Paleolithic Teeth by John Peldyak, DDS

Paleolithic Teeth
by John Peldyak, DDS

The newest way of eating is the oldest. What does it mean for our dental health?

The SAD Experience

The motives were noble. There had to be new ways to supply food for a burgeoning population. Thanks to mechanized agriculture and technology we can now grow, fractionate, refine and recombine high-yield foods into irresistible, some say downright addictive, food-like products. Modern industrial food production has become so successful that now its biggest challenge is finding new ways to make "reduced calorie" foods. Since World War II, the United States has taken the lead in food technologies that supply an overabundance of tasty calories while holding costs down.

But the Standard American Diet (SAD) is loaded with high-calorie saturated fat, vegetable oils, processed foods and sugar, leaving us overfed yet undernourished. The SAD has been ridiculed for decades as the junk food, fast food, refined food diet that makes Americans fat and sick. Over two-thirds of Americans are overweight, one-third are considered obese.

And the rest of the world is rapidly catching up. In recent years, the SAD has spread into the Western Industrial Diet (WID) and now more universally morphed into the Worldwide Industrial Diet (WWID). This WWID is firmly taking hold in most urbanized, industrialized parts of the world, replacing traditional foods with enticing mass-produced calories. The high-calorie, low-nutrient WWID has been linked to many diseases of civilization. The United States is a leading indicator with a sharply increasing incidence of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Other developed countries are following the same pattern. Alarmingly, some of these degenerative diseases are relentlessly creeping down into younger age groups. The increasingly unaffordable pharmaceutical, medical and dental establishments struggle to keep pace with diet-induced damage. Coupled with the WWID, a sedentary indoor lifestyle under fluorescent lights contributes to chronic stress, low levels of physical strength, impaired sleep patterns, and abuse of alcohol, drugs and food.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

Evolutionary anthropologists say we are genetically adapted to the diet of our Paleolithic (Stone Age) ancestors. For more than a million years humans were hunter-gatherers. Early use of tools was to break bones to extract marrow and get omega-3 fatty acids, such as DHA critical for brain development. We only began to organize settlements and agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Increasing cultivation of cereal grains supported cities with larger populations. Establishing trade routes helped to spread varieties of local food sources, such as sugar cane from India to the Middle East. The Industrial Revolution began to drive more agricultural mechanization and food technology in efforts to create abundant affordable foods with greater storage life. The 1800s brought us low-cost refined flour, sugar, canned foods and bottled soft drinks that could easily be transported and stored. Hydrogenated vegetable oils, margarine and vegetable shortening were on the market by the early 1900s.

The benefits, comforts and convenience of modern civilization come with a high cost. Along with greater reliance on refined flour, sugar and vegetable oils, came the chronic degenerative "Diseases of Civilization." Health authorities began to notice more cases of bone deformities, obesity, digestive complaints and overall physical degeneration, which now we would associate with chronic inflammation or vitamin/mineral deficiencies.

Diet and Dental

It was also noted that when traditional cultures adopted the new Western-style diet, their health and the health of their offspring rapidly deteriorated. This was particularly apparent with their oral structures. During the 1920s, Drs. Edward and May Mellanby investigated the connection between diets and dental health. They concluded that corn and wheat contain anti-nutrients (phytates) that lock up minerals, and could cause even more demineralization than sugar. They recognized the profound importance of vitamin D for healthy teeth. Their recommendation was a "tooth decay reversal diet" that eliminated grains but supplemented with dairy calcium and vitamin D.

Around the same time Dr. Weston Price, a Cleveland dentist, traveled around the world studying traditional diets and dental health. Again and again he noted the ideal teeth and broad dental arches in diverse cultures eating a variety of traditional foods. As the younger generations adopted Westernized foods, flour and sugar, they developed dental problems. Dental caries, gingival inflammation, crowded teeth, impacted third molars and malocclusions became prevalent. After analyzing these diets, Dr. Price realized there is another critical factor, later identified as vitamin K2, necessary for proper development of teeth and jawbones. Dr. Price published his results in 1938. World War II, with food rationing and sugar shortages, diminished the impact of these important findings.

Subsequent researchers have noted a shift from broad Ushaped dental arches to crowded V-shaped arches with a generation or two of exposure to the WWID. They agree that many dental problems, including malocclusions, are not necessarily genetic but more commonly diet-related, along with those other recognized "Diseases of Civilization."

Problems with WWID

Early transitions from hunter-gatherer to settlements dependent on agriculture began around 10,000 years ago. But many of the profound dietary shifts are very recent. The last 200 years have brought us refined sugar, refined flour, canned foods, carbonated soft drinks, polyunsaturated vegetable seed oils (processed with hydrogen creating artificial trans fats), margarine, vegetable shortening, fast foods, grain-fed livestock in feedlots, high fructose corn syrup, engineered snack foods and a host of artificial ingredients.

The result is a diet far removed from our hunter-gatherer roots. Most WWID calories are from sources that would be scarce or non-existent to our ancestors (grains, sugars, oils). The WWID promotes insulin-resistance with overloads of harmful sugars and fats. As cells become less sensitive to insulin, blood sugar is not cleared effectively after eating. Excess sugars, particularly fructose, are readily converted into fat. Sedentary inactivity while frequently ingesting fast-acting starch (glucose polymer readily broken into monosaccharides), sucrose sugar (glucose/ fructose) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS, glucose and even more fructose), wears out the insulin receptors. At toxic levels sugars readily stick to proteins producing advanced glycation end products (AGEs). Normal structure and function degenerate as AGEs accumulate.

Hefty loads of saturated fats (particularly palmitic acid) and artificial trans fats contribute to insulin-resistance. Over time, insulin-resistance becomes worse, leading to metabolic syndrome. This is a cluster of abnormal markers such as elevated blood sugar, hypertension, high LDL with low HDL cholesterol, and the dreaded belly fat or central visceral adiposity (a quick check is waist circumference >40 inches for males, >35 inches for females).

The WWID is pro-inflammatory. The unsaturated fatty acid profile is overloaded with (pro-inflammatory) omega-6 fatty acids almost 20 to one over (anti-inflammatory) omega-3 fatty acids, whereas the ideal ratio should be closer to even. The polyunsaturated seed oils are easily damaged by heat or oxidation. When stabilized by hydrogenation, trans fats are created. Artificial trans fats are believed to be particularly dangerous. Grain-fed fattened livestock develops a similar deranged lipid profile: a high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio along with large amounts of saturated fat rich in (pro-inflammatory) palmitic acid. (A newly recognized omega-7 fatty acid, palmitoleic acid, is a promising counterbalance.)

On top of all this, the WWID fails to supply optimum or adequate amounts of important nutrients. Calories can be excessive while minerals, vitamins, antioxidants and essential fatty acids can be extremely low. Taken together, the WWID creates a pattern of hormone disruption and inflammation leading to those chronic degenerative "Diseases of Civilization" such as allergies, osteoporosis, gout, diabetes, some types of cancers, and digestive and cardiovascular diseases.

Re-enter the Paleo Diet

Physical degeneration has been noted repeatedly in cultures transitioning to the WWID. How about the reverse? In 1982 a group of urbanized aboriginal Australians returned to the bush, accompanied by nutrition researcher Kerin O'Dea. After only seven weeks back on their traditional diet, the group lost an average of 18 pounds with a vast improvement in blood pressure, blood sugar and insulin-resistance. Their plasma lipids (cholesterol, triglycerides, and omega ratios) completely normalized.

Paleo Updated

Many people would prefer to maintain comforts and convenience of civilization but enjoy the physical health and strength of ancestral hunter-gatherers. There is no way of determining or duplicating exactly the "authentic" Paleolithic diet. Besides, most of the harmful components of the WWID are recent developments. Why go all the way back to 30,000 BC? Most "Paleos" are flexible, and there are many variations with "diet" names such as Caveman, Ancestral, Stone Age, Primal, Evolutionary or Traditional. We can roll these into one theme, the "Modified" or "Modern" Paleolithic Diet - MPD.

In general, MPD recommends eating "real" foods more in tune with our hunter-gatherer genetics. Paleolithic nutrition is a return to our ancestral past and a more natural way of eating. At the core are the foods that could be hunted and gathered in the wild: meat, fish, fowl, eggs, vegetables, fruit, along with some nuts and seeds. Basic Paleo guidelines eliminate or greatly reduce all grains, lentils, added sugars, industrial seed oils (cottonseed, corn, soy, safflower, etc.), dairy and processed foods. The MPD encourages animal protein and fats (including organ meats) preferably from pastured, free-range or wild-caught sources. These have a more favorable balance of omega-3 fatty acids than confined feedlot, grain-fed sources. Virgin, non-hydrogenated oils such as olive, coconut and palm are more likely to be accepted. There are many gray areas with the different versions of MPD. Most permit moderate amounts of starchy carbohydrates from non-grain sources. Some versions of MPD take traditional foods into account such as dairy and fermented foods. A few allow beans or lentils that have been soaked or sprouted.

Paleo Lifestyle

The MPD encompasses more than food selection. Preparation in more traditional ways is respected. Slow cooking of bone broths is obviously more "Paleo" than microwaving or deep frying. Hunter-gatherers (particularly in temperate zones) went through cycles of seasonal food availability, and even times of "feast or famine." Modern Paleos sometimes try to emulate this on a small scale, believing it promotes metabolic flexibility, resets proper hormone signaling and develops ideal strength and health. Some strategies include intermittent fasting (most religious traditions include fasting) - voluntarily avoiding calories for 24 hours once a week, or shrinking their "feeding window" to eight hours in a day. This is believed to parallel a hunter-gatherer having a large community meal with foodstuffs accumulated throughout the day. The emphasis is on meals not snacks. Every so often, there may be a special occasion where a large "cheat meal" or feast is encouraged.

For exercise some Paleos favor increased small movements and leisurely walking throughout the day, with occasional "bursts" of all-out sprints or strength movements. Paleos like to get outdoors and soak up some natural Vitamin D from the sunshine. Claimed benefits of the Paleo lifestyle are improved overall health, increased energy, fat loss, a more aesthetic body composition, enhanced athletic performance, improved sleep and better oral health.


The WWID brought unimagined abundance, convenience and irresistible flavors. It also brought along the chronic degenerative diseases of civilization. Often overlooked in this category are dental diseases - caries, periodontal disease and malocclusion. Early on, researchers recognized populations in transition from caries-free teeth in broad, strong dental arches to crowded, rotted teeth surrounded by inflamed tissue as they adopted Western-style processed foods. It is time to rediscover the link between diet and dental health.

It remains to be determined if following a Paleo-style diet will gain traction and improve dental health. In the meantime, we can continue our best efforts utilizing modern dental hygiene strategies.

The harmful dental effects of the WWID can be mitigated to some extent with saliva stimulants that increase pH, such as calcium-rich aged cheese, arginine-rich walnuts or 100 percent xylitol-sweetened gum or candy after meals and snacks. This helps to maintain a more "paleo" non-acidogenic microflora. Nutritional supplements are available to balance omega fatty acid ratios, and to provide vitamins such as D3 and K2 that might be critically lacking during pregnancy and development. It really all comes back to diet. If the Paleos are right, it comes all the way back.


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