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Paleo means 'old.' The Paleo diet refers to the 'Old Stone Age,' or 'Paleolithic' ('lithic' - of stone) era, which is a pretty important time period. It covers about the time from 2.6 million years ago to about 10, 000 years ago. That's longer than humans have been human. It's also 99% of the time human have been human.
And that's the premise behind Paleo.
And most of that history took place not just before cars, smartphones and skinny jeans, but before agriculture, metal tools, cities, villages, houses, horses...
It's a new way to look at the world. Look at the mirror - what's looking back, Paleo advocates say, is a caveman or a cavewoman.
So we should eat like cavepeople.
Paleo advocates have plenty of evidence on their side. In hunter-gatherer societies like those we spent 99% of our history living in, most people will know about 150 people - extended family, kinship groups and clan contacts. How many people do most people actually know? At the most, about 150. How many of their thousands of Facebook friends do most people have even the most rudimentary personal relationship with? About 150.
Paleo is famous as a diet, so let's talk about that.
The Paleo diet is restrictive and prescriptive
You're not supposed to eat anything that wouldn't have been available to our hunter-gatherer ancestors - no grains, especially, but also no legumes, no processed foods, nothing that's a product of the agricultural revolution. I've even seen some Paleo people rehashing an old vegan argument by asking if white potatoes were Paleo (vegans sometimes agonize about honey in the same way).
Obviously, Paleo can be a narrow way to live. But it's claimed by its advocates that it can help reduce chronic illnesses and have amazing, if not miraculous, impact on health. One leading Paleo advocate, Robb Wolf, claims that a Paleo diet puts arthritis into remission. It's especially popular with people who want to lose weight and with people with allergies and autoimmune conditions, especially celiac sufferers and (mostly self-diagnosed) gluten-intolerant people.
There are good arguments in its favour. Paleo advocates point out that human beings have lived on what we could call the 'agricultural diet,' whose caloric staples are fat and carbohydrates from grains, for only about ten thousand years and in some populations far less than this. Prior to this humans ate a diet in which the primary sources of calories were probably carbohydrates from roots, tubers and nuts, and animal fats. This at least appears to be correct.
The remainder overwhelmingly comes from protein: it accounts for between 25% and 50% of hunter-gatherer diets. If modern hunter-gatherers are a good model for how our ancestors ate, that that link in the Paleo chain appears unbroken - though critics point to opportunities and resources modern hunter-gatherers have that ancestral humans didn't have.
Paleo seems at first to make sense.
It's argued against on a couple of major points. Some people say Paleo misinterprets the scientific evidence about how our ancestors lived. Others argue that Paleo goes against current theory on healthy eating and exercise.