Paleo Diet Theory
Learn all about the mismatch theory, based on evolutinoary biology, that the Paleo diet is based on.
The Paleo Diet Theory
The Mismatch Theory and My Realization about Modern day Natural selection
Part of my inspiration for writing this guide was fueled by a realization I had about the modern state of human health.
Humans. Homo sapiens.
You know, those troublesome, quarrelsome, often gruesome, and lovesome animal species that currently run a little planet in the Milky Way Galaxy called Earth?
Don’t be coy... you know who I’m talking about.
For the sake of getting on the same page for this rest of this guide, let’s start with some first principles—i.e. the actual definition is of these bipedal critters:
(Animals) the specific name of modern man; the only extant species of the genus Homo. This species also includes extinct types of primitive man such as Cro-Magnon man.
Before we get to the realization I had about the human animal currently dominating Earth, I want to paint a background that has led me to this realization.
My personal journey With Evolutionary Biology
I’ve been studying evolutionary biology and Paleontology ever since I was introduced to the Zone and Paleo diets after stumbling on CrossFit (mid 2008).
My personal health, fitness and nutrition journey went like this:
- Start reading bodybuilding and Men's Health magazines. (Yikes.)
- Follow the "conventional wisdom" those magazines were promoting in the early-to-mid 2000s.
- Get little results—I did gain muscle, but I was "skinny fat."
- Find CrossFit—ironically through a mention of the "300 workout" in a Men's Health article.
- Discover the Zone diet through CrossFit.
- Do Zone for awhile get some results.
- Plateau after about a year while doing CrossFit and Zone.
- Find Paleo, and around the same time, get into cooking.
- Start getting the results I've always wanted and had been working for; A lean but strong look with 6-pack abs and muscle definition.
- Start a CrossFit gym with 2 partners.
- Continue to expand my knowledge while coaching clients and building two small businesses.
- Life changed forever.
Each one of these steps led me down a different rabbit hole that was full of exploration, self-experimentation and learning. And I'm still learning to this day—notice the "realization" I had recently that sparked writing this article (and this guide).
The thing is, nowadays, the available information on Paleo, nutrition and research is light years ahead of where it was when I started on this journey.
In fact, if you are starting at step 1, you get to skip years and years of the discovery process I had to go through.
Literally. Years. Read this guide and you'll be 5 years ahead of where I was when I started.
But would I change this process?
Not for anything.
This process is part of what has made me who I am. And your journey will make you who you are.
But damn, I do wish I had access to this information sooner as I would have saved a lot of time, money and energy in the beginning.
But I guess that's life, and it probably needed to happen to give me the right tools and perspective I need to help others on a bigger scale the way I want to.
My journey has crafted my world-view and has brought ideas like evolutionary biology, nutrition, health and science into my everyday consciousness.
Because I'm constantly thinking about where we came from and how our ancestors lived, I've been able to subconsciously come to the realization that inspired me to write this guide.
I often tell people that evolutionary biology is one of those things that just clicked in my head more than anything I’ve ever learned in life.
Perhaps I would have been a Paleontologist in another life. Some people get math, some get history, I get evolutionary biology.
The Story our Ancestors Left Behind
Today we are going to look at the theory behind the Paleo diet.
This theory has implications for all human health, so don't make the mistake of pigeonholing any of this into some little Paleo nutrition box.
It's about human health, not just what humans eat. So let go of your dogmas, biases and read this information with a fresh set of eyes.
The fact is, the implications behind this theory have profound impact for the full spectrum of human health whether you eat Paleo, Vegetarian, Vegan, Fruitarian, or whatever.
The premise of the Paleo diet is based on looking at the available evidence that our ancestors left behind to find ways we modulate or environment to best live today.
Try thinking in terms of evolutionary biology instead of Paleo, if you are still struggling with any of this. That might help those of you that don't particularly like the word "Paleo."
The fundamental premise of evolutionary biology for explaining problems modern humans face is based on the theory that evolution takes an extremely long time to progress, and that technology, and the way our lives have changed because of it, has come at a faster rate than what the human genome has been able to adapt to.
What this means is this: our genes are designed to live in a certain environment, which is the environment our ancestors lived in for hundreds of thousands of years up until about 12,000 years ago when our ancestors moved from the hunter gatherer lifestyle to the farming lifestyle.
Farming Vs Hunting
Before humans moved to the farming lifestyle, they lived in the wild. This was the life of a nomadic hunter gatherer.
Early humans were always moving in search of food and better climate.
Compare that to the farming life, which is a stationary life that is connected to a plot of land.
This transition caused a lot of problems for our species, and still does to this day considering our genome is still 99% the same as our ancient ancestors (and 99.5% the same for each human living today).
Before a human ever planted a seed and hung around until that seed turned into something edible, humans lived as nomadic hunter gatherers in small tribes of about 50-75 people.
Within their tribe—their "family"—early humans hunted and gathered and lived their entire lives together (talk about strong social bonds).
They moved around constantly, always searching for food and water and moving with the seasons.
Long before we had chairs, cars, computers and smart phones, and all the environmental byproducts of these technologies, human life involved plenty of daily movement in the sun, lots of leisure time and constantly varied food that was in-season and inconsistent. We socialized daily. We walked an average of 13 mile a day at a slow, meandering pace. We went to sleep when the sun went down and woke when it rose. We hunted. We gathered.
According to human fossil records, humans have been living this way for some 200,000 years, dating the earliest human fossil to the Middle Paleolithic area.
Modern Human Life
Now that you have an idea of how our ancestors lived their lives, think about how that lifestyle compares to today.
- Imagine having no car, phone, books, restaurants or refrigerators.
- Imagine not being able to walk to the fridge to get some food when you are hungry.
- Imagine living with the same 50-75 people for your entire life.
- Imagine hunting dangerous wild game barefoot and with nothing more than a wooden spear and a few fellow hunters. (There is evidence that women would hunt right alongside men... the subjection of women started with the creation of farming, personal property and marriage.)
This is the life that humans have lived for 90% of human existence. And this is the way, as the theory suggests, we are meant to live.
The way we live today is drastically different from the way human beings have lived for the bulk of our existence. This is what the theory behind Paleo is based on.
It's called The Mismatch Theory.
The mismatch theory states that we currently live in an environment that is mismatched to the genes we have because the genes we have are designed to live the way our ancestors did.
The mismatch theory is based on the theory that the human genome has yet to adapt to our new environment because this environment has come on so fast. 12,000 years might seem like a long time, but if you look back at the history of life on earth (billions of years) and the history of humans on that earth (200,000 years or more), you see that it’s actually a relatively short period of time.
Here are a few of the new environmental factors affecting humans today:
- Most humans eat a diet full of processed foods made from industrial seed oils, grains and sugars. As a result, a huge percent of the world is obese and struggling with food related disease.
- Modern humans sit more and move less, both contributing to an increase in disease and a lower quality of life. (Our ancestors walked an average of 13 miles a day.)
- Modern humans spend most of their time indoors—some estimates putting it above 90% of waking hours for those living in first world countries. As a result, many suffer from low Vitamin D levels, high toxicity levels and a host of other mental and physical issues. (Hint: we are made to be in nature.)
These environmental factors, and their detrimental effects, form the basis of the mismatch theory.
Paleo or Primal or Just Healthy?
The hottest trend today relying on the environmental mismatch theory is the Paleo diet—also called the Caveman diet or the Primal diet.
The premise of this way of eating is based on eating only foods our ancestors would have eaten on a regular basis, e.g. no grains, refined sugars or other processed and artificial foods.
I think 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, there isn't any truly defined version of the Paleo or Primal or Caveman diet.
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.)
And so on.
All of this causes confusion for many. Many "Paleo Haters" use this confusion coupled with quoting 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 is going to be unique to the individual.
People that hate on a diet are typically doing it to appease themselves. Cognitive dissonance is a strong motivator for keeping people blind and bias.
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 that they all should be based on: Real Food.
After you get Real Food down, you can then 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 btw).
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 btw).
Then, if a 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 a 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 near 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 bad (a food excluded from a strict Paleo diet), but we don’t recommend grains as part of a healthy Real Food diet because the only grains accessible to 99% of the world are the industrialized, refined and processed grains... and those are verrrry bad.
If you grow your own wheat and then harvest, process, soak, mill, and then bake it, then having some grains in your diet would be just fine in our opinion. (Keyword: some.)
Of course, no one is going to do that, which is why grains should be avoided.
(Also, the wild grains our ancestors may have eaten from time to time are not even close to the grains 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.
We believe that proper nutrition is about using what works best and not about following a strict set of rules set forth by some doctor, book, expert or scientist.
That's what we call Optimal Nutrition: Make Real Food the basis, then get the best Real Food you can, then listen to what your body tells you.
Finally, do your best to avoid dogmatism and the biases that will make you ignore things you don't currently believe.
That's our disclaimer regarding nutrition and the Paleo Diet. Moving on.
Stick with Real Food
One of the amazing things about a Real Food diet is the leeway it gives you.
For example, when I find myself craving junk food, I can indulge guilt-free because I know I’ll be right back to my Real Food eating style soon after.
When the bulk of your diet is comprised of Real Food ingredients, you’ll be able to maintain health with ease 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 eat this way as well because that's what they're designed for.
From a purely empirical 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 the way it shapes our genes, covers the entire spectrum of human health.
Personally, I’ve tested the many mismatched-based lifestyle theories in my own life with universal success.
Yes, universal, meaning: every time Ive implemented something in my life based on evolutionary biology, I saw improvement.
I’ve also seen these techniques work wonders in other people over the years.
If It Works So Well, What’s Holding People Back?
The mismatch theory, and evolutionary biology, still has 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/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 counter intuitive 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 for you to change your mind.
Another major roadblock holding the mismatch theory back are the research and scientific communities. For whatever reason, the general public has an obsession 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 is bad while the rest is poorly summarized, underfunded and almost always misinterpreted.
Another thing about research is, a lot of research is biased, meaning it’s funded by an organization that's seeking an answer they want to find—which they usually do find.
This is the biased crap that is then use to lobby Congress, slap misleading labels on products and leak biased dogma to the media so they can pass it on to further confuse the public.
Of course there's good research, but it's the exception not the rule.
The problem good research faces is it's not funded by big budgets—usually because a lack of commercial interest—and so the research tends to be too small in scope and doesn't receive the attention it deserves.
Furthermore, the smaller studies tend to produce correlating evidence due to the lack of time and scope needed to prove causation, which makes it 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 hypothesis. A hypothesis, in layman's terms, is a "best guess."
Think about it, how many times have all the experts deemed something impossible for years until it was proven possible?
The answer is, a lot.
There is nothing truly irrefutable in the research and science world.
The same goes for nutrition. And this is a hard pill for many to shallow 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 is not something humans are 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
As far as human health is concerned, mismatch theory rooted in evolutionary biology is the current best guess we have.
I’ve personally seen it work in my own life and in countless others around me, and so I recommend it to others with ease.
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 a hard thing for most people to do, which is why they stubbornly cling to their current beliefs through all kinds of biases that make it impossible for them to see other views.
Furthermore, we are creatures of habit, and breaking habits is hard.
What it comes down to is 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 that is intersted 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 are coming back unfavorable from what you initially thought, or what you want to think, you have to be strong enough to stay objective.
When it comes to health, you have to be the scientist and the experiment.
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, always moving around with the seasons to find areas where food, game and water were abundant. They didn’t have refrigeration or canned foods and very little in the way of food preservation.
There was also no farming.
They had to work for their food on a daily basis, hunting and gathering 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 created the genes that make up your body. These genes survive with an inconsistent food supply, with only Real Food found in nature, and with a diet lower in starches and sugars on average due to a lack of them being found in the wild.
And so you're genes are going to do their best when they live in the environment they were designed for. You're 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 there’s nothing you can do to prevent it except move to areas with a better food supply and climate.
- 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 your 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 everyday if we want to (a mismatch).
- We can eat things processed and full of artificial ingredients (a mismatch).
- We can eat more of the ingredients our ancestors didn’t eat, like seed oils, sugar, carbohydrates, grains, etc. (A mismatch).
- And so on.
Nutrition is the single greatest 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 somewhat steady food supply. And while agriculture allowed population to grow, it came with many problems.
Due to the lower quality of nutrition produced through agriculture, as well as the droughts and inconsistency 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 was less nutritious and less varied.
One issue this caused showcased itself in many farmers who succumbed to scurvy due to a lack of fruit and vegetables in their diet (deadly if untreated, scurvy is caused by a lack of Vitamin C).
Agriculture also required a more laborious lifestyle, resulting in another mismatch through the physically demanding work it required.
By contrast, the hunter gatherer lifestyle included walking, climbing and moving in constantly varied ways while rarely repeating the same movements over and over, the kind of work needed for farming.
Agriculture created the first major environmental mismatch for the human species and would lead future humans into a progressively more mismatched world as technology advanced and we moved further away from the hunter gatherer lifestyle.
The Paleo and Paleontology community has been talking about these ideas for awhile 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, is happening right now, every single day, in each and every one of us.
Modern Human Evolution
While evolution of a species as a whole is a slow process spanning millions of years, there are micro evolutionary events happening every single day.
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 evolving to your current environment by eating fewer and better calories coupled with more physical activity both of which result in a better overall level of health.
- When millions of humans become sick and obese, they are devolving to match whatever their current environment is, 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.
In a summarized nutshell, here’s what you need to know about Paleo and human evolution:
Our hunter gatherer ancestors passed down their genes to each human being alive today. These genes have lived the majority of their existence in an environment without a consistent food supply, where food was only real and wild, where they moved frequently, where they slept while the sun was down and rose when it was up, where they had strong bonds and social ties to their tribe, and where they lived in the wild nature every second of their lives.
Nowadays, these same genes makeup the DNA of each human being living today, and for 99.99% of the world, live in an environment mismatched to the one they are designed for.
This is the battle that modern humans face on a daily basis.
This is why the number one killer in the United States is Heart Disease.
This is why, for the first time in history, our children's generation has a shorter lifespan than their parent’s.
When I realized (thought of, to be more precise) that evolution was taking place on this daily, micro level, I thought about the modern humans that are fit, healthy and thriving compared to the modern humans that are sick and getting sicker.
Then I realized this…
Then I realized this… The human of tomorrow is going to be the human that can survive in this new environment.
That was my big "aha" moment.
If you can stay fit, healthy and strong when food is always available, when sitting and living indoors is so prevalent and when toxins and stressors attack you on a daily basis, you are more likely to pass on your genes to the next generation than other humans.
On the flip side, if you can’t adapt to this environment, your genes will eventually die off.
Harsh as it may seem, this is the fact of human existence.
Trust me, I’m actively fighting to make sure as few people as possible fall victim to their genes dying off. In fact, it’s part of our mission at Wild Foods: to educate the importance of health and nutrition.
To say the least, I’m not happy about the state of modern human health, but I’m also not going to sugar coat it because that would be a disservice to all the modern humans that need to hear it.
Perhaps if more people thought of their health this way—as their genes dying off or continuing on—maybe then they'd get serious about changing their lifestyle?
I dunno. Part of me thinks, sadly, some people will never make the change and are destined to be just another statistic.
Start with Nutrition
What I’ve learned in my own life over the years is, nutrition is the greatest return on investment a modern human can make for their current and future health.
If you focus on eating Real Food ingredients, you are far more likely to pass along your genes to the next generation.
You'll evolve in your current environment, which will have a huge carryover to other parts of your health.
Real Food nutrition increases energy, improves fitness, balances hormone, grants you better sleep, better mental health, and improves nearly every other marker of health.
This is why nutrition needs to come first.
When you start getting your nutrition in check, other areas of your life start to improve, which creates a cascading domino effect as you progress on the journey from devolution to evolution.
Nutrition should also come first becuase it’s so powerful in either direction—negatively and positively.
Poor nutrition makes every aspect of human health worse. Good nutrition makes every aspect of human health better.
Are you going to Thrive, Survive, or Die off?
Most of the Western world is sick and getting sicker.
Then there's a large part of the modern human population that are skating by with their favorable genes, which will last until it doesn’t.
Think of those people that eat whatever they want don't gain a pound?
Well these individuals usually have plenty of visceral fat surrounding their organs and are prime candidates for all the same modern diseases that overweight people are susceptible to. In this case, looks can kill. Literally.
Lastly, there's a small percent of modern humans that are thriving in the modern world.
These humans are healthy, which means they are best expressing their genes through lifestyle and environment. They are evolving through our modern world while the majority of the world is devolving.
These humans are thriving because they are, consciously or unconsciously, minimizing the negative effects the modern world has on their health. This results in the best expression of their genes, which increases the likelihood they’ll pass those genes on to their offspring, which makes it more likely those genes will spread and pass on, which makes it more likely they will become the human of tomorrow.
A Final Note On Darwin
You’ve probably heard of Darwin and Survival of the Fittest.
But you probably didn’t know that Darwin didn’t actually coin that term, and that his theory of Natural Selection is often misinterpreted.
You see, most people think that natural selection states that the biggest, baddest and strongest of a species is most likely to survive and pass along its genes.
His theory actually states that the species best adapted to its environment is the most likely species to survive and pass along its genes.
The species best adapted to the environment is the species most likely to survive.
Do you see how that might apply to our modern world and the human species?
It’s not going to be the smartest, best looking, biggest, strongest, or richest humans that are going to survive in this new world we've created… it’s going to be the most adaptable.
In our current world, the most adaptable human looks like this:
- They don’t eat too often.
- They don’t overeat often.
- They don’t eat much sugar.
- They eat mostly Real Food.
- They move everyday.
- They get sunlight everyday.
- They sleep a lot.
- They don’t stress too much.
- They are grateful.
- They have purpose.
- They have a strong social network.
- They don’t eat much processed food.
- They supplement intelligently.
- They (usually) know how to cook and do that often.
- They buy great ingredients.
- They play often.
- They laugh often.
- They (usually) read. (At least in the Western world.)
- They sprint every so often.
- They pick up heavy things regurarly.
Some modern humans express these genes on accident because they happen to live a certain way, while others do it on purpose because they understood the fundamentals of human biology and the mismatch theory and they do their best to make choices that best adhere to what is “healthy.”
Either way, it's up to you to figure it out for yourself.
If you become the scientist and test the many available techniques and theories, you’ll be able to find what best expresses your genome.
No matter what you do, you have to listen to your body. At times your body will hate you because you’ll make it do things it doesn’t like, like exercising and ignoring your sweet tooth, but if you listen to it closely, you’ll find all the evidence you need to create the eating and lifestyle plan that best expresses your genes.
Each day you are alive, you have the choice to evolve or devolve.
Which is it going to be?