The Paleolithic diet, commonly known as “paleo,” is the latest hot trend in nutrition. It’s not only a new way of eating, but a new type of lifestyle that turns our conventional notion of a healthy diet completely upside down.
The composition of the diet is spelled out in the name itself. Paleolithic diet: The diet of a caveman. “What is the diet of the caveman?” you ask. Think of what humans ate 2.5 million to 10 thousand years ago. Now, that’s wayyy back! That’s before the agricultural and industrial revolutions. Before these two major time periods, many types of food had not yet been developed or weren’t consumed. Legumes, grains, dairy, refined sugar, processed foods, potatoes, salt, and refined vegetable oils were nonexistent during the Paleolithic era.
According to Loren Cordain, founder of the paleo diet, the human body has evolved up to the point to best function under the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors. All subsequently added foods are toxic to the human body and are responsible for the high incidence of obesity and weight related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and certain cancers.
Oh, the way we’ve come.
Scaling back our diets to exclude the aforementioned foods will purify our dietary intake to the “real” food that our bodies are meant to consume, thus making us healthier in every way imaginable. Cordain promises that following paleo will result in weight loss, increased energy, athletic performance, mental clarity, and libido, slowed or reversed progression of autoimmune diseases, and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Those are some hefty promises to fulfill. Does paleo measure up? Time to take a deeper look…
Since we’ve established what you can’t eat on paleo, what can you eat? Grass fed meats, seafood, fresh fruits and non-starchy vegetables, eggs, nuts/ seeds (no peanuts since it’s a legume), and healthful oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, and coconut) are allowed. The diet’s nutrient breakdown is 39% fat, 38% protein, and 23% carbohydrate- Slightly exceeding the recommended daily allowance of fat/protein and half the minimum amount of carbohydrates recommended.
Paleolithic Food Pyramid
The proposed mechanism behind paleo’s weight loss benefit lies in its high protein and fiber content. Firstly, protein has a thermic effect on your body. It revs up your metabolism, therefore accelerating weight loss. Furthermore, fiber and protein satiate hunger the most. With that in mind, if your meals are concentrated in protein and fiber, then you will be able to get satiated (full) by eating less, resulting in weight loss. Carbohydrates are the least efficient at fulfilling hunger, and paleo’s low carbohydrate content saves you from wasting calories on carbs that won’t fill you up, thereby promoting weight loss.
“Mama always said carbohydrates are the devil”
Lastly, since paleo cuts out grains, processed food, and refined sugars, nutrient-free caloric bombs are made obsolete. Fast food, sugary sweets, and snack foods (chips, soda, etc) are no longer a part of your world. You won’t have to worry about succumbing to a late night pizza, cheeseburger, potato chip, candy, or ice cream craving as these foods are nowhere in your house. Besides, your increased satiety will make junk food irrelevant to you. When you reach for an edible vice, it’s mostly due to zapped energy or a nutritionally deficient meal eaten beforehand. When on paleo, with a tummy full of sustainable energy, you will run at all four cylinders and won’t look twice at that Twinkie. If you really want a sweet treat, you’ll have an apple with almond butter- sweet but nutritious and satiating.
Fred Flintstone, the OG of Paleo.
So Full of Energy, this Guy.
As for disease prevention, the low glycemic index of the carbohydrates in paleo (since they are all complex carbohydrates, not refined) slows the rise in blood sugar levels- which explains how it manages and prevents type 2 diabetes.
The high amount of fiber, omega-3’s, and monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) in paleo will boost the body’s concentration of HDL, improving heart health and reducing risk of heart disease.
Paleo promises to rejuvenate the soul as well as the body. Since it encourages people to cook at home instead of going with the ready made meals that are a staple of the American diet, it creates an outlet for creativity. Cordain states that this is a new activity that distracts one from less healthy activities such as television or even dangerous habits such as drugs or violence. Furthermore, preparing meals at home can also save money.
At this point, it seems like paleo is a G-d send. You will feel fantastic, have a ton of energy, look great, save money, learn how to cook, and lose weight. “Sign me up!” Hold your horses, my friends. Never sign up without reading the fine print.
Careful what you’re signing off on…
First off, there are problems in the name itself. It’s a pretty wide sweeping claim to state that this is the typical diet of all Paleolithic humans. How does Cordain know that? He has a PhD in exercise science, not archaeology. Even archaeologists are not 100% sure of what cavemen ate. It’s not like Trogmog the caveman instagrammed his meals. Some ancient shattered pottery, fossils, and bones can only tell us so much. Cordain’s lack of archaeological background is highlighted when considering that paleolithic human teeth have been found with remains of grains stuck in them. Wonder how they got there? Oh…because they were eaten! Now that we know grains were indeed consumed during the Paleolithic era, the concept of the paleo diet is rather shaken up.
What were the exact proportions of meat to produce in the Paleolithic era diet? We’re not sure. It’s important to realize that there was not one solid Paleolithic diet. It varied by geography. Looking at the modern hunter gatherer groups, their diets are quite diverse. For example, the Inuit diet is 80% meat/ fish and 20% fruit/ vegetables while the !Kung diet is 50% seeds/ nuts, 20% fruit/ vegetables, and 10% meat/ fish. Thus, if we are not sure what the exact diet of the real paleo people was, how can we be so confident to prescribe one as a magical cure all?
Even if we assume that there was a standard Paleolithic diet, was it actually beneficial to health? The paleo diet romanticizes ancient times: No industry, agriculture, or other complications of modern day, just pick berries, hunt, run around, and make sweet love to your wife Grogtok in a cave. Ahh, the good old days! You seem to be forgetting the fact that humans in the Paleolithic era weren’t lean bodied because of their dietary composition, but because of no diet at all! Food was difficult to come by and people went on for weeks without eating.
Going back to a Paleolithic diet’s meat component, how simple do you think it was to get meat in those days? Well, on the 20% chance the animal didn’t eat you (remember, humans were part of the food chain then), you’d have some meat to feast on, but this wasn’t often. Paleolithic humans were seriously malnourished! Most of them did not live past 40 and they were often dead before hitting puberty- so much for the sweet cave action.
The Good Old Days!
Cordain states that the introduction of foods resultant from the industrial/ agricultural revolution are responsible for heart disease. If this is so, then heart disease should be nonexistent in the Paleolithic era. An examination of 137 Paleolithic “mummies” from around the world revealed that 47 of them had atherosclerosis. Well, wouldn’t you know?
Paleo’s main foundation is the assertion that humans have only evolved to best function under the diet typical of the Paleolithic era. Our bodies supposedly haven’t evolved at all since then, so we should make no changes to our diet. Oh really?! Nooo evolution, they say? How does Cordain explain the development of lactose tolerance in humans within 7,000 years ago? How about the genetic resistance to malaria that came about 5,000-10,000 years ago? Or the difference in intestinal bacteria from the present and Paleolithic eras? Cordain has little grasp on evolution and genetic expression, yet he uses them as a strong selling point for his diet, amazing.
Now that we’ve scratched the surface of this diet, let’s get down to the dirty nuts and bolts. Does it really work? Is it really beneficial?
Cutting out grains, dairy, and legumes is not wise. Doing so excludes viable and affordable sources of protein, fiber, calcium, and vitamins. These foods are helpful for maintaining a healthy, balanced diet. Yes, you can do so without, but that will require careful planning by a registered dietitian (RD), not to mention ample supplementation of Vitamin D and calcium since paleo dieters are usually deficient from a lack of dietary sources.
Moreover, the concentration on meat makes paleo dieters susceptible to high cholesterol, putting them at risk for heart disease. Too bad paleo doesn’t allow whole grains, which are proven to lower cholesterol.
“Wahhh, but Michelle! Studies have shown that paleo reduces blood pressure, LDL [bad cholesterol], and triglycerides!” Don’t get your paleo panties in a bunch. A lot of people think they can just yell “studies have shown…!” and there’s no comeback to that. Haha, you clearly don’t know who you’re talking to. Please, SHOW ME THOSE STUDIES. I’ve examined this mere handful of studies myself, and I have a lot to say. None of them are long term, clinical studies- the type that would actually yield substantial evidence. They were all short term studies with a limited number of participants. A short term study does not divulge whether a diet has long lasting, beneficial effects. If a study has a small number of participants, it is subject to sampling bias, creating false results. Again, these unsubstantiated studies are few in number and have only popped up recently. Compare this to the THOUSANDS of clinical, long term studies for the past century proving the importance of legumes, grains, and dairy in a balanced diet and in disease prevention/ treatment.
If you don’t care for studies, look at the Inuits, one of the modern day hunter gatherers whose diets focuses largely on meat. Inuits suffer from a high incidence of cardiovascular diseases, from all the animal fat, and osteoporosis, from the lack of dietary calcium. Know what lowers your risk for osteoporosis and heart disease? Whole grains. Nope, can’t have any, you’re on paleo. Sorry.
Cordain advises his subscribers that “protein is a paleo dieters best friend.” That’s quite interesting considering the ceiling on safe protein intake is 30-40% of daily intake and paleo’s nutrient composition is 38% protein. This is severely dangerous as it is very easy to consume more protein by accident. Excessive intake of protein can cause protein toxicity, which is characterized as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and eventually death. Furthermore, high protein low carbohydrate diets have been linked to heart disease, cancer, and kidney damage.
Despite all of this compelling information, you still want to forge on with paleo. Why? The prospect of a lean, muscular physique is an enticing carrot to a very hungry mule. Will you lose weight on paleo? No doubt about it. It’s very easy to lose weight when depriving yourself of entire food groups. What is doubtful, however, is paleo’s weight loss sustainability. Completely abstaining from a type of food makes it even more tempting. No matter how many times you tell everyone (and yourself) how much you love salmon and mashed celery root, the mere sight of a cheese burger and fries will make you salivate. Relapse is inevitable, just like any other extremely restrictive diet. Eventually, you’ll cheat on paleo. Then you’ll do it again, and again, until the next thing you know, you wake up in a pile of empty pizza boxes and candy wrappers. Most, if not all, of the weight will be back. You will tell yourself that you’ll be good again, and you may start back up, but let’s be honest, you’re just going to fall off the paleo wagon once more. Don’t feel bad, it’s the typical Greek tragedy of any restrictive diet. Remember Atkins?
Regardless of the fallacies in paleo itself, what irks me even more are the members of this cult paleo dieters themselves. They have what I like to call “Born Again Syndrome.” Paleo dieters resemble the born again religion fanatics, believing that they have transcended the rest of man kind into a holier than though state of healthiness. They look back at the error of their ways, regret their dietary sins, and try to spread the gospel to others. “Excuse me friend, I notice you’re eating a peanut butter sandwich. Do you have a minute to talk about the teachings of the paleo diet?”
Sorry to break it to you, but driving your Prius to Whole Foods/ farmers market to pick up grass fed meats, organic produce, and nuts does not make you the second coming of Christ.
Because I know you’re dying to tell me
You’re not doing anyone a favor. In fact, you may be harming us all. Adopting paleo on a global scale would be environmentally destructive. The diet is largely meat based and animal agriculture is one of the leading contributors to global warming and deforestation- Mo’ paleo, mo’ meat’, mo’ problems.
Not only is paleo restrictive to dietary intake, but it also restricts who can follow it. Who do you think has the means to afford grass fed meats and organic produce? Who has the time to avoid processed foods and cook everything instead? Who can afford alternatives to grains, dairy, and refined sugar? Upper middle class/ rich White people, that’s who. Go ahead, tell the average American they can’t have grains, processed food, legumes, dairy, or refined sugars. I dare you. I’m positive that you will be met with a resounding “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Paleo is quite financially and time consuming. Unfortunately, most people cannot afford it.
My favorite part about the paleo diet is how polarizing it is among dietitians. I have seen my colleagues get into literal screaming matches that ended up in third grade-esque “you’re stupid!” “no, you’re stupid!” It’s always quite fun to watch.
RDs on Paleo
Where do I stand? I’m in the middle. I see the benefits, and I also see the risks. I believe that we should take certain elements from paleo: cutting out refined grains/ sugars and processed foods. An emphasis on cooking at home is also fantastic. However, I don’t agree with abolishing all grains, dairy, and legumes- they are viable parts of a healthy diet and losing them would be harmful to your health, not to mention your sense of pleasure. Come on, no pizza, potatoes, or ice cream ever?! This is not a world I care to live in.
Honestly though, if paleo is working out and you truly believe that it’s the best for you, then I won’t stop you. While I do not advocate extreme restrictive diets, I also believe that one glove does not fit every hand. For you, this could be the best option. Just regularly check your Vitamin D/ calcium levels and lipid profiles to make sure there are no adverse effects. I have an open mind to anything in the field of nutrition as the human body is incredibly diverse and adaptive to a spectrum of conditions. In short, different strokes for different folks.
As for all those cracks about “born again syndrome” and paleo available only for rich White people, that’s just me being a smart ass. What’s True Bite without me being a smart ass? There’s no fun in that. Sorry, I’m not sorry.
Until Next Week Friends,