Correction: Some people have adapted to relatively new foods not on the traditional Paleo Diet. This is where The Modern Paleo Diet comes in. Let’s explore some of the foods that you may be able to eat that are not on the traditional Paleo Diet.
Dare I say there really is no such thing as a Paleo diet. The plants and animals aren’t available anymore as the species that were eaten by Paleolithic man. You can merely try to mimic the diet. But humans are in fact thriving and reproducing on the foods currently available. Let me explain why.
A common argument is that we are not adapted to foods like dairy and grains that arrived upon the advent of agriculture about 10,000 years ago. The argument further unravels when we assume that a species isn’t adapted to a food because it’s never consumed it. However, we would not have survived as a species had we not discovered and adapted to new foods. There are plenty of examples where species discover new foods and thrive on them.
Let’s use an example of humans and animal consumption. Humans originally ate fruit, plants, and insects. At some point, they began scavenging carcasses of animals killed by other animals. These early humans ate the bone marrow from bones (high in DHA) and brains from skulls because this was all that was left over after other animals had eaten the animal. After the introduction of this new food, our brains grew in size and we became much smarter and eventually began hunting large animals. The more meat we consumed, the more our guts shrank. We went from having a much larger gut that was good for fermenting and digesting plant cellulose and carbohydrate to a much smaller gut better adapted to digesting animal protein. We adapted for the better by eating this new nutritious food.
Food sources can be big drivers of evolution. So, one can’t accurately say that no one is adapted to new foods as postulated by Loren Cordain, who still advocates a strictly Paleo diet (no dairy, grains, potatoes). Everyone is different. The Modern Paleo Diet acknowledges these evolutionary realities and differences in food tolerances between human beings. When you don’t tolerate a relatively new food it is called a food sensitivity or intolerance.
The fact that the period of agriculture represents less than 1% of our evolutionary history, it’s unlikely that we’ve evolved any complex adaptations to an agricultural or industrial way of life. It takes 40,000-100,000 years to make complex genetic adaptations to new foods.
Some people have begun this process and have shallow adaptations to lactase and grains. This means that while they have not developed complex, multi-gene adaptations, many do quite well on these new foods that were not around during caveman times. Others without this adaptation have what is called a food sensitivity.
Food sensitivities affect roughly 75% 0f the population, but some of this is due to health conditions and leaky gut or allergies. We’re referring more to food sensitivities where a person has an innate intolerance to a food. Some have no symptoms at all. Others have mild to severe reactions after they eat that food, but their response can be delayed by a few hours to even a week in rare cases. So, pinpointing the foods to which you are sensitive or intolerant can be challenging.
Food allergies and intolerances can be genetic. Research indicates that if both parents have food sensitivities, their children have a sixty-seven percent chance of developing food sensitivities. When only one parent is sensitive, the child has a 33% chance of developing food sensitivities. Specifically, a person may inherit a deficiency of an enzyme like lactase, the enzyme that digests dairy. With nightshade sensitivities, there are ten genetic variants for susceptibility; not all individuals are affected equally or at all. A similar case can be made for other food sensitivities like gluten. Genetic variations predict the severity of your sensitivity.
Chris Masterjohn has compiled a brilliant list of reasons why certain foods are toxic and why we don’t tolerate or are sensitive to certain foods:
- The intrinsic toxicity of the food. [think nightshades, which are slightly toxic]
- Proper preparation of the food to neutralize the toxins.
- Genetic, and perhaps epigenetic, variations in the activities of enzymes and other proteins that activate the toxin, detoxify the toxin, transport the toxin, or mount an immunological response to the toxin.
- Variations in intestinal flora, including bacteria that degrade the toxin or bacteria that counteract the body’s detoxification mechanisms.
- Secretion of sugars such as mannose into the digestive system that bind to lectins (such as gluten) and protect against their toxicity.
- Secretion of IgA antibodies into the intestinal tract, which bind to undigested food particles and protect against their toxicity.
- Variations in nutritional status, including nutrients involved in modulating the immune response, supporting detoxification mechanisms, and protecting the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract.
So, how does one determine what foods they are sensitive to and should avoid? The gold standard is the elimination diet. Tests for food sensitivities can be highly inaccurate and really cannot be used as a final word in whether you are sensitive to a food or not due to the complex nature of food sensitivities. However, tests can serve as a starting point. For more information on food sensitivities, testing, and how and why to do an elimination diet, read my article Food Sensitivities Make You Sick and Fat.
As you can see there are a lot of factors at play that cause one to become intolerant of a food. You can’t just outline a diet and say,”This is the best diet.” This applies to the Paleo diet and any other diet. Due to the complex nature of genetics, environment, intestinal flora, food and our nutritional status, one must figure out the diet that best suits their needs, preferences, and tolerances at any given time.
Fifty percent of the world is intolerant to dairy. However, dairy intolerance decreases the farther away we get from the equator. The need for vitamin D may also account for why some people – especially northern Europeans – became able to digest milk, a very recent mutation. Many theorize this is because people get more sun, and thus more vitamin D production, closer to the equator. African-Americans and Asians tend to not tolerate dairy because their ancestors generally lived close to the equator. As people moved farther away from the equator, their skin got lighter and they developed the ability to digest dairy as an adaptation to obtain Vitamin D.
Then there’s the science of epigenetics. Genes are turned on and off according to diet and lifestyle. For this reason, it is absurd to suggest the epigenome of modern humans is identical to that of our Paleolithic ancestors given the substantial changes in environment and food that have occurred since that era. Epigenetic changes can happen relatively quickly. One such quick change is called lactase persistence or the ability to digest lactose into adulthood, which began about 8000 years ago. This is roughly 2,000 years after we began domesticating and milking animals.
Chris Kresser of Chriskresser.com eloquently stated:
I know a study in 2007 where researchers looked at DNA from skeletons of people who died in northern or central Europe about 7000 to 8000 years ago, and there were zero, none of them had lactase persistence at that time. And then another study from the Bronze Age, about 3000 years ago, with a similar population found that about 25% had the allele for lactase persistence, and then today in some Scandinavian countries, I think, like Sweden and Denmark, lactase persistence has reached about 95% penetrance in the population. And the cow herding tribe, the Tutsi tribe in East Africa, I think, has about 90% lactase persistence. So that’s a huge genetic change in a short period of time, but even that period of time is incredibly long compared to how quickly some of these epigenetic changes can happen.
We’ve lost 10% of our brain mass since the dawn of agriculture. This is due to consuming a larger portion of the diet as grains, which are far nutritionally inferior to animal protein. So, our brains shrank. Great. Thanks a lot bread.
People who are adapted to grains are probably the minority. There hasn’t been enough evolutionary pressure to make that a majority genetic trait. That’s very different than saying, “Nobody should eat this because we’ve never eaten these foods in the past.” The question is rather, “Where do I sit on the spectrum? What grains do I tolerate and what grains do I not tolerate?”
The reason so many people are sensitive or intolerant to grains is because grains are a relatively new introduction into the human diet, only having begun cultivation 10,000 years ago. We are not adapted to eating grains such as wheat, barley, and rye in the mass quantities (at almost every meal) that we do today because evolutionarily these grains were only available seasonally to cavemen if at all.
A general rule of thumb is that if you have frequent stomach aches, ulcers, IBS, or any kind of digestive disorder you should avoid all grains like the plague and see how your condition improves after a few months or more. For these folks and others sensitive to grains, one must be wary of hidden grains — animal protein that was fed grains. Most of the meat you buy at the grocery store or at restaurants, even if organic, was fed grains. This can cause problems just like if you ate the grains themselves. Grass-fed meat is the only choice for those sensitive to grains.
Gluten (the Latin word for glue) is the primary protein found in wheat. Gluten is hard to digest, turns into a sticky mass in the gut and often passes through the stomach undigested. When there is low stomach acid (quite common), gluten enters the small intestine undigested, where it causes intestinal irritation. This inflammation can contribute to all kinds of health conditions. When your intestines are irritated they do not absorb nutrients very well. A recent study shows that even people without gluten intolerance or celiac disease suffer inflammation after consuming gluten in very small amounts. Intestinal irritation usually does not have any symptoms.
Wheat grown in the US is a hybrid developed specifically to increase the gluten content so that baked goods will have more puff and fluffiness. The more fluffy your bread, the more gluten it contains. Hybridization to increase gluten content has made it the most indigestible flour in the world. This wheat was never consumed until recently and should be avoided.
Gluten needs to be nixed from your diet if you ever hope to achieve health. You will be astonished at the long list of health conditions that can be caused or exacerbated by gluten. Ancient man almost never consumed grains. It is theorized that if ancient man lived in a region where grains grew wild, they were still only available seasonally.
Advocates of the Paleo diet mostly advise to avoid legumes solely on the basis that ancient man did not consume them. They aren’t Paleo, but I haven’t seen any evidence to convince me that these foods play a significant role in the modern disease epidemic.
Here’s my opinion: If beans or legumes like lentils make you play your Scottish bagpipes, you don’t digest them well. Perhaps you shouldn’t eat them. Or maybe you need to prepare them by soaking and sprouting the beans. Traditional and tribal peoples never consumed legumes unless they were prepared properly. For instance, they soaked beans at least overnight to remove toxicity and the sugars in them that cause gas. I advise you do the same or avoid legumes. They won’t be prepared properly this way in a restaurant and can cause problems.
Food preparation methods like soaking and sprouting render legumes non-toxic. They contain various substances, namely lectins that can cause leaky gut and phytates (aka phytic acid) that bind to minerals and prevent absorption of the minerals in the food. Phytates don’t, however, contrary to popular opinion, bind to minerals in your body and chelate minerals from your body. Phytates simply bind to the iron in beans, for instance, so that you don’t absorb very much of it. When prepared properly, the lectins and phytates are eliminated or greatly reduced.
Beans and legumes, unlike nuts and vegetables, are the primary source of calories for many people around the world, and eating foods so rich in phytic acid as nutritional staples is quite unhealthy. If you replace meat and animal fat with soy and lentils or beans and rice, you’re drastically decreasing your nutrient intake — these plant proteins are less nutrient dense in the first place and then the phytic acid prevents your body from absorbing the nutrients they do contain. Thus, basing your diet on these foods can lead to severe nutritional deficiencies. This is a very good reason to keep legumes to a minimum in the diet.
Ancient man ate a lot of potatoes, contrary to popular Paleo dogma. Strict Paleo diets exclude potatoes, claiming that the saponins, aka glycoalkaloids, they contain make them unfit for human consumption. Saponins are toxins present in various plants (including spinach, oats, chick peas, beans, asparagus tea, onions, yams, garlic, tomatoes, and peppers) as well as potatoes, but aren’t present in sweet potatoes.
In plants, they act as a protective mechanism, but some think they can cause gut permeability or leaky gut in humans. Leaky gut is characterized by perforations in the gut that cause undigested food and toxins to leak out into the blood stream leading to all kinds of health problems. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, makes a huge deal about saponins, saying that they cause intestinal permeability. His references to support his case only point to in vitro studies, which are done in a test tube, not in the human digestive tract. However, it has never been shown in a human being that consuming a lot of spuds are going to increase intestinal permeability. This is because the saponins or glycoalkaloids are broken apart during digestion, posing no problems in the gut. Additionally, saponins appear to be found mainly in the potato skin. If you’re worried about it just don’t eat the skins.
Research shows that starches like potatoes and tubers were a staple in the diet of Paleolithic man. Today, most people tolerate potatoes quite well and I see no reason to exclude them from the diet unless you have a sensitivity to the nightshade family of vegetables. Dr. Paul Jaminet, co-author of Perfect Health Diet recommends eating 1 pound (.45kg) of potatoes, sweet potatoes and tubers a day. People have found on the traditional Paleo diet that they are not getting enough carbs. This can cause low energy and brain fog. It makes much more sense to me that humans should be eating starches to get enough carbs to fuel their brain as opposed to getting carbs from grains. Starches were abundant during Paleolithic times, grains were not. Eat your spuds.
Spuds have not been associated with contributing to the modern disease epidemic. This does not mean we have a free pass to begin popping potato chips or french fries. These are not Modern Paleo because they are fried in inflammatory vegetables oils. We’re talking about eating real potatoes that have been baked or broiled.
We’ll get into more detail in subsequent posts about why the foods mentioned above, which are not on the traditional Paleo diet, are fine for some people to consume. The Paleo diet is a great framework with which to begin a healthy, nutrient-dense diet. The Modern Paleo Diet is about adding modern foods to the diet that work for your individual biochemistry and seem to be safe, based on current research, to human health.
Click Here for References+
1. Brand, Evan. Not Just Paleo Podcast. Nora Gedgaudas. Paleo 101, What and Why Paleo, Sustainability and Sensory Deprivation Tanks.
2. Chris Kresser Podcast. RHR: What Science Really Says About the Paleo Diet — With Mat Lalonde. June 13, 2012.
3. ** Food Facism and the 80/20 Rule.
4. Cordain, Loren. The Paleo Diet Revised. 2nd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.
5. Fallon, Sally. Nourishing Traditions. 2nd Edition. New Trends, 1999.
6. Louise at Ancestralchef.com. Why Aren’t Potatoes Paleo? April 9, 2013.
7. Masterjohn, Chris. What Can Modern Toxicology Tell Us About Food Toxins and Food Intolerances? December 30, 2010. The Daily Lipid Blog.
8. Guynet, Steve. The Potato Diet Interpretation. December 19, 2010.