Given that most of the food we eat today are non-Paleo I foods – in other words foods based on grains, dairy or legumes, and/or highly processed – it seems a little bit contrary to eat paleo and if we’re being honest a bit of a pain in the arse.
So where did this ‘paleo’ thing come from? What’s the history of this modern paleo movement? Who were the main players? And why did it catch on?
There’s always been mavericks in the world of diets and the idea of caveman diets is an old one. Often fad diets fade away into obscurity and the gurus behind them are labels as quacks, but every so often one comes that gains support from credible evidence. The real story of ‘Paleo’ begins on the 70′s, where it went from an unsupported idea to one that might be worth considering.
The person who really kicked everything off was Dr Walter Voegtlin a gastroenterologist who wrote ‘The Stone Age Diet’ back in 1975. At 227 pages it’s a well referenced and very ahead of its time book, which tackles the subject of modern versus ancient diets, going into detail about the different nutritional and health factors at play.
The idea of ‘paleo’ and hunter-gatherer diets was then revisited by Stanley Boyd Eaton, a radiologist, and Melvin Konner, an anthropologist and neuroscientist. Together they published papers from the mid 80’s onwards that explored the idea of paleolithic nutrition and health. The two main ones are:
- Eaton, S. Boyd, and Melvin Konner. “Paleolithic nutrition: a consideration of its nature and current implications.” New England Journal of Medicine 312.5 (1985): 283-289.
- Eaton, S. Boyd, Melvin Konner, and Marjorie Shostak. “Stone agers in the fast lane: chronic degenerative diseases in evolutionary perspective.” The American journal of medicine 84.4 (1988): 739-749.
Around the same time Kerin O’Dea, a Doctor turned professor of nutrition and public health, published two papers on her work with indigenous Australians, case studies where they were able to improve their health by readopting tradition diets and lifestyles. The two standout papers are:
- O’Dea, Kerin, Randolf M. Spargo, and Kim Akerman. “The effect of transition from traditional to urban life-style on the insulin secretory response in Australian Aborigines.” Diabetes Care 3.1 (1980): 31-37.
- O’dea, Kerin. “Marked improvement in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle.” Diabetes 33.6 (1984): 596-603.
Around the same time a few people started to catch on to this idea of evolutionary medicine and evolutionary fitness, people like Art Devany an economics professor who’s spent decades working up their theories of evolutionary fitness and lifestyle.
Whilst there was still much discussion and research looking at issues like heart disease and obesity from the evolutionary perspective the real standout hits came in the latter half of the decade with Eaton expanding on the idea of evolution and human nutrition
- Eaton, S. Boyd, and Stanley B. Eaton III. “An evolutionary perspective enhances understanding of human nutritional requirements.” The Journal of nutrition 126.6 (1996): 1732.
A few years after that Loren Cordain – a professor in the areas of nutritional science and exercise physiology – burst onto the scene with his loooooong review singling out the negative effects of humanities swing towards grain based diet.
From the late 90s and onwards into the 00’s he was instrumental in pushing paleo into the public spotlight.
As the profile of paleo caught on so did the publishers and in 2002 Cordain published The Paleo Diet and followed it up with three more including the co-authored Paleo Diet For Athletes (2012) .
Cordain grabs the headlines but another academic, Steffan Lindbergh, an anthropologist from the University of Lund in Sweden was also important in collecting data and building the evidence base behind the paleo diet, publishing papers with other notable paleo researchers
In 2005 things took a logical step when Cordain, Eaton, Lindberg and other notables like James O’Keef and Jeanie Brand Millar got together to author a wide ranging review, setting out the arguments for paleo.
- Cordain, Loren, et al. “Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century.” The American journal of clinical nutrition81.2 (2005): 341-354.
Whilst the academics had done an OK job with the science and developing the arguments, the work of popularising the diet further fell to a younger, more Internet savvy generation of nutritionists, coaches, trainers and bloggers, including Robb Wolf (The Paleo Solution 2010), Mark Sisson (the Primal Blueprint 2011), and Ray Audette (Neadnder Thin 2000).
Which kind of brings us up to the present day.
And the context?
The first thing to keep in mind is that the paleo diet very much pushes food quality, the emphasis being on what you’re eating, not how much of it you’re eating. The second point is that, whilst there is lots of different ways to do paleo, most paleo diet recommendations are at the lower carb and high protein and fat end of the diet spectrum.
Both of those messages, the ‘quality not quantity’ ethos, and the ‘low carb’ recommendations, contrast vividly with what was going on at the time.In the late 70s and the 80s and the 90s the usual advice centred around counting your calories, and avoiding fat like the plague. Both of which are pretty tedious.
In the world of diet and nutrition when the pendulum swings very far one way – in this case towards low fat eating – it’s only so long before it swings back the other way. People love the novelty of new diets and they love a story. Dieters were bored of the whole low fat message and living like a modern caveman was a tangible idea, a club you could join. Added to that it seemed to makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.
All those low fat diet pastries had gotten stale, but the clincher was another big diet Atkins. This effective, low carb diet really threw open the door and popularised the idea of high-protein high-fat diets, but the lingering problem with Atkins was the food choices. How could all that bacon, sausage and cheese be healthy? There must be some way to get the benefits of the lower carb approach but avoid the bad choices?