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Is ‘Paleo’ the diet of our ancestors? Not really

The Paleo diet craze favored by fitness buffs and calorie-counters claims to take us back to our ancient roots by focusing our diet on whole foods favored by the hunter-gatherers we descended from. But are we really eating what they ate?

According to Loren Cordain, who takes credit for the Paleo concept, people on the diet eat higher-protein, lower carb meals and avoid processed food altogether. Fat is a welcome ingredient, too — as long as you’re eating the right kind. Grains and starchy vegetables like potatoes are eschewed in favor of high-fiber fruits and vegetables, and sugar, dairy and salt are out.

The idea is that our ancient ancestors ate healthy, whole foods untainted by hormones, chemicals and an over-reliance on salt and sugar. The Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago threw them off that path, as a Time magazine article on Paleo explains.

Just Google “Paleo” to read the hundreds of blogs and websites devoted to the diet– and it’s showing no signs of slowing down. Plenty of scientists have written articles arguing against the idea that all agricultural advancements we’ve accumulated are bad for us, but researchers say there are also problems with the Paleo diet’s assumptions about what our ancestors ate.

In a study published in the Quarterly Review of Biology, researchers from Georgia State University and Kent State University say early humans didn’t have specialized diets whether they placed an emphasis on one component over another.

Their diets were likely extremely broad — like a pig or bear, the researchers write, early humans had an “omnivorous, eclectic feeding strategy.” They weren’t amazing hunters, and their teeth limited their plant consumption. Environment played a significant role in what they ate — they couldn’t just jet over to the grocery store, after all — and besides, the whole foods we have today are hugely different than what they had access to.

What our ancestors ate was all about survival. Calorie counting is what is distinctly un-paleo about the Paleo diet– calories were a necessary part of existence and reproduction, the scientists write. Back then, we didn’t live too long, either — so living long enough to develop heart disease wasn’t really a thing.

The researchers sum it up best: “Everyone would agree that ancestral diets didn’t include Twinkies, but I’m sure our ancestors would have eaten them if they grew on trees.”