Paleolithic Nutrition: The Origins of the Concept and How It Evolved to Become the Controversial “Paleo Diet” of Today
In 1985, something very interesting happened. It was a publication by Melvin Konner and Boyd Eaton from Emory School of Medicine in The New England Journal of Medicine titled “Paleolithic Nutrition.” In this particular report, the medical school professors and authors were talking about an anthropological approach toward understanding dietary changes that have occurred over the subsequent hundreds of thousands of years and the impact these have had on human health. They went back through the archeological records on paleo nutrition and looked at some of the foods people were eating from the historical and archeological record and found that they had really higher calcium. They ate bone marrow. They had higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. They had much higher levels of fiber and fermentable non-digestible carbohydrates. And they had certain characteristics of nutrient density in their diet that were very different than that which we consume today in the processed, technologically based diets of the developed world. And from that a model was developed in 1985 saying that maybe we ought to go back, roll back somewhat, back to the future some of dietary persuasions toward processed foods and high sugar, high fat-laden foods and low nutrient density foods that have contributed to the rising tide of chronic disease.
That was kind of the marker that started this discussion in 1985, and from that we had articles from Bruce Ames, Professor Emeritus of biochemistry and a well-renowned person, saying that we have to be very mindful of the fact that these diets had adequate levels of various types of vegetable products within them that contain this class of nutrients we call phytochemicals that modulate cellular function, and that they are very important as “anticarcinogens.” So it’s not just a meat-based diet that really is the complexion of Paleolithic nutrition; it’s this complete range of things that were available to the grasping thumb and forefinger of our Hominid relatives that allowed them to pick and gather certain natural materials, knowing that they didn’t have high-power rifles and hunting scopes to bring down animals. They had to use techniques to capture older diseased animals or young animals, and the principal components of their diet really came from plant materials.
As we roll that forward over the years, we’ve come to what now is called the Paleo diet. In fact, I think it was around 2002 that Loren Cordain at Colorado State University published his first paper talking about this modification of Paleolithic nutrition into what we now abbreviate as the Paleo diet. The Paleo diet, however, is not a diet. It’s really more of a way of eating that is less processed, more whole food. It doesn’t proscribe or prescribe any specific type of diet or dietary persuasion, but rather it reflects back on our history to those things that were reflective of our genetic relationship to our food.
With that in mind, how does that relate to powering up the energy economy of the body? The so-called mitochondrial bioenergetics? These powerhouses of the cells? We know that these powerhouses of the cells—mitochondria—depend upon glucose, amino acids, and fatty acids for their fuel to form energy. We also know, however, that plant-derived phytochemicals play important roles in modulating mitochondrial function, things like resveratrol influencing the sirtuins, or glucosinolates influencing the expression of various types of Phase II conjugase enzymes. These particular plant-derived materials become a component in powering up bioenergetics and allowing for the optimal utilization of energy that comes from our diet.
So when we put all this together, what we say is that there is no buzz word called “the Paleo diet.” In fact, people have eaten diets of variety and moderation with different foods of principal plant origin for many millennia. It is using the non- or minimally processed foods close to the ground, looking like they are in their whole form, that really becomes the watchword for these dietary persuasions. The labels are less important than the discussion of the principles of dietary quality that go right back to Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner’s original paper in 1985 in The New England Journal of Medicine. That is, to me, the real answer of “the Paleo diet.”