Thoughts on the Paleo/Evolutionary Eating and Exercise Trends

(Photoshopped) cave drawing of a Nautilus camOver the past few years the concept of “paleo” or “evolutionary” eating has been gaining popularity. Not surprisingly, various “experts” have popped up with blogs, books and programs based on the concept; some good, some not, some nuts, and many with totally different takes on it. Unfortunately, this has caused confusion for people interested in learning more about it, and some of the more absurd takes on it have provided mainstream detractors with fodder for criticism and straw-man arguments.

The general principle, that we should eat in accordance with our evolution, is correct. This does not, however, mean we need to eschew all modern fruits and vegetables (the results of thousands of generations of selective breeding bearing little resemblance to what our paleolithic ancestors ate) or dairy (some cultures have been herding for thousands of years and consuming dairy long enough to have adapted to it) or start eating insects and grubs (however nutritious) or eat all of our meat raw (our ancestors have been cooking food for over 200,000 years).

The goal of “paleo” or “evolutionary” eating is not to replicate the exact diets of our pre-agricultural ancestors, but the general nutritional make-up and resulting energy intakes and hormonal effects.

Keep in mind the actual diets of our ancestors varied between regions and seasons as well as over time, depending on the environment, and that we have evolved to thrive on a wide variety of foods. We are carnivorous (and insectivorous) leaning omnivores. Additionally, what and how much of it you should eat (or not eat) will depend on your genetic make-up, general activity levels and goals.

My opinion on this is what we do not eat is more important than the specifics of what we do, and our health and fitness would be most improved by minimizing or eliminating intake of what Kurt Harris refers to as “neolithic agents of disease”. Namely, grains, legumes, excessive sugar, and excessive linoleic acid (omega-6 fatty acids). I discuss the reasons for this in Opinions On Nutrition.

Paleo Exercise?

Similarly, it has become popular for some trainers to claim exercise should replicate the physical challenges our paleolithic ancestors faced, and recommend things like climbing trees, jumping off of rocks, and running around barefoot through the woods as exercise. They argue our ancestors never had to hunt down and kill a barbell or defend themselves against a hungry Nautilus machine thus these things are “unnatural” and not optimal for improving health or fitness. While all of these things can have an exercise effect, and I am a fan of being barefoot, the same principle applies to exercise as nutrition;

The goal of a proper exercise program is not to replicate the exact physical challenges our paleolithic ancestors faced, but to expose the body to the same general physiological demands of those challenges while minimizing the risk of injury and factors which would undermine long term health.

Just because anthropologists will never discover a cave full of barbells or a 200,000 year old Nautilus machine does not mean training with them is somehow “unnatural” or at odds with our evolution. When used properly these tools are capable of producing the same general physical stresses that stimulated increased muscular strength and endurance, metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, improved flexibility, improved resistance to injury, etc. in our ancestors, and that is the goal of exercise.

In a way, the “paleo reenactment” trend is similar to the “functional training” trend as they are both based on misunderstanding of specificity and transfer of strength and other factors of fitness. It is not necessary to replicate or mimic an activity during exercise for an exercise to improve one’s ability to perform that specific activity, and it isn’t necessary to replicate or mimic the exact physical challenges our ancestors faced for our bodies to be stimulated to improve general factors of physical fitness. While the skills involved are specific, the general factors of functional ability – muscular strength and endurance, metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning, flexibility, etc. – will transfer between any activities. Improvements in fitness from training with barbells or machines will transfer to any other physical activity. The only thing that will not transfer to everything else is the specific skills.

If you enjoy running, jumping, climbing, etc., by all means do so. Play is also an important part of overall physical and mental well-being. However, if your goal is optimal exercise you have to consider both the requirements for effectively stimulating the desired physical improvements and the requirements for minimizing the undesired factors like injury or excessive wear or stresses that can lead to a loss of functional ability or undermine health later in life.

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