The Paleolithic diet is often also called the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet. Publication of an article by Eaton and Konner (1) made it popular academically in 1985. The diet emphasizes characteristics thought to be present in the early human experience before agriculture and domestication of animals. Many of the foods in it are high potassium foods, although it is not a high potassium diet per se. The contemporary version contains more meat than most other contemporary diets, and the foods tend to be less calorically dense than the common modern diet.
High Potassium Foods And Paleolithic Diet
Can the Paleolithic diet be a high potassium diet, providing 4700 mg of potassium and less than 1500 mg of sodium a day? Certainly it can be. You just have to calculate the potassium and sodium in each food, the same as you would for any other grouping of high potassium foods. Just be sure to include enough of those with a favorable ratio. Links to tables of potassium amounts for different foods can be found by clicking the “Links To Food Potassium Tables”.
Food In Contemporary Paleolithic Diet
The foods allowed on the Paleolithic diet are grass-fed animal meat, fish and seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts, seeds and healthy oils. The foods to avoid are cereal grains, beans, dairy, sugar, potatoes, salt, refined oils, and processed foods.
Some of these foods have healthy effects, some unhealthy, and most have effects not yet discovered. The principles are the same as for other healthy diets. In addition to knowing the potassium and sodium content, you should calculate the amount of the different types of fat, the amount of fiber, and the micronutrients.
You can consider multiple other components, such as antioxidants and AGEs. But their role is not yet well defined. If the bulk of the diet is high potassium vegetables, fruits and nuts, similar to the earliest Paleolithic diet, the diet most likely is healthy.
Paleolithic Diet Varied
Although often presented as a single diet, Paleolithic man's diet varied greatly depending on time and location. Earlier prehistoric humans probably ate more plants than the more recent prehistoric humans. Those humans near the equator ate more plant based foods than those farther from the equator (2). Those close to the sea or large bodies of water ate more fish and seafood.
Most of the scientific studies of the Paleolithic diet are studies of the entire diet. And most are small studies. It is difficult to determine what aspects are favorable to health and what aspects are unfavorable, except by using multiple modern scientific methods.
An article by Eaton and Konner originally made the theory of the Paleolithic diet popular academically. As they restated in 2010 (3), “We said at the outset that such evidence could only suggest testable hypotheses and that recommendations must ultimately rest on more conventional epidemiological, clinical, and laboratory studies.”
They did not not present it as an established optimal diet. It would have been almost impossible to be, since prehistoric man's diet was not uniform. It varied greatly with his location.
Of course, almost any diet would show some superiority to the modern Western, especially American, diet. The American diet has changed enormously in the last 50 to 100 years. The amount of processing and alteration of food has exploded.
The ability of the body to change how it handles the elements that are basic to all cellular processes is very resistant to change. Potassium ions and hydrogen ions are involved in all cellular processes. They are fundamentally involved in processes common to all life, not just human life.
Potassium In Early Human Diet
Early humans ate an abundance of food loaded with potassium and little sodium. Their body was well adapted to getting lots of potassium and little sodium. But our modern diet overflows with sodium and lacks potassium. And this is a change that has occurred only in the past hundred years or so.
Potassium Balance With Sodium Has Changed
Once producers and manufacturers transported food long distances, consumers no longer obtained food locally. The time to transport the food meant the food required preservation for transport and shelf life. Sodium is one of the major preservatives, so food manufacturers used it more and more.
All the modern studies point to mankind not yet adapting to this change in diet. Our kidneys still act as though we get loads of potassium and little sodium. So they try to conserve sodium and let potassium pass through. This is far more important than whether early man ate the food or not.
Even plant based food is high in sodium if processed in certain ways. Often sodium is the preservative when canning vegetables. Sodium is the main component of baking soda, which is combined with flour from a plant grain for a variety of baked goods. The resulting food has a great deal of sodium.
How Human Genes Have Changed
The Paleolithic Diet excludes these processed foods. However, the diet also avoids dairy, legumes, and some grains on a theoretical basis. Recent studies do not confirm such exclusions. Proponents base the exclusion on the assumption that there has been no evolution in the past 10,000 years.
This assumption is certainly false. The lactase gene, the salivary amylase gene, and the glutenase gene are examples of recent changes in mankind's genetics that have occurred in the past 10,000 years. Although not present in everyone, they show adaptations that are probably favorable adaptations for some groups of people, and are worth further study. We previously discussed (4) how dairy and fish can enhance a diet.
So with a few caveats and modifications, a Paleolithic diet can be a healthy diet. More study of early human nutrition can help guide present day studies of nutrition. With this knowledge, researchers can better design conventional epidemiological, clinical, and laboratory studies to test hypotheses about the health effects of different diets.
1. Eaton SB, Konner M. Paleolithic nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. N Engl J Med. 1985;312(5):283–289.
2. Alexander Strohle, Andreas Hahn, and Anthony Sebastian. Latitude, local ecology, and hunter-gatherer dietary acid load:implications from evolutionary ecology. Am J Clin Nutr 2010;92:940–5.
3. Konner M, Eaton SB. Paleolithic nutrition: twenty-five years later. Nutr Clin Pract. 2010 Dec;25(6):594-602.