The paleo diet is defined by eating meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, plants, nuts and seeds. But
should we be concerned, or at least aware of the modern modifications we often implement
to create a meal? Are we eating paleo with too many modifications, or do we hold the ability
to create an even more nutritiously dense meal and obtain better health than our ancestors?
What if we could find out the exact foods our closest genetic ancestors ate and mimicked
that to our diet as close as possible, would we obtain the same good health our ancestors
had, or has our environment changed too much that our bodies now require more?
To obtain a better insight I spoke with Greg Battaglia.
The paleo or paleolithic diet is one which bases the concept of the foods available to our
hunter gatherer ancestors, which ultimately breaks down to foods provided and found in
nature, without the necessity or addition of modern food techniques, chemicals,
preservatives or processing. The fundamentals of the paleo diet provide us with the basic
guidelines and principles we should apply to our diets and lifestyle today; not necessarily the
exact foods available to our ancestors within their environment.
But the question then arises, are we ultimately in a position now where we are fortunate
enough to have a large range of food sources we can choose from ‐ and have the ability to
achieve even greater health than our ancestors because of this. Or should we possibly be
avoiding many of the food sources our ancestors wouldn't have had available and/or in the
amount they would have had available, because our genes are still adapted from the more
minimal food sources our ancestors consumed and had available?
It is known that our ancestors had good health and didn't suffer from chronic illness as we
do today. Ultimately the diet of our ancestors varied somewhat depending on where they
lived, their environmental climates as well as other factors.
Ancestors living around Canada would live mostly of fresh salmon, deer, elk, berries and
plants. Whereas ancestors living around Africa would have lived on plant roots and animals.
And then there are the Aboriginals in Australia who live off the land who eat animals, bugs,
plants, native nuts and honey.
But research shows all our ancestors had good health ‐ because they where eating natural
food sources available. But if this changed, and Aboriginals suddenly lived in Canada, eating
salmon and berries, and ancestors in Africa suddenly lived in the outback of Australia ‐
would they all still have vibrant health?
This is a great question that I've pondered myself self many times. I can't say that I have an
exact answer. I personally look at paleo as an explanation for why certain dietary strategies
work rather than a prescription, per se. For instance, the fact that many people are gluten
intolerant can be explained using the paleo model. If gluten didn't cause any problems we
wouldn't tell people to not eat grains simply because our ancestors didn't. I guess what I'm
saying is that the paleo model can guide our ideas, but ultimately solid science must be there
to confirm it.
In terms of diets differing based on geographic locating, there is some evidence that isolated
groups develop adaptations to certain foods. For instance, the people on the island of Okinawa
have developed a salivary enzyme that is used specifically for breaking down starches
contained in rice, whereas people of European descent do not have this specific enzyme. This
is obviously due to the fact that Okinawans have been eating a lot of rice for a long time and
somehow were able to develop some adaptations to it.
I think it's also important to consider that probably not all of our ancestors in the Paleolithic
were necessarily healthy. Some probably had to survive long periods on limited food sources
and indeed developed deficiencies. Others probably survived in a lush environment with a
wide variety of nutrient dense foods and flourished with excellent health. I think at the end of
the day the goal is this:
1. Get all essential nutrients needed
2. Avoid things that cause problems (possibly grains, dairy, legumes)
Whether all of our ancestors were able to do this or not is irrelevant to our modern needs. The
fact that the Australian Aboriginals, the Inuit, and the Kalahari Bushmen were able to survive
for so long suggests that all of their diets met the 2 previous requirements. If they didn't, they
would have died off pretty fast, as I'm sure happened to plenty of cultures that failed to thrive.
I think the main reason that paleo works so well is because it simply removes the stuff that we
know to cause problems. Whether you eat lots of fish, broccoli, spinach, and collard greens or
lots of beef, cauliflower, carrots, and sweet potatoes (not saying that you can eat just those
foods and meet all nutritional requirements) and end up meeting all your macro and
micronutrient and calorie needs you'll be healthy since you met your needs and avoided the
stuff that's going to cause damage in the first place.
Our current environment and lifestyle is far different from that which our ancestors had.
What other aspects of our hunter gatherer's lifestyle should we consider to implement in
addition to following the paleo diet food principles, which could ultimately enhance our
health even further?
I think an area that is majorly lacking in many discussions of evolutionary fitness (but certainly
not all) is the psychological aspect of evolutionary fitness. We often hear about what we
should eat, how we should exercise, how many hours of sleep to get each night, what
supplements to take, and other tangibles. But what we donít often address is the primal mind
and how our evolutionary environment has shaped our minds and way to optimize the
function of mind to adapt to industrial living while remaining happy and healthy.
Something that Iíve noticed and I say this out of compassion, not criticism, is that we
sometimes adopt a primal lifestyle in the tangible sense but do nothing to change our mind‐
set. We still attach our identity to material things and seek happiness and gratification from
external things like shopping, watching TV, drinking, and possessions. We even identify
ourselves by how much money we make, or what cloths we wear and attempt to use this as an
attempt to attain fulfillment. Contrast this with our hunter‐gatherer ancestors who had few
possessions and lived a nomadic existence. The only things they needed for happiness were
food and shelter, social interaction with their tribe and intimate relationships. Now donít get
me wrong, I fall into these same materialistic and consumerist holes sometimes, and Iím
certainly not perfect, but I do feel that it is critical to take some measures to take a step back
and make note of what is really important in our lives and put our main focus on those things.
Indeed, research has shown that money only improves happiness to the extent that it helps
one achieve their basics needs of living and comfort, whereas health is a much more accurate
indicator of happiness.
So, in essence, the take‐home message of this is that our mental perspectives should, ideally,
be focused on the things that really matter in life, like health, family, friends, and what weíre
passionate about. Thatís not to say we should all just go live in shack somewhere and not make
money, but that we should not lose sight of what is most important and not sacrifice quality of
life just to make more money that is not really needed for happiness.
A good way of improving our primal minds that our ancestors didnít have to use is meditating.
Our ancestors certainly werenít sitting around meditating or practicing strategies to become
more present‐minded‐ they had enough down time during their daily activities to not need any
stress relief techniques to keep their stress response in check‐ but meditation has been
supported by scientific findings to lower the stress response, promote a stronger immune
system, decrease blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve cognitive function, and
improve sleep quality. The good news is that you donít have to sit around with your legs
crossed like a Buddhist monk to get the benefits of meditation (unless you want to, of course).
The following are some great ways to ďmeditateĒ:
1. Focus on your breath. When you feel stressed and are thinking about a million things just
slow down and focus on your breathing. Do this for at least a minute and focus on breathing in
deeply and then imagine that every breath out is a release of all the built up tension in your
body. Be completely aware of your bodyÖ..feel your body, so to speak, and feel it become
relaxed and loose. This can be very helpful.
2. Become more aware of your body and surroundings. A good quote by the famous
psychologist Erik Eriksonís wife, Joan Erikson is ďGet out of your mind and into your body.Ē
What this means is that you focus on your senses. Most people in western societies have so
many responsibilities that our minds are always active to the point where the body goes into
autopilot and we completely lose touch with the present moment. We become completely
focused on, and worried about, what we have to do for the future or dwelling on things that
happened in the past rather than focusing solely on the present moment. The key to taking a
break from all this constant thinking is to focus on our senses. What do we see, hear, feel,
smell, or taste at this moment? Focus on it and youíll be present.
3. Practice flow. Flow is a mental state in which a person is completely immersed in an
activity that they are currently doing and any concept of time has been stripped away. It is an
intensely enjoyable state to be in and everyone has felt this at one time or another. The key to
activating it is to do any activity that you enjoy but that also offers a challenge, but not so
much of a challenge that it stresses you out..
4. Accept fully whatever circumstances arise in your life at any point in time. Thatís not to say
that you donít try to change undesirable circumstances if youíre capable of doing so, it just
means that you donít complain or worry about whatever is happening in reality. For instance,
letís say you set up a picnic and tell all of your friends to come because thereís supposed to be
nice weather. You get everything set up, bring your grill, a Frisbee for some fun afterward, etc.
Before you know it starts pouring rain as soon as everyone shows up. The natural instinct is to
flip out or complain, get agitated, feel like a victim, etc. But this does nothing but make the
situation worse. Instead, if we simply accept the situation for what it is and take action to fix it
as best possible we will avoid much suffering.
If something goes wrong we simply take action to fix it if possible, or if we canít fix it,
completely accept it for what it is. If we emotionally resist a situation that cannot be changed it
only causes unneeded stress that accomplishes nothing other than to decrease our quality of
life and health. If we complain or feel bad for ourselves it only intensifies our negative
perception of the situation. This sounds like common sense, but we humans can be highly
irrational beings, and this resistance to whatever the circumstances currently are in life is
widespread in western culture.
Another great way to improve your health that isnít always mentioned by proponents of
Primal living is by fostering good relationships and compassion for other human beings. In our
technologically advance societies it becomes increasingly easy and tempting to just throw on
the TV, computer, ipod, or whatever other distractions are available and ignore other people.
In fact, many people do just this on a daily basis and have minimal interaction with other
human beings, at least on any sort of compassionate level. Instead, turn that stuff off and talk
to a friend, family member, or just spark random conversation with interesting people that you
meet. Do things with people, stay socially active, laugh, smile, compliment people and go with
the flow. People will sense this and good relationships will be born.
Also, I know this response is a bit philosophical in nature overall, but another good one that
our ancestors probably didnít think about, or didnít have to at least, was what their purpose
was in life. Having a purpose in life is something that can propel us forward and keeps us
happy and motivated in day‐to‐day living. Many people in our society are told whatís
important to them, how they should think and act, and what aspirations they should have in
life. Most people go to a job everyday that they hate just to pay the bills. They use their job as
a means for making money only, and donít enjoy the process. On Monday they canít wait until
the weekend because of their undesirable circumstances. This is another cause of the lack of
present‐mindedness mentioned above.
Our hunter‐gatherer ancestors likely found purpose in their daily hunting and other activities
and enjoyed the process. In our culture we need to think about it and develop an honest idea
of whatís important to us in life and then embrace it fully and put all of our heart into it. I truly
believe that is a major key to both health and happiness throughout the lifespan.
On a more tangible note, something else that I think is good for people living in more northern
climates is a light box. Some people in northern climates literally do not see a significant
amount of bright sunlight for weeks or months depending on the location and season. A
10,000 lux light box can be used to simulate the effects of sunlight and has been well‐
researched and shown to have proven benefits in improving mood and preventing/treating
depression. The great part is that some insurance plans cover these things if your doctor
prescribes it. It can be turned on in the morning while eating breakfast and stimulates sensors
in the eyes that help to regulate circadian rhythm, resulting in more alertness and energy
during the day and an easier time falling asleep at night.
I promise this is the last one, but I think recreational dancing is a great addition to a primal
lifestyle. Our ancestors had ritualistic dance ceremonies around camp fires during the night to
entertain themselves and honor their gods. Iím personally a terrible dancer and itís not
something I even take seriously (It doesnít really need to be for our purposes anyway), but if I
go out to a bar with a group of friends and music is playing Iíll often dance around and have a
good time just to sort of joke around and have a good laugh. Itís great exercise, it makes me
laugh, and my friends get a kick out of my terrible dancing skills, which ties in with the whole
social aspect of primal living. I donít think this one is necessary, but for people who are more
outgoing itís definitely something fun and is actually really good, pumpy exercise that gets the
With all the outside environmental factors we are faced with on a daily basis which impacts
on our health negatively, i.e. stress, pollution and radiation, we are in a positive position
where we have the ability to take extra nutrition through supplementation which can be a
means of helping to balance out the negative impact our environment has on our body.
What supplements should we consider to add into our diets to help increase our nutrition?
Fish oil seems to be a big one.
When it comes to health, I believe that supplements should be kept to a minimum. The main
purpose of any supplement within the context of primal/paleo eating is to put something back
into your diet that you would be getting if you were eating an optimal paleo diet based on all
of the highest quality foods like pastured animal products and organic plant foods.
Unfortunately, not all of us can manage to do that and inevitably some supplements will be
needed to optimize health. Like you mentioned, fish oil is an excellent on that every paleo
dieter should be taking if they aren't eating all pastured animal products. 3g per day is what
most studies have found to have the health benefits of taking fish oils.
Another one that has worked well for many people is a high quality probiotic. Our paleo
ancestors consumed the organ meats of the wild animals that they hunted and the beneficial
bacteria that came along with the certain organs like the small intestines. They also consumed
adequate dietary fiber from non‐cereal plant foods and never had a chance to consume
refined sugar, which can disrupt the balance of intestinal bacteria.
Another supplement that is an absolute must in my book (along with fish oil) is vitamin D.
Indoor living has dramatically reduced our exposure to sunlight and consequently results in
low serum vitamin D levels. 2000 IU's/day is a safe upper limit for vitamin D supplementation if
you haven't had a blood test to measure your vitamin D status. However, for some people
2000 IU's will not be enough to bring serum level into the optimum range. That being said, I
highly suggest that all people taking vitamin D get their blood levels tested periodically to
determine the dosage that is appropriate for them.
Other than that, there are a few supplements that are optional but could be very beneficial for
some people. One of these is ZMA, which should be taken 30 minutes prior to bedtime. It
helps to improve quality of sleep and recovery from exercise, which is very useful for highly
active individuals and athletes.
L‐glutamine is an amino acid that can be taken during the transition phase from a typical
western diet to a lower carbohydrate paleo diet. The body can use L‐glutamine to fuel the
brain during the adaptation period to fat metabolism, while blood glucose level will be low and
cognition will suffer. It basically helps to ease the symptoms experienced while switching to
being a fat burner instead of a sugar burner.
Creatine monohydrate can be used to improve work capacity within an anaerobic domain and
has some nice research to back it up. It also may have other health benefits like improved
cardiac function and cognition.
Although our ancestors wouldn't have combined foods, we are now able to eat more than
one nutritious food source at any one time. Additionally, combining certain foods can help
the synergy of nutrients and help with digestibility. With that in mind, should we be
concerned with high calorie meals, high carb meals or liquid meals even if 100% of the
ingredients are paleo friendly? And does this ultimately begin to go outside the basic
principles of the paleo diet?
When it comes to food combining, I keep a very simple rule: never eat a meal that is both high
in fat and carbs. All meals should be either high in fat and protein or high in protein and carbs,
but never high in both fat and carbs. The reason for this is that the insulin spike that follows
carb consumption signals for fat molecules to be stored at the nearest adipose sites. If blood
insulin levels and blood fat levels are simultaneously elevated body composition will suffer
along with performance, as the body will be running on glucose rather than the more
consistent burning fat.
Don't get me wrong, calories still count when it comes to fat loss and body composition, but so
do macronutrients ratios and combinations. However, it's also important to understand when
to consume a protein/carb meal. The best time is post‐workout if you have a performance
goal. If I don't workout on a particular day I keep all of my meals high in protein and fat and
low in carbs, since my muscle didn't need any glycogen to be replace, hence the absence of a
post workout meal containing starchy carbs.
Here would be my recommendation:
For general health/longevity: 90% of the time eat high protein/high fat meals, even post
workout. Eat meals higher in paleo carbs occasionally to re‐calibrate insulin sensitivity.
For performance goals: Eat a high‐carb(starchy paleo carbs such as sweet potatoes, squash,
yams, etc.)/high protein meal post workout after metabolic conditioning workouts, but not
after strength work. The rest of your meals should be high protein/high fat/low carb.
For fat loss: Keep it low‐carb and zig‐zag your calorie intake. For instance, if you need to
consume 1500 calories per day to lose weight you would eat 1000 kcals one and then 2000
kcals the next day to "trick" your metabolism and hang onto muscle while still losing fat. This
actually has worked very well for me in the past and I highly recommend it. When I keep my
calorie intake the same everyday while cutting I start to notice problems with water retention,
and indication of excessive cortisol production. I also tend to lose muscle mass with that
method. On the zig‐zag approach I lose fat and keep muscle much easier.
When it comes to liquid meals and higher carb paleo meals the above suggestion should be
considered. It really depends on your goals. From a health perspective liquid meals are to be
avoiding due to insulin spikes, and like I said higher carb paleo meals from solid food should be
kept occasional. Some people can benefit from liquid post workout meals, but others will still
present signs of hypoglycemia and hyperinsulinemia. That being said, whole food is always
best, unless your running a marathon or some other long‐distance death grind that requires
high calorie/carb intake on the go that doesn't require tons of digestion.
I think it's important to understand that everything is goal‐dependent. If you want to live really
long and be super healthy you're going to have a different plan than if you want to run a
marathon and a different plan than if you want to become super strong. However, since the
paleo lifestyle is one based on health, longevity, and quality of life I think it's key to stay with
Eat whole paleo foods, keep carb and fat meals separate, moderate calorie intake and don't
gorge, load up on veggies and pastured meats, incorporate some intelligent intermittent
fasting, develop some stress reducing techniques, exercise just enough to get the benefits, but
not enough to get injured or cause long‐term wear and tear. When you have goals that go
beyond that, such as performance or body composition goals, you have to stretch the paleo
concept and make some compromises with your lifestyle and sometimes with your health and