Tomatoes at a Farmers Market - image by Lisa Missenda

Is Evolutionary Discordance Still Relevant?

By Marybeth Missenda RPh CNS
February 2, 2017

In 2005, Cordain and colleagues proposed that much of today’s chronic ailments were associated with the rapid change in the kinds of foods we are eating in today’s modern culture. Their theory is that our genome has not been able to evolutionarily adapt to the rapidness of our change in diet, to one high in refined sugars, refined grains and refined fats. They referred to this as Evolutionary Discordance. Their work led to a burgeoning exploration of Paleolithic diets as a call to return to a diet which was more evolutionarily recognizable.

Freese et al (2016) recently published their pilot study on the health impacts of a 4 day Paleolithic lifestyle. This trial had a small population size (n=13) which represented a health conscious population of students, scientists, physicians and other health professionals. This makes it difficult to apply their findings to the general population. So we are still building the evidence-base to bring confirmation that adopting a Paleolithic Diet is the answer to the theory of Evolutionary Discordance

In their study, the macronutrient balance of their experimental diet was 24% protein, 54% fat and 22% carbohydrate with their fat sources being from butter, olive oil, salmon, nuts and meet. The value of this Paleolithic diet study is that they also matched the physical activity that would have accompanied the Paleolithic diet. In looking at their outcomes, they did see significant drops in fasting glucose, insulin and HOMA. On the other hand the C-Reactive Protein increased significantly (Freese et al , 2016). But is this approach the only response to this Evolutionary Discordance?

The initial work on Evolutionary Discordance by Cordain and colleagues ( 2005) has inspired research on not only the adoption of Paleolithic-like diets but also 1). the investigation into the health promoting benefits of phytochemicals within our food which promote resilience and adaptability, 2) other plant based /culturally based diets (eg. Mediterranean diet) and 3) an exploration of the function the human microbiota associated with traditional diets. These avenues of exploration have broadened our understanding of the mechanisms by which our current Western diet is promoting illness and disease.

Our focus on diets rich in fruits and vegetables has opened the door to extensive explorations of traditional dietary patterns like the Mediterranean diet. Its focus on fresh fruits and vegetables, seafood, nuts and olives, mirror the connection with the natural world that is embodied in Cordain and colleagues’ theory that the current Western diet is out of alignment with this connection. Knight , Bryan and Murphy ( 2016) explored what has been learned so far in relation to the cognitive benefits of the Mediterranean diet and broadens the discussion beyond the types of food consumed to embrace the socio-cultural differences between it and the Western Diet. Whalen and colleagues (2016) work shows similar effects on inflammatory biomarkers for either a Paleolithic or Mediterranean-like diet. This along with their paper on comparing these diet trends impact on colorectal adenomas suggests that either diet may provide benefit (Whalen et al,2014; Whalen et al, 2016)

Another avenue of rich exploration on this topic is the concept of how dietary phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables have a hormesis mechanism in creating cellular stress resistance. Without exposure to these phytonutrients our bodies do not build adaptability and resilience to the environmental changes (Mattson, 2009).

In conclusion, it would be short sighted to only focus on the Paleolithic diet to solve the disconnect between our diets and our experience of health and wellness. One should consider the larger body of evidence which supports the value of a whole-foods diet rich in fruit and vegetables that honors our connection to our planet.


Cordain, L., Eaton, S. B., Sebastian, A., Mann, N., Lindeberg, S., Watkins, B. A., … & Brand-Miller, J. (2005). Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 81(2), 341-354.

Freese, J., Ruiz-Núñez, B., Heynck, R., Schwarz, S., Pruimboom, L., Renner, R., & Lötzerich, H. (2016). To Restore Health,“Do we Have to Go Back to the Future?” The Impact of a 4-Day Paleolithic Lifestyle Change on Human Metabolism–a Pilot Study. Journal of Evolution and Health, 1(1), 12.

Knight, A., Bryan, J., & Murphy, K. (2016). Is the Mediterranean diet a feasible approach to preserving cognitive function and reducing risk of dementia for older adults in Western countries? New insights and future directions. Ageing research reviews, 25, 85-101.

Mattson, M. P. (2008). Dietary factors, hormesis and health. Ageing research reviews, 7(1), 43-48.

Whalen, K. A., McCullough, M., Flanders, W. D., Hartman, T. J., Judd, S., & Bostick, R. M. (2014). Paleolithic and Mediterranean diet pattern scores and risk of incident, sporadic colorectal adenomas. American journal of epidemiology, 180(11), 1088-1097.

Whalen, K. A., McCullough, M. L., Flanders, W. D., Hartman, T. J., Judd, S., & Bostick, R. M. (2016). Paleolithic and Mediterranean diet pattern scores are inversely associated with biomarkers of inflammation and oxidative balance in adults. The Journal of nutrition, 146(6), 1217-1226.

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