modern eating well together in company real food

Paleo Diets: Can We Thrive Doing What Our Ancestors Did?

Paleo Diets Were Diverse Human Diets

As my son said to me, “none of the Paleolithic people made it, mom!” Of course he was trying to be funny, but his point is well taken. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not always so well off and today’s indigenous cultures face tremendous stresses. Attempting to model our behavior after what we think our ancestors did makes no sense when their experiences were so diverse and health outcomes not always so good.

The Liftoff food plans that I teach to my clients are not Paleo diets. Paleo is a cultural movement that seeks to fundamentally change how people eat that has great intentions–to improve the quality of what people eat by borrowing from the heritage of many of our ancestors. There are elements that are of great value and have provided tremendous inspiration for how I think about food and what I recommend to my clients. There are also elements within the Paleo movement that are misguided.

The emphasis on eating real food and more plants by some versions of the modern Paleo diet is good. Encouraging persistent over consumption of animal products and repetitive food groups without regard to nutrient diversity, seasonal changes, and personal preferences is not good.

Being dogmatic about protocols and strategies fit for everyone does not take into consideration our individual differences and needs.

Considering the food of our ancestors out of context of their lifestyles—particularly movement and relationships—is perhaps missing even more important aspects of getting back to our roots to improve our health.

Our Paleolithic ancestors roamed the earth before the time of agriculture and foraged, hunted and to a limited extent grew their food. Tribes all over the world adapted to their unique habitats and had greatly different diets as a result. Their lifestyles were completely different than our own not only in terms of types of foods consumed, but movement, relationships and stressors.

Many authors speak of the way our ancestors ate as the reason they enjoyed better health than modern people. While there may be some truth to that depending on the ancestral culture one is referring to, it’s important to remember that they had their own sets of problems and stresses. Many of their habitats were unforgiving and famine and health problems were common.

What they did do was eat real food, they seldom consumed in excess of their needs, they moved their bodies a lot and they lived in closely knit communities.

Let’s take the positive attributes of Paleolithic cultures and capitalize on them. But  we don’t need to pretend that we know how our ancestors truly lived or romanticize about how they thrived so well that we want to be just like them.

We obviously can’t replicate the way our pre-agriculture and pre-industrial-age ancestors lived and ate, nor do we completely know the vast ways in which their lives and their environments were different from our own. The world is a completely different place and the availability of untainted nutrient-rich foods is not as readily available. Our food sensibilities are different—eating crickets and worms would not be acceptable to many of us!

Let’s talk about what we need today, in our modern world, with all of it’s advantages and disadvantages and let’s make it work for us.

It’s all really quite simple.

As Michael Pollan says:

“Eat (real) food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

-Michael Pollan, Food Rules

And move, love, rest and engage in life!

Good food is just part of our journey to our highest vitality.

Karyn Shanks MD


Karyn Shanks, MD, is a physician who lives and practices in Iowa City. Her work is inspired by the revolutionary science of Functional Medicine, body-mind wisdom, and the transformational journeys of thousands of clients over her twenty-eight year career. She believes that the bones of healing are in what we do for ourselves.