Paleolithic Nutrition: Diet and Modern Disease

By John Michael & John Oró, MD


In the United States and most Western countries, diet-related chronic diseases represent the single largest cause of morbidity and mortality. These diseases are epidemic in contemporary Westernized populations and typically afflict 50–65% of the adult population, yet they are rare or nonexistent in hunter-gatherers and other less Westernized people. Although both scientists and lay people alike may frequently identify a single dietary element as the cause of chronic disease (e.g., saturated fat causes heart disease and salt causes high blood pressure), evidence gleaned over the past 3 decades now indicates that virtually all so-called diseases of civilization have multifactorial dietary elements that underlie their etiology, along with other environmental agents and genetic susceptibility.

Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century

Dr. Loren Cordain

From the Neolithic, through the age of discovery and the industrial revolution, up to the present day, human invention and innovation have introduced numerous foods into our daily diets, including vegetable oils, salts and refined sugars, and the multifarious forms that processed grains can take. Along with the introduction of these foods, people in Western Civilization have begun to suffer from many diseases that have a low prevalence among hunter-gatherer and even traditionally agrarian societies. According to Dr. Loren Cordain in his paper, Origins and Evolution of the Western Diet: Health Implications for the 21st Century, “The evolutionary collision of our ancient genome with the nutritional qualities of recently introduced foods may underlie many of the chronic diseases of Western civilization. 

Cordain bases this statement upon the idea of evolutionary discordance, which occurs when an environment changes in such a way that its inhabitants are no longer properly adapted for survival within it. Because the majority of human evolutionary history was spent within a hunter-gatherer context in which fruits, vegetables, meats, nuts and seeds, along with some tubers, were the dominant food sources, our bodies are adapted to consume this diet. The modern Western diet contains refined sugars, processed grains, and vegetable oils, among other novel foods, that were not available to our ancestors, and so our bodies perform sub-optimally when it comes to their digestion. And not only are our bodies poorly adapted for the consumption of these modern foods; in many cases, their consumption is causing us harm.

This damage takes the form of illnesses like type 2 diabetes, hypertension, dementia, cancer, osteoporosis, and autoimmune disease, to name a but few. Scientists working in Burkina Faso, Africa, believe that overall health may be tied to the bacteria people have living in their gut, basing this belief on their observation that traditionally agrarian Africans have healthier gut bacteria due to their diets and lifestyle, which implies that our own guts, which are more susceptible to allergies, autoimmune disorders, and inflammatory bowel disease than those of the Africans in this study, are in such a sorry state because of what we eat and how we live. After stating that our Western diet is “killing us,” the Coronary Health Improvement Project (CHIP) presents this somber collection of statistics.

Because of thickened, narrowed and hardened arteries, 4,000 Americans succumb to heart disease and have heart attacks every day.  Every third adult has high blood pressure, and thousands are crippled from strokes. Because of disordered metabolisms from unbalanced lifestyles, obesity is epidemic, and a new diabetic is diagnosed every 50 seconds.

And, according to Cordain, “Cancer is the second leading cause of death (25% of all deaths) in the United States, and an estimated one-third of all cancer deaths are due to nutritional factors, including obesity.”

To understand the gravity of this situation, one need only look to the executive summary of the WHO’s Global Status Report on Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD) 2010, in which unhealthy diet was included among the four risk factors that contribute to the majority of NCD deaths worldwide. The UN report goes on to state, “People in developing countries are increasingly eating foods with higher levels of total energy and are being targeted by marketing for tobacco, alcohol and junk food, while availability of these products increases,” which is to say that this dietary problem is spreading globally. The epidemic of diet-based poor health has an economic impact as well, which the report addresses with this sobering statement, “Each year, an estimated 100 million people are pushed into poverty because they have to pay directly for health services.” The report concludes by suggesting that governments enact legislation and propaganda campaigns to inform and protect their citizens from the dangers of an unhealthy diet, and that they do so now. However, the slow swell of education by knowledgeable health care providers and online primal & Paleo educators should result in a more powerful and lasting dynamic for change.