palaeolithic diet versus Paleo Diet

Some of my friends and colleagues have tried to hard sell me on the paleo diet with what always sounded like junk science. Given the diversity of ecosystems at the time, it made no sense to me that all humans from that period (spanning tens of thousands of years) ate the same diet. The more I looked into it, the more the Paleo Diet felt classists and racist. I am a Paleo Diet sceptic.

I am here because my West African, Scottish, Dutch, French, Kalinago ancestors survived in their environment. My maternal grandmother was a pescatarian (a Western word not one she would have used to describe herself), ate a lot of fruit and greens, and lived into her 90's and my maternal grandfather was too. My paternal great grandmother ate meat but very little of it. She lived to be 93. So it seems to me, that a paleo style diet would most likely be detrimental to my health. I should eat my ancestral diet.

What does that look like?

  • Seafood - Mostly fish but really anything from the ocean including conch, whelks, lobster, whale and turtle.
  • Meat - lamb. I do not recall eating beef when I lived on the islands. Not even hamburgers. The chicken was imported and mostly grilled or used in pilau.
  • Greens - Kale is great but my grandparents never ate it. The most prevalent green on the island would be okra and the leaves of the dasheen plant, which is used to make calaloo. The tuber is also eaten.
  • Vegetables and ground provisions - Breadfruit, plantain (aka cooking banana), christophene, okra, dasheen, eddoe, sweet potato, cassava, squash, maize
  • Fruits - avocado, mangoes, prickly pear, guava, almond, cashew fruit, mamey sapote, sapodilla, custard apple, soursop, tamarind, papaya, coconut, plumrose, acerola cherry.

There are many more fruits and gound provisions that I can't remember. Notice that I did not list beef. I think my first taste of beef was when I moved to the United States. I didn't like it but since it seemed like the American thing to do, I ate my fair share of steak and burgers. A few years ago my eldest child said they did not like the taste of beef. But until earlier this year, my youngest relished her steak. I realised it was time. We no longer buy meat.

I am the process of evaluating my current diet with an eye toward a return to my ancestral diet which was rich in fish, ground provisions, and fruit.

I'm a Paleo Diet sceptic

I have been approached by a few of my friends and acquaintances about adopting a Paleo diet as part of my diabetes management. After doing some preliminary research, my initial response was a firm "no". It seemed to me that living with Type 1 diabetes and eating Paleo was not going to work for me. Another friend, the owner of a local wellness centre, sent me a link this week about recent research indicating that the Paleo diet was beneficial to people with Type 2 diabetes. I read the material she sent me, and my adamant "no" became a "possible". But although I respect her knowledge and expertise, I'm still sceptical.

Why am I sceptical? It always seemed to me that although we all descended from an early human, quite a bit has changed in the millions of years since that diet was "the norm". I've mixed ancestry. Some of my ancestors are from African, some are from Europe, some are Asian, and some are from the Americas (Carib). Africans, Europeans and Carib American's do have the same DNA, did not live the same lifestyle, nor had access to the same foods. We've all developed differently. It always seemed to me that arguing for a diet based on what our ancestors ate a few million years ago while ignoring the multiple genetic and environmental adaptions that have occurred since then is VERY short-sighted. The challenge I have with Paleo is that it assumes we are all the same and share the same heritage. I'm not alone in my thinking.

Geographical mapping of my ancestral DNA from
Geographical mapping of my ancestral DNA from

I found this "conversational" thread from a few years ago:

The palaeolithic period is prehistoric and as much as anthropology has told, there is still so much we don’t know. What we do know is that this is the time when Hominids (I think we were called that by then) started moving around the world.

Many tens of thousands of years have passed since then. And if our ancestors adapted so differently, in ways that are visible to us now, it only makes sense that we may have adapted in ways that are invisible to us.

For instance, Asians, Native Americans, and blacks are lactose intolerant, and blacks (the group I know best) tend to grow strong bones without consuming a lot of calcium through milk. White women are prone to osteoporosis and tend not to be lactose intolerant. Also, Sickle Cell is an adaptation that protects blacks from malaria, but can still kill us. Whites don’t have Sickle Cell. In our attempt to become colorblind (which I think is completely ridiculous), we forget that there are real differences that need to be acknowledged and respected.Livetoride

In the USA, I think we tend to avoid these conversations about genetics differences. I think it's collective guilt from years of slavery, colonialism, attempted genocide, and oppression from our past.

But I still wanted to know if anyone with Type 1 diabetes was living a Paleo lifestyle. My quick search found a 2012 Six Until Me article by guest blogger, Lindsay Swanson.

I started a blog to share with others what I learn, and to try to help others feel better too. I’ve tried to find ways to share how being Paleo is easy, flavorful, and rewarding. In all of the benefits I’ve seen, my blood sugar is amazing I’d say 90% of the time. Hard to believe, but I see it with my own eyes, so, yet another reason Paleo has been wonderful for me. My body behaves entirely differently when I eat real food vs. fake food. ~ Lindsay Swanson

Without knowing the full details of Lindsay's diabetes management strategy, I remain sceptical. I have quite a few questions.

Is she on an insulin pump or multiple daily injections? Eating multiple times a day becomes challenging when you have to calculate the right amount of rapid-acting insulin and not run into complications from the activity curve of the insulin. Does she have hypoglycemia unawareness or a CGMS to catch the hypoglycemia before it becomes critical? When my blood glucose rapidly falls because I'm incorrectly "guessed" the amount of "unknown" carbohydrates in my meal or the effect of my activity (exercise, a hike through the woods) I'm going to need some rapid-acting sugar. Fruits will NOT work. Does she work in a slow-paced sit-at-a-desk all day type of job, or is she in an always-travelling-hustle-and-bustle work environment? My work schedule will affect when and what I can eat. Try telling your boss you can't make the 10 AM meeting because it's time for your Paleo snack.

I remain sceptical because I find that Americans tend to simplify everything. They want to take complicated subjects and find easy answers. There is NO easy answer to find the ideal diet for everyone when the variables are unknown and complex. The Paleo diets expect modern humans to eat live our Paleo ancestors while ignoring the fact that we don't live like our ancestors. I don't hunt or gather my food? Do you?

More reading material.