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Have you noticed the deluge of Paleo books flooding the market today? Do you know what Paleo nutrition is? Did our hunter/gatherer ancestors do more hunting than gathering? Were they hyper-carnivores? Did a large percent of their daily energy needs come from meat? Should we eat like that today?

Yes? No?


Holy mastodon, what are modern humans to do? It’s confusing. Here we are at the top of the food chain and we don’t know what to eat.

Channel your inner-caveman, grab a drumstick, and let’s unleash the past. On second thought, grab a bowl of baked beans or some goat yogurt, because I’m going to propose we’ve overestimated Paleolithic meat consumption and that, long term, the Paleo diet isn’t the best choice. For us, or for the planet.

But first, a disclaimer and a friendship flag. I’m no evolutionary biologist. I can’t tell you the historical time-lines of different populations, or even who the populations were. Neanderthals, sapiens, upper-lower-middle Paleolithic, pre-Neolithic?

Or who was where? Northern Europe, west Asia, the Mediterranean, sub-Saharan Africa, the Bronx?

In order to propose a specific behavior (archeologically speaking), you need to know what you’re talking about. You also need to have a sound understanding of historical perspective and some scientific evidence. Like cave drawings of ancient BBQs, stone-age meat cleavers, or a well-preserved Neanderthal clutching a mastodon femur. I don’t have any of the above. No artifacts, no fossils, very little knowledge of the time period.

I’m also of the notion that one-sized diet doesn’t fit all. Now or 200,000 years ago, so each to their own.

But, if we’re honest, our fragmented knowledge of the Paleolithic era doesn’t clearly indicate who ate what when. There’s a wide range of possibilities with a zillion variables. If we sift through the research, there’s evidence of fossilized plant particles and starch grains embedded in Neanderthal dental plaque, meaning they ate a variety of plants, including legumes and tubers. Ancient encampments are often littered with animal remains (bones), which gives the impression that early humans ate a lot of meat. But if you think about it, there’s not much evidence to leave behind if you’re a plant. Bones survive thousands of years, plants don’t — they decompose. It’s like searching for an ice cube after it melts. How do we know the Paleo diet wasn’t predominately plant-based, with a little meat thrown in on rare occasions? Recent research is suggesting that theory might be closer to fact than all the hoopla about the caveman diet.

My ancestors ate a plant-based diet, with a little meat when they happened upon fresh road kill, a slow rabbit, or whatever else was around during that time period. I doubt meat was a major source of energy. Since I can’t text my ancestors and ask, this is obviously speculation. For an older post I wrote on this and my thoughts on Paleo and how HLA DQ2 genes add to the mix, please read “Confessions of an HLA DQ2 Cave Woman.”

To make this information easier to “digest,” I’m simply going to compare the modern Paleo diet to what people who currently live the longest eat (Blue Zone communities, see below for details and references). Yes, you could say this is simplistic, misleading, and doesn’t do justice to the Paleo diet. I agree to some extent, but there are too many variables (individual biochemistry, unique gut ecology, genetics, lifestyle, outlook on life, activity levels, food quality, etc.) and not enough accurate historical information to give the Paleo diet a science-based thumbs up or thumbs down. Having said that, I’m not a fan.

Sample 1-day 2200 kcal Paleo menu (“The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based Upon Paleolithic Food Groups.” Loren Cordain, PhD, Department of Health and Exercise Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado)

Cantaloupe, broiled Atlantic salmon

Vegetable salad with walnuts (shredded Romaine lettuce, sliced carrot, sliced cucumber, quartered tomatoes, lemon juice dressing, walnuts), broiled lean pork loin

Vegetable avocado/almond salad (shredded mixed greens, tomato, avocado, slivered almonds, sliced red onion, lemon juice dressing), steamed broccoli, lean beef sirloin tip roast


Orange, carrot sticks, celery sticks

According to Loren Cordain, macronutrient percentages for a contemporary (2200 kcal) diet based on Paleo food groups (meats, seafood, nuts/seeds, fruits, vegetables) should be:
38 % Protein
23 % Carbohydrate
39% Fat
Food groups not included in Cordain’s version of the Paleo diet are: grains, dairy, dried beans, legumes

Sample 1 day 1900 kcal Blue Zone menu (this is an estimated compilation of several global Blue Zone diets, which are all similar in content)

Herbal tea with honey, corn bread, fruit, goat milk or yogurt

Rice and beans, garlic, onions, large green salad

Stir fried vegetables, sweet potatoes, spicy curries, red wine

Vegetables, orange, nuts/seeds

According to Dan Buettner, longevity researcher and author of The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, the typical food groups of Blue Zone inhabitants include: grains, legumes, vegetables, fruit, nuts/seeds, limited dairy (from local goats, for example), small amounts of meat or fish on rare occasions, red wine.

Although neither way of eating includes processed foods, junk food, or fast food, they are quite different in macronutrient composition. One is animal protein heavy (Paleo) and one is unrefined carbohydrate heavy (Blue Zone). Paleo doesn’t include grains or legumes, Blue Zone meals regularly include beans, corn, rice, lentils.

There’s a lot more to the longevity story than diet alone. I’ll focus on that another time, this post is about food alone.

So, what do you think? Paleo or plant-based?

Peace, love, and each to their own.

References (aside from my own way of intuitive eating)

Blaser, Martin, et al. “What are the consequences of the disappearing human microbiota?” Nature: Reviews Microbiology, December, 2009.

Buettner, Dan. The Blue Zones: 9 Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. National Geographic Society, Washington DC, 2012.

Cordain, Loren. “The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based on Paleolithic Food Groups.” JANA, Vol. 5, No. 3.

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 2005.

Hardy, Karen, et al. “Neanderthal medics? Evidence for food, cooking, and medicinal plants entrapped in dental calculus.” Naturwissenschaften Journal, Vol. 99, Issue 8.

Henry, Amanda, et al. “Microfossils in calculus demonstrate consumption of plants and cooked foods in Neanderthal diets.” PNAS, November 12, 2010.

Image credit: WikiMedia Commons

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12 Responses to “Paleolithic musings”

  1. Maggie says:

    Well done Melissa. You always keep humor in your pocket to lighten the mood, and I love that. This is interesting and I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to write this. I really respect your opinions. I’m going to look into the BlueZone people a little more. And I’m off to read the linked article.

  2. Liz says:

    I must say, I’ve tried a lot of these diets and for various reasons: weight loss, increased athletic performance, stabilizing blood sugar, etc. And the arguments in defense of the diets always seem to make sense (mostly). I also believe that these diets look sexy because they all boast of weight loss… And honestly, in this society, how can that not be appealing? Most of us struggle/obsess/pay attention to it, whether we really need to lose weight or not.
    But what I really truly think is that we have evolved; we are no longer cavemen and cave women, so wouldn’t it make sense to eat how our bodies have continued to evolve since then? It makes sense to me to eat on an individualized diet, depending on allergy needs, caloric needs, and what we notice makes us the most healthy.
    It does not make sense to me to cut out an entire food group… In fact that doesn’t seem healthy. I believe moderation is the key as well as balance to achieve a healthy lifestyle… And yes you can still lose weight eating from all food groups because if most of us want to be honest with ourselves, i think that is the underlying desire for all of these diets.

  3. Valerie says:

    Great article. … 100%Paleo for me! Always. Have been for years and have never been/felt/looked better! It just makes sense & my body responds perfectly w/this ‘nutritional intake’.

  4. Casey says:

    Great post, Melissa! I wish I could answer your question, but what I THINK is only what I think works for me. I agree the majority of the paleo community today focuses on an increased consumption of meat that probably doesn’t match that of the caveman who was chasing meat and eating it only when available. I follow what people today consider a paleo diet 95% of the time, but that’s because I have spent 2+ years rotating plant-based proteins such as grains, nuts and legumes in and out of my diet. I know I react to many of them, even after a lot of gut healing. I also know that they affect my energy levels. For those reasons, I eat meat. It gives me calories and energy that my body (based on MY gut ecology) can assimilate. The proof is in improved lab results. However, I now eat less than half the animal protein I did before being diagnosed celiac, and I haven’t lost an ounce of muscle. That seems to amaze people.

    The Blue Zones is a great book and I’m dying to visit some of those places! I also believe that many of those societies are fortunate enough to still be fairly isolated. They have to move more. Socializing face to face rather than Tweeting is still a huge part of their day. They burn calories just making all of their own food. All of those things significantly contribute to good health. And unfortunately, the majority of our societies in the US are missing those things. So more meat or less- they’ve got us beat in many ways.

    As you’ve said, I think what I THINK…is exactly what you think. “I’m also of the notion that one-sized diet doesn’t fit all. Now or 200,000 years ago, so each to their own.” 🙂

  5. Great post! I am also not sold on one single way of eating for everyone. I have seen it in my own house. My husband does great on a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet, while I do not. I’d say that I am lacto-ovo vegetarian about 66% of the time but my body does require meat, but no eggs and some dairy. It’s been a journey for us. But I have also seen my brother and a friend do fabulously on Paleo. So, to each their own. And this is what I hope to help people find for themselves as I become an RD!

    And I just picked up the Blue Zones book. Guess I need to pull it to the top of the “to-be-read” pile!

  6. Carol Ann says:

    Just a few thoughts, sometimes hunting and fishing is better or worse than others, sometimes plants grow more or less abundantly than in other years (or seasons). These factors alone could mean people ate differently from one year (or season) to the next, sometimes more meat, sometimes more plants. I think what they would have eaten would depend very much on what was available as well as personel preference. I don’t believe they would have had the freedom to say I’m not going to eat this or that because it’s not Paleo!

  7. IrishHeart says:

    Totally agree: there is no “one size fits all” and to each his/her own. My Mom’s expression is “whatever blows your skirt up”. 🙂

    I have tried paleo, primal, vegetarian, and various assorted elimination diets and found myself very unhappy, bored, sleepless and sometimes, craving more variety and flavor. This is not an enjoyable way to live, I thought.

    So, then I decided to try the “whole 30”–a list of whole foods only for 30 days (just meats, fish, fowl, certain fruits & veggies, nuts and seeds ) And lo and behold! so many high histamine foods gave me an allergic reaction that created insomnia, heart palps and horrid burning skin sensations. Geesh! Now what??!!

    As a celiac whose GI tract was damaged for so long, I took out so many foods in an attempt to heal, but found that I needed more protein for muscle repair. (my muscles took a huge hit from malabsorption). I have to eat protein at every meal to feel good, but found myself unable to eat eggs and meat every morning. (the eggs made me nauseous and pork chops for breakfast just did not appeal to me.)

    So, what could I do? I went back on non-gluten grains like oats and quinoa and brown rice. I just can’t “be paleo”, I guess, because this has made all the difference for me.

    I need fiber and protein —and balance. For example, I love my veggie and fruit smoothies with an oatmeal/flax/pumpkin seed granola bar. I love greens, but I do not feel satisfied just eating those for a meal.

    Everyone seems to have a theory these days about what is best for us all, but I think a balanced diet with foods in season, freshly grown/raised on local farms and not full of antibiotics, MSG, colors, dyes and other crap is the way to go. (not easy during winter in the great Northeast.) Before I am tempted to eat something that is questionable, I think “would my Gramma have eaten this?” —if the answer is no, then, I pass it up. And if it comes in a package and has more than 5 ingredients, including words that sound like entries in my husband’s chemistry texts, it most definitely is not for me.

  8. I’m in the middle of researching the diet of our paleo ancestors, which I have found differs somewhat from Cordain’s conclusions. I think he allowed himself to be at least somewhat influenced by the “diet/heart” theory. There are many reasons to conclude that our early diets leaned heavily toward animal protein and fat.I won’t get into those now.
    In regards to the “Blue Zone” I would suggest reading the book. I did, and I agree with Melissa that there are many factors that contribute to the subjects’ longevity. Just regarding diet, some of the cultures ate a fair amount of meat. The only universal principle that applied to all the studied cultures was a calorie reduced diet. I found Buettner’s conclusions quite biased toward conventional AMA supported nutrition ideas.

  9. david says:

    I don’t think there is any one way. They both sound great. Every body’s body is different. Hence, what’s good for you may not be good for me. There is sooo much to learn about food or so-called food. I do like my protein (meat)in moderation, and yes, there are many forms of protein. I love to learn about the good and bad about the foods that I eat or want to eat.

    Thanks for your Column Melissa.

  10. stephanie says:

    I was musing to myself the other day wondering what the post-Paleo diet craze would be. I don’t think that there is any one way of eating that suits us for our entire lives. For years and years I was a vegan/vegetarian, and I absolutely thrived. I never got sick, I had days of energy, skin glowed, was a healthy weight. After a really stressful year, and having subsequent immunity issues, low energy, and a growing cortisol tire around my middle, I had to face the facts that my diet (and lifestyle) needed some modifications. I’ve been gradually eating meat again (it was either eating meat/fish or heavy supplementation) for past few months and am 2 weeks into a 90-day Paleo-type regimine. My goal is to re-build my adrenals, boost my minerals, and eventually return to a more plant-based style of eating. I am feeling better, but I still have a ways to go.

  11. Alisa says:

    I’m still in the whole foods camp, which I guess lies somewhere in between plant-based and paleo (on the natural, not processed side). Having gone from one extreme to the other (more as tests for my work!), I can honestly say that neither end really worked for my body, but there is a nice balance in there, and I think both offer so many wonderful things.

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