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Paleolithic diet

This article is about a modern-day diet. For information on the dietary practices of Paleolithic humans, see
Paleolithic § Diet and nutrition

Wild fruit is an important feature of the diet


Paleolithic diet


Paleo diet


caveman diet

, or

stone-age diet

is a modern

fad diet

requiring the sole or predominant consumption of foods presumed to have been the only foods available to or consumed by humans during the



The digestive abilities of

anatomically modern humans

, however, are different from those of Paleolithic humans, which undermines the diet’s core premise.

During the 2.6-million-year-long Paleolithic era, the highly variable climate and worldwide spread of human populations meant that humans were, by necessity, nutritionally adaptable. Supporters of the diet mistakenly presuppose that human digestion has remained essentially unchanged over time.

While there is wide variability in the way the paleo diet is interpreted,

the diet typically includes vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, and meat and typically excludes foods such as

dairy products

, grains, sugar, legumes, processed oils, salt, alcohol or coffee.

The diet is based on avoiding not just processed foods, but rather the foods that humans began eating after the

Neolithic Revolution

when humans transitioned from


lifestyles to settled



The ideas behind the diet can be traced to Walter Voegtlin,



and were popularized in the best-selling books of

Loren Cordain


Like other fad diets, the Paleo diet is promoted as a way of improving health.

There is some evidence that following this diet may lead to improvements in terms of body composition and metabolic effects compared with the typical

Western diet

or compared with diets recommended by national nutritional guidelines.

There is no good evidence, however, that the diet helps with

weight loss

, other than through the normal mechanisms of

calorie restriction


Following the Paleo diet can lead to

an inadequate calcium intake

, and side effects can include weakness,


, and



History and terminology

According to Adrienne Rose Johnson, the idea that the primitive diet was superior to current dietary habits dates back to the 1890s with such writers as Dr.

Emmet Densmore and Dr.

John Harvey Kellogg

. Densmore proclaimed that “bread is the staff of death,” while Kellogg supported a diet of starchy and grain-based foods.

The idea of a Paleolithic diet can be traced to a 1975 book by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin,



which in 1985 was further developed by

Stanley Boyd Eaton


Melvin Konner

, and popularized by

Loren Cordain

in his 2002 book

The Paleo Diet


The terms

caveman diet


stone-age diet

are also used,

as is

Paleo Diet



by Cordain.

In 2012 the Paleolithic diet was described as being one of the “latest trends” in diets, based on the popularity of diet books about it;

in 2013 the diet was


‘s most searched-for weight-loss method.

Like other

fad diets

, the paleo diet is marketed with an

appeal to nature

and a narrative of

conspiracy theories

about how nutritional research, which does not support the supposed benefits of the paleo diet, is controlled by a malign

food industry



Paleo lifestyle

and ideology have developed around the diet.


The diet advises eating only foods presumed to be available to Paleolithic humans, but there is wide variability in people’s understanding of what foods these were, and an accompanying ongoing debate.

In the original description of the paleo diet in Cordain’s 2002 book, he advocated eating as much like Paleolithic people as possible, which meant:

  • 55% of daily calories from seafood and lean meat, evenly divided
  • 15% of daily calories from each of fruits, vegetables, and nuts and seeds
  • no dairy, almost no grains (which Cordain described as “starvation food” for Paleolithic people), no added salt, no added sugar

The diet is based on avoiding not just modern processed foods, but also the foods that humans began eating after the

Neolithic Revolution


The scientific literature generally uses the term “Paleo nutrition pattern”, which has been variously described as:

  • “Vegetables, fruits, nuts, roots, meat, and organ meats”;

  • “vegetables (including root vegetables), fruit (including fruit oils, e.g., olive oil, coconut oil, and palm oil), nuts, fish, meat, and eggs, and it excluded dairy, grain-based foods, legumes, extra sugar, and nutritional products of industry (including refined fats and refined carbohydrates)”;


  • “avoids processed foods, and emphasizes eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, eggs, and lean meats”.

Health effects

Seeds such as
are eaten as part of the diet.

The aspects of the Paleo diet that advise eating fewer processed foods and less sugar and salt are consistent with mainstream advice about diet.

Diets with a paleo nutrition pattern have some similarities to traditional ethnic diets such as the

Mediterranean diet

that have been found to be healthier than the

Western diet


Following the Paleo diet, however, can lead to

nutritional deficiencies

such as those of vitamin

D and calcium, which in turn could lead to compromised bone health;

it can also lead to an increased risk of ingesting toxins from high fish consumption.

Research into the weight loss effects of the paleolithic diet has generally been of poor quality.

One trial of


postmenopausal women found improvements in weight and fat loss after six months, but the benefits had ceased by 24 months; side effects among participants included “weakness, diarrhea, and headaches”.

In general, any weight loss caused by the diet is merely the result of

calorie restriction

, rather than a special feature of the diet itself.

As of 2016 there are limited data on the metabolic effects on humans eating a Paleo diet, but the data are based on clinical trials that have been too small to have a

statistical significance

sufficient to allow the drawing of generalizations.

These preliminary trials have found that participants eating a paleo nutrition pattern had better measures of cardiovascular and metabolic health than people eating a standard diet,

though the evidence is not strong enough to recommend the Paleo diet for treatment of

metabolic syndrome


As of 2014 there was no evidence the paleo diet is effective in treating

inflammatory bowel disease


Rationale and counter-arguments

Paleolithic carving of a


The rationale for the Paleolithic diet derives from proponents’ claims relating to

evolutionary medicine


Advocates of the diet state that humans were


adapted to eating specifically those foods that were readily available to them in their local environments. These foods therefore shaped the nutritional needs of Paleolithic humans. They argue that the





modern humans

have changed little since the Paleolithic era.

Natural selection is a long process, and the cultural and lifestyle changes introduced by western culture have occurred quickly. The argument is that modern humans have therefore not been able to adapt to the new circumstances.

The agricultural revolution brought the addition of grains and dairy to the diet.

According to the model from the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, “any

chronic diseases


degenerative conditions

evident in modern


populations have arisen because of a mismatch between

Stone Age

genes and modern lifestyles.”

Advocates of the modern Paleo diet have formed their dietary recommendations based on this hypothesis. They argue that modern humans should follow a diet that is nutritionally closer to that of their Paleolithic ancestors.

The evolutionary discordance is incomplete, since it is based mainly on the genetic understanding of the human diet and a unique model of human ancestral diets, without taking into account the flexibility and variability of the human dietary behaviors over time.

Studies of a variety of populations around the world show that humans can live healthily with a wide variety of diets, and that in fact, humans have evolved to be flexible eaters.

Lactose tolerance

is an example of how some humans have adapted to the introduction of dairy into their diet. While the introduction of grains, dairy, and legumes during the

Neolithic revolution

may have had some adverse effects on modern humans, if humans had not been nutritionally adaptable, these technological developments would have been dropped.

Evolutionary biologist

Marlene Zuk

writes that the idea that our genetic makeup today matches that of our ancestors is misconceived, and that in debate Cordain was “taken aback” when told that 10,000 years was “plenty of time” for an evolutionary change in human digestive abilities to have taken place.



On this basis Zuk dismisses Cordain’s claim that the paleo diet is “the one and only diet that fits our genetic makeup”.

Diseases of affluence

Advocates of the diet argue that the increase in

diseases of affluence

after the dawn of agriculture was caused by changes in diet, but others have countered that it may be that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers did not suffer from the diseases of affluence because they did not live long enough to develop them.

Based on the data from hunter-gatherer populations still in existence, it is estimated that at age

15, life expectancy was an additional 39 years, for a total age of 54.

At age 45, it is estimated that average life expectancy was an additional 19 years, for a total age of 64 years.

That is to say, in such societies, most deaths occurred in childhood or young adulthood; thus, the population of elderly – and the prevalence of diseases of affluence – was much reduced. Excessive food energy intake relative to energy expended, rather than the consumption of specific foods, is more likely to underlie the diseases of affluence. “The health concerns of the industrial world, where calorie-packed foods are readily available, stem not from deviations from a specific diet but from an imbalance between the energy humans consume and the energy humans spend.”

Historical diet

Adoption of the Paleolithic diet assumes that modern humans can reproduce the hunter-gatherer diet. Molecular biologist

Marion Nestle

argues that “knowledge of the relative proportions of animal and plant foods in the diets of early humans is circumstantial, incomplete, and debatable and that there are insufficient data to identify the composition of a genetically determined optimal diet. The evidence related to Paleolithic diets is best interpreted as supporting the idea that diets based largely on plant foods promote health and longevity, at least under conditions of food abundance and physical activity.”

Ideas about

Paleolithic diet and nutrition

are at best hypothetical.

The data for Cordain’s book only came from six contemporary hunter-gatherer groups, mainly living in marginal habitats.

One of the studies was on the


, whose diet was recorded for a single month, and one was on the



Due to these limitations, the book has been criticized as painting an incomplete picture of the diets of Paleolithic humans.

It has been noted that the rationale for the diet does not adequately account for the fact that, due to the pressures of

artificial selection

, most modern domesticated plants and animals differ drastically from their Paleolithic ancestors; likewise, their nutritional profiles are very different from their ancient counterparts. For example, wild


produce potentially fatal levels of


, but this trait has been bred out of domesticated varieties using artificial selection. Many vegetables, such as


, did not exist in the Paleolithic period; broccoli,




, and


are modern


of the ancient species

Brassica oleracea


Trying to devise an ideal diet by studying contemporary hunter-gatherers is difficult because of the great disparities that exist; for example, the animal-derived calorie percentage ranges from 25% for the

Gwi people

of southern Africa to 99% for the Alaskan



Researchers have proposed that cooked starches met the energy demands of an increasing brain size, based on variations in the copy number of genes encoding for



See also


Further reading

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