Human performance vs Survival: Breaking down paleo nutrition

Hunter Gather

In the first article of the series, I provided an overview of primitive (wo)man, Paleo, and his distant relative, Neander; what’s similar and what’s different. I also touched on some of the problems with drawing assumptions about primitive society (ie, 5000+ years and older), and really any hunter gather society. The fact is, we simply share almost nothing in common socially or in lifestyle. For most of us, obtaining food is nothing more than making a decision based on a vast array of choices. In part 2 of the series, I will dive into the truth and fiction of paleo nutrition, and why drawing conclusions about health outcomes from these societies is not likely relevant to modern society. However, to kick us off, I recommend you review this great TED talk by Christina Warriner.

Just the Facts

The first and most important thing you should have learned from the talk is that very little, if any thing, about the Paleo Diet is based on actual scientific evidence of the archeological record. Second, we’re evolved to eat vegetables, but our teeth are not equipped for high sugar foods, including fruit. We’re also equipped to drink milk in many populations. However, the fossil record indicate that eating meat aided brain development, and even more importantly, Paleo learned that cooking food (sorry RAW PEOPLE) was advantageous too.  So, meat was likely an important aspect of primitive diets, but not an essential or ubiquitous component to nutrition. That said, we cannot draw definitive conclusions of many primitive societies due to the limitations of the fossil record, so it seems unlikely that pro-paleo people can make definitive conclusions about what diet is best.

A bigger misconception, however, is that Paleo shunned grains and ate a hugely diverse diet of fruits and vegetables. Fortunately, the archeological record is a clearer on this issue. First, there are is strong evidence of tools used to process grains, as well as evidence of dietary consumption of various grains and vegetable matter. Second, when we say various, the data indicate that the variety is minimal within region. In other words, across the world lots of Paleo’s ate different grains and other plants, but within a region the variety of small. Moreover, before modern farming techniques, the yield was low and likely required more calories acquiring them, than they returned.  Bottom line, Paleo just did not eat the foods that are recommended by paleo advocates. Paleo’s ate many different diets based on the available resources! Below is a small snapshot of typical diets of more recent hunter-gather societies:

  • Inuit: 50% FAT, 35% Protein, 15-20% Carb largely from animals.
  • Ethiopian: 65% Carb, 15% Protein, 20% Fat with a variety of vegetables and use of teff grain.
  • Kenyan: ~80% Carb, 10% Protein, 10% Fat with a lot of grains and sugar; retired Kenyan runners develop many of metabolic diseases Americans do.
  • *Tarahumara (from Born to Run): ~80% Carb, 10% Protein, 10% Fat. This last one is most interesting, because the diet (as of 1979) included a variety of vegetables, and high in cholesterol and saturated fat, but extremely low in sugar. So, there are so aspects of paleo, but some that are a sharp contrast.

I hope no one comes away from this to mean that many paleo diet recommendations are not sound. I am simply saying that they are not paleo. More importantly, though, many of the conclusions drawn about the health benefits of are drawn from incorrect assumptions and several confounding variables, not the least is physical activity. As Dan Lieberman has said, the typical hunter gather (average male/female) walks or runs around 6 miles per day; that works out to be roughly 7000 kcal burned per week, or 7X current minimal recommendations! There really is little evidence that the paleo diet alone is a panacea.

Drawing some conclusions

What we are able to conclude here is that Paleo is/was a diverse person, who ate innumerable different foods between geographic regions, but likely ate a limited variety of what the paleo diet claims s/he ate. Moreover, meat was not likely the predominant food in most cases, and vegetables were also likely limited and far less appealing than they are today; try that on your kids the next time they balk at your brussel sprouts. Many primitive societies consumed some grains, even before modern agriculture development, and even more so after communities were established. In fact, the idea that carbohydrates are “bad” or unnecessary for performance is even more absurd than the suggestion that carb loading is essential for peak performance. A simple google search will yield numerous papers supporting carbohydrate ingestion, including this nice review, Jeukendrup 04-Carb review. Ultimately, what works best for you in training, racing and/or health is highly individual, but abstaining from carbohydrates during competition is just primitive!

*UPDATE: After writing this article, someone sent me a more recent paper on the Tarahumara that paints a more grim picture of their life. Poverty, isolation and inadequate nutrition have resulted in a poor quality of life. While no longer a truly primitive society, they provide a better glimpse of overall life of Paleo, than the diet by itself ever will. Modern society may be killing us, but we’re still better off overall.

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1 Comments to “Human performance vs Survival: Breaking down paleo nutrition”

  1. Tradewind says:

    As I continue to work through comment issues for some, here is a recent comment from Matt S.:
    While in the past humans may have eaten “innumerable and dissimilar diets,” none of their diets are remotely close to the way most of us in the developed world eat today. The diets may have been dissimilar in some ways, but they were all similar in that they did not contain significant quantities of grains, legumes, dairy, or sugar. Today most Americans get most of their calories from these 4 groups. Depending on whose idea of “paleo” that you may or may not find prescribed macronutrient ratios, but the real focus of paleo is eating real foods, avoiding processed foods, and eliminating or minimizing the aforementioned grains, legumes, dairy, and sugar. Inuits and Kitavans when following their historical diets have flip-flopped ratios of fats and carbs, but both exhibit superior health compared to those eating a standard American diet. Food quality and the elimination of foods to which we were never designed to eat is the key to optimal health; prescribing macronutrient ratios is not.

    Mark Sisson has a post today that says many of the same things. I’d recommend you check it out.