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Paleo diets, eating in a style thought to imitate our ancient ancestors, have gone from a fad diet to a diet movement. But are they based on sound principles?

The paleolithic diet, an eating plan in which dieters eschew grains, dairy, legumes, and processed food, has become not so much a means to deal with love handles and beer bellies but a statement of personal identity.

"I am paleo," many dinner party guests proudly announce, with the surety of a true believer in an ancient style of eating. But does the paleolithic approach to life make sense in the modern world?

What Is a Paleo Diet?

Paleo diets purport to emulate eating the way our ancestors did, in the prehistoric time at the end of the last Ice Age.

Based on the knowledge we have of the paleolithic period, approximately 10 to 50 thousand years ago, followers of paleolithic diets decline to eat foods of more "modern" origins, that is, foods that have only been around 10 thousand years or so, such as refined sugar, wheat and wheat flour, soy and soy products, dairy products, and any kind of processed food.

If our ancestors could not have picked it or killed it with a stick, paleo diet purists maintain, then the food was not intended for human consumption.

Is the Paleolithic Diet an Accurate Reflection of How Our Ancestors Ate?

In recent years, a series of archaeological discoveries have pushed back the probable dates of the introduction of a number of different kinds of "modern" foods far back into the paleolithic era.

Here are just a few examples:

  • Archaeologist Anna Revedin of the Italian Institute of Prehistory and Early History and her colleagues have found flour-like starch grains from grinding stones from 30,000-year-old archaeological sites in Europe, along with evidence that early humans baked a kind of pita bread in a fire. The flour on the stones, it should be pointed out, seems to have been ground from cattail roots, not from some kind of modern grain.
  • Anthropologist Amanda Henry and fellow researchers found evidence of grain in plaque clinging to the teeth of Neanderthals, a species closely related to humans, that seems to have gone extinct at least 24,000 years ago.
  • Some paleolithic digs contain large numbers of skeletons of mole rats, animals that would have gathered where there were large numbers of potatoes or similar tubers in storage.

And because human beings have used fire, Harvard University primate scientist Richard Wrangham tells us, possibly as long as 1.8 million years, it seems that "raw" is not necessarily a natural way for people to eat their food. 

Unless our ancestors were visited by time travelers who left behind Coca-Cola and Cheetos, it does seem that processed foods is a relatively modern invention. Most of the popular paleolithic diets, however, aren't really based on historical eating patterns. That does not, however, mean that they aren't a potential step in the right direction for weight loss and general health.

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