Did the Paleo Diet Get the Math Wrong?

Banksy Caveman

Artist Banksy's famous Caveman street painting. Not sure he got the diet right in his version either ...

I just saw an article on HuffPo that said scientists now believe that cavemen actually ate less meat than previously believed. I immediately ran over here to bang out this post. Did the Paleo Diet people get it wrong? Some anthropologists now conjecture that our ancestors ate a lot more fruits and veggies and a lot less meat protein than initially thought. Using nitrogen isotopes, scientists had extrapolated that the typical diet 12,000 years ago was 60% to 80% protein. This is much higher than the average of our modern diet intake of about 45%. Some scientists thought the math might be wrong, and using different techniques, they have come up with a caveman protein number of between 40% and 50%, about the same as what we eat today. The dates being studied are actually the neolithic era, when people had just started farming, but scientists also think that Paleolithic man also ate more fruits and veggies too, depending on the region they lived in. Hunh. Okay, I admit it, I had to giggle ... For the most part, I'm eating Paleo these days ... minimal added sugar, almost no starches ... but every time I have tried to push the protein amounts above 50%, I feel physically ill ... I've been keeping my intake below 50 grams of protein a day, which feels right for my body. This brings me back to the question I always ask myself about the Paleo diet. See, different regions of the world ate differently and this detail is not reflected in the diet's guidelines. For instance, the tribes in what is now Alaska ate a heavy fish-based and protein-based diet. Makes total sense as there aren't a lot of veggies to be had in January. But the tribes meandering around, say Costa Rica, had a ton of fruit to choose from, so I'm sure they ate plenty of pineapples in addition to wild game and fish. Their percentages were probably quite different from those pre-Alaskan tribes. Generally speaking, if you ditch processed foods and added sugars from your diet, you're going to be a lot healthier. I think beyond that, the balance of proteins vs. carbohydrates vs. fats (macronutrients that make up our food supply) is guided by our DNA and our lifestyle choices. This means there's a bit of trial and error to find the diet combination that works best for you. Experiment a bit and check in with your doctor to make sure you're heading in the proper direction. Personally, I think Paleo works so well for people primarily because they are ditching a lot of crappy food and replacing it with healthier stuff like lean proteins and lots of roughage. If you feel a bit off, though, when you're on Paleo, try to adjust your proteins down a bit and your veggies up and see if that helps. Or maybe (gasp!) add a serving or two of whole grains a day. The point is to find a balance that works best for you. Shouldn't that be the point of any lifestyle change? If textbook Paleo works best for you, great! If you need to tweak it a bit to make you a happier person, go for it ... Like I said earlier, if you and your doctor are happy, then you're doing just fine. Cheers, Lisa

photo credit: Stefan Kloo


About Lisa Johnson

Lisa Johnson here. I've been a personal trainer since 1997, a Pilates instructor since 1998 and the owner of Modern Pilates since 1999. I'm hoping to give you some good ideas to get or stay in shape with a healthy dose of humor and reality. Thanks for joining me.

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13 Responses to Did the Paleo Diet Get the Math Wrong?

  1. Lisa November 6, 2012 at 12:22 pm #

    I always thought pure Paleo was too much for my system as well. I get so I start craving fruits and veggies if I eat too much meat. Especially red meat. I think you’re spot on that anyone who adopts a paleo-like diet is benefiting more from getting rid of the bad food in their diet. Thanks for the great post!

  2. evilcyber November 6, 2012 at 1:17 pm #

    I always had the same problem with the Paleo Diet you have: how do we know who ate what during a time that spans 2.6 million years? Even using nitrogen isotopes we can’t much fathom it, as the samples we have will only be valid for a little geographical area and time span.

  3. curlsz November 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I constantly see those that are in the anthropology field get irritated that people don’t understand the true origins and spout that caveman did this and cavemen did that, when in actuality the vast majority of us have not studied the cavemen, we are just repeating what some blogger told us they did based on what they read on the internet – ahhh the internet a myriad of misinformation!

    The one thing paleo and primal has helped with in my opinion has gotten us off the idea that we need a lot of grains and starches in our diet – historically the dependency on starches was because they were cheap and could be stretched- potatoes were easy to grow and cheap, and when you have 6 kids and one income and it’s a meager income at that, starches can go a long way!

  4. Lisa Johnson November 6, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Glad you all like the post, Evilcyber, this has been my big bone to pick with any of these “all encompassing” claims. There was a wide variety of time and geographical impact which created different DNA strains that adapted in slightly different ways. How can you lump the whole bloody planet into one category? L–

  5. TraceyJoy November 7, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    You hit the nail on the head Lisa, it really helps people because they are making smarter food choices. Once you leave processed to death food like substances alone and eat whole real food, your body is happy. It’s reminds me of what mom did in the 1980’s Fit For Life Marilyn and Harvey Diamond. She did eat grains/carbs/legumes but not with protein. You’d have a meat, veggies and a salad, or grains/starches, veggie and a salad, no dairy. I know Paleo is totally against the grain. I think after a while this may become taxing on the digestive systems of those that follow it. My M.D. just took me off of all animal products and dairy in an attempt to heal my lungs from my life long battle with chronic asthma. So I’m no longer a meat eater not even fish and seafood. My new way of eating is good for me and like with everything you have to find what works best for you. One size fits all doesn’t generally work for the masses.

  6. Lana Faessler November 9, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    While you raise some interesting points, you lost me when you supported eating more grains. Having read Wheatbelly, which has been well-researched, I am off almost all grains, but especially wheat. Never felt better!

  7. PommieMJ November 9, 2012 at 6:03 pm #

    A good article and response to the recent research, thanks for sharing. I agree with your suggestion of finding the direct combination that works for you or the individual. I’d take it just one step further by asking the individual to think of it in terms of the nutritional needs of their body based on their individual needs. And these needs are driven by their age, sex, ethnicity, activity levels etc. I feel that if you think in those terms first, then you will think about the micronutrient requirements first and then the micronutrient profile will take care of itself.

    Hope that makes sense.

  8. Lisa Johnson November 9, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    That’s so, so true TraceyJoy … you have to read about various forms of nutrition, try a few things, perhaps work with your doctor, and adjust until you find a combo that works for you. :-) L–

    Lana, if you’re happy off grains, by all means, stay off grains. I can tell you that I do maybe one or two servings of grains a day (today I had zero). I don’t actively work to stay away from it but I don’t actively look for it either. Hope that makes sense … and as TraceyJoy said find what works best for you. L–

  9. Lisa Johnson November 9, 2012 at 8:58 pm #

    PommieMJ, I hear you, I agree … thanks for expanding on that point. :-) L–

  10. Michael November 11, 2012 at 2:03 am #

    Who suggested Protein levels of 40-50-70-80% on any diet? You be sick from that unless you are super-low calorie. I think you need to check your math.

  11. Lisa Johnson November 11, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

    Hi Michael, according to the researchers, the average person consumes 40% to 50% so I suppose you can jab at them and say they got their math wrong … :-) What do you consider a more appropriate amount? L–

  12. Kim November 12, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

    Grains are more or less unhealthy for lots of people and there’s no good reason to eat them. Starchy root vegetables are much more nutritious, kinder on your digestive system, not inflammatory, lack the horrible anti-nutrients and proteins found in grains and tend to have a lower GI. They’re healthier in every way.

    As for the protein, you are confused. No one ever claimed people used to eat 60-80% protein, nor that we eat 40-50% protein today. It’s not like everything that aint a carbohydrate is a protein. There’s a little something called fat too.

  13. Lisa Johnson November 13, 2012 at 11:17 am #

    LOL, Kim I’m pretty aware of the macronutrients that we ingest which yes, compose of fat, carbohydrate and protein. I’m also aware that lots of vegetables have a bit of protein to them. Are whole grains as nutritious as root vegetables? As a big group vs. a big group no, they aren’t. But should they be completely shunned or just limited? It’s the all or none attitude about eating on certain diets that is always a turn off to me. To make blanket statements usually winds up backfiring over time. I remember my parents being all low carb in the 70s (they went into ketosis), and then we all went into 30/30/40 for a while, now it’s Paleo … shrug. I stick with my original point, every *body* is different and people need to go with what works best for them. L–

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