Five Minutes with Paleo Diet Pioneer Dr. Loren Cordain

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Special Diets
on March 7, 2013
Paleo expert, Dr. Loren Cordain, talks to Spry.

Unless you’re living under a rock, chances are you have heard of the Paleo diet, the revolutionary lifelong plan that has made eating like a caveman cool again. The brainchild behind this diet craze, Dr. Loren Cordain, is the author of numerous best-selling books, including the canonical The Paleo Diet, The Paleo Diet for Athletes, and The Dietary Cure for Acne. Cordain’s years of professional experience and scientific research led him to create the plan, which advocates eating the foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors thrived on during the Paleolithic Era (think fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, seafood, grass-fed meat and poultry, and nuts). Cordain has been featured on Dateline NBC, and in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. He has been a professor in the department of health and exercise science at Colorado State University since 1982, where he received the Scholarly Excellence award for his contributions into understanding optimal human nutrition.

We talked to Cordain about why he thinks the Paleo plan is the healthiest way to eat.

Spry: The Paleo diet is based on a simple premise: Stripping our diet down to the basics and mimicking the consumption habits of our caveman ancestors. Can you explain what this means from a food standpoint?

I wouldn’t necessarily agree that contemporary Paleo diets “strip our diets down,” but rather the opposite—they enrich our diets by reducing nutrient-depleted foods that are ubiquitous in the typical western diet. This lifelong plan of eating maximizes health and actually increases total micronutrient (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber) density compared to the USDA My Plate recommendations as well as other nutritional plans such as the Mediterranean Diet, the DASH Diet, type 2 diabetic diets, vegetarian diets and others.

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Further, it is not scientifically accurate to call it a “caveman” diet, but rather a “pre-agricultural” diet based upon the nutritional practices of our hunter-gatherer ancestors (both men and women) who lived during the Paleolithic (old Stone Age) era and afterwards.

From a food standpoint, it means that we should try to mimic the food groups our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed with contemporary foods available in most supermarkets, farmers markets, co-ops and grocery stores. These foods include fresh vegetables, fruits, fish, seafood, grass-produced meat and poultry, nuts and certain healthful oils. People consuming contemporary Paleo diets should try to avoid refined sugars, refined grains, trans fats, salt and almost all processed foods.  Our hunter-gatherer ancestors rarely or never ate dairy products and cereal grains.

Spry: What initially piqued your interest in studying the human diet of our Stone Age ancestors?

In 1987, I read Dr. Boyd Eaton’s seminal paper on the topic of “Paleolithic Nutrition” which appeared in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. At the time, I thought this was about the best idea I had ever read on human nutrition, and have spent the past 25 years or so studying this concept. 

Spry: Dairy is one of the foods on the Paleo “do not eat” list. But by shunning dairy, don’t you run the risk of missing out on the many health benefits of dairy, including strong bones and digestive support?

The notion that calcium is the only and most important determinant of bone mineral health is incorrect, and in fact, numerous nutritional elements are involved in producing strong bones. These include acid base balance (adequate fruit and vegetable consumption) as mentioned above; sufficient high-quality dietary protein; and a low salt intake among others.

Milk and dairy consumption elicits insulin resistance in children and is a prominent risk factor for prostate, ovarian cancer, acne, multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes.

Spry: From Atkins to the South Beach Diet, there is currently a variety of low-carb, high-protein diet plans on the market. In your opinion, what makes the Paleo diet more effective than other diet plans out there?

The Paleo diet is not a “diet” per se, but rather a lifetime plan of healthful eating which reduces the risk of the chronic “diseases of civilization” (obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, etc.) that run rampant in the U.S. adult population.

Virtually all popular diets such as Atkins, South Beach and others were designed and created by fallible humans, and as such are rife with our human biases and misinformation concerning the elements of optimal human nutrition.  Although Boyd Eaton, myself and others have been credited with creating the Paleo diet, this perception is incorrect. The Paleo diet is and always has been a biological force that shaped the human genome including our present-day nutritional requirements.  It was created not by fallible human judgment but rather by the forces of evolution acting through natural selection over millions of years.  Together with anthropologists, physicians and scientists worldwide, Dr. Eaton and I simply uncovered that which was pre-existing. The Paleo diet has always been the native diet of our species until the beginnings of the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago (a mere 333 human generations). Our hunter-gatherer ancestors consumed a wide variety of fresh plant and animal food depending upon their geographic locale, time of season and food availability—hence there was no single “Paleo diet” but rather numerous versions of these same two food elements: wild animal and plant foods. Hunter-gatherers ate no dairy foods, and rarely ate grains, and except for seasonal honey ate no refined sugars. Clearly they ate no modern processed foods.

Under these nutritional stipulations our ancestral diet was almost always high in protein and low in carbohydrate. Hence, modern diets designed by diet doctors and fallible humans that are high in protein and low in carbs have at least got these two basic elements of our ancestral diet correct. Nevertheless, it is almost axiomatic that the remainder of these fallible human dietary recommendations will be inconsistent with our ancestral diet and ultimately will result in nutritional shortcomings and health problems.

Case in point: the Atkins diet. This diet has been with us in various forms for at least 40 years and advocates reducing dietary carbohydrates to less than 100 grams per day or lower. Few or no restrictions are placed upon the carbohydrate type, just the absolute amount. So in effect, whole grains, refined grains and refined sugars would be equivalent to fruits and vegetables as long as the total amount is restricted.  Additionally, fat types and sources are also undifferentiated, just as long as they don’t contain carbs that would exceed Atkins’ recommended values. Cheese, butter and cream are advised in lieu of excessive carbs from fresh vegetables and fruit.

The problem with these fallible human dietary recommendations was that Dr. Atkins was unaware of acid/base physiology. Had he considered the evolutionary dietary template, he would have realized that a high protein/high fat diet that restricts carbohydrates from fresh vegetables and fruit was inconsistent with our ancestral nutritional patterns and likely to cause health problems. Further, he placed no limits upon cheese or even salted foods (net acid yielding foods) as long as they were low in carbohydrate. It is now known that diets with excessive acidity without accompanying base (alkalinity) from fruits and veggies adversely affects bone mineral health, blood pressure, kidney function and a variety of other factors.

In summary, unless high-protein, low-carbohydrate diets concocted by mortal humans don’t consider the evolutionary template, they will invariably contain recommendations that are inconsistent with our ancestral diet and ultimately will result in sub-optimal health. 

Spry: Do you think the Paleo diet is too “strict” and inflexible? How can an individual maintain the Paleo diet when dining out or in a situation where they are faced with limited food options, for example?

Built into The Paleo Diet is the 85:15 rule, meaning that most people can obtain substantial health and weight loss benefits if they are at least 85 percent compliant with the diet. Three open meals per week correspond to 15 percent non-compliance. So if you want to go out and have pizza and beer with friends on a Saturday evening, it is permissible. However, many people feel so bad after days and weeks of high compliance that it makes them think twice about doing it again.  People with serious health and obesity issues should try to maintain high compliance (95 percent or greater).

Spry: In your book The Dietary Cure For Acne, you discuss the ways in which modern environmental factors (including diet) can trigger acne. What are some of the top foods for clearer, blemish-free skin?

The big issue here is the foods that shouldn’t be consumed. These are the high glycemic load carbohydrates and dairy products that produce hormonal and cellular changes known to cause acne. A diet consisting of fresh foods—like fresh, grass-produced meats, poultry, seafood, fish, fresh vegetables and healthful oils—is the best medicine to produce clearer, blemish-free skin.