Does the Paleo Diet Make Sense Only in Light of Evolution?

The Paleo diet (or Primal if you prefer) is based on the premise that we humans are genetically adapted to the diet of our ancestors. There is a heavy reliance on the explanation that Darwinian Evolution is at the root of this – that we have EVOLVED to eat this way. Now I consider myself an intelligent person. For what it’s worth, while far from being the universal designation of intelligence, I do have a couple of degrees from great universities. I like to examine facts and evidence and use logic in making decisions. But guess what? While I acknowledge adaptations and the like, I am not a believer in Darwinian Evolution and I am not alone. There are many other people like me. The point of this post is NOT to debate evolution or change anyone’s mind (please, let’s not go there). But I would like to explore why it is that I am a devotee of a diet and lifestyle that appears so rooted in something I do not embrace.

Instead of relying so heavily upon human evolutionary theory, the Paleo diet makes sense for other reasons. I believe the argument “cavemen did this so you should too” is illogical. Sure, I like the fun, iconic caveman as much as the next person. There’s no reason we can’t have fun with this, right? But I believe as Matt LaLonde, a biochemist with a Ph.D from Harvard and a strong interest in Paleo nutrition, stated in episode #68 of Robb Wolf‘s podcast, that looking at what our ancestors ate is instructional at best. It can point us in the right direction but does not rise to the level of a convincing argument.

In fact, LaLonde said,

“It really drives me nuts when people justify what I’ll [call] the Paleo lifestyle or way of eating, by stating that ‘cavemen and modern hunter-gatherers ate meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds and they did not suffer from the diseases of modern civilization, so you must eat this way too if you want to avoid this disease.’ That is indeed a logical fallacy…It can be used to generate hypothesis that should then be tested. But it does not establish cause and effect.”

This “testing” might take the form of formal scientific studies with well-developed protocols, examinations of biochemical processes, or anthropological studies that focus on the health of our ancestors or modern hunter-gatherer populations. It might simply be what is known as an N=1 experient we conduct on ourselves. (I recommend a Whole30 elimination diet for that, btw.)

Matt LaLonde went on to say,

“One argument actually that gets me even more worked up than the previous one is ‘our Paleolithic ancestors evolved over millions of years while not consuming grains, legumes or dairy so we should not consume these foods because we are not adapted to them.’ This is an assumption, and it is completely incorrect. The assumption that [a] species is not adapted to a food because it never consumed that food is completely false. There are plenty of examples throughout evolution where a species finds a new source of food and thrives on it.”

Clearly Dr. LaLonde is a believer in the theory of evolution. So the point is not that you have to be an evolution skeptic to find holes in this whole argument. He and others have pointed out there are many and varied reasons for eating a Paleo diet OTHER than because cavemen ate this way or because we evolved to eat this way.

One of the reasons the Paleo diet movement (or whatever we call it) is attractive to me is the intellectual curiosity of many of those at the forefront (Robb Wolf, Matt LaLonde, Mark Sisson and many, many others). There’s a willingness to challenge the status quo and question conventional wisdom handed to us by government and others with self-serving agendas. There’s an independent spirit that I admire. And as an official “nutrition nerd” I love the modern nutrition science studies and discussions on the biochemical processes in our bodies. I also like the simplicity of it all – the getting back to basics. It just makes sense to me. And most importantly, I like how much my health has improved as a result of eating this way.

It has always struck me as unfortunate that the Paleo movement focuses so much on the evolutionary component because it can be a real stumbling block for some people. There are many like me who do not believe in evolutionary theory as fact. There’s an impression out there among some Christians, and other believers in a Divine Creator or Intelligent Designer, that adopting this diet and lifestyle somehow puts a stamp of approval on something rooted in what might be perceived as an atheistic world view. Now, please, I am NOT saying that everyone who believes in evolution is an atheist or if you are an atheist that you militate against those of us who do believe in God. Not at all. I am simply pointing out there are many people who might otherwise benefit from this way of eating if they could get past the emphasis on evolution. And sad to say, I have also witnessed some hostility out there to believers in God. It’s as though some folks adopt the Paleo lifestyle as a way of justifying their existing atheism. I have heard people say that because the Paleo diet works so well that it PROVES we MUST have evolved. I could easily argue we were CREATED to eat this way and that is why it works.

For me, the word “PALEO” means something ancient – something simple, a getting “back to the basics”, a harkening back to a time before mankind started adding lots of “stuff” to our lives and to our food. I embrace that word. The name of this site is Paleo Spirit after all! I think there is common ground in this idea. It is possible to come together whether you believe we EVOLVED to eat this way or whether you believe God CREATED our bodies to function best eating this way.

What do you think? Do you know anyone who has stayed away from the Paleo/Primal diet and lifestyle because they were turned off by the emphasis on evolution?

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48 thoughts on “Does the Paleo Diet Make Sense Only in Light of Evolution?

  1. Thank you for writing down and posting what I’ve been thinking all along. I haven’t been subject to any of the hostility you mention, and I believe we were designed to eat this way. I agree that there are those who would avoid this because of the evolutionary emphasis or even because the whole caveman thing is just a little too…too…farfetched or cutesey. I, too, believe there is much common ground, and that we need to seek it. For example, look at The Maker’s Diet’s emphasis on “clean” food.

    • Paula, I don’t think the hostility is that common. But I’ve come across it on some paleo specific website forums where someone who openly states they are a Christian is then harrassed and made to feel unwelcome and stupid. The comments are often along the lines of, “how can you embrace an evolutionary-based diet and not believe in evolution? That doesn’t make any sense.” I hope as time goes on that this will subside. The Maker’s Diet is very interesting. I need to read more about that.

        • I have found a lot of camaraderie among bloggers for the most part. But I’ve also seen first hand some pretty nasty attitudes and comments to people on some forums. It just seemed completely unnecessary because eating this way makes sense for so many reasons there shouldn’t be that type of conflict.

  2. This is such a timely post for me. I’m a Christian and have been on the Paleo diet for about a solid 3 months now, grain free before that almost a year. It’s been so difficult to explain to my church friends why I’m following the Paleo diet. I usually try to avoid the topic of evolution with them just because I don’t really know what to say to them, except that to me, this diet makes sense.

    I’ve lost 10 pounds in the last three months. I’m hoping that eventually my results will speak for themselves, but until then, this is a good way to talk about and think about the Paleo Diet and Christianity.

    • Jacey, Congratulations on your weight loss! I agree that the results speak for themselves in a way that makes people want to know more. When they ask me what I do I use the word “paleo” but more in terms of a “back to basics” approach to eating – whole, nutrient dense foods. I just de-emphasize the evolutionary aspect because it simply isn’t that relevant when folks see the results.

  3. So I literally stumbled on the Mark’s Daily Apple website and started looking around. I liked what I was reading and seeing so I ordered his book- The Primal Blueprint- plus a few cookbooks.

    When I received the book in the mail, I excitedly curled up on the sofa to better understand the Blueprint. After a few pages I got this sinking feeling that I had bought the wrong book. The writer was a hardcore evolutionist, a regular Darwinian hypothesizer.

    And I’m not. My research has led me to the conclusion that this world is a result of Intelligent Design. The Primal Blueprint writer went on to say that the ancestor that we exactly resemble genetically came about around 10,000 years ago. The name given to this Primal Man by the author was Grok.

    I shared my lament with my beautiful bride and she reminded me that the Creation story regarding man had it’s genesis around the same time. So in order not to throw the baby out with the bathwater I call Primal man and woman- Adam and Eve Grok!

    The food section is fantastic as is the overall philosophy behind the exercise segment. I would make some suggestions regarding workouts since many of us have old injuries that might be limiting but the writer’s effort and overall presentation are top notch.

    There is so much mis-information swirling about but my studies have led me down this path. And dropping 20 pounds effortlessly in 6 weeks confirmed it. To your health always! Be Blessed! Bye4now… Russell Jones

    • Thanks for such a great comment, Russell. I am a huge fan of Mark Sisson but had a similar sinking feeling. He’s really talented at taking complex information and distilling it down so everyone can understand it. But it seems to me the emphasis on Grok, etc is off-putting to a lot of people. There are some who won’t even listen to what he or others have to say when they see the caveman icon.
      It’s encouraging to know there are others out there with the same point of view. I like the idea of an Adam and Eve Grok. Thanks!

    • I just skipped over the evolution section when I read Primal Blueprint and enjoyed the rest of the book. Love Mark’s website every day too, but am really glad I found this site.

  4. Great post! My wife and I have recently started a blog (www.thetoolstothrive.com) and we are dealing with preaching a similar message and are often just avoiding or qualifying the term “paleo” to avoid many of these silly arguments. Instead, we are taking more of an eat real foods approach and honoring God by what we put into our bodies. For instance, people need to know that the grains available now are not prepared the same of even the same molecular structure as the grains in the Bible.

    • That’s great Drew that you and your wife are doing the blog together. I’ll definitely check it out. I’d love to know more about the grains from Biblical times because I get that question a lot. You know the one where people will say, “Well, Jesus is the ‘Bread of Life’ so how can you say we shouldn’t eat bread?” It’s actually a totally reasonable question but one I’ve only been able to answer on a very basic level. Best wishes for your blogging success!

  5. Just my 2 cents. Regardless of evolution or not. For me paleo lifestyle means learning from our past and avoiding making the same mistakes. Evolution to me is not as important as are the facts that many of the diseases plaguing humanity simply didn’t exist before modern living. That said, i’m a firm believer in natural selection and I think that’s precisely what’s going on right now with our modern civilization. People who continue to indulge themselves in unhealthy activities are making room for people more willing to adapt. Yes survival of the fittest and natural selection not only played a role, but continue to play a role in where we as a species will be in the future.

    • Jeff, As a history buff I would agree that learning from our past is extremely valuable. I would rather learn from other people’s mistakes than my own! And I totally agree that looking at the diseases of modern civilization is instructional. I don’t take issue with the idea of natural selection in the sense that poodles and pyrenees could have descended from a single dog species. The situation now is we have what I would almost called unnatural selection. A situation in which people are eating horrible food and engaging in unhealthy activities (or inactivity as the case may be) but being propped up with medicine, etc… And don’t get me wrong, I am not a pharmaceutical company basher. I think pharma companies look at the market and try to fill a need. Unfortunately, that need is really sick people. Instead of getting at the root of the problem we just medicate everyone and people live lives (sometimes long lives!) filled with pain and/or general malaise. It’s unfortunate and I for one am thankful to have found a way of eating and living that leads me to optimal health. Thanks for your input.

  6. I LOVE this post! Thank you for writing about this topic. I think what most people forget is that Darwin’s theory of evolution is just that, a THEORY!!! When I discovered that I could no longer eat many types of grain, I did some research. Did you know that European countries as well as Australia will NOT import our grains? I read it’s because the U.S. has genetically modified these grains. When we change the way God created our food, we change how our bodies respond to the food. A great example is grass-fed beef. It is better for our bodies than the government-touted salmon. While man-made, corn-fed beef is the worst. When I talk about eating “Paleo” to my Christian friends, I speak to the fact that God’s intended creation is the best way to nourish our bodies. I have been eating this way for a year and I’m in the best shape of my life, inside and out. My doctor told me she wanted to frame my test results and put them on her wall and I’ll be 44 in a few weeks. I weigh the same today (112lbs) that I did the day I married my husband of 21 years. I read The Maker’s Diet and I have gone to seminars given by Jordan Rubin. The man is amazing! He looks fantastic and that is the best advertisement for his books/supplements. I wrestle with the fact that the Bible speaks to not eating anything with a split hoof which means pork is a no-no. What are your thoughts on this topic? Thank you again for not being afraid to speak the truth!

    • Thanks for the compliments, Kiki. I appreciate your comments very much and agree with you. I just saw Rubin’s Beyond Organic website and it looks very interesting. You and I are a similar age and weight! Yay for paleo! My recent bloodwork was stellar too except my overall cholesterol was high – but mainly because HDL was so high.

      The question about clean and unclean animals is an interesting one and something I have recently discussed with another “paleo” Christian. One side would say the Old Testament laws have been done away with the coming of Christ. The verses in Act 10 that describe Peter’s vision where he sees unclean animals and God tells him, “kill and eat” are often used to further justify the view that there is no longer such a thing as “unclean” food in terms of obedience to God. That is the view that I have always held. (And I still eat bacon, so……) Others argue Peter’s vision was merely symbolic of a welcoming of Gentiles into the “fold” and therefore the dietary laws are still in effect. While there is no doubt in my mind the vision was primarily symbolic I am NOT convinced it does not also free us of the dietary restrictions. I would like to research this further and perhaps write a more lengthy post in the future to explore the topic. Thanks again!

    • I really hope you read this, Kiki, because your message has saddened AND angered me. I do not intend on getting into a religious or scientific discussion with your or anyone on here, but I had to reply to this because I don’t believe anyone this ignorant of a basic principle behind science as a whole can make accurate assessments about something that you have proven yourself to not even remotely understand.

      A scientific theory is, in simple terms, a hypothesis (or group of hypotheses) that have been tested and supported by an extraordinary amount of repeated testing. Saying that evolution is “just a theory” in fact wholly supports the validity behind its statements, given that they are backed up by an incredible amount of data. The very title evolution has earned verifies how supportable it is. A scientific theory CAN be falsified, but so far it HASN’T despite, again, a vast amount of research.

      That being said, I’m glad your health has gotten better on paleo; mine has as well.

      • Elise,
        There are plenty of intelligent, highly educated persons who do not accept Darwinism. And there are places all over the Internet and academia, etc… where the “theory” of evolution can be and is debated in depth. This post was intended to point out, given there is not unanimous agreement on evolution as fact, the reliance on it as an explanation of or justification for the Paleo diet seems counter productive. The fact is, this way of eating works, and that is where we can all come together. The benefits of the Paleo diet can be tested and observed over and over again in real people. Darwin’s theory, in spite of your assertion that it “has been supported by repeated testing” is simply not accurate. Aside from demonstrations of mutations and adaptations, it has NEVER been observed that one species has “evolved” into a completely different species by the Darwinian mechanism of variation and selection. Michael J. Behe, professor of biochemistry at Lehigh University and senior fellow of the Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture, has written extensively on this topic. In his book, “Darwin’s Black Box” he explores the concept of “irreducible complexity” which asserts there are biochemical structures so complex they cannot be adequately explained by evolutionary mechanisms. Whether you agree with Behe and others like him is not the point. But rather the need to accept there are others who have rational challenges to Darwinism.

        If Kiki’s point of view “saddened AND angered” you I would challenge you to reflect on why that is. How does it affect you that someone holds a differing opinion? Debating the facts is one thing. I love the arena of ideas and being able to discuss and debate all sorts of issues. But someone holding a different opinion makes me want to know why they hold that opinion and possibly challenge it. But it doesn’t cause me to have a bad day.

  7. I am an atheist, and do believe in evolution, and still disagree with the “caveman” and “Grok” concepts. I view it as man made vs nature made, and nature wins out. Humans may not be physically evolving as fast, however, our culture, what I think makes us human, is the primary driving force behind change.

    We can choose to eat how our ancestors ate ( either Paleo style, “Nourishing Traditions” style, or Makers Diets style) without any ideological statements. But we all can agree that the current, man made diet of artificial ingredients, Inhumaine treatment of animals, genetic modification of grains, fruits and vegetables, is not healthy or sustainable.

    • Hi Amanda. I really appreciate your perspective on this. I don’t see any reason why Christians and atheists – and anyone else on the spectrum – can’t agree on eating “whole” and “real” foods. If I give any credit to the “caveman” or “Grok” images it would be to say it can help some folks wrap their minds around the idea we should simplify what we are eating. But it just seems to get carried too far IMHO. And I would prefer, like you, to focus on where we can all come together for healthy and sustainable practices.

  8. Seems to me you all are making this too difficult and overthinking it. Just eat healthy, whole foods and forget the rest of it. Evolution, God, whatever has never been a consideration to me when following the Paleo lifestyle. It’s healthy, whole food and that is what my body needs to thrive, period.

  9. I am a Christian, don’t believe in evolution, and have recently join the primal group. I feel physically best when I eat this way.

  10. I love this post! My husband and I prayed about whether or not to begin a journey in Paleo eating. When we talked about it we decided that God had not created us to eat processed crap and then feel like crap for our whole lives! I believe that everyone should do their research and evaluate the reasons you might consider changing your lifestyle…don’t just do it because everyone else is-but, this is a pretty great choice!! Thanks a bunch and God Bless <3

    • Thanks Krystal, I appreciate the encouragement. The fact you and your husband prayed about this tells me you have your priorities straight. I am realizing more and more how impactful eating a healthful diet is for everyone, including Christians who should be especially motivated to take care of this body we know God gave to us. Thanks again!

  11. I loved this post, and shared it on my blog today–but I gave plenty of link-backs to you. Thanks so much, Lea! (http://todayswomanoffaith.blogspot.com)

    Hugs,

    Linore
    Linore Rose Burkard.com
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    • Hi Linore, thanks for sharing my post on your blog. I am glad you appreciated it and it’s always nice to meet like-minded people. Best wishes to you.

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  14. I’m having a very hard time with this Paleo concept. If the entire thing is based on evolution and it’s not a theory to which I subscribe, how can I trust the “evidence?” In Hollywood they say, “Buy the bit, buy the premise,” which means if you accept the product, you have to accept the worldview from which it stems.

    I can’t “crosswash” Paleo principles by ascribing extra-biblical rationale to it. I don’t buy Darwinism, and I can’t find a good description of the Paleo lifestyle that doesn’t rely on it. One of Adam and Eve’s sons raised grain. “Bread” is a food referenced in scripture over and over, and even Jesus is called the Bread of Life. If bread is so evil, why would that be one of His names?

    I have no interest in throwing rocks or sowing dissent, I am just looking for the healthiest way to feed my temple. I truly am curious and would love to look more into Paleo living, but not at the expense of my core beliefs. Are you aware of any non-Darwinian sites or books that you could point me toward?

    • Thank you for your comment and questions. As I pointed out in my post, there is no reason that a lack of belief in Darwinian evolution should prohibit someone from adopting this way of eating. Just because some people who follow the Paleo diet have a worldview that includes evolution really has no bearing on whether or not you or I should or should not adopt it. Eating real food that nourishes your body for optimal health is the point.

      No one is saying bread is evil. But the wheat used today to create our bread is vastly different from the grains of Bible times. Not to mention people were certainly not eating enormous amounts of processed foods as a main staple of their diet back then. There are some people who have no reaction to gluten in grains and function quite well eating them. However, many, many people suffer from gluten intolerance or full blown celiac disease and do not know it. And bread, relative to other foods like meat, vegetables and fruit, is not especially nutritious.

      I am not sure what books to direct you toward that would not have some emphasis on evolution. Books like “The Primal Blueprint” or “The Paleo Solution” start out with evolution as a premise but then delve into the scientific justifications (biochemical processes), anecdotal evidence and common sense when laying out their arguments for this way of eating.
      My advice is to just ignore references to evolution in any diet/nutrition books and focus on the science. And most importantly, if you adopt this way of eating for a period of time, monitor how you feel, look and perform. I view it primarily as eating the way we were designed to eat. It is essentially a diet devoid of common allergens and you can look at it as an elimination diet of sorts. It is also lower carb which helps keep insulin levels in check and helps with satiety and weight loss. There are many reasons to eat this way, none of which have anything to do with evolution.
      If you want to know more about how wheat is different now than in Bible days you might try reading the book “Wheat Belly” by Dr. William Davis.

  15. Pingback: Does the Paleo Diet Make Sense Only in Light of Evolution? | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  16. I super really a lot enjoyed reading this post. I am a dedicated Christian and as I read these books about Paleo I am constantly experiencing a dissonance between my beliefs and the evolutionary aspects of the books. I love the way you put it – eating this way just makes sense, we’re getting back to the basics.

    I really appreciate you writing this post. God bless =]

    • I wish there was a “like” button for your comment. This makes so much sense because we should all eat to make our bodies function optimally.

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  18. A fellow Christian and I [along with his family and my wife] who are both athletes have just begun “Paleo Diet for Athletes”. In reading many of the posts here I have not seen any discussion of this variation of the Paleo diet. I [we] would certainly like to hear from others on this blog who are experienced with the athletes diet. Glad I found this blog.

  19. Only in the US could this debate occur, a diet which is based on genetic evolution and natural selection used by anti-science christians, sigh. I just thank my luck to be in the UK, where such silliness does not occur. oh btw Michael Behe is probably the most discredited scientist on the planet, there is no academic debate over evolution, i can attest to this as a Biomedical science student. Nowhere in academic literature is natural selection contested, it remains the most successful scientific theory of all time, there is plenty of evidence for speciation, just open a decent biology textbook. The science behind the Paleo diet intrigues me, as it does many others, but it seems a convenient cherry pick to accept the scientific method where you like the conclusions but ignore it where it conflicts with your personal beliefs. Accepting evolution and dietary science is part of growing up, seriously the US is mocked in Europe for still having these debates.

  20. Had to glance through this but found it interesting. I’ve only recently heard of the Paleo diet and when at the bookstore the other day I saw a book about it and started skimming it. I immediately put it back down when I saw that they were advocating something that they believed to be the diet of our ancestors over 10,000 years ago. As a Christian, and a young earth believer to boot, my thoughts are “well if it started 10,000 years ago, that’s probably about the time of the Garden to begin with!” so I put it back down.

    Then today something else came up regarding Paleo and I decided to see if there were any Christians out there that had discarded the evolutionary part of it and saw benefits of it. I’ve found a couple of intriguing articles, yours included.

  21. Found this post whilst doing a search for “paleo primal christian,” thanks for getting this thread going.

    Two opinionated responses to the post:

    1. The usage of the word “evolution” in the paleo community is a little too casual. Just what type of evolution are people referring to? Is it micro-evolution, macro-evolution, punctuated equilibrium, or some combo thereof? What do we really mean when we say “evolution”? (As an aside, “evolution” is a word, it is not an falsifiable assertion; it would be nice if people used it as a component of a clause in testable assertions, but they usually don’t.)

    2. Perhaps there is some comfort for God-believers in seeing the paleo diet as similar to what the diet was in the Garden of Eden.

  22. Hiya – I’m so happy to have stumbled upon this post! I too am somewhat conflicted over the basis for the paleo diet and my God-serving, Jesus-loving, creation-based beliefs. When I read the evolution diatribe (that’s the junk science ;p ) mixed in with the science of the diet, I roll my eyes and sift out the fodder, choosing to stick with the real science behind this way of eating/living. For the person who didn’t want to compromise her belief system with the ‘paleo’ words (and that’s all it is…words), consider searching for ‘low carb high fat’ or the Atkins diet. Paleo is not a new diet, it just got a makeover and a new name by some guys who have a knack for weaving stories together. The science they so eloquently write about is good tho. I’ve always believed in eating ‘real’ food. Unfortunately, I also believed the bad information out there about eating low fat, fat free, whole wheat, etc., that the medical community has brainwashed us in. Thankfully I have a curious mind and with the help of the internet, I have been able to research, discover and pick through the lies and bad medicine. I am so thankful for sites like yours where the bloggers are willing to question and expose the media and medical bias. Thanks so much for your good work and I pray continued success for you and your site. I am a new fan and will be a regular reader of your blog from now on!

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