wordsLanguage is important. Linguistics, speech, terminology, taxonomy, nomenclature, it seems like there is a whole vocabulary (another language term) for just talking about words. It’s a key component of all of our daily lives, and probably one of the most important characteristics of the human species.

With that being said, it should be a given that choosing one’s words properly is essential for ensuring successful communication. A message can easily become confusing or misunderstood if inappropriate terminology is used during a conversation. You don’t need to have a marketing degree to figure that out.

It occurred to me that there is a great deal of ambiguity when it comes to evolutionary health and fitness, especially with regard to diets. I’m talking precisely about the paleo diet, and the very nature of its name, how it came to being, and what that entails.

The word paleo is of course derived from the term “paleolithic” referring to that period of human history where the species lived predominantly as hunter-gatherers. Anybody familiar with the diet will know that the central premise of the diet is the hypothesis that humans will be much healthier eating a diet that approximates the nutrition or food sources that correspond to the paleolithic. However, things are not as cut and dry as this, and the term “paleo” brings along with it a certain amount of problems.

First of all, the paleolithic was a very broad span of time. It extends from the earliest known use of stone tools, 2.6 million years ago, to the end of the Pleistocene around 10,000 before present. A lot happens during the course of several million years, and this was no different in the case of hominid evolution. Should the paleo diet represent diets from the lower, middle, or upper paleolithic?

Secondly, we don’t know precisely what was eaten by humans then, only guesses and vague interpretations based on isotope dating and theories on climate and geography. However, with an understanding of the impact of human efforts to cultivate and hybridize plant foods, as well as domesticating animals for food production, we can be fairly sure that few of the foods we eat today existed during the paleolithic in their current form. So, is anything we eat really paleo?

neanderthal-skullAnd, not the least bit controversial is the debate on the extent to which humans have evolved since the paleolithic. A central argument to the paleo theory is that humans haven’t evolved enough since the dawn of the neolithic agricultural revolution, to fully take advantage of or mitigate the dangers of grain-based diets. Depending on how much evolution has taken place, the paleo diet might make perfect sense or  be a complete waste of time (obviously extreme ends of the spectrum).

Finally, many of the human population groups used as examples for the paleo diet aren’t really eating paleo, as defined by the orthodoxy. Kitavans are one of the most popularly cited cultures for supporting the paleo diet, and they’re actually more like horticulturists rather than hunter-gatherers, as they eat tubers and such, and grow their own food (probably one of the reasons potatoes are edging their way into the paradigm).

These problems drive the suggestion that the paleo diet is more valuable as a theoretical framework, rather than  a prescriptive dietary plan. The question becomes, does this food fit into my nutritional paradigm, rather than more inane, “are oranges paleo?”  It’s much more useful to approach your nutrition this way, primarily because of some of the reasons mentioned above.

But, inevitably the discussion devolves into an argument about whether or not something is “paleo”. I have a feeling this issue will persist, for at least a few reasons. Not least of all, because the diet was branded as such by the main progenitors of the movement. When valid reasons for excluding a food could not be generated, the fact that it only became widely available in recent millenia was a good enough excuse. I was guilty of this myself, but more and more it’s become apparent that this is an invalid supposition, since as was mentioned before most of the stuff we eat now wasn’t around back then.

So, should we just change the name? Not likely, it’s too late and I think we’re stuck with it. And as it is, there aren’t really that many alternatives. The term “paleo” does have a few perks, primarily that it is short in length, relatively easy to say and rather catchy. It’s distinctive, and sort of piques your curiosity, making you want to find out what the craziness is all about.

It’s easy to say “Oh, I went paleo” or “That’s not paleo”, as opposed to some drawn out collection of terms or some six letter acronym. Marketing and branding is important for the adoption of a movement, and I don’t think that was  unimportant here. You also can’t easily use terms like “evolution” because, let’s face it, paleo has been predominantly American so far, and there is a high degree of anti-evolution sentiment in the United States.

But, I think others are starting to recognize the limitations of the term “paleo”, and the semantic issues which arise from it. You have many of the prominent thought-leaders in the community proclaiming they aren’t paleo, or don’t eat paleo in strict terms. You even have key organizations which support the movement, that don’t come anywhere close to using the term “paleo”, such as the Ancestral Health Society.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that the AHS got it right when they chose the name for their organization. Gradually over time, I’ve become more and more fond of the term “ancestral” or “ancestral diets” as opposed to the term “paleo”. Why? For one, it isn’t limited by the constraint of the paleolithic period, when discussing the merits of diets and healthful nutritional practices.

It’s entirely possible (most likely true) that some neolithic foods are perfectly healthy for some people, and it’s definitely more likely to be the case if the people eating those foods have a long standing tradition and culture based around the proper preparation of those foods. That’s where the term “ancestral” really shines. It appreciates the fact that many civilizations discovered ways to make stuff OK to eat that the paleo diet would automatically exclude. This is certainly true with things like maize, which was a key foodstuff of the native Americans which were so robust and impressive looking to the new European colonists.

nixtamalized-corn-maizeEating corn on the cob is popular now-a-days, but maize was traditionally prepared by nixtamalization, a process of boiling/soaking in a lime water solution. This made it a much more nutritional food, through making vitamin B3 more bioavailable, and was a practice largely ignored by European settlers leading to epidemics of pellagra.

Does that mean foods like corn come without problems? Well, with companies like Monsanto rapidly turning the grain-based food supply into a mutated freak show, that would be unlikely. However, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we continue to discount the hard won wisdom of old cultures, who learned how to live well on some of the foods which we now vilify.

Ultimately, I think I’ll probably start using the term “ancestral diets” when talking about nutrition, as opposed to the “paleo diet”. It might not be as catchy, but I feel that it’s a more accurate and effective way to refer to healthful dietary practices.

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17 Responses to Ancestral vs. Paleo. How Important Are the Words We Use to Describe Our Movement?

  1. Liz says:

    Love the quality of thought here. As an unfortunate Lit major in a community of scientists, I’ve found the “ancestral” term to be much more thorough and embracing of what I consider “healthy” dietary principles. It’s something Diane (of Balanced Bites) and I discuss in our workshops as well, specifically with regards to the work of Weston A. Price. I don’t think this is an issue of simple semantics – I think it’s an extremely important consideration!Thanks for giving it voice.

    • David Csonka says:

      Thanks Liz. It’s so tricky crafting language that can gain traction, while still holding to the inherent truth of the concept. I suppose that’s why good marketing people get paid the big bucks.

  2. Zack says:

    I have mulled this myself and I feel that a more appropriate term is “evolutionary”. The main reason for this is that a lot of people who believe and embrace evolution (most people in the world) are still vegan, vegetarian, SAD-itarians, and junk foodies.

    Evolutionary Diet would hopefully immediately connect the importance of eating this way. You can easily follow that up with, “our bodies evolved to process a diet like this.”

    • David Csonka says:

      I agree completely Zack, and would totally go that route except for the bit I mentioned in the article about 1/2 the American population not believing in the validity of the theory of evolution.

      I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to backpedal from the word “evolution” in conversations with friends or acquaintances regarding the topics I write about. Sometimes it’s just not worth the headache or awkwardness.

      • Zack says:

        Yeah… I tend to not talk to those people too much and when I do, I’ll go back to something like primal diet.

  3. Your dad says:

    One of your best articles, very concise information, well done son.

  4. Debbie H. says:

    I like the term Ancestral and will start using it to describe how I eat these days. I’m not strictly “paleo” or even “primal” but avoid processed foods and generally try to limit carbs.

  5. Rachel says:

    So nice to see that common sense does still exist somewhere on the Internet. It’s also wonderful to see compromise. This is not a “one size fits all” world now is it? Your willingness to accept new ideas and appreciate the validity and wisdom of older ideas and practices, unlike many “experts” in nutrition and medicine, is gratifying. Very well done!

  6. Carolyn says:

    When I read the title of this post I thought, “here we go let the nitpicking begin.” But after reading your post I agree with the sentiment. Being new to this “Paleo” thing myself I find everyone’s definition of it is slightly different, there are so many nuances. What is right for you might not be right for me. But overall the message is the same. Eat whole foods. Avoid grains and toxic things.

    Thanks for starting this conversation!

  7. Andrew says:

    I know you’re not using it this way, but “ancestral” has always seemed like a conciliation designed to ease cognitive dissonance by the likes of evolution denying creationists. I can’t get behind it because it strips even the faintest implication that evolution has anything to do with this.

    From another angle, I’m not sure wisdom of the ancients (ancestors) is even a good idea. Fermentation and other preparation methods were attempts to make locally convenient foods edible, not optimal. Yet an optimal foraging strategy doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with optimal health once it’s removed from an evolutionary timeline and placed into the frame of an individual’s life history. To my mind, ancestral ‘wisdom’ suffers from a bias toward short-term observations of cause and effect (or lack thereof).

  8. Nance says:

    I started with “primal” then went through an “ancestral” phase but nowadays I just say I “avoid processed foods.” Within the community, “paleo” is short and sweet but I typically use quotes now. Since I’m in my 60s, the “paleo” tag has no particular meaning for my friends but they understand if I say I’m avoiding junk because it makes me sick.

  9. It’s amazing the difference language has. Whenever it’s discussed in Australian media it is only called “The Caveman Diet” which I find really tiresome and the last word I would use!

    • David Csonka says:

      Yeah, “caveman” is probably one of the worst terms for describing hunter-gatherers even devised, and yet it entered the vocabulary of everybody, and will probably never die.

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  11. WyldKard says:

    I touched on this same topic back in March, and agree it warrants further introspection. As catchy as the “paleo” label is, at this point I think it may be doing more damage than good.

    • David Csonka says:

      “Since the last Ancestral Health Symposium, there’s been a degree of infighting in the paleosphere, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s science we’re arguing over”

      Excellent point!

  12. Jared says:

    I thought that this was a very informative and well-written article. I’m learning to write articles and although your style may be a tad too intelligent for the masses I was very appreciative of it.