Following the paleo diet in essence means to only eat what our prehistoric ancestors were eating for most of human evolution. Grains, dairy, processed foods, refined sugar and oils as well as certain plants like legumes and potatoes were not on the plates of hunters and gatherers. The reason behind this is the thought that humans are not well adapted to those kind of foods because they have only been available to us for a couple thousand years. The theory of eating the foods we are adapted to rather than the newer foods of the American diet makes sense at face value. The way we eat now is drastically different than how we have eaten for hundreds of thousands of years prior, however our lifestyles are equally, if not more, different.
The theory of eating the foods we are adapted to rather than the newer foods of the American diet makes sense at face value.
Modern lifestyle vs. paleo lifestyle
If one would really want to adopt this way of thought into his entire lifestyle, the dietary pattern isn’t the only thing that would need to change. Our ancestors spent a lot of time hunting and gathering food, which involved a lot of physical activity outside. But most modern humans have deskjobs or at least work indoors with all kinds of equipment to make their lives easier. Also, food is always available to us. Maybe you have to walk to the supermarket to pick up something to munch on, but not a lot of us spend hours outside to chase some pray for our families. There is one particular nutrient which is produced endogenously followed by exposure to sunlight. You might guess it, I’m talking about Vitamin D. Our ancestors were exposed to much more sunlight during the summer and were able to produce a lot more Vitamin D than modern humans. They could produce enough of it to build a good storage in their livers to keep them fully supplied during winter. However, these days, most of us work inside all year round and therefore have insufficient vitamin D levels at the end of winter. Studies confirmed this quite impressively¹.
Maybe you have to walk to the supermarket to pick up something to munch on, but not a lot of us spend hours outside to chase some pray for our families.
The food we eat is also much different than it may have been back then. The plants and animals we eat today grow and live in different kind of environment than they did 20,000 years ago, even if they are farmed organic and species-appropriate. So, unfortunately, you might not be getting the same nutrient profile as your forefathers even if you’re eating the same vegetables or meats.
What modern paleo hunters and gatherers might be lacking
There is not too much scientific literature comparing the paleo diet to the modern dietary recommendations. However, there is one interesting study by a group of Australian researchers that took a group of 39 healthy women and assigned 22 of them to a paleo diet group². The remaining participants were instructed to eat according to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. All subjects were allowed to eat as much as they desired, but the paleo group was provided with meal ideas obtained from a book and advised to consume foods like lean meats, fish, eggs, nuts, fruits and vegetables, small amounts of olive or coconut oils. Also, they were instructed to avoid grains, cereals, dairy, corn, white potatoes and legumes. After 4 weeks of dietary intervention, the researchers found out that the paleo group ate significantly less than the recommended daily allowance for Vitamin B1, B2, Iodine, Magnesium and Calcium, even if they were not restricted in the amount of food. The good news is that they consumed more Vitamin A, C and E than the other group.
Unfortunately, intake and levels of Vitamin D and Omega-3 fatty acids were not measured, but it’s most likely that both groups were not getting enough of those to reach optimal blood values.
…with our modern food environment and lifestyle, it is hard work to get all nutrients in optimal amounts through the diet in order to be the most healthy hunter and gatherer you can be.
The contradiction with dietary supplements
As we now learned, even following a paleo diet can lead to deficiencies in some nutrients. The easiest and most viable option would be to supplement accordingly. However, our prehistoric ancestors did not have dietary supplements on hand. If one would really believe in the theory behind the paleo diet, pills and powders would not be an option. But with our modern food environment and lifestyle, it is hard work to get all nutrients in optimal amounts through the diet in order to be the most healthy hunter and gatherer you can be. Testing your nutrient status and only supplementing with micronutrients you actually need is an ideal compromise. This allows you to take the minimal amount of supplements with the maximum impact of your overall health and lifestyle without wasting time and money on things that you are already getting from your paleo diet.
- Del Valle, Heather B., et al., eds. Dietary reference intakes for calcium and vitamin D. National Academies Press, 2011.
- Genoni, Angela, et al. “Cardiovascular, metabolic effects and dietary composition of ad-libitum paleolithic vs. Australian guide to healthy eating diets: A 4-week randomised trial.” Nutrients 8.5 (2016): 314.