The Paleolithic diet is often also called the caveman diet or hunter-gatherer diet. It was made popular academically in 1985 with publication of an article by Eaton and Konner (1). 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, and include enough of those with a favorable ratio. Posts with tables of potassium amounts for different foods can be found here.
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 been shown to have healthy effects, some unhealthy and most have effects yet to be 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.
Multiple other components can be considered, such as antioxidants and AGEs, but their role is not well defined. If the bulk of the diet is high potassium vegetables, fruits and nuts, similar to the earliest Paleolithic diet, it can be 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 have been of the entire diet and have been 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.
The theory of the Paleolithic diet was originally made popular academically by Eaton and Konner. 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.”
It was not presented 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 changes to the American diet in the last 50 to 100 years have been enormous. 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 almost all cellular processes would be very resistant to change. Potassium ions and hydrogen ions are involved in almost all cellular processes. They are fundamentally involved in processes common to all life, not just human life.
Potassium In Early Human Diet
Early humans had an abundance of food loaded with potassium and little sodium. Their body was well adapted to getting lots of potassium and little sodium. Our modern diet is loaded with sodium and is lacking in potassium. And this is a change that has occurred in the past hundred years or so.
Potassium Balance With Sodium Has Changed
As food could be transported long distances it was no longer obtained locally and had to be preserved for transport and shelf life. Sodium as one of the major preservatives was used 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 will be high in sodium if processed in certain ways. When canned, vegetables are often preserved with sodium. If a plant has been ground into flour and then used with baking soda the resulting food will have a great deal of sodium.
How Human Genes Have Changed
These processed foods are avoided on the Paleolithic diet. However avoidance of dairy, legumes and some grains is recommended on a theoretical basis that is not confirmed by recent studies. It is based 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 conventional epidemiological, clinical, and laboratory studies can be better designed 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.