Origin of the Paleo Diet

Paleo - a movement away from industrial food:

'If this book must be dedicated to someone, it should be to the occasional man, woman or child who still can resist the specious authority of food merchants, their lavish advertisements and spectacular commercials, and retain sufficient intellectual independence to think for themselves.'  
- Walter L. Voegtlin, M.D., F.A.C.P., in The Stone Age Diet (1975).

This is a quote by the author of one of the early, popular books written that touched upon ancestral diets and health. Walter Voegtlin is a Gastroenterologist and his book is on the study on how effective the Paleo diet is. He points out that he believes that humans are supposed to eat more protein and his book argued on how and why humans are not fit to have plant-based diets. 

The early work:

Other earlier Paleo written works included:

  • Primitive Man and His Food (1952) - Arnold DeVries
  • Stone Age Diet (1987) - Leon Chaitow
  • Paleolithic Prescription (1988) - Stanley Boyd Eaton

Most of the early books simply fizzled and faded into obscurity because they didn't look at the bigger picture. Without the evolutionary template correctly in place, these early books were incomplete and inconclusive. And it seems that at the time, scientists and the public at large still weren't quite ready for Paleo diets and lifestyles.

Voegtlin's book was used as a background to the original concept of the Paleo Diet made by Stanley Boyd Eaton and Melvin Konner. It was called 'Paleolithic Nutrition' and their article was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1985. Stanley Boyd Eaton is a Radiologist while Melvin Konner is a Professor of Anthropology and Neuroscience and Behavioural Biology at Emory University.

In 1988, Eaton, Konner and Marjorie Shostak expanded upon their previously proposed 'discordance hypothesis' in 'The Paleolithic Prescription', the first book in what would become one of the bestselling health categories worldwide.

Their theory proposes that conditions such as high blood pressure, obesity and Type 2 diabetes result in part from the mismatch between the lifestyle common in developed nations and that for which the human genome was originally selected (through natural selection) during the Stone Age. While controversial, the concept has provoked much research but as Dr Loren Cordain writes:

'There is no doubt in my mind that without Dr Eaton ..... Paleo would not have become a household term now recognised by millions'.

A movement is born:

Paleolithic nutrition, however, became more popular when Dr Loren Cordain introduced it commercially in his book, "The Paleo Diet" in 2002. Cordain also trademarked the Paleo Diet.

Dr Loren Cordain is described as the world's foremost authority on the evolutionary basis of diet and disease and widely acknowledged as one of the world's leading experts on the natural human diet of our Stone Age ancestors. 

He has authored more than 100 peer-reviewed scientific articles and abstracts, and his research into the health benefits of Stone Age Diets for contemporary people has appeared in the world's top scientific journals, including the 'American Journal of Clinical Nutrition', the 'British Journal of Nutrition' and the 'European Journal of Clinical Nutrition' among others. He is also on the Advisory Board of 'Paleo Magazine', the first, and only, print magazine dedicated to the Paleo/Primal lifestyle and ancestral health.

Dr Cordain's book, 'The Paleo Diet', has been widely acclaimed in both the scientific and lay communities and was fully revised in 2010. His next book, 'The Paleo Diet for Athletes', published in October 2005, discusses how the Paleo Diet can be modified for the high performance endurance athlete and lead to improved health and performance.

His next book, 'The Dietary Cure for Acne', is available in paperback and as an instant download ebook. 'The Paleo Diet Cookbook' was published in 2010 and became an instant bestseller. His most recent book, 'The Paleo Answer' was released in December 2011, and represents the sequel to 'The Revised Paleo Diet'. Dr Cordain is the recipient of the Scholarly Excellence Award at Colorado State University for his contributions into understanding optimal human nutrition.  

Paleo today: where next?

The paleo movement today could run the risk of becoming another niche diet - a bit of a fad with a sale-by-date. Fortunately Paleo is much more than that.

Whatever the science and the evolutionary idea, Paleo is first and foremost a move away from industrial food and all its documented abuses. Wether our ancestors fed exactly on a diet rich on meats, and low on grain and milk is beyond the point. They did not feed on High Fructose Corn Sugar for sure - nor did they ate product laden with additives.

So the paleo diet cannot simply be reduced to some 'ancestors diet' and should not. Nor should it be reduced some some 'athletes diet' - for sure it is popular with cross-fitters, but long distance runners may perform very well with quite a different diet. 

The main point of the paleo diet and its real value is that it forces us to question our food and to adopt one diet plan that seems to work for many people. It does not mean that it is the only one that would work - but working for most people it does.

Also it is a plan, not a religion - full abstinence is not required. One can rip the benefits of a paleo diet by having most meals paleo, but it does not mean that one cannot ever eat some rice for instance. All things in moderation with a good paleo core will do.

This said for some people a strict observance of the paleo rule may be necessary: celiac disease sufferers. In this case the paleo diet is not just a choice of life but may be a strict necessity. This tends to complicate the discussion on the paleo diet, as while the strict requirement and amazing success of the paleo diet in that group of people may be representative of the general benefit of going paleo, it does not mean that always 100% paleo is the only option. Again a good paleo core and a few exceptions may work just as well for non celiac sufferers. 

This goes back to Walter Voegtlin's quote at the beginning of this article:

'resist the specious authority of food merchants, their lavish advertisements and spectacular commercials, and retain sufficient intellectual independence to think for [yourself]'