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Dietary myth and fantasy in modern Paleo-land

I empathise with Socrates. The old philosopher used to regularly land himself in hot ouzo in ancient Greece with his tendency to ask people he came across in the street questions about their beliefs in an attempt to make sense of the world.

In my own rather insignificant approach to understanding individuals’ far less important views regarding fitness and training, I’ve been unable to resist following Socrates’ lead. Why would you not ask someone what the ‘Butter not Bread’ statement on their t-shirt means? “It’s Paleo, you old tosser,” was the reply. I thanked Grok for his informed insights and mused on his wisdom as I accidentally dropped a dumbbell on his bare foot, distractedly thinking long and hard about what ‘Paleo’ means to some people, especially if butter is included. For more than a few, Paleo-land appears to be one giant, idealised summer barbeque, where wild animals boldly and happily approach the roaring flames, place their heads on a nearby flat stone and wait patiently for Paleo-man to drop a large rock on their skulls, killing them instantly with no blood, mess or gore. One common form of Paleo-man (homo narcissus) uses charcoal to draw pictures of his overflowing dinner plate before running around to show all the people he thinks are his friends, who occasionally grunt their approval and give a thumbs-up.

Of course, one or two of the elders wonder whether he’s been misnamed and should have been called homo twittertwattus, particularly when he starts drawing pictures of his torso in a rather flattering light. Of course, the problem with many simplistic interpretations is that the Paleolithic period encompasses around 2.5 million years of human history, from the earliest use of simple pebble hand tools right up to around 10,000 years ago. To represent what is effectively 99% of modern man’s origins and development through the image of a purely carnivorous, lean and muscular caveman (adept at hunting big game) as some would have it with one diet, regardless of the evolutionary context over such a time period, is clearly ridiculous. As ever, there is some good science out there, even if it has been largely ignored. For the open-minded, Christina Warinner’s recent Ted Talk<1> is a great place to start.

Warinner is an archaeological scientist who quietly studies these things and is an expert on ancient diets. Her work provides a strong scientific argument (in other words with evidence, not ill-informed opinion or marketing guff) for not just one Paleolithic diet but many, depending on when and where early man lived. When animals could be caught and eaten, she argues that they would not necessarily have looked like what is typically seen in a butcher’s window today, being smaller, leaner and whatever could be found in that geographical region (think rabbits and small deer in mainland Europe; capybara in South America; or fish and shellfish if by the sea). Furthermore, meat eating was not for the squeamish; with food not necessarily plentiful, everything was eaten, including bone marrow, organs, etc. – the equivalent of bushtucker trials for everyone.

Perhaps most interestingly, Warinner provides evidence for why everything that is recommended as ‘Paleo’ in a diet today (from vegetables like the simple carrot and all members of the brassica family to common salad leaves, tomatoes, almonds, apricots and bananas) is nothing like what it would have looked (and tasted) like in Paleolithic times. The modern versions are the result of farming. Paleo carrots were spindly looking things that have since been bred to look like today’s giant, sweet orange root; tomatoes were tiny and have since had their deadly nightshade characteristics cultivated out; today’s bananas have almost no seeds compared with those of Paleolithic times; and the remarkable broccoli existed as a weedy looking flower head. And for those antigrain campaigners, there exists evidence of grain and seed consumption (alongside pestles and mortars to grind them down) from at least 30,000 years ago. Warinner’s work reminded me of a research paper I read in 1992.

This looked at human energy expenditure in very early hominins (around 2.5 million years ago) right through to modern times, arguing that for early man, “the young of herd animals, sick or small cursorial animals were likely prey, but most of the time they probably scavenged the kills of large carnivores and fed on birds, reptiles, fruits, grasses, seeds, grubs, etc.; as broad a diet as possible to reduce dependence on fluctuating resources”.<2> This observation was backed up in this paper by evidence from hunter-gatherer populations in Africa that showed that a substantial portion of protein in the diet comes from gathered sources (caterpillars, grubs, sleeping lizards) rather than hunted. This argument appears to be supported by a report published last year in Scientific American that discussed the diet of the Hiwi – a modern hunter-gatherer people living in Columbia and Venezuela. <3>  Warinner is not completely dismissive of the Paleo-fantasy life created by modern marketing and misinformation. Her concern is to present evidence from research, rather than to propagate myths.

In summarising her work, she notes that three things were important to the real Paleo diet: dietary diversity, foods that were fresh and in season and whole foods. Finally – and in agreement with the anti-sugar lobby – she makes a strong point about processed food, drawing the comparison that, should real Paleo man have stumbled across sugar cane, he would have had to eat an impossible 8.5 feet of it to obtain the same amount of sugar as is increasingly typical of a US standard sized soda. The original Paleo diet: a fascinating, complex story, evolving over 2.5 million years and emphasising dietary diversity, fresh and whole foods. It’s quite simple really.

Read Part 2: Sport and exercise science: Just opinion after all? here

About the author 

Tony Lycholat is a coach, coach educator and high performance scientist, with degrees in sport science and sports medicine. He has worked with Olympic and elite professional sportsmen and women for over 25 years and has been the technical editor at FitPro since 1993.




  1., accessed on 11 December 2014.
  2. Park RJ (1992), Human energy expenditure from Australopithecus Afarensis to the 4-minute mile: Exemplars and case studies,  Sports Sci. Rev., 20: 185-220.
  3., accessed on 11 December 2014.