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The Paleolithic Diet’s War on Science

By Piper Hoffman — December 23, 2013

iStock_000001739529XSmallThe Paleo diet’s popularity is bad news for animals. Paleo adherents avoid carbohydrates, including whole grains, and load up on protein – the more of it that is animal-based, the better (legumes are not allowed). The staples are “meat, seafood, and other animal products.”

Paleos argue that pre-agriculture hominids didn’t suffer from many modern maladies, so if we eat like they did, we won’t suffer those illnesses either. According to, the avoidable conditions include:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Acne
  • Myopia (nearsightedness), macular degeneration, glaucoma
  • Varicose veins, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, gastric reflux
  • Gout (a kind of arthritis)

There is only one problem with this argument: it doesn’t make sense. A few of the holes in its logic:

  • There isn’t much, or sometimes any, evidence that people in the Stone Age didn’t have some of these health problems. How could we know whether they had acne?
  • Eating dead animals increases the chances of getting some of these illnesses. Gout, for instance, can be traced to eating “too much meat and fish,” according to WebMD.
  • There is no evidence that food causes acne (that includes chocolate – yay!). To prevent outbreaks, doctors recommend not touching your face and keeping oily hair off your skin. They don’t tend to make any recommendation about shoveling dead animals into your mouth.

A more fundamental weakness in the Paleo philosophy is its reliance on a common misunderstanding of evolution. Paleos believe that whatever the earliest homo sapiens ate must be the optimal diet for us because they evolved into human beings while eating it. That might make sense if natural selection operated in the best interests of individuals and tended toward longevity and perfection, but it doesn’t.

Natural selection favors the genes of individuals who reproduce and whose offspring reproduces, and so on down the generations. It doesn’t operate in a way that would increase longevity beyond the age of reproducing and raising young. It doesn’t wipe out problems that don’t affect reproductive success, like gout or late-onset diabetes, not to mention most cardiovascular disease and many cancers, which generally kill people after their child-bearing years are over.

Evolution is not intelligent design. It cannot create a perfect gene or trait and propagate it. It can only work with the genes and mutations that naturally arise. The fact that we have a superfluous organ – the sometimes deadly appendix – is not evidence that evolution has failed us or is incomplete. It goes to show that natural selection doesn’t bring about ideal physiology, only physiology that reproduces successfully.

Evolution and natural selection aren’t even reliable at achieving that one goal. Humans still pass on genes that make their carriers infertile.

Unearthing the nitty-gritty of our evolution is not the key to living the best, happiest, healthiest lives. Helping it along is a bad idea for another reason: it maximizes fertility, and the last thing this planet needs is more-fertile humans.

The conditions we live in are much different from those of our Paleolithic ancestors, but since the interval between their era and ours is considerably shorter than the millions of years it takes to winnow out loser genes, evolution hasn’t caught us up to our new circumstances. There are countless differences between our environment and theirs – radiation, ozone, and GMOs, to name a few. Living the old way in new conditions may not maximize even our reproductive rate, much less our general health. In fact, we may need to intentionally eat differently than prehistoric people to protect our health from those different conditions.

That is what people who lived in the Paleolithic era would do in our situation. Unlike modern Paleos, they understood that diets must change to accommodate their particular circumstances. They “adapted to local environments that were regionally and seasonally variable.”

As a matter of delicious fact, people’s diets back then more closely resembled vegetarianism, according to biological anthropologist Barbara J. King. One example is grains: humans in the Paleolithic era ate them, but modern Paleos don’t.

Paleos who adopt the diet to lose weight are taking a gamble based on misinformation. To the extent that they lose weight (the evidence is not in on whether the diet promotes weight loss), it appears to be because they don’t eat processed food and sugar, not because they avoid many plants and eat hordes of animals.

As for those who went Paleo to be healthy and live longer, they are increasing the number of animals tortured in the farming system without getting any demonstrable or deducible benefit.

It’s time to end this gastronomic trend. While we’re at it, let’s get back to teaching science, specifically Bio 101.

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(9) Readers Comments

  1. December 23, 2013 at 10:53 am

    YES! Thank you for this! Well written, and brilliant.

  2. December 23, 2013 at 11:10 am

    Having looked at and tried so many different diets because of health problems, I wholeheartedly agree with this extremely well written article!

    • Piper Hoffman
      December 23, 2013 at 11:56 am

      Thanks Belinda! I hope you find the eating style that is right for you.

  3. December 23, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    "the evidence is not in on whether the diet promotes weight loss"Shai I, et al. Weight loss with a low-carbohydrate, mediterranean, or low-fat diet. N Engl J Med 2008;359(3);229–41.Gardner CD, et al. Comparison of the Atkins, Zone, Ornish, and learn Diets for Change in Weight and Related Risk Factors Among Overweight Premenopausal Women. The a to z Weight Loss Study: A Randomized Trial. JAMA. 2007;297:969–977.Brehm BJ, et al. A Randomized Trial Comparing a Very Low Carbohydrate Diet and a Calorie-Restricted Low Fat Diet on Body Weight and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Healthy Women. J Clin Endocrinol Metab 2003;88:1617–1623.Samaha FF, et al. A Low-Carbohydrate as Compared with a Low-Fat Diet in Severe Obesity. N Engl J Med 2003;348:2074–81.Sondike SB, et al. Effects of a low-carbohydrate diet on weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor in overweight adolescents. J Pediatr. 2003 Mar;142(3):253–8.Aude YW, et al. The National Cholesterol Education Program Diet vs a Diet Lower in Carbohydrates and Higher in Protein and Monounsaturated Fat. A Randomized Trial. Arch Intern Med. 2004;164:2141–2146.Volek JS, et al. Comparison of energy-restricted very low-carbohydrate and low-fat diets on weight loss and body composition in overweight men and women. Nutrition & Metabolism 2004, 1:13.Yancy WS Jr, et al. A Low-Carbohydrate, Ketogenic Diet versus a Low-Fat Diet To Treat Obesity and Hyperlipidemia. A Randomized, Controlled Trial. Ann Intern Med. 2004;140:769–777.Nichols-Richardsson SM, et al. Perceived Hunger Is Lower and Weight Loss Is Greater in Overweight Premenopausal Women Consuming a Low-Carbohydrate/High- Protein vs High-Carbohydrate/Low-Fat Diet. J Am Diet Assoc. 2005;105:1433–1437.Krebs NF, et al. Efficacy and Safety of a High Protein, Low Carbohydrate Diet for Weight Loss in Severely Obese Adolescents. J Pediatr 2010;157:252-8.Summer SS, et al. Adiponectin Changes in Relation to the Macronutrient Composition of a Weight-Loss Diet. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Mar 31. [Epub ahead of print]Halyburton AK, et al. Low- and high-carbohydrate weight-loss diets have similar effects on mood but not cognitive performance. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:580–7.Dyson PA, et al. A low-carbohydrate diet is more effective in reducing body weight than healthy eating in both diabetic and non-diabetic subjects. Diabet Med. 2007 Dec;24(12):1430-5.Keogh JB, et al. Effects of weight loss from a very-low-carbohydrate diet on endothelial function and markers of cardiovascular disease risk in subjects with abdominal obesity. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:567–76.Volek JS, et al. Carbohydrate Restriction has a More Favorable Impact on the Metabolic Syndrome than a Low Fat Diet. Lipids 2009;44:297–309.Partsalaki I, et al. Metabolic impact of a ketogenic diet compared to a hypocaloric diet in obese children and adolescents. J Pediatr Endocrinol Metab. 2012;25(7-8):697-704."One example is grains: humans in the Paleolithic era ate them, but modern Paleos don’t."Lindeberg, Staffan (June 2005). "Palaeolithic diet ("stone age" diet)". Scandinavian Journal of Food & Nutrition 49 (2): 75–77

    • December 23, 2013 at 2:30 pm

      Not sure why the site ruined the formatting of my post. There is abundant evidence that low carbohydrate diets are superior to other diets for weight loss. And our paleolithic ancestors did not consume grain seeds or beans in any meaningful quantity. Note that I do not adhere to a paleo diet of any sort.

    • Piper Hoffman
      December 23, 2013 at 8:38 pm

      Based on the titles, all of these studies looked at low-carbohydrate diets. Not one says it looked at the Paleo diet, which is more restrictive and is based on different premises.

  4. December 23, 2013 at 9:40 pm

    Look into the research of Dr. Terry Wahls who reversed her MS on a low glycemic /high veg content paleo type diet. She is doing research on MS and this diet and a healing lifestyle and getting good results. Others have notices dramatic results such as "paleoboss" on FB-it is confusing. Others with autoimmune also experience improvement/healing on a grain free /dairy free type of diet. Trying to sort it all out and heal myself.

    • Piper Hoffman
      December 24, 2013 at 6:51 am

      Selma, good luck to you!

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