The Real Paleo Diet

We evolved eating huge amounts of plants. It’s estimated that 200,000 years ago we got 600mg of vitamin C a day. That’s the amount of vitamin C found in 10 oranges. Every day we appear to have consumed the amount of vitamin E found in 2 cups of nuts, the amount of fiber found in 12 bowls of oatmeal, and the amount of calcium found in 5 cups of collard greens. They weren’t milking mammoths–that came from all the wild greens they foraged.

As I note in the above video pick, we were exposed to such a quantity of whole healthy plant foods that we, as a species, lost our ability to make vitamin C. We still actually have the vitamin C gene in our DNA, but our bodies presumably just junked it because we were getting such massive daily doses that it wasn’t worth maintaining it. The problems occur when you take our evolutionary heritage, fine-tuned over the millennia, and plop it down into meat and potato chip country.

Advocates of the so-called Paleo diet are certainly right in railing against refined and processed junk, but may just use it as an excuse to eat loads of meat that bears little resemblance to flesh of prehistoric wild animals. The contaminant issue alone is compelling reason to eat as low as possible on the food chain. As I show in the video, the journal of the American Meat Science Association recently published a review cataloging the laundry list: arsenic, mercury, lead, cadmium, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, preservatives, and veterinary drugs such as antibiotic residues. Given what’s now in fish, for example, “it would be impossible to follow the Paleolithic diet while avoiding the risks associated with consuming mercury in amounts in excess of the suggested EPA threshold.”

The “paleo” diet patients I saw in my practice weren’t consuming weeds and eating in excess of 100 grams of fiber a day. They were eating burgers, not bugs. As concluded in a review I profile in the video, “Sufficient scientific evidence exists for public health policy to promote a plant-rich diet for health promotion.”

For those interested in digging deeper, there was an interesting Scientific American blog this summer entitled “Human Ancestors Were Nearly All Vegetarians” and there’s an in-depth video series on YouTube debunking the paleo diet fad. I wrote a whole book on the Atkins incarnation, Carbophobia, now available free online. I also have two videos on low carb diets: Atkins Diet: Trouble Keeping It Up and Plant-Based Atkins Diet.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 presentation Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death.

Image credit: jarapet / Flickr

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Shirley P
Shirley Plowman3 months ago


Louise R
Past Member about a year ago

thank you

Carole R
Carole Rabout a year ago

Thanks for posting.

Marija M
Marija Mabout a year ago


Ruth S
Ruth Sabout a year ago


W. C
W. C2 years ago

Thank you.

William C
William C2 years ago


Sondra Harcourt
Sondra Harcourt5 years ago

Any Anthropology text book will tell you that most 'caves' that were inhabited were near the shores of oceans, lakes, or rivers. Why? The middens (waste piles) are full of old shells and fish bones. Why? And when the groups moved inland and wore furs, what did they do with the rest of the animal? The middens there also reveal bones....guess why. Cave art shows humans hunting animals. Was this just a sport? The Mammoth became extinct in North America due to overhunting. Ancient Mexico also lost their large native fauna from overhunting.
I have to wonder if vegetarians/vegans read the same books and research articles as the rest of the population.
In the book, Healthy at 100 by John Robbins, he chronicles 4 diverse cultures who regularly live past 100 (including the famous Hunzas) and NONE of them are vegetarians. Mind you, the bulk of their diet is vegetables. But then, the Paleo diet is an 'omnivore' diet - NOT a 'carnivore' diet.

Interstellar Daydreamer
Sky Price5 years ago

this is ridiculous. we cannot possibly know what all they ate back then.

Elizabeth V.
Elizabeth V5 years ago

Seeing as how none of the animals or plants we eat today in the Western world are the same as what people in the Paleolithic era consumed (game animals with less fat, wild plants with much smaller fruits and rootstocks, far fewer and smaller wild grains), using "we evolved this way" is a pointless argument whether you're a Paleo enthusiast or a vegetarian. There are more compelling reasons for people to choose either diet than trying to claim that it's "natural."