The Real Paleo Diet


By Vesanto Melina, MS, Registered Dietitian


Paleolithic diets are the subject of many websites and books. However I have yet to meet or hear of anyone who follows anything even close to a real paleo diet. The paleo wanna-be’s who head to their butcher for grass fed beef buy a product with 5 times the fat content of wild game that had to run to elude predators. Today’s pseudo-paleos buy select cuts, and avoid the offal (liver, kidney, brain, intestines, tongue, testicles), bone marrow, and stomach contents that would have been consumed by ancestors who were grateful for their occasional successful hunting trip or leavings from a carnivorous animal. The intake of insects by today’s imitators is nowhere near that of true paleo people. And our ancestors ate a lot of plant food-in fact they were gatherers far more than they were hunters. They never used sugar or oil, and salt was so scarce that sodium intakes were 1/6th  those of today. Honey was rare. When thirsty, they never resorted to a latté —they drank water.

The Paleolithic period lasted for 2 million years, until 10,000 years ago when the agricultural cultivation of grains, legumes and other plant foods appeared. Domestic animals were not kept and meat was unlike the flesh of the leanest grass fed cows that lounge around in fenced paddocks. After being weaned from the milk of their own species, paleo people did not touch a drop of cow or goat milk. Nonetheless, their calcium intake was double current levels, originating from bones and plant foods.

Paleo people evidently ate plenty—resulting in intakes of about 3,000 calories a day. This was necessary for climbing hills, gathering massive amounts of plant foods, chasing potential prey with occasional success, and eluding carnivorous animals themselves in the process. Two thirds of their calories, meaning 2000 calories a day, came from plants. The true paleo diet was very high in fruit, leafy greens, roots, other vegetables, nuts, legumes such as peanuts, and seeds, generally consumed raw. Anthropologists consider that the plant foods consumed by paleos provided as many calories as vegans consume in 2012 and exceeded today’s recommended intakes for fiber, folate, potassium, and many other protective nutrients.

When people switch to today’s pseudo-paleo diet, their big advantage is that they eliminate refined carbohydrates (white flour and sugar) and in some cases they cut out oils (though most don’t as they fry meat, chicken, and fish.) They start to eat more whole plant foods (though not as much as paleo ancestors).

U.S. News & World Report ranked today’s “Paleo diet” as being the least healthy of all 25 dietary patterns rated, based on high cholesterol and fat content and intakes of healthful plant foods that fall short in protective nutrients and phytochemicals. Other criticisms are that the pseudo-paleo diet ignores the environmental crisis that should be leading us to eat lower on the food chain and shows little concern for the plight of grass fed beef or “free range” chickens when they reach the slaughterhouse. Since few people have access to much wild game, what makes sense from a health perspective is to replace game with cooked legumes (beans, peas, and lentils), fresh green peas, and sprouted lentils or mung beans. The legumes are high in protein, low in fat, and cholesterol free.

For more on this topic, read Becoming Vegan: express edition by Registered Dietitians Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina, The Book Publishing Co, 2013. Vesanto also is co-author of Becoming Raw, Becoming Vegetarian, and the Raw Food Revolution Diet. (www.camd58.sg-host.com)


Eaton Paleolithic nutrition revisited: A twelve-year retrospective on its nature and implications. Eur. J. Clin Nutr. 1997;51,207-216

Best Diets Overall. U.S.News & World Report. 2012. http://health.usnews.com/best-diet/best-overall-diets?page=3

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