Is the Paleo Movement Genetically Out of Sync with Modern Humans?
The Paleo movement, which may include all or some of the following: A Paleo diet, Paleo sleeping, Paleo exercise, etc., is essentially an attempt to integrate as much of the Stone Age hunter-gatherer lifestyle into one’s life as she/he feels is reasonable. The benefits of a Paleo lifestyle are said to be many, and there are numerous devout supporters and adherents to the movement. However, recent studies by evolutionary biologists suggest that the Paleo way of life may not be as in tune with modern humans, or our genes, as some believe.
History of the Paleo Movement
Newton Daily News provides a succinct explanation of the Paleo diet (which is key to the Paleo movement) and its promises:
“This diet is based on the belief that if we eat like our ancestors did 10,000 years ago, we’ll be healthier, lose weight and have less disease. The Paleo diet promotes a higher intake of protein and fat. The carbohydrates included with the Paleo diet are not from grains, but rather from fruits and vegetables (not including white potatoes or dry beans).”
Paleolithic-style dish: Roast pork with cooked and raw vegetables and fruit. (Warren Dew/ CC BY SA 3.0)
Although it took some time for the Paleo movement to really take hold, most of these lifestyle changes can be connected to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine from January 1985. The article, “Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications”, essentially argued that the health ails of modern humans came about as the human body is better suited to a Stone Age diet. “The human genetic constitution has changed relatively little since the appearance of truly modern human beings, Homo sapiens sapiens, about 40,000 years ago,” the authors S. Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner wrote in their paper.
Paleoindians hunting a Glyptodon. (c. 1920) by Heinrich Harder. (Public Domain)
Outside describes how “Loren Cordain, a lifeguard turned exercise-physiology professor at Colorado State University” (and perhaps the founder of the Paleo movement) became obsessed with Ezaton and Konner’s work and revamped his own diet and lifestyle.
Writing on the history of the Paleo movement, Cordain says:
“I became absolutely engrossed in studying ancestral human diets and voraciously read everything I could about the topic […] Over the course of the next seven or eight years, I collected more than 25,000 scientific papers and filled five large filing cabinets – each with hundreds of categories dealing with all aspects of Paleo diet and Paleo lifestyle.”
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Outside reports that “At first, response to Cordain’s book was tepid. It wasn’t until a few years later, around the time that a student of his named Robb Wolf began preaching the paleo gospel, that it became a hit.” By 2010, the Paleo movement had surged in popularity and today the paleo diet remains “a popular trend making headlines.”
Touting a list of health benefits that accompany the Paleo diet, Robb Wolf writes:
“The Paleo diet is the healthiest way you can eat because it is the ONLY nutritional approach that works with your genetics to help you stay lean, strong and energetic! Research in biology, biochemistry, Ophthalmology, Dermatology and many other disciplines indicate it is our modern diet, full of refined foods, trans fats and sugar, that is at the root of degenerative diseases such as obesity, cancer, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and infertility.”
Screenshot from a seminar on Paleolithic Diets and Blood Pressure Control at an Ancestral Health Symposium. (Ancestry Foundation)
Is the Paleo movement the answer to these health issues? Have humans really stayed the same since Paleolithic times?
Evolutionary Biology Throws a Wrench in Things
Ever since it began to gain in popularity, there have been people and articles both supporting and criticizing the Paleo diet and lifestyle. But the question really comes down to looking at the basis of the paleo movement – how genetically similar are humans today to our Paleolithic ancestors?
The Washington Post provides a summary of some of the recent studies suggesting that humans are not so similar to “cavemen” of the past. Or, at least, showing that there have been some genetic adaptations to a more modern lifestyle since 10,000 years ago.
“Two relatively recent gene variants help humans survive with deficiencies characteristic of agricultural diets; another genetic shift appears to help fight the dental cavities that arose with farm-based staples; another changes the way humans digest fats; dozens of others help fight the diseases that came with living at higher densities.” [Via The Washington Post]
The Washington Post also makes reference to a December 2015 article in the journal Nature, which concludes “Europeans of 4,000 years ago were different in important respects from Europeans today, despite having overall similar ancestry.” The news agent writes:
“The scientists noted thousands of distinct places where there were DNA changes that didn’t seem just random. That is, the changes didn’t seem to be merely a case of genetic drift but a sign that the human species was actually adapting to some aspect of its environment.”
“It drives me crazy when Paleo diet people say that we’ve stopped evolving -- we haven’t. Our diets have changed radically in the last 10,000 years, and, in response, we have changed, too.” said Anne C. Stone, a professor of human evolution at Arizona State University.
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The new evidence challenges the basis of the Paleo diet argument, but, according to the Washington Post, Eaton and Konner, it doesn’t necessarily disprove it. “Eaton and Konner maintain that their central hypothesis - that there is a mismatch between our bodies and our diets - remains sound” says the Washington Post.
Konner told the Washington Post: “There’s evidence that there’s been a lot more selection and genetic change in the last five to 10,000 years than previously thought. This is a challenge to the Paleo diet claims - including mine and Boyd Eaton’s over the years. But, I don’t think it’s much of one.”
Eaton agreed that there are undoubtedly genetic differences between people of the Paleolithic and humans today, “But our metabolism is controlled by hundreds of genes and maybe more than that. So while there are differences, they do not affect our nutritional needs in a significant way.”
In the end, all the genetic analyses have not been able to refute the usefulness of the Paleo movement. While there have certainly been examples showing that humans have changed genetically since the Stone age, (going against a basic assumption of the Paleo movement) it remains uncertain how much.
It is certain that some aspects of the Paleo (and other diets/lifestyle changes) definitely can benefit one’s health, such as lowering intake of added sugars and processed foods, while eating more fruits and vegetables.
Featured Image: Painting ‘Stone Age: the feast.’ (1883) By Viktor M. Vasnetsov. Source: (Public Domain)