There seems to be so much confusion out there about just what is and what is not The Paleo Diet.

Just the other day I was confronted by two otherwise very intelligent, very knowledgeable health professionals who were surprised that I still ate fruit on my ‘Paleo Diet’. This is my response.

There also seems to be some confusion about what is Paleo, what is Primal, and what is something else all together. I’m not sure if I am going to clear up all of the confusion here or just make it worse but here is my take on what is and what is not ‘The Paleo diet’.

How I view The Paleo Diet

First of all I want to say that in my mind The Paleo Diet is not a diet at all and it certainly isn’t extreme. I like to think of The Paleo Diet as a framework rather than a diet. A set of guidelines within which there is still quite a lot of room for individual variation (which makes sense given that no two hunter gatherer societies around the world have ever eaten exactly the same things at exactly the same time and in exactly the same ratios).

Does ‘The Paleo Diet’ stack up in an evolutionary sense?

We evolved to eat certain types of foods over our 2.4 millions years as hunter gathers (since the first appearance of the genus Homo) and have most likely all evolved to eat slightly different things – as we lived in different climates and ate different foods. In fact, research has shown that hunter gatherer populations closer to the equator tended to consume a higher percentage of plant based foods than those at higher latitudes (http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/71/3/682.full) and according to the book Western Diseases: Their Emergence and Prevention one Papua New Guinean hunter gatherer society apparently thrives on a diet of 90% sweet potatoes. Even though some proponents of Paleo call it ‘low-carb’, this is an example of a healthy population consuming mostly carbohydrates with a little protein and no fat. Go figure.

Does that mean that the ‘Blood Type Diet’ is the way to go?

Not in my opinion.

I have two main issues with the blood type diet. Firstly it would seem that Dr D’Adamos’ hypothesis that O type blood is the oldest group may not be correct (since type O’s contain antibodies to both type A and type B), nor is it the case that that particular genotype was more prevalent in societies with a strong history of hunting and gathering. For example, according to www.bloodbook.com the Alaskan Eskimos with their high meat and fat diet are actually 44% blood type A and only 38% blood type O. Secondly I don’t feel that the evidence (both scientific and anecdotal) that those particular blood types should eat those particular foods is sufficiently strong. For example, it is pretty rare to find anyone following a Paleo type diet that doesn’t love and do well on Avocados.

What should you be doing on ‘The Paleo Diet’?

The Paleo diet is based on the foods that we ate during 2.4 million years of evolution (99.6% of our history) – EXCEPT the last 10 000 (in which we see the advent of agriculture).

The vast majority of our diet should come from fresh, organic vegetables, grass fed meats, fresh organic seasonal fruits, nuts, seeds and clean water and excluding those foods predominantly introduced in the last 10,000 years (i.e. grains and dairy); i.e the guidelines of The Paleo Diet.

The next question this raises is: what about epigenetics and the micro-biome?

Here’s the thing. We’ve learned so much in recent times about epigenetics and the micro-biome. In my opinion, it is likely that changes to these factors in some people may have allowed them to adapt to eating a more liberal (less Paleo diet) due to changes in either the way they express their genes or the way their micro-biome is able to process the food before it’s digested.

Personally, I just don’t think there is enough information out there to determine just who these people might be and just what diet they may be adapted to (a bit like the blood type diet). What we do know is that they have adapted to and been able deal with The Paleo Diet.

Should you just eat what makes you feel good?

I also don’t think that simply trying changes to your diet and seeing how you feel is a great way to go either. Our body sends about 300 trillion messages back to our brain every second and only about 5 (not 5 trillion or even 5 thousand, just 5) of those are to do with how we feel. We see every day people who have ‘felt’ fine right up until their heart attack or felt ‘fine’ right up until their cancer diagnosis. So until further evidence comes along I choose to eat and choose to recommend people sticking to The Paleo Diet for health and wellness.

Given all this information, what ratios should Paleo foods be eaten in?

I’m not sure we currently (or will ever) know exactly. As mentioned previously, it is likely to be different for everyone. What we can do is have a bit of a look at what the records show that our ancestors were eating.

What were hunter-gatherers eating anyway?

Most of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (73%) derived greater than 50% of their subsistence from animal foods (including fish). In fact 58% of them gained over 2/3 from animal foods. In contrast, only 4% of hunter-gatherer populations obtained 2/3 of their food from plant sources and no hunter-gatherer society eat more than 86% plant foods.

These ratios varied according to location – and will for you too. If you know you have an ancestry from the tropics, it is likely that they were eating a higher ratio of fruits and vegetables. If they were from higher latitudes, then they’re likely to have been more meat-oriented. And if they are Inuit, then your body is going to LOVE a good BBQ!

This study estimated that the most plausible macronutrient ratios were 19-35% protein, 22-40% carbs and 28-58% fats. Basically, a much more balanced diet than the standard Australian (or American) diet, but not necessarily the high fat diet that some Paleo advocates will go for.

What if this basic guide isn’t working for you?

Everyone is different. Whether it is due to genetic variation, epigenetics, the micro-biome or a multitude of other lifestyle factors (like our sedentary lives or stress) for some people this general prescription just won’t work. If you’re finding that The Paleo Diet isn’t helping you achieve your goals (and you’ve stuck to it strictly enough for long enough to find out) then it might be time to seek out a great naturopath or nutritionist who understands the Paleo lifestyle but also understands the way you can tweak it for your specific circumstances. For many people with metabolic issues, sugar handling issues or neurological issues this may mean trying a lower carb version of The Paleo Diet. For others you may find that introducing more carbs and possibly even some safe starches and pseudo-grains might work for you. Some people may even choose to trial a vegetarian or a vegan Paleo Diet. It is a tricky one to work out and it does take a bit of trial and error – an experienced practitioner will be able to guide you through this process.

So what about ‘Primal’ or ‘JERF’?

Unfortunately, just like there’s a lot of confusion about The Paleo Diet there can be a lot of confusion about just what Primal and JERF means too.

Primal was a term that initially took off due to the success of the blogs and books by Mark Sisson (though it was probably around prior to that too). Essentially the Primal lifestyle (which includes great tips for mindset and exercise too) includes some full fat dairy and possibly even some safe starches as well.

JERF is another term that has been around for a while and has been made popular by podcastor Sean Croxton. It describes a more moderate version again. Basically JERF (Just Eat Real Food) means eating whole un-processed foods as close as possible to the state that you found them in. This entails grass fed meats, organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, water and yes – even full fat dairy and grains can be included under the JERF acronym.

What about CHEATS on The Paleo Diet?

I never cheat on my Paleo diet (I’m just not that kind of guy) but that doesn’t mean I don’t eat non-Paleo foods. In fact, sometimes I eat stuff that isn’t even Primal or JERF (come at me Cave Gods!) but the thing is, I just don’t consider it cheating. (That’s a topic for my next article so make sure you sign up for my newsletter at www.drbretthill.com so you don’t miss out on the release of that whole other story!)

But can we REALLY live a Paleo diet?

Ok, so this is the final bit of confusion about the Paleo diet that I really want to cover off. People following a Paleo lifestyle aren’t trying to exactly replicate what their Paleo ancestors did. I for one am pretty happy living in a real house with my Wi-Fi internet, I am happy to not have to catch and kill my own kangaroo and I am happy that I don’t have to forage for bugs to supplement my diet. So I’m not trying to replicate a Paleo lifestyle. What I am trying to do is get the health benefits from living as closely as possible to my genetic requirements within a modern world.

Yes that means that some of my fruits and vegetables are higher in carbohydrates than those my ancestors ate, yes that means that sometimes I might use coconut oil instead of lard to cook with for convenience, yes sometimes I eat foods that aren’t in season and yes I probably don’t east as much offal as my ancestors did (though I am working on introducing more).

Basically, my whole point is that The Paleo Diet isn’t perfect. We don’t really know exactly what it was and we certainly don’t know exactly what it was for YOU and YOUR ancestors. Even if we did we don’t know whether you have evolved past that and how. And even if we could work all of that out it would be virtually impossible to replicate it in our modern world.

What is the point of this whole ‘Paleo’ movement then?

As I said at the start, The Paleo diet (in spite of it’s name) it is more of a framework. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the best framework we have to rediscover the health and vitality that our bodies are designed to express. Millions of people are doing it and achieving exceptional results for their health and wellbeing.

Why not give it a go, play with it and find out what works for you?