The foods that the paleo diet promotes are no doubt good for you and if most people ate in this way we would certainly see a dramatic decrease in obesity and chronic disease rates. If a person switches from a poor diet with lots of processed and refined foods, and eats more whole-foods that are promoted in the paleo diet, of course they will feel better. However, my issue with the paleo diet is the premises on which the diet is built are wrong and therefore leads to the avoidance of some very healthy foods. Furthermore, it also creates food dogma that is inherent to sitting in a diet camp.
Like most diet camps, the premises on which these diets are built are often wrong. For example, vegetarians and vegans claim that their dietary choices are more morally correct, environmentally sustainable and healthier, however this is not true.
Paleo encourages us to eat like our ancient ancestors did before the agricultural revolution, which occurred 10,000 years ago, when humans were still hunter-gatherers and we moved around to source our food. Specifically, the paleo dietary model encourages us to base our diets on the following foods:
- animals (especially a “whole animal” approach, including bone marrow, cartilage, and organs),
- animal products (such as eggs or honey),
- vegetables and fruits,
- raw nuts and seeds,
- and added fats (like coconut oil, avocado, butter, ghee).
The agricultural revolution allowed humans to settle in communities with a constant food supply, however paleo advocates claim that before we started eating grains like wheat and barley before the agricultural revolution, humans were healthier and had less disease. They proclaim that 10,000 years is not enough time for our bodies to adapt to eating grains, which is a relatively recent addition to our diet in the grand scheme of things.
Yes, paleo humans did eat more protein, more omega 3, more fruits and vegetables and more vitamins and minerals, however they were not the model of health. They suffered and died “early” deaths from infections, wild animals, war, famine the weather/elements/climate changes.
Some research also does suggest that our paleo ancestors maybe did suffer from chronic diseases like atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
However, it is likely they didn’t suffer from as many chronic diseases as we do today because they didn’t live long enough to be effected by them. Modern medicine (especially to treat infections), hygiene practices, sanitation, spaced out living quarters, disease control methods, decreased war, and increased infrastructure leading to increased accessibility of food, water and shelter from the elements, has significantly increased life expectancy. Especially in the developed world (some of these factors are large causes of death in developed nations therefore reducing life expectancy).
Because of this, some may argue that it then leads to an increased risk of chronic diseases. However, in saying that, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the combination of modern medicine and modern living with good diet and lifestyle practices, is a recipe for a long and healthy life in most cases. And chronic disease may only manifest in well into old age when the body naturally slows down.
Paleo tells us to avoid grains (even “whole grains”) as well as other agricultural foods like beans and legumes.
Dairy is also typically off limits too, though some guidelines allow these foods. If you tolerate dairy well, meaning you are not lactose intolerant or have any allergies, dairy can be extremely healthy and offers some great nutritional/health benefits.
We already know that processed foods and refined grains aren’t good for us, hence they are right to be avoided. But what about whole grains and legumes?
Paleo advocates say that legumes contain high concentrations of anti-nutrients like lectins or phytates. These are plant chemicals that are produced in plants as protective mechanisms. Supposedly, they reduce nutrient absorption in the body, as well as other health issues.
These chemicals have only been shown to cause issues in animal studies when animals are fed high amounts of these anti-nutrients in isolated forms from raw legumes. However, in humans, we don’t consume these anti-nutrients in isolated forms, we consume them in food and most people cook their legumes. Research suggests that the benefits of legumes outweigh their anti-nutrient content and cooking eliminates most anti-nutrient effects. Moreover, some anti-nutrients (like lectins and phytic acid) may even be good for us (e.g. anti-oxidants).
As for grains, Paleo proponents say grains can lead to inflammation (mainly due to gluten) in the body and inflammation underpins many chronic diseases.
This can be true for people with celiac disease (about 1 percent of the population) and for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. But a substantial body of reliable research suggests that eating whole grains improves our health as they are a good source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. At the very least, whole grains appear to be neutral when it comes to inflammation.
Lastly, the “Paleo diet” is purely a term used to market a mixture of “clean” and “high fat, low carb” diets. The foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate thousands of years ago are very different to the foods we eat today. For example, we eat cows and other domesticated animals, but our ancestors hunted wild game and ate/used every bit of the animal. Also, due to cultivation, varying growing conditions, food transportation and farming, our fruits and vegetables that we consume today are very different to the wild forms of the fruits and vegetables that our paleo ancestors ate.
Our paleo ancestors had very different diets depending on where they lived. Each population of hunter gathered, developed a genetic make up, that required specific amounts of nutrients depending on their environments. The food sources available to them, provided adequate amounts of these specific nutrients.
The Paleo diet has a lot of good qualities. It emphasises eating whole foods and removing processed foods, which is why studies done on the Paleo diet show great results because adding these foods consistently into a persons diet could make huge changes to your health. It is also probably one of the most nutrient dense diets and when it is done well, it covers most nutrients.
However, the premises on which it is built can lead to avoidance of some healthy foods and when it comes to nutrition and diet, there is no one size fits all. Strictly following a list of “good” and “bad” or “allowed” and “not allowed” foods is problematic for most people as it can cause guilt around food and is likely to be unsustainable.
So instead of sitting in a diet camp, maybe you could make small changes to your diet such as trying to replace the processed foods you eat with more whole-foods. Small changes done consistently can be very effective and consistency is more important than any food list or evolutionary theory. Here is a good guide to trying to get your diet back on track.