The Most Common Mistake People Make When Going Paleo

These days, one doesn’t have to look far and wide to find information about Paleolithic nutrition and evolutionary eating. No longer constrained to tiny sections of the world of science, these topics have proliferated and mutated and made their way into bookstores, magazines, newspapers, and blogs. It’s not surprising that Paleo is today a household word, or that a lot of people are attempting a diet that bears resemblance to the eating patterns of our preagricultural ancestors.

For some, these ancient eating regimens have undoubtedly been successful, helping with weight loss and with attaining a feeling of mental clarity; for others, these grain- and sugar-free diets may have made them feel drained of energy and stamina. And this heterogeneity in opinion is clearly visible online, where you can find testimonials both from people who praise the Paleolithic diet to those saying they didn’t feel so great when they gave the original human diet a try.

The Paleolithic diet is the default human diet. It’s the diet that helped expand the complex human brain and that supported the evolution of the genus Homo, including Homo sapiens. Genetically, we’re not that dissimilar from our late-Paleolithic ancestors.(1, 7) Meaning that there’s no reason to think that the Paleo diet doesn’t agree with a significant part of the human population. There has to be some other explanation as to why some people report feeling down when cleansing their diets of unhealthy modern foods.

The explanation is typically not hard to find. Often, health or lifestyle differences between contemporary and ancient people are the root of the problem, with ill-informed dieters designing improper diets for themselves. And perhaps the most common mistake inexperienced evolutionary eaters make is that they take in too few healthy fats.

Pitfalls of Conventional Nutritional Wisdom

It’s not surprising that a lot of people fear fat, as for decades nutritional authorities have been very vocal in encouraging us to eat less fat and more carbohydrate. Effectively, fat-reduced foods and beverages have proliferated, bloating supermarket shelves all over the world. Unlike certain other evolutionary health enthusiasts, I don’t think it’s wise to take in a lot of saturated fat in the form of butter, ghee, bacon, cream, or other evolutionarily novel high-fat foods. As I see it, the evidence shows that it’s unhealthy to consume those types of foods on a regular basis.(4)

I have nothing against fat per se. Actually, I think many, if not most, evolutionary eaters could benefit from taking in more fat. The key is not to avoid fat, but rather to locate good sources of fat.

Every now and then, I come across people who’ve taken up a Paleo-style diet and who say they’ve started losing excessive amounts of weight and feel drained of energy. When I ask what they’re eating, I typically discover their fat intake to be inadequate. Most of these people’s diet is high in lean meats and non-starchy vegetables, but largely devoid of both carbohydrate and fat. No wonder these people aren’t thriving. They are barely surviving. In the past, I’ve made the mistake of eating a very lean Paleo-style diet myself—I know from experience that such a diet can be detrimental to one’s health and vitality.

The Importance of Fat for Evolutionary Dieters

To better understand why healthy high-fat foods are an important component of a proper evolutionary diet, let’s examine the nutritional characteristics of the original human diet. Key to acknowledge is the fact that, compared with contemporary Western diets, primal ancestors’ diets were much lower in carbohydrate—that is the other main energy-providing nutrient in the human diet besides fat.(2, 6) One doesn’t have to be an expert in nutrition to understand why this is the case; all that’s needed is a general understanding of our foods’ basic composition.

With the exception of honey, which was only seasonally available in certain parts of the world, none of the foods of our preagricultural ancestors contained anywhere near as much carbohydrate as today’s grains and highly processed foods.

It’s certainly possible for a Paleo dieter to take in a lot of carbohydrate—but this isn’t easy. Moreover, it’s usually not a good idea—as this involves consuming large quantities of sugary fruits and starchy tubers. Instead of stocking up on ripe bananas, sweet potatoes, yams, and other sugary and starchy foods, I would argue that most Paleo dieters would benefit from embracing healthy high-fat foods.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating some fruit or starchy tubers—but unless you’re a hard-training athlete who needs a lot of glucose for keeping your body running at optimal capacity, it might be wise not to make these types of foods a very large part of your diet.

Healthy Fats Helped Evolve Our Complex Brain and Body

The fact that fats are healthy is well established, with many studies demonstrating the health benefits of foods like avocados, whole eggs, organ meats, fatty seafood, nuts, olives, and other Paleo-friendly foods with moderate quantities of healthy fats.

Our primal ancestors obviously didn’t discard the fattest parts of the animals they killed or captured. On the contrary, even today’s hunter-gatherers prefer fatty cuts of meat over lean ones—makes sense, seeing as they are trying to squeeze as many calories as they can out of the animals they hunt; calories that aid their survival and help them pass on their genes. If it weren’t for animal-source foods rich in energy and long-chain fatty acids, the human brain would probably never have gotten as big as it currently is.(9, 10)

But our ancient ancestors didn’t have access to cream, ghee, bacon, or other similar foods that contain very high quantities of saturated fat. They got most of their fats from wild, unprocessed plants and animal foods, sources containing a lot more unsaturated lipids than saturated ones.(3, 5, 8) And I think we would be wise to follow in their footsteps. Though we obviously can’t eat exactly the same foods that they did—plus, eating meat exclusively can be expensive.

Thankfully, a Paleo diet containing moderate quantities of healthy fats need not be complicated or out of our budget. By seeking out animal-source foods, from animals that have had a good life, and by filling our diets with plant foods—like olives, avocados, and nuts—we can make some significant headway toward achieving nutritional success.

The quantity of fat that you should consume will depend on several factors, including your activity levels and body weight. If you’re very lean or physically active, you need to take in more fat to keep your body running at peak capacity than if you’re overweight or sedentary. As a general rule, include as much fat in your meals as you need to feel satiated. While there’s no reason to fear fat, more isn’t necessarily better. (So don’t pour olive oil over every meal or stuff yourself with nuts.)

Patience is key. Some people seem to think that they will feel great immediately after replacing their high-carbohydrate diet with a Paleo-style diet. But things rarely happen instantly. If you’ve been eating a high-carb, grain-based diet for decades, you can’t exactly expect your body to adjust to a very different diet overnight. This is especially true if you’re sick and are harboring an unhealthy microbiota. But as you gradually dial in your new diet, you’ll likely experience that many of your bodily systems become better adapted at running on fat, as opposed to on sugar.  

References:

1 Carrera-Bastos, Pedro, et al. “The Western Diet and Lifestyle and Diseases of Civilization.” DovePress (2011).

2 L. Cordain, et al. “Plant-Animal Subsistence Ratios and Macronutrient Energy Estimations in Worldwide Hunter-Gatherer Diets.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 71 (2000): 682-92.

3 B. Davidson, et al. “Meat Lipid Profiles: A Comparison of Meat from Domesticated and Wild Southern African Animals.” In Vivo 25 (2011): 197-202.

4 Eirik Garnas. “Saturated Fat: 7 Reasons Why It’s Not as Harmless as the Low-Carb Movement Claims.” Web: (2016): darwinian-medicine.com/saturated-fat-7-reasons-why-its-not-as-harmless-as-the-low-carb-movement-claims.

5 M. Konner, and S.B. Eaton. “Paleolithic Nutrition: Twenty-Five Years Later.” Nutr Clin Pract 25 (2010): 594-602.

6 R.S. Kuipers, J.C. Joordens, and F.A. Muskiet. “A Multidisciplinary Reconstruction of Palaeolithic Nutrition That Holds Promise for the Prevention and Treatment of Diseases of Civilisation.” Nutr Res Rev 25 (2012): 96-129.

7 D. Lieberman. The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease. Vintage (2014).

8 S. Lindeberg. “Paleolithic Diets as a Model for Prevention and Treatment of Western Disease.” Am J Hum Biol 24 (2012): 110-5.

9 N. Mann. “Dietary Lean Red Meat and Human Evolution.” Eur J Nutr 39 (2000): 71-9.

10 K. Milton. “The Critical Role Played by Animal Source Foods in Human (Homo) Evolution.” J Nutr 133 (2003): 3886s-92s.

 

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