Can you prevent weight gain and 21st-century health problems by eating the way our ancestors did?
That’s the premise behind the paleo diet, which takes inspiration from the Paleolithic era that spanned between 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago — predating the advent of farming and animal domestication.
Some followers of the paleo diet believe that humans are genetically adapted to eat a certain way — one that’s closer to how early humans ate. This view is rooted in the evolutionary discordance hypothesis, which states that human evolution stopped around 50,000 years ago. In other words, our Stone Age bodies are not suited for our modern diets of convenience and carbs, and this mismatch is making us fat and sick.
While eating like a caveman or cavewoman isn’t easy, making the paleo leap is purported to result in a number of health benefits — from weight loss, to clearer skin, to improved mood, to better sleep. But like many health and wellness fads, researchers say paleo’s health benefits are likely too good to be true.
Unfortunately, scientists haven’t found much evidence that backs up the health benefits of the paleo diet beyond weight loss. Other claims haven’t been studied at all. But what research has uncovered is that it might be unhealthy for some people to follow a paleo diet, particularly among those concerned with heart and kidney health.
But there’s another mammoth in the room: Even paleolithic people didn’t eat “paleo.” Plenty of anthropological research has found that the popular diet’s interpretations of how Paleolithic-era humans ate are pretty inaccurate.
“[With] ancient diets, people just ate the foods available to them. With the current globalized food system, we now have access to more types of food, which makes that approach more complicated,” says Colleen Rauchut Tewksbury, a senior research investigator and bariatric program manager at the University of Pennsylvania. She is also a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
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The Modern Paleo Diet
According to Google Trends data, “paleo” was the most-searched diet in 2013. In recent years, diets like keto, intermittent fasting and the carnivore diet have kicked paleo out of the top rankings. But survey data from 2018 showed that roughly 3 million Americans were still following a version of the paleo diet.
It is also sometimes called the Paleolithic diet, Stone Age diet, hunter-gatherer diet or a caveman diet. Whole30, which is a 30-day regimen based on the paleo diet, has also become a popular way to supposedly “reset the body” after an indulgent holiday season.
But no matter what you call it, interest in adopting ancient diets isn’t new. In the 1970s, an American gastroenterologist named Walter L. Voegtlin promoted a meat-centric “Stone Age” diet to achieve optimal health. Voegtlin is largely regarded as the pioneer of the modern paleo diet and was the first to write a book…