No Such Thing as a ‘Natural Diet’ for Humans, Scientists Say

Diet plans like to make all sorts of claims in terms of their effectiveness for weight loss and better health. Most emphasize certain food groups while eliminating others. Almost all assert their guidelines work best because they reflect how we should eat.

One of the regimens that has been growing in popularity in recent years is called the paleo diet, aka the caveman, stone age or warrior diet. Its premise is that we ought to return to the eating styles of our ancient ancestors because they were more in keeping with our genetic makeup.

The underlying theory is that civilization has corrupted our food supply through unsound food production and manipulation, which has led to the onslaught of diet-related illnesses – like obesity, diabetes and heart disease – that we face today. The only way out of this misery, proponents say, is to mimic the eating behavior that once ensured the survival of our species.

For humans, ancient or modern, the paleo diet is the optimum diet, says Dr. Loren Cordain, a professor in the Colorado State University health department and author of The Paleo Diet. Cordain, who calls himself the “world’s foremost authority on the evolutionary basis of diet and disease,” goes on to say that, genetically speaking, we have not been able to adapt to our modern food choices — the so-called Western diet, which is largely based on processed foods and laden with fat, salt and sugar. Consequently, we are now plagued with disease.

The solution would be to dispense with most, if not all, man-made foods, especially carbohydrates and dairy products. Followers are encouraged to eat meats and seafood (wild-caught), as well as certain vegetables and fruits, as long as they can be found in their original, unmodified state. Intermittent fasting is also recommended.

Some nutrition experts and biologists, however, are skeptical of these restrictions.

The paleo diet is basically a fantasy, according to Dr. Marlene Zuk, a professor of ecology, evolution and behavioral science at the University of Michigan, who gave an interview on the subject to the German news magazine Der Spiegel.

“Its supporters assume that, at a certain point in time, our ancestors were perfectly adapted to their environment. But those conditions presumably never existed,” she said.

Others agree.

“Scientists find it appalling that a number of proponents of the supposed stone-age diet claim to be knowledgeable about a period of time that lasted around 2.5 million years and ended in about 8,000 B.C.,” says Dr. Alexander Ströhle, a nutrition physiologist at the University of Hannover in Germany. “On the whole, the feeding behavior of prehistoric man … was very flexible.”

As far as the health benefits of the paleo diet are concerned, they are so far undetermined. Some studies have linked the regimen to reducing blood pressure, LDL (bad) cholesterol, and triglycerides (a fatty substance in the arteries that can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke). But the strong emphasis on eating meat, including red meat, has its own well-known disadvantages.

That doesn’t mean there are no benefits to be had from the paleo diet. For those who are interested, there is plenty of information available on the Internet, like the Ultimate Paleo Guide, to name just one. More importantly, however, dieters should still focus on the healthiest food choices, no matter what philosophy appeals to them.

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Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND
Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.. Follow Timi on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.