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Evolutionary Genetics and the Paleo Diet

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The paradigm of the Paleo Diet is radically different from most other diets in the marketplace today.  This caveman diet doesn’t tell you to go low carb, or reduce the amount of trans fat you consume, and it doesn’t stress the hot button of the current weight loss trends.  As a result, some people are sceptical about the Paleo Diet.  But this style of eating is based on science, and here is more scientific evidence that helps prove the validity of the Paleo Diet paradigm.

Before providing evidence to prove the paradigm, a small explanation is in order for people who are unaware of the idea behind the Paleo Diet.  Paleo Diet principles are based on the concept that homosapiens are designed through evolution to eat a diet similar to what our ancestors ate in the Palaeolithic era.  It was during the Palaeolithic period that Homo sapiens developed from earlier evolutionary models.  Palaeolithic people followed a hunter gather existence and didn’t eat many of the foods we eat today.  To learn more about what people ate back then read What is the Paleo Diet.

So, if the crux of the Paleo Diet is that through evolution, modern man is designed to eat a certain type of diet for optimal performance, where is the evidence that evolution and diet are connected?  In 2007 George H Perry published the paper “Diet and the Evolution of Human Amylase Gene Copy Number Variation”[i] .  He studied two groups: one consisted of four populations with a low-starch diet and the other of three populations from agricultural societies and hunter–gatherers in arid environments, which traditionally eat high-starch food. 

He found twice as many members of the high-starch-diet group had at least six copies of AMY1. This difference could not be explained by geographical factors because both groups contained people of Asian and African origin. Instead, the authors propose that variations in AMY1 copy number are more likely to have been influenced by positive natural selection.  By having an increased amount of amylase in their saliva, starches are more readily broken down in the mouth and amylase continues to help digestion when it’s swallowed.  This group of people evolved to maximize the nutritional content of their environment.

The point of citing this study here is not to encourage increased consumption of high starch diets.  Rather, it illustrates that evolution and diet is connected and this process continues today.  The researchers found that the nucleotide sequences of the AMY1 gene had very small variations.  They concluded that these mutations may have occurred as late as 200,000 years ago.[ii]

Does this mean that we should follow our current way of eating because evolution will enable us to adapt?  The answer is no.  Modern humans developed through an evolutionary period 2.5 million years – 12,000 BP.  We are not designed to eat the processed foods and refined foods of today.  Maybe through evolution we will be able to adjust to today’s diet.  The question is will we still be human?


[i] George H Perry et al. Nature Genetics doi:10.1038/ng2123; 2007

[ii] George H Perry et al. Nature Genetics 39, 1258 – 1260 (2007)

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About Layne Pennell

  • I’m on day 22 of this diet and it’s awesome. I’ve lost 8 pounds over 3 weeks, and dropped from 9.6% body fat to 7.3% body fat…. Oh, and I’m not even trying to lose weight. Sticking to my same workout routine, and eating tons and TONS of food. It’s just the right KIND of food.