Paleolithic diet

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This article is about a modern nutritional approach. For information on the dietary practices of Paleolithic humans, see Paleolithic#Diet and nutrition.
A dish fitting the Paleolithic diet: Brazilian bouillabaisse (seafood stew)

The Paleolithic diet, also popularly referred to as the caveman diet, Stone Age diet and hunter-gatherer diet, is a fad diet[1] based on the presumed ancient diet of wild plants and animals that hominid species consumed during the Paleolithic era.[2] It is based upon everyday, modern foods that mimic the food groups eaten during prehistoric times. The diet became popular in the late 2000s, and was Google’s most searched-for weight loss method in 2013.[3]

The diet is based on several premises, one of which is that human ancestors are well adapted to foods of the Paleolithic era, a period of about 2.5 million years duration that ended around 10,000 years ago with the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals, and that humans have not evolved to properly digest new foods such as grain, legumes, and dairy, much less the highly-processed and high-calorie processed foods that are so readily available and cheap, and this has led to modern-day problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Advocates claim that followers of the diet may enjoy a longer, healthier, more active life.

Critics of the diet point out that humans are much more adaptable than previously thought, that the hypothesis that they are genetically adapted to some Paleolithic environment is flawed, that the Palaeolithic period was extremely long and saw human settlement in a wide variety of natural environments, and that it is in any case practically impossible to know quite what Palaeolithic humans ate. Nutritionists have stated that the diet may be less effective than other popular diets in promoting good health.


An early book on the topic was The Stone Age Diet, self-published in 1975 by Walter Voegtlin.[4] In 1985, Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner published a paper[5] on Paleolithic nutrition in the New England Journal of Medicine followed in 1988 by the book, with Marjorie Shostak, The Paleolithic Prescription. Since the late 1990s many others have published works promoting the diet, including Staffan Lindeberg, Mark Sisson, and Arthur De Vany.

The diet was overshadowed by regimens such as the Atkins diet and South Beach Diet until the publication of a popular book by Loren Cordain. The latter is styled as "Dr Loren Cordain, world's leading expert on paleolithic diets and founder of The Paleo Movement".[6] His bachelor degree is in health science, his doctoral degree was in exercise physiology, and he has professionally studied nutrition for over twenty years. He is the owner of the trademark "The Paleo Diet".[7]

Rationale for the diet[edit]

Fruits and vegetables, rich in vitamins, potassium and fiber, represent an important feature of forager diets.

The rationale is that:

  1. Human physiology has changed little since the time our ancestors were hunter-gathers. Modern humans are adapted to the diet or diets of the Paleolithic period.
  2. The dawn of agriculture and industrialization has led to the availability of foods for which we are not evolutionarily adapted.
  3. It is possible to understand the ancient diet and reproduce it in modern times, and to learn from contemporary hunter-gatherers.
  4. Diet is at least in part to blame for diseases of affluence and lifestyle diseases, and that eaters of forager-style diets do not suffer from them.[8]

Advocates of the diet argue the ancient diet was characterized as follows:[9]

  • No dairy food.
  • Very little cereal grains.
  • Food was not salted.
  • Lean meat was eaten.

Criticism of the rationale[edit]

It has been argued that the notion of humans being unable to adapt to modern food is based on a flawed adaptationistic logic,[10] and that modern people are adapted to modern foods, since most of the change in the frequencies of alleles occurs in the first few generations under selection.[11] For example, research has shown that various populations which have domesticated cattle have independently developed alleles for dairy tolerance.[12]

It is often argued that preagricultural foragers did not suffer from the diseases of affluence simply because they did not live long enough to develop them.[13]

With regard to attempts to emulate the "ideal" diet, molecular biologist Marion Nestle argues that "knowledge of the relative proportions of animal and plant foods in the diets of early humans is circumstantial, incomplete, and debatable and there are insufficient data to identify the composition of a genetically determined optimal diet. The evidence related to Paleolithic diets is best interpreted as supporting the idea that diets based largely on plant foods promote health and longevity, at least under conditions of food abundance and physical activity".[14] Ideas about Paleolithic diet and nutrition are at best hypothetical.[15][16]

Trying to devise an ideal diet by studying contemporary hunter-gatherers is difficult because of the great disparities that exist, for example with the animal-derived calorie percentage ranging from 25% in the Gwi people of southern Africa to 99% in Alaskan Nunamiut.[17]

Food energy excess, relative to energy expended, rather than the consumption of specific foods may underlie the diseases of affluence. Studies of traditionally living populations show that humans can live healthily with a wide variety of diets. We have evolved to be flexible eaters. "The health concerns of the industrial world, where calorie-packed foods are readily available, stem not from deviations from a specific diet but from an imbalance between the energy we consume and the energy we spend."[18]

The diet[edit]

Raw Paleolithic-style dish: sashimi (raw fish) dinner set

More protein[edit]

Meat, seafood, and other animal products represent the staple foods of modern-day Paleo diets, since advocates claim protein comprises 19-35% of the calories in hunter-gatherer diets.[19] The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the national public health institute of the United States, recommends that 10-35% of calories come from protein.[20]

Fewer carbohydrates[edit]

The diet recommends the consumption of non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables to provide 35-45 % daily calories and be the main source of carbohydrates.[19] According to the United States Department of Agriculture,[21] the acceptable macronutrient distribution range for carbohydrates is 45 to 65 percent of total calories. A typical modern diet gets a lot of carbohydrates from dairy products and grains, but these are excluded in the Paleolithic diet.

Seeds such as walnuts are rich sources of protein and micronutrients

High fiber[edit]

High fiber intake not via grains, but via non-starchy vegetables and fruits.[19]

More fat[edit]

Advocates recommend, relative to modern diets, that the Paleolithic diet have moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, but avoiding trans fats, and omega-6 fats.

Less salt[edit]

It is well known that modern diets are high in salt[22] and many diets, including the Paleolithic, recommend a reduction.

Balanced alkaline vs. acid[edit]

Any food presents either a net acid (e.g. meats, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, and salt) or alkaline (e.g. fruits and vegetables) load to the kidneys.[19]

More micronutrients[edit]

A higher intake of vitamins and minerals is recommended via grass-fed meats, fruits, and vegetables rather than grains.[19]

Energy density[edit]

The Paleolithic diet has lower energy density than the typical diet consumed by modern humans.[23] This is especially true in primarily plant-based/vegetarian versions of the diet, but it still holds if substantial amounts of meat are included. For example, most fruits and berries contain 0.4–0.8 calories per gram, and vegetables can be even lower than that (cucumbers contain only 0.16 calories per gram).[24] Game meat, such as cooked wild rabbit, is more energy-dense (up to 1.7 calories per gram), but it does not constitute the bulk of the diet by mass or volume at the recommended plant/animal ratios, and it does not reach the caloric densities of many processed foods commonly consumed by modern humans.

Consuming foods low in energy density (kcal/g) decreases energy intake over several days, but the effectiveness of this strategy for weight loss has not been tested.[25]

Even some authors who may appear otherwise critical of the Paleolithic diet have argued that the high energy density of modern diets, as compared to ancestral or primate diets, contributes to the incidence of diseases of affluence in the industrial world.[26]

Micronutrient density[edit]

Fish and seafood, such as salmon, are significant sources of essential micronutrients

Fish and seafood represent a particularly rich source of omega-3 fatty acids and other micronutrients, such as iodine, iron, zinc, copper, and selenium, that are crucial for proper brain function and development.[27] Terrestrial animal foods, such as muscle, brain, bone marrow, thyroid gland, and other organs, also represent a primary source of these nutrients. Calcium-poor grains and legumes are excluded from the diet. However, leafy greens like kale and dandelion greens, as well as nuts like almonds, are very high sources of calcium.[28] Two notable exceptions are calcium and vitamin D, both of which may be present in the diet in inadequate quantities. Modern humans require much more vitamin D than foragers, because they do not get the same amount of exposure to sun. This need is commonly satisfied in developed countries by artificially fortifying dairy products with the vitamin. To avoid deficiency, a modern human on a forager diet would have to take artificial supplements of the vitamin, ensure adequate intake of some fatty fish,[29] or increase the amount of exposure to sunlight (it has been estimated that 30 minutes of exposure to midday sun twice a week is adequate for most people).[30][original research?]

Eating a wide variety of plant foods is recommended to avoid high intakes of potentially harmful bioactive substances, such as goitrogens, which are present in some roots, seeds, and vegetables.


On the Paleolithic diet, practitioners are permitted to drink mainly water, and some advocates recommend tea as a healthy drink. Neither alcohol[31] nor coffee is considered "paleo" as our ancestors could not produce these drinks.

Raw vs. cooked[edit]

Unlike raw food diets, all foods may be cooked, without restrictions.[32] However, there are Paleolithic dieters who believe that humans have not adapted to cooked foods since the first control of fire by Homo erectus, and so they eat only foods that are both raw and Paleolithic.[33]


Food groups that advocates claim were rarely or never consumed by humans before the Neolithic agricultural revolution are excluded from the diet, mainly dairy products, grains, legumes (e.g., beans and peanuts), processed oils, refined sugar, and salt. Many of these foods would have been available at certain times of the year and may or may not have been consumed. Cereal grains, legumes, and milk contain bioactive substances, such as gluten and casein, that have been implicated in the development of various health problems. Consumption of gluten, a component of certain grains, such as wheat, rye, and barley, is known to have adverse health effects in individuals suffering from a range of gluten sensitivities, including celiac disease. Since the Paleolithic diet is devoid of cereal grains, it is free of gluten. The paleo diet is also casein-free. Casein, a protein found in milk and dairy products, may impair glucose tolerance in humans.

Compared to Paleolithic food groups, cereal grains and legumes contain high amounts of antinutrients, including alkylresorcinols, alpha-amylase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, lectins, and phytates, substances known to interfere with the body's absorption of many key nutrients. Molecular-mimicking proteins, which are basically made up of strings of amino acids that closely resemble those of another totally different protein, are also found in grains and legumes, as well as milk and dairy products. Advocates of the Paleolithic diet have argued that these components of agrarian diets promote vitamin and mineral deficiencies and may explain the development of the diseases of civilization as well as a number of autoimmune-related diseases.


Nutritionists agree that the Paleolithic diet is beneficial in that it cuts processed foods that have been highly modified from their raw state such as white bread, artificial cheese, certain cold cuts and packaged meats, potato chips, and sugary cereals. These often offer less nutrients than their unprocessed equivalents, and may be packed with calories, sodium and preservatives that may increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers.[34]

A ranking by U.S. News & World Report, involving a panel of experts, evaluated based on factors including health, weight loss, and ease of following. In 2014, it tied for last place out of 32 with the Dukan Diet.[35]

Evidence for the effect of the switch to agriculture on general life expectancy is mixed, with some populations exhibiting an apparent decrease in life expectancy and others an apparent increase.[36] And according to S. Jay Olshansky and Bruce Carnes, "there is neither convincing evidence nor scientific logic to support the claim that adherence to a Paleolithic diet provides a longevity benefit."[37]

According to the British Dietetic Association the diet excludes key food groups, raising the potential for nutritional deficiencies.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Caveman fad diet". National Health Service. Retrieved 14 August 2014. 
  2. ^ Hiatt, Kurtis. "Paleo Diet -- What You Need to Know". U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved 1 June 2014. 
  3. ^ a b "Top diets review for 2014". NHS. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  4. ^ Voegtlin, Walter L. The stone age diet: based on in-depth studies of human ecology and the diet of man. Vantage Press. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  5. ^ "Paleolithic Nutrition — A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications". New England Journal of Medicine 312: 283–289. 31 January 1985. doi:10.1056/NEJM198501313120505. PMID 2981409. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  6. ^ Cordain, Loren. "The Paleo Diet". The Paleo Diet LLC. Retrieved 11 June 2014. 
  7. ^ "THE PALEO DIET". United States Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved 12 June 2014. 
  8. ^ Michael Gurven, Hillard Kaplan. "Longevity Among Hunter-Gatherers: A Cross-Cultural Examination".  | url =
  9. ^ Cordain, Loren (2010). The Paleo Diet Revised. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. p. 10. ISBN 978-0470913024. 
  10. ^ Ströhle, Alexander; & Hahn, Andreas (2006). "Evolutionary nutrition science and dietary recommendations of the Stone Age—The ideal answer to present-day nutritional questions or reason for criticism? Part 1: Concept, arguments and paleoanthropological findings" (PDF). Ernährungs-Umschau (in German) 53 (1): 10–16.  Abstract (in English)
  11. ^ Hawks J, Wang ET, Cochran GM, Harpending HC, Moyzis RK (December 2007). "Recent acceleration of human adaptive evolution". Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 104 (52): 20753–8. doi:10.1073/pnas.0707650104. PMC 2410101. PMID 18087044. 
  12. ^ Zuk, Marlene (2014). Paleofantasy : what evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live. W. W. Norton & Company. pp. 92–106. ISBN 0393347923. 
  13. ^ Ungar, Peter S.; Grine, Frederick E.; & Teaford, Mark F. (October 2006). "Diet in Early Homo: A Review of the Evidence and a New Model of Adaptive Versatility". Annual Review of Anthropology 35 (1): 209–228. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.35.081705.123153. 
  14. ^ Nestle, Marion (March 2000). "Paleolithic diets: a sceptical view". Nutrition Bulletin 25 (1): 43–7. doi:10.1046/j.1467-3010.2000.00019.x. 
  15. ^ Milton, Katharine (2002). "Hunter-gatherer diets: wild foods signal relief from diseases of affluence (PDF)". In Ungar, Peter S. & Teaford, Mark F. Human Diet: Its Origins and Evolution. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey. pp. 111–22. ISBN 0-89789-736-6. 
  16. ^ Richards, Michael P. (December 2002). "A brief review of the archaeological evidence for Palaeolithic and Neolithic subsistence". European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 56 (12): 1270–78. doi:10.1038/sj.ejcn.1601646. PMID 12494313. 
  17. ^ Kolbert, Elizabeth. "Flesh of Your Flesh", The New Yorker, November 9, 2009, accessed January, 27, 2011.
  18. ^ Leonard, William R. (December 2002). "Food for thought: Dietary change was a driving force in human evolution" (PDF). Scientific American 287 (6): 106–15. PMID 12469653. 
  19. ^ a b c d e "THE PALEO DIET PREMISE". The Paleo Diet. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  20. ^ "Protein". CDC. US Government. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  21. ^ "Carbohydrates". USDA. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  22. ^ "Most Americans Should Consume Less Sodium". CDC. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  23. ^ Prentice, A. M.; Jebb, S. A. (2003). "Fast foods, energy density and obesity: A possible mechanistic link". Obesity Reviews 4 (4): 187–94. doi:10.1046/j.1467-789X.2003.00117.x. PMID 14649369. 
  24. ^ Rolls, Barbara. The Volumetrics Eating Plan: Techniques and Recipes for Feeling Full on Fewer Calories. ISBN 0-06-073730-1. [page needed]
  25. ^ Ello-Martin, Julia A; Roe, Liane S; Ledikwe, Jenny H; Beach, Amanda M; Rolls, Barbara J (2007). "Dietary energy density in the treatment of obesity: A year-long trial comparing 2 weight-loss diets". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 85 (6): 1465–77. PMC 2018610. PMID 17556681. 
  26. ^ Milton, Katharine (2000). "Back to basics: why foods of wild primates have relevance for modern human health" (PDF). Nutrition 16 (7–8): 481–83. doi:10.1016/S0899-9007(00)00293-8. PMID 10906529. 
  27. ^ Cunnane, Stephen C. (1 August 2005). "Origins and evolution of the Western diet: implications of iodine and seafood intakes for the human brain". The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 82 (2): 483; author reply 483–4. PMID 16087997. 
  28. ^ "Calcium: Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet". U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Retrieved 4 August 2014. 
  29. ^ "Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet: Vitamin D". Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). National Institutes of Health (NIH). Retrieved 2010-04-11. 
  30. ^ Paul Insel, Don Ross, Kimberley McMahon, Melissa Bernstein (2010). Nutrition. p. 410. ISBN 0-7637-7663-7. 
  31. ^ Cordain, Loren. "ONE TEQUILA, TWO TEQUILA, THREE TEQUILA… PRIMAL!". Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  32. ^ Eaton, S. Boyd (2006). "Preagricultural Diets and Evolutionary Health Promotion". In Peter Ungar. Evolution of the Human Diet: The Known, the Unknown, and the Unknowable. Oxford, USA: Oxford University Press. p. 400. ISBN 0-19-518346-0. 
  33. ^ Raw Paleolithic Diet & Lifestyle — Raw Paleo Lifestyle for Health
  34. ^ Jabr, Ferris. "How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked". Scientific American. Retrieved 14 June 2014. 
  35. ^ "Best Diets Overall". U.S.News & World Report. 2012. 
  36. ^ Harris,Marvin and Eric B. Ross, ed. (1987). "IV. Pre-State Foodways". Food and Evolution: Toward a Theory of Human Food Habits. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ISBN 0-87722-668-7. 
  37. ^ Olshansky, S. Jay; Carnes, Bruce A. (2001). The quest for immortality : science at the frontiers of aging. New York: Norton. p. 191. ISBN 978-0393323276.