Paleo vs Primal: Which is better?
Today's hottest trend relying on the environmental mismatch theory is the Paleo diet, also called the Caveman or Primal diet.
The premise of this way of eating is based on eating only foods our ancestors would have eaten regularly, e.g., no grains, refined sugars, or other processed and artificial foods.
We can all agree that this kind of eating is what all healthy diets should be based on: real, whole, natural foods.
Beyond that Real Food foundation, no truly defined version of the Paleo, Primal, or Caveman diet remains.
For example, some Paleo proponents recommend certain dairy products as being "Ok in moderation," while others recommend cutting out all dairy.
Some Paleos recommend lean meats, while some recommend fatty meats as long as they are from healthy animals. (We would fall into the latter camp on that one.)
All of this confuses many. Many "Paleo Haters" use this confusion and quote poorly researched books and articles (like the China Study) to make misinformed statements about eating Paleo or Primal.
At Wild Foods, we don't like to be dogmatic in our diet recommendations. Paleo/Primal/Real Food/Proper Nutrition will be unique to the individual.
People that hate a diet are typically doing it to appease themselves. Cognitive dissonance is a strong motivator for keeping people blind and biased.
That said, there is a universal nutrition "truth" that we will forever be dogmatic about.
It's this: Optimal human nutrition is based on Real Food.
Whether you eat Paleo, Primal, Vegetarian, Vegan, Fruitarian, or insert popular diet here, there is a foundational truism they should all be based on: Real Food.
After you get Real Food down, you can think about the other factors, like whether you should go low, moderate, or high carb, and what kind of fasting schedule you want to implement (you should implement some form of fasting, by the way).
Finally, after your diet is rooted in eating the best quality Real Food you can get your hands on, you can then focus on—if you want to—the other things, like how many calories, carbs, or fat to eat.
But you first have to get the Real Food diet down.
Real food is as close to nature as possible. It should not be processed or refined unless necessary to make the food safe for human consumption or to release certain other nutrients (cooking is a form of processing, by the way).
Then, if the food does require processing, it should be produced using as natural and health-optimizing methods as possible that will preserve the integrity of the nutrition in the raw ingredient without tacking on unwanted health effects.
While this is a guide to eating Paleo(ish), we also want to help expand the idea of Paleo to make it more accessible to more people.
This is why many of our food recommendations at Wild Foods will echo what a Paleo diet recommends but will come with many gray areas.
Our version of a Real Food Paleo diet closely mirrors a Paleo diet because traditional paleo excludes many foods that are either inflammatory or nearly impossible to find as Real Food, which is why we, too, don't recommend them.
Here's an example: we don't think grains are inherently evil (a food excluded from a strict Paleo diet). Still, we don't recommend grains as part of a healthy Real Food diet because the only grains accessible to 99% of the world are industrialized, refined, and processed grains, which are very bad.
If you grow your wheat and then harvest, process, soak mill, and then bake it, then having some grains in your diet is fine. (Keyword: some.)
Of course, no one will do that, so grains should be avoided.
(Also, the wild grains our ancestors may have eaten occasionally are not even close to those available today. It's like comparing apples to oranges.)
The fact is, certain foods in our modern world are not going to be the best for us to eat, while other foods will be. This has nothing to do with Paleo or not.
Proper nutrition is about using what works best and not following a strict set of rules by some doctor, book, expert, or scientist.
That's what we call Optimal Nutrition:
- Make Real Food the basis.
- Get the best Real Food you can.
- Listen to what your body tells you.
Finally, do your best to avoid dogmatism and the biases that make you ignore things you don't believe.
That's our disclaimer regarding nutrition and the Paleo Diet. We are moving on.
Stick With Real Food
One of the fantastic things about a real-food diet is the leeway it gives you.
For example, when I crave junk food, I can indulge guilt-free because I know I'll return to my real-food eating style soon after.
When the bulk of your diet comprises real food ingredients, you can easily maintain health even when you aren't perfect in your food choices. And since none of us are perfect, real food provides a powerful way of eating in our modern world.
I can't say it enough: focus on real food and focus on quality.
Back to the Mismatch Theory
The mismatch theory suggests that because humans have eaten a certain way for so long, modern humans should also eat this way because that's what they're designed for.
From a purely practical point of view, it's hard to argue with this theory considering so many humans today are sick and getting sicker.
Of course, it's not just nutrition that the mismatch theory applies to. Our environment and how it shapes our genes cover the entire spectrum of human health.
I've tested my life's many mismatched-based lifestyle theories with universal success.
Yes, universal, meaning: I saw improvement every time I implemented something based on evolutionary biology.
I've also seen these techniques work wonders for other people over the years.
If it works so well, what's holding people back?
Mismatch theory and evolutionary biology still have a long way to go before reaching mass adoption due to the many roadblocks keeping people from implementing these concepts.
A few of these roadblocks include:
- Confirmation bias (seeking out information that confirms what you already think while ignoring information that conflicts)
- Cognitive dissonance (the feeling you get when something challenges what you think or believe)
- Misinformation from biased fitness and health professionals trying to protect their status quo
- The general misunderstanding of health and nutrition held by the public in the form of "common knowledge"
- The difficulty of changing lifestyle habits, especially ones that are counterintuitive and different from one's peer group,
- Social pressures.
- and so on.
*These are not done on purpose. They are subtle tricks your mind plays on you that make it hard to change your mind.
Another major roadblock holding the mismatch theory back is the research and scientific communities. The general public is obsessed with needing some guy in a lab coat to tell them what's good for them.
Here's the thing about research: much of it isn't good, while the rest could be better summarized, is underfunded, and is almost always misinterpreted.
Another issue with research is that a lot of it is biased, which means that organizations that fund it usually do so in order to find the answer they want.
This is the biased crap used to lobby Congress, slap misleading product labels, and leak biased dogma to the media so they can pass it on to confuse the public further.
Of course, there's good research, but it's the exception, not the rule.
The issue with good research is that it frequently lacks funding from large budgets due to a lack of commercial interest, which causes the research to be too narrow in scope and not receive the attention it merits.
Furthermore, the smaller studies tend to produce correlating evidence due to the need for more time and scope to prove causation, which makes them an easy target to discredit.
Lastly, and this is the big thing that people don't understand about research and science, research produces a "best guess" and not hard evidence.
Science is based on hypotheses. In layman's terms, a hypothesis is a "best guess."
Think about it: how often have all the experts deemed something impossible for years until it was proven possible?
The answer is a lot.
There is nothing genuinely irrefutable in the research and science worlds.
The same goes for nutrition. And this is a hard pill for many to swallow because of our human desire for resolute answers.
We like knowing what we think we know.
Being told, "Everything you know is just a guess," causes cognitive dissonance, which humans are not skilled at dealing with.
Cognitive dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
Mismatch Theory Works For Now
Regarding human health, mismatch theory, rooted in evolutionary biology, is our current best guess.
I've seen it work in my own life and for countless others around me, so I readily recommend it to others.
And I'll continue to do this until a better best guess comes along that works better. If a better theory comes along, I'll test it. Then, if it produces a better result, I'll change what I do and recommend.
This is hard for most people, so they stubbornly cling to their current beliefs through biases that make it impossible to see other views.
Furthermore, we are creatures of habit, and breaking habits is hard.
It comes down to this: Regardless of what research, science, or your gut tells you, you have to take action and test what works for you. Then you have to have the mindset of a scientist interested in finding what works best while being aware of the pitfalls of confirming or discounting evidence based on preconceived beliefs.
After doing your tests, if the results come back unfavorable to what you initially thought or wanted to think, you have to be strong enough to stay objective.
Regarding health, you have to be the scientist and the experimenter.
You have to study conflicting ideas and opinions and then try the things that make the most sense to you. Then you have to ruthlessly discard what doesn't work while doubling down on what does.
Back to our ancestors
Our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived as nomads, constantly moving around with the seasons to find areas where food, game, and water were abundant. They didn't have refrigeration or canned foods, and there was very little in the way of food preservation.
There was also no farming.
They had to work for their food daily, hunting and gathering for as much as 6 hours a day on average. As a result, our ancestors would routinely go days without food, sometimes weeks (which is why intermittent fasting is a healthy human activity).
Then, when our ancestors found food, it was real food. It was wild food.
This environment creates the genes that make up your body. These genes survive with an inconsistent food supply, with only real food found in nature and a diet lower in starches and sugars on average due to a lack of them being found in the wild.
And so your genes will do their best when they live in the environment they were designed for. Your genes are designed to live in the wild.
In the wild:
- You won't find sugar cane plantations, corn fields, or potato farms.
- Food changes with the seasons, and you can do nothing to prevent it except move to areas with a better food supply and climate.
- The game is sometimes available and sometimes scarce.
- Food is varied and colorful.
- Food is always real.
Local, in-season, real food is the best way to express human genes through nutrition. Now compare that world to the world we live in today.
- We have access to food every second of the day (a mismatch).
- We can eat the same thing daily if we want to (a mismatch).
- We can eat processed foods full of artificial ingredients (a mismatch).
- We can eat more ingredients our ancestors didn't eat, like seed oils, sugar, carbohydrates, grains, etc. (a mismatch).
Nutrition is the single most significant mismatch affecting the human species today.
And it all started when agriculture came into the picture some 12,000 years ago.
Agriculture provided early humans with a steady food supply. And while agriculture allowed the population to grow, it had many problems.
Due to the lower quality of nutrition produced through agriculture and the droughts and inconsistencies in yield, humans traded a more consistent food supply for a lower quality of life.
As Daniel Lieberman puts it in his book The Story of the Human Body, "Farming created more food and allowed populations to grow, but for most of the last few thousand years, the average farmer had to work much harder than any hunter-gatherer, experienced worse health, and was more likely to die young."
Agriculture yielded food that could have been more nutritious and varied.
Due to a lack of fruit and vegetables in their diets—which are fatal if left untreated—many farmers developed scurvy, which was one of the problems this caused.
Agriculture also required a more laborious lifestyle, resulting in another mismatch due to the physically demanding work required.
By contrast, the hunter-gatherer lifestyle includes walking, climbing, and moving in varied ways while rarely repeating the same movements repeatedly, the kind of work needed for farming.
Agriculture created the first significant environmental mismatch for the human species and would lead future humans into a progressively more mismatched world as technology advanced. We moved further away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
The Paleo and Paleontology community has been discussing these ideas for a while now. So none of this forms the realization I mentioned at the beginning of this article.
The realization I mentioned earlier was like an "aha" moment and went like this:
Evolution and devolution are happening right now, every single day, in every one of us.
Modern human evolution
While the evolution of a species is a slow process spanning millions of years, microevolutionary events happen daily. Here are some examples:
- When you gain weight over the summer, you are devolving to match your environment, one with too many calories and not enough exercise.
- When you lose weight (but not too much), you are adapting to your current environment by eating fewer and better calories coupled with more physical activity, which results in a better overall level of health.
- When millions of humans become sick and obese, they are devolving to match their current environment, which is usually rooted in poor nutrition and lifestyle habits.
- When millions of humans develop back pain, tight hips, and poor posture, they are devolving to match an increase in sitting and a decrease in natural movement.
- and so on.