What relevance do traditional diets and lifestyles have to the 21st century world?

In the current climate of concern regarding both physical and mental health, and in light of the increasing pressure and stress that many are exposed to, it makes sense to study previous generations and to examine their way of life in comparison to ours in the hope of finding some solutions. There is no doubt that many of our ancestors – both relatively recently and from many millennia ago –faced difficulties that we cannot even comprehend. However, there are positive lessons that we can learn from the way they lived at different times and in different locations. Nutrition, a level of physical robustness, a shared religious framework, a sense of community or social cohesion, family support within the group, traditional methods of cooking, building and creating – these are just a few of the things that we can look at. For some, the wider term of ‘Ancestral Health’ is considered more suitable to this endeavour. Using the word ‘Paleo’ gives us a foundation upon which to build – a starting point – by examining the way that we have lived for the majority of our time on the earth. It then allows us to examine the subsequent changes – and the effects of those changes both good and bad – in the hope of bringing light to bear on some of the problems we now face as a species.

Hunter-gatherers only lived to around 30 didn’t they? Why would I use them as an example of health?

From archaeological records, we do indeed know that ancient hunter-gatherers lived to only around 30 years of age. Looking at the reasons for this, we know that they were predated by large animals, succumbed to accidents while hunting for food, fell prey to infections or injuries and died in difficult childbirth. However, should they manage to get past these hurdles, we also know that they went on to live relatively long lives without suffering with many of the diseases that are common today.

Working out the life expectancy of a population is notoriously difficult:

‘In a 2010 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, gerontologist and evolutionary biologist Caleb Finch describes the average life spans in ancient Greek and Roman times as short at approximately of 20 to 35 years, though he laments these numbers are based on “notoriously unrepresentative” graveyard epitaphs and samples…’ (Original article here).

Calculating the data from the early centuries, some scientists recognise the difficulties: ‘It does not mean that the average person living in 1200 A.D. died at the age of 35. Rather, for every child that died in infancy, another person might have lived to see their 70th birthday.’

In light of all this, we are certainly aware of the increase in certain diseases over the course of the 20th and 21st Century. Even if we cannot agree on life expectancy figures, it would be hard to find anyone who denies the seemingly contradictory position we find ourselves in. We have accumulated scientific knowledge and achieved breakthroughs that our ancestors could never have imagined, but we continue to struggle with problems related to physical and mental health.

Are you suggesting that we run around with spears and cook our prey over an open fire?

The ancestral lifestyle is a template or blueprint. We are not seeking to replicate the life of hunter-gatherers in today’s modern world, but trying to take what is beneficial about their lifestyle and adapting it to our own. In addition to this, we can go back only two or three generations and see the radical changes that industrialised food production has brought to our diets.  We can study our collective history to learn and revive traditions or skills that may have been long forgotten. We do this because they are valuable and because we think that there may be something to gain by adapting this knowledge. There is also a recognition of what we have lost, or what we could potentially lose if such traditions and knowledge are not preserved. When we learn from the past, it is not because we want to return to the past. They are two very different things.

We have evolved to eat these relatively new foods haven’t we?

It is true that various groups around the world have evolved in a relatively short amount of time to tolerate certain foods. We think immediately of lactose intolerance and its prevalence in African and Asian populations compared to that of Northern Europeans. Again with carbohydrates and the salivary amylase gene that allows us to digest them more successfully than non-human primates (again differing between populations). While many people may suffer no discernible problems from such foods, it may be that others would find it beneficial to exclude or reduce them. For some people, tolerating a food is not the same as thriving on a food and it would appear that the western diet coupled with the rise in diseases such as diabetes and atherosclerosis, as well as all sorts of allergies and digestive problems, tells us that something is not right. 

What about modern Hunter-Gatherer societies that eat a diet high in carbohydrates i.e the Kitavans? They are healthy aren’t they?

It is true that there are varying amounts of carbohydrates in the diet of modern hunter-gatherers, with people such as the Kitivans (around 70% carbohydrates) being at the extreme end of carbohydrate consumption (the Inuit eat practically no carbohydrates at all). These people have eaten their traditional diets for a very, very long time. These diets are comprised of ‘real’ food rather than processed rubbish – it is their natural diet. However, we are not Kitivans and some people cannot tolerate high levels of carbohydrates; especially if they are already unwell with conditions such as diabetes. Personal experimentation is the key, but always built upon the foundation of traditional ways of eating

Isn’t the maxim ‘everything in moderation’ correct when it comes to diet?

The implication is that as long as we do not eat a lot of them, eating foods that are bad for us is acceptable. This entirely depends upon the individual circumstance. Carbohydrate (sugar) is addictive and many people they cannot tolerate even minimal amounts without craving and consuming more and ending up on a rollercoaster of blood sugar swings. In such a case it would be wise to try and avoid it altogether. Some people minimise it drastically. Grains can irritate the gut and cause permeability and inflammation. Some people cut them out altogether, some eat them very occasionally, knowing that intestinal discomfort will follow. Others have no problem at all and choose to eat them on a regular basis. In all such cases, personal choice is the overriding factor.

However, eating these foods in moderation is obviously not applicable to everyone. If only a ‘moderate’ amount of food can induce these effects, can we really advocate its regular inclusion in a healthy diet; for instance such as in the food pyramid, the base of which is built on ‘healthy wholegrains.’

Secondly, what is ‘moderation’? How are we to ensure that we are eating in moderation? The consumer is bombarded on nearly every aisle of the supermarket by processed foods that are high in pro-inflammatory Omega-6. A quick look on the average ingredients list reveals a myriad of unpronounceable additives. A stop off at a service station reveals shelf upon shelf of wheat and sugar-laden goods. Where is the ‘moderation’ in this? The availability and choice of food open to us does not present a picture of ‘moderation’, so is it right to argue that we can sustain a diet based on choosing ‘all things in moderation’? Our choices are not choices made from a selection of foods that reflect the adage ‘all things in moderation’, they are made in supermarkets and food outlets where the majority of products are either highly processed or contain artificial additives or harmful ingredients, packaged and advertised to target consumers in very specific ways. Our choices are skewed before we even begin.

Where is the definitive proof that an ancestral-based lifestyle can help with the prevention of certain illnesses?

We can find papers, articles and testimonials to ‘prove’ many things. Critics complain that we can just pick the evidence to fit our theory; a research paper that ‘proves’ a diet works, another paper that ‘proves’ the opposite. When it comes to scientific data, we are unsure, confused, and distrustful (see Tom Naughton’s wonderful talk ‘Science for Smart People’).

If we look at what we know ourselves without any reference to the science, most people will conclude that:

  • Lifestyle – and in particular diet – has a profound effect on our health and wellbeing
  • There is something fundamentally wrong with the modern lifestyle and diet
  • The instances of diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and atherosclerosis are increasing
  • People live increasingly stressful lives
  • The dietary advice given over the last few decades has not worked
  • We are doing something wrong on a scale never before witnessed in our history

Science is not about providing definitive, permanent proof. It is about putting forward a hypothesis, testing that hypothesis through experiment, and revising the hypothesis if needed in the light of new evidence.

My doctor thinks that this is a load of old rubbish and he’s a qualified medical professional. Why is he wrong?

Most doctors carry out very little training in nutrition. They have hectic work lives that often (understandably) do not allow them to research independently and keep up with developments in other areas. Many are wedded to a low-fat, high carbohydrate ‘healthy’ diet and the idea that high cholesterol is bad and that fat clogs our arteries. Many look to statins and blood pressure medications and a myriad of other drugs to deal with the symptoms, rather than find the root of the problem. They are caught up in a system where big drugs companies call the shots, and the more drugs prescribed, the bigger the profit. Many have a minimal amount of time to see each patient and resources are often scarce. Like the rest of us, they live in a world where the media bombards us with very specific messages about diet and tries desperately to flog us foods that are ‘healthy’.   What hope do we have but to take our diets into our own hands? It took us decades and decades to become wedded to the lipid-hypothesis until we have reached a point where it is the accepted wisdom and practically heresy to disagree. How long will it take us to turn this oil tanker around? There is not time for many people to wait until everyone ‘agrees’ on this. We have to do our own research, look at the hypothesis and the rapidly accumulating evidence in its favour, and make a decision for ourselves. Life is short.

What is the difference between Paleo and Primal?

Both Paleo and Primal are based on ancestral health principles and both advocate a return to a Paleolithic template for nutrition. Although the Primal diet may include some forms of dairy (butter, heavy cream, aged cheese), the Paleo diet can also incorporates some limited forms of dairy (butter, heavy cream) if well tolerated (as with Primal). Some Paleo adherents avoid dairy completely though.

Professor Cordain, author of ‘The Paleo Diet’ originally advised low levels of saturated fats and this distinctly set the Paleo diet apart from the more relaxed PB guidelines on saturated fats. Professor Cordain has revised his stance on saturated fat around 2005 (with a revised Paleo Diet book published 2011) in the light of increasing evidence that it has no direct link to heart disease (except when consumed in the context of a high carbohydrate pro-inflammatory diet). Both Paleo and Primal adherents recognise the need to avoid saturated fat from grain fed and factory farmed animals (which results in abnormal Omega 3-6 ratios) as much as possible.

To sum up, Paleo and Primal have much, much more in common than any slight differences between them – especially when in comparison to the standard recommended diet. Both approaches advocate a return to the earliest, traditional diet known to man as a blueprint for contemporary health.

So isn’t this just another version of Atkins?

Looking back on the Atkins diet, it is clear that many of its principles are shared by the Paleo template: the avoidance of excessive and processed carbs, the requirement of fat to satiate appetite and control hunger, the acknowledgement of animal protein as an important food source, the caution regarding fruit, the need to limit starchy vegetables according to goals, the avoidance of calorie counting, the importance of stabilising blood sugar levels. Dr Atkins states in his book New Diet Revolution‘Remember that fresh meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, nuts, seeds and occasional fruits and starches are the foods nature intended you to eat’. (p.221). It is also important to remember that the extremely low carbohydrate phase of the diet was just that – an introductory phase – and for long term maintenance, carbs were increased. This does tend to get forgotten when people discuss Atkins. However, the diet also recommended low-carbohydrate processed foods such as ‘sugar free pancake syrup’ and salad dressings, soya flour, reduced sugar sauces, peanut butter (legumes), wholemeal bread, and various other foods that would definitely not be on the Paleo shopping list. Despite this, I believe the Atkins diet must be seen in the context of the mainstream dietary advice that it challenged and also against the millions of people (myself included) that tried the diet and experienced tremendous weight loss. The main principles are sound and for some there is a natural flow from Atkins into the Paleo/Primal scene. 

This all sounds expensive to me – do you spend a lot on food?

The first thing that we noticed upon fully starting the diet is the amount of time it took to shop was drastically reduced. There are whole aisles in the supermarket that we no longer venture down. Inevitably this means spending less as we focus on meat, fish, eggs, vegetables and some frozen or fresh berries. We try to pick cuts of meat that are not too expensive (saving the steaks and joints for a treat). Offal is cheap too and we try to eat that on a regular basis. We stock up on fish around every six weeks for the freezer and eat quite a lot of wild, tinned fish too. Apart from the meat and fish, coconut oil is probably the most expensive thing that we buy, but it goes a long way (we get ours from Real Foods). Our food choices are very important and that is reflected in the time and effort we take to track down the best we can. The ‘best’ choice is not always the most expensive choice.

Here is some more advice on the affordability of the Paleo diet:

What about eating out?

Although many people prefer to eat at home, there are times when it’s nice to have something cooked for us. Looking for the most ‘meat and vegetable’ based dish is a start and many places will replace certain foods with extra meat or vegetables instead. Indian or Chinese restaurants may be tricky as it can be difficult to find suitable dishes but with most other restaurants it is fairly easy to choose the more Paleo-friendly options. The main thing is to do what we can, not worry and have a nice time!

How do I persuade someone to try the diet?

Robb Wolf’s thoughts on this:

Arguing with vegetarians, vegans or followers of the government recommended ‘low fat, healthy-wholegrain’ diet is definitely not the purpose of this website.

What do you eat instead of bread?

When talking to people, I have found the most resistance to the idea of giving up bread. They are baffled as to what we eat instead of bread and take on a tinge of hysteria about going without toast or sandwiches.  Making our own bread is tied to so many ideas of cosiness and self-sufficiency that it is almost impossible to think about it purely as food and the thought of giving it up seems tantamount to deprivation for many people.

We should eat enough ‘real food’ to make you full. The most important thing to remember is that bread is just filler if we think about it. We just put some fat on it and/or stick some meat between it to make it palatable. There are very few people who will eat dry bread. Same with pasta – we need to toss it in fat (olive oil), flavourings (garlic) or sauces (tomato) to eat it. Would we eat a bowl of plain pasta? Or rice? Not eating bread is one of the biggest changes that you can make.


For a list of Paleo-friendly suppliers and products see the Resources and Suppliers page.

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