Plant Paleo Part 1: The Gatherer-Hunter Diet
In order for the Paleo approach to make any sense at all, it can’t be a diet. Not just one diet.
A fundamental feature of human diets during the Paleolithic era was that there were several of them. The eating patterns of humans were spread across Africa and eventually most of the globe. Dietary variances hinged on the unique characteristics of local ecosystems, the dance between organisms and environments—innumerable variables all at play and changing over millennia.
The diets eaten by people in the grasslands, the forest highlands, the deserts, the tundra, and the various islands were all different from each other in the Paleolithic era. Clearly, they are still different today among remaining indigenous populations. Prior to the corporatization of food, neolithic societies showed vast culinary diversity, too. Thankfully, some of this still survives to this day, even in the face of the leveling, homogenizing forces of GloboMcDunkinNuggets.
Dr. S. Boyd Eaton is often referred to as the grandfather of the modern Paleo movement. One of his premises is that our genus, homo, spent more time in East Africa than anywhere else on earth. So he suspects we are best adapted to the diet that was available to humans in that area during much of the Paleolithic period.
In his book The Paleolithic Prescription, he does note, though, the large variance in contemporary hunter-gatherer diets. The following table appears on page 74 of the paperback:
As you can see, there is a wide variance in the ratios of plant-to-animal foods among these hunter-gatherer peoples. Aborigines in the desert climates of Australia subsisted on as much as 90% plant-based foods, while Eskimos of the North American Arctic subsisted on 90% animal foods. And it’s safe to say human groups have eaten nearly every ratio in between.
Ultimately, in The Paleolithic Prescription Eaton recommended a diet that is 60% carbohydrate (whole plant-based, small amounts of grain), 20% protein, and 20% fat. Twenty-five years later, Eaton raised the upper limit of his dietary fat recommendation to a range of 20-35%.
In 2000, Loren Cordain published a study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition called, Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets. Data from George Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas was used to determine what percentage of hunter-gatherer groups relied more heavily on animal foods than plant foods. The data was also used to determine what the consumption ranges were for protein, carbohydrate, and fat within the groups.
The results were as follows for relatively modern hunter-gatherer tribes:
- 73% received >50% of their subsistence from animal-based foods.
- 13.5% received >50% of their subsistence from plant-based foods.
- Dietary protein ranged from 19-35%.
- Dietary carbohydrate ranged from 22-40%
- Dietary fat ranged from 28-58%
Importantly, in the Limitations of the Model section of Cordain’s paper, it’s noted that these calculations are heavily based on some big assumptions. For instance, virtually all of their conclusions are hitched to the veracity of the data they used from the Ethnographic Atlas and the validity of the mathematical estimates they ran the data through in order to calculate plant- and animal-based contributions to the diet.
The methodology was outlined nicely in the paper, and it’s clear that small errors—or multiple, small compounded errors—could have yielded results that weren’t a good reflection of reality.
Cordain’s paper is oft-cited in Paleo circles. It’s also important to note that there was another paper published in the very same issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition titled, Hunter-gatherer diets—a different perspective. It was written by Katharine Milton, who specializes in the dietary ecology of primates at UC Berkeley.
In her article, she underscores the potential problems with Cordain’s source data. She walks us through other evidence we might consider, and concludes (bold emphasis mine):
[I]t is likely that no hunter-gatherer society, regardless of the proportion of macronutrients consumed, suffered from diseases of civilization. Most wild foods lack high amounts of energy and this feature, in combination with the slow transit of food particles through the human digestive tract, would have served as a natural check to obesity and certain other diseases of civilization. Yet today, all non-Western populations appear to develop diseases of civilization if they consume Western foods and have sedentary lifestyles. Given these facts, in combination with the strongly plant-based diet of human ancestors, it seems prudent for modern-day humans to remember their long evolutionary heritage as anthropoid primates and heed current recommendations to increase the number and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets rather than to increase their intakes of domesticated animal fat and protein.
In this conclusion, Milton brings up some very interesting topics worthy of consideration: nutritional and caloric density, transit speed through the digestive tract, and pre-Paleolithic ancestral clues.
The main takeaway, though, as far as I’m concerned, is right there in the first sentence. Again:
[I]t is likely that no hunter-gatherer society, regardless of the proportion of macronutrients consumed, suffered from diseases of civilization.
I have come to see this as the hallmark of Paleolithic diets, whereas today’s mainstream version of the Paleo diet is narrowly defined as one that is low in carbohydrates and high in fat and/or protein, as if Inuit-Paleo is representative of all Paleolithic diets—it is not. Increasingly, mainstream Paleo is also loaded with processed Paleo™ foods that are often calorie dense and nutritionally sparse—just like the SAD (standard American diet)! Even Paleo™ beverages are following this trend. Also, some of the food restrictions may re-examination when applied to healthy individuals, not suffering from leaky gut or other metabolic disorders.
The Paleolithic example remains:
- simple, whole foods with minimal processing (if any)
- nutritionally dense, calorically sparse staples (relative to modern foods)
- omnivorous with widely varying plant-animal and macronutrient ratios
- high fiber consumption (most groups)
- “rich” foods reserved for celebrations
For nearly 5 years, I have personally been following Paleo-like diets influenced by evolutionary clues and scientific evidence. I started off on the low-carb end of the spectrum, and I have slowly expanded my food choices to include more whole foods, especially whole plant foods, which tend to carry most of their calories in the form of carbohydrates.
At each milestone where I increased real-food carbohydrates in my diet, I consistently made improvements in how I felt and with body composition.
Most recently, I have greatly increased the amount of plant food in my diet (more real, whole carbs and fiber), while virtually eliminating the final huge source of processed-food calories in my diet: the added fats, especially oil. Replacing three to seven tablespoons of oil per day frees up 360 to 840 calories…and that’s a lot of nutrient-rich plant foods, broths, eggs, organ and other naturally raised or wild meats.
In terms of macronutrients, my diet now resembles Eaton’s original 60:20:20 prescription, with some variance. Carbs: between 60-80%. Protein: between 10-20%. Fat: between 15-30%. But reductionist macronutrient jargon aside—and far more importantly—my diet consists of simple, whole foods, mostly plants with lots of fiber, and with an emphasis on high-quality animal-based foods when I eat them (which is a few times per week + bone-based broths and stocks an additional several times per week).
I should note that these most recent changes led to an effortless and spontaneous 20-lb weight loss. Totally surprising. I didn’t realize I had 20 lbs to lose, and I was mostly comfortable with my body composition. Now, I like the leaner version of me far more than I thought I would have. I stand 6′ tall (1.83 m) and I went from about 185 lbs to 165 lbs (84 kg to 75 kg). This brings my total weight loss over the last 5 years to 80-85 lbs (36-38.5 kg), as my starting weight was 245-250 lbs (111-113.4 kg).
Having eaten Plant Paleo for several months now—that’s what I’ve been calling it and here are the details—I feel my diet is moving closer to several Paleolithic models of diet, and it’s been healthier than ever, too. This also means my diet has been becoming less mainstream Paleo. [Update: I posted a body composition article with pictures a few weeks after this was published. And, later, another.]
To be clear, I’m not totally knocking the principles of mainstream, low-carb Paleo. The low-carb Paleo approach, even gimmicky versions, are huge improvements over the standard Western diet. I also believe I’ve benefited from it myself, for a period of time. The diet eliminates the worst processed foods, while acclimating adherents to the subtle flavors of natural foods. And, at it’s best, it also encourages supporting local, small-scale food growers and ranchers. This is why I love the Paleo movement, even if it is frustratingly commercial, marketing-driven, tribal, and myopically reductionist at times.
However, with that said, Low-Carb-Paleo is one of many, many ancestral templates for healthy, real-food diets—and the Paleo movement would be far stronger and more reality-based as an umbrella for a multitude of whole-food diets, aligning the Paleo movement more tightly with the latest science and evolutionary clues.
[Update: my position has evolved on this. I now think it may be better for Paleo to be defined by Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet™. This would allow us to be on the same page when we talk about the diet, and it would provide a single template for researchers looking into the efficacy of the plan. Other versions of Paleo could be properly prefixed, for example: LCHF-Paleo, Autoimmune-Paleo, and sure, Plant Paleo. These versions could also be defined, providing clarity in communication. For now, and ambiguously defined “Paleo diet” (do you eat dairy? do you eat potatoes? etc.), is probably creating too much confusion.]
I will be following up this article with: Plant Paleo Part 2: Grains, Legumes, Fiber, & Antinutrients.
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In the meantime, if you haven’t clicked through to the links embedded in the text throughout the article, there is some excellent reading material and food for thought to be found. Check them out! And here are the details to my Plant Paleo approach to diet.
Also, here are a few resources you might enjoy on YouTube. First is Dr. S. Boyd Eaton’s presentation at the 2012 Ancestral Health Symposium called, Long-term Paleo: Following an ancestral approach for 30 years. Yes, the grandfather of Paleo eats whole wheat toast for breakfast, and the cardiologist’s ticker appears to be ticking strongly.
After that, check out Denise Minger’s presentation at the 2013 Ancestral Health Symposium called, Lessons from the Vegans.
And finally, this is me talking about how my own diet has evolved, along with my thoughts on the (then-)current state of the Paleo movement (should start at the 55:15 mark):
So what do you think? Would you like to start eating more vegetables and plant-based foods in general? Have you ever tried a whole food, plant based diet that was low-to-moderate in grains and included high quality animal foods? Feel free to share your comments, experiences, and opinions!