of years ago is not only unrealistic, but also irrelevant.
Our ancestors had an average lifespan of 30 years, nowhere near long enough to develop the chronic diseases that are prevalent in todays society.
Environmental contaminants, toxins and pollutants were almost non-existent. Therefore our immune systems will develop very differently because of the greater number of stimuli that the body must respond and adapt to.
The prevalence of predators is almost non-existent today. Wild animals would represent potential threats to our Palaeolithic ancestors, resulting in a different state of physical readiness and preparedness and therefore potentially, energy demands.
Our ancestors would have been exposed to fewer creature comforts, thereby encouraging a hardiness or resilience that is typically rarer in todays society. The modern reliance on central heating, hot showers and wall cavity insulation, will almost certainly have resulted in certain physiological adaptations or even regressions.
Our food availability is nothing alike One of the most common criticisms of the paleo and primal propositions, is that modern foods simply did not exist in anything like their current forms that far back in time.
One of the greatest areas in which expert opinion converges, is that we function better and with fewer health issues when consumed a diet low in unrefined foods. The argument being that natural or wholefoods are more suited to our digestive and endocrine systems. However, when viewed in more detail, most common vegetables have been bred to provide greater palatability, digestibility and availability. Therefore, even the most unrefined of foods bears little resemblance to that available to our ancestors.
But the truth is: None of this matters.
When assessing any diet, nutritional practice or lifestyle change, there are really only a few questions that need to be answered:
- Does it provide a healthy macronutrient balance?
- Does it provide a broad spectrum of nutrients?
- Does it promote healthy body composition?
- Does it fit with the participant's lifestyle?
- Is it sustainable in the long term?
If the answer to the above questions is yes, then the specific spin a particular diet is given has little bearing on whether it should be followed or not. In the case of the paleo/primal diets, we can determine the following:
- Ancestral diets place a high value on lean meats/fish and wholefood vegetable sources. These food groups are by large, lower in carbohydrates and higher in proteins and fats, a macronutrient ratio largely accepted to be healthy for the average person. Obviously, there are some populations whose needs may not be specifically or even optimally met by a complete adherence to an ancestral approach, but then the question here relates to the broad strokes of the approach, not the minutiae.
- The recommended intake of vegetables, fruits and wild meats/fish, means that most essential and beneficial nutrients will be plentiful.
- The typical macronutrient ratios will generally reduce drastic fluctuations in blood sugar levels, promote optimal tissue repair and limit or prevent inflammation. All three of these outcomes help promote a lean physique, which often correlates with improved markers of health and lowered risk of disease.
- This one is entirely individual and can only be answered by each participant. Largely though, most proponents of the ancestral eating approach find it to be practical and realistic, although it may take some experimenting initially to find the best practices on a personal level.
- One of the greatest challenges faced by most dieters is the ability to sustain the changes required by a diet in the long term and therefore maintain their results. Like any diet that is drastically different to an individuals current lifestyle, ancestral eating should be adopted gradually, ideally one component at a time. Those who completely overhaul their nutritional habits at the outset may experience greater challenges in the long run, although there are certainly those who have adopted the practices with little difficulty.
So overall, even though the published claims about the scientific validity of the approach are interesting, they are hardly conclusive or even definitive. Despite that, the approach itself has a number of benefits for those who are able to follow it. Just don't get caught up in the marketing spiel or spin that proponents invariably use to make it appealing or exciting.