In the past few years, the Western world has seen a wave of followers develop as proponents of the Paleo-style diet. The virtual army of dedicated Paleo-eaters are hard to miss online these days, with any Paleo-related article getting flooded with comments and arguments as soon as they’re discovered. Perpetuated by famous Paleo-endorsers such as Loren Cordain, Robb Wolf, and Mark Sisson, Paleo has turned into quite the movement. By the way, you can find their respective blogs here, here, and here.
As with many fad diets in recent years, the opinions are heavily divided by people who see Paleo from a more objective angle, and those who will defend it into the wee hours of the night; some so loyal that they no doubt would be offended that I even mention the Paleo Diet in the same paragraph as the words ‘fad diet’.
The truth is, the concept behind Paleo has actually been around since the mid 1970’s, when a gastroenterologist named Walter L. Voegtlin first came up with the idea. In reality, there is very little difference between the Paleo Diet and countless other low-carb diet fads that have made the rounds in the past decade. The main thing that separates Paleo from its low-carb cousins is the fact that Paleo doesn’t endorse the use of grains – not even the whole wheat variety.
The Paleo Philosophy
Paleo relies on the (unproven) fact that our ancestors from the stone age (circa 10,000 years ago) had inherently healthier diets than us modern-day humans. Paleo claims that they didn’t suffer from modern-day problems such as arthritis, cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease, and other diseases of affluence. Rather, they were fit, strong, and healthy individuals that were much better off than us. The Paleo premise is simple; if the cavemen didn’t eat it, you shouldn’t either.
Palaeolithic nutrition is based around the fact that in the 10,000 years that humans have been eating a diet framed by the agricultural revolution, we haven’t had the time to genetically adapt to the modern way of eating; that our body’s are better suited to eating in the manner that our ancestors did for hundreds of thousands of years.
Admittedly, it’s a pretty cool idea. It’s easy to get a kind of romantic attachment to eating like we ‘should’ eat – the way we were ‘meant’ to eat. When I first heard of Paleo and looked into it, it made a good bit of sense, at least at first. Being the research-based guy that I am; I had to look into it further.
For 30 years Paleo has taken a backseat to almost every other diet program around. The Atkins diet, the Hollywood diet, the South Beach Diet, the Mediterranean diet, and so on. It wasn’t until 2005 where Loren Cordain released his book ‘The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance’ that it really came into the spotlight. I’m not really sure why it did, but I think that it has a lot to do with the fact that it was around this same time that the similarly popular “gluten-free” movement began to spring up.
The two’s rise to fame can be paralleled in the past few years, and it’s not really surprising. The two both believe that gluten is off limits – that it is responsible for a host of common medical problems, from autism to migraines. But i’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. Continuing on.
Inconsistencies and the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution
Paleo teaches its followers that the human diet basically took a turn for the worst as soon as the agricultural revolution got under way around 10,000 years ago. Farming, and the processes associated with it, have been the corner stone of the human diet ever since their inception. And, according to Paleo, this is the reason why we’re so obese today. Remember, if the cavemen didn’t eat it – then you shouldn’t either.
Most notably, this means grains (of all kinds), beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and dairy are out of the question completely for the strict Paleo Dieter. Now, if you’re thinking that it doesn’t make much sense that tubers like sweet potatoes and yams have been crossed off the list – you’re right. These were around long before the agricultural revolution, right? Even by a Paleo guru’s own logic, these tubers should be green-listed. After all, yams are an African crop that have been eaten by humans since the beginning of time. Why shouldn’t you be allowed to eat them?
Potatoes have been around for 35,000 years, but apparently this is too short a time span for the hardcore Paleo(er). This is interesting however, since Turkey is acceptable to eat on the diet, although it was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century.
Perhaps the most shocking inconsistency that I came across was on the topic of grains. Yep, a publication by the Oxford University Press called People, Plants, and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity tells us there is indeed evidence that shows the nasty gluten-containing food staple known only as ‘cereal grain’ has been processed and consumed by humans as early as 200,000 years ago. A far-cry from the Paleo Diets claim of 10,000 years.
Really puts a dent in the whole ‘haven’t had enough time to get used to grains’ theory.
Some of the inconsistencies are obviously more important than others, but they all tend to discredit the logic of the Paleo phenomenon. Needless to say, I wanted to find out more about Paleo after learning the above. Here’s what I found.
Holes and Science: Dissecting the Paleo Diet
Fundamental Hole #1: The Caveman Diet
One of the first holes that comes to mind when I think of the Paleo Diet is the fact that it relies so heavily on things that are unproven, and to-date, unprovable. The Paleo Diet is based on what some experts believe the cavemen ate. They look at historical studies and modern-day hunter-gatherer societies and combine this with a whole lot of theory. But, do we really know what caveman ate? Is there any definitive evidence that details a caveman’s universal dietary menu? The answer, unfortunately, is no. We use conjecture, educated guesses, and speculation, with only hints of science. But science is not made of “probablys” or “quite possiblys”. Rather, it’s proven, reliable, documented, and peer-reviewed. If only Bob the cavemen left his darn cookbook for us.
Fundamental Hole #2: Location
Not only is much of what “cavemen” ate is still open to interpretation, but it’s highly location dependent. Just because the cavemen of modern Europe (that the Paleo Diet models itself after) are thought to have consumed a diet relatively high in meat (due to a lack of plant availability), doesn’t mean that early man in other areas of the world didn’t have a vastly different looking diet.
Katharine Milton talks about the !Kung people in an editorial in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. She says that the !Kung, an African people who live in an almost ideal hunter-gatherer environment, live on a diet that consists of approximately 67% plant food, and only 33% animal foods; significantly different than the ideal proportions laid out by the Paleo Diet.
Likewise, hunter-gatherers in other parts of the world like southeast Asia, for example, no doubt had a very different looking diet again. Due to things like geography, weather, and local vegetation and animal life, what was available to the cavemen was likely highly location-dependent.
Fundamental Hole #3: Alternatives
Another glaringly obvious issue with the Paleo Diet is the fact that we can’t accurately replicate it. We are at the mercy of modern food production and distribution systems that, quite simply, are a far cry from what the caveman would have had access to. These things we find in our supermarkets have been refined over the centuries. The meat we’re buying is not fresh grass-fed mammoths, they’re cultivated hybrids nurtured on artificial fertilizers (yes, even the grass-fed variety).
I had a conversation with a Paleo friend of mine the other day at a breakfast restaurant. It went something like this.
Me: Why are you eating so much bacon with your eggs?
Friend: It was as close as I could get to Paleo on the menu. Sausage is too processed.
Me: Fair enough. But surely, eating that much bacon can’t be healthy?
Friend: Well, it’s the healthiest Paleo meat that I saw on the menu.
…. I had a bowl of oatmeal with berries sitting in front of me, and forgive me Paleo Gods for saying so, but I think that is a whole lot healthier than mowing down a heap of fried bacon. But, that’s just the predicament that Paleo forces people to confront these days. You’re not going to find freshly killed wild boar to eat uncooked. So, you do the next best, modern-day alternative. In this case, it’s a pile of bacon. Paleo? Yes. Healthy? No.
Fundamental Hole #4: The Cavemen Suffered Much Less Diseases
A frequent claim made by the Paleo Dieter is that cavemen were largely free of the symptoms of chronic diseases, included, but not limited to high blood preasure, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and insulin resistance. These are also known as the diseases of affluence, or civilization. While this statistic is largely believed to be true, it can be attributed to the fact that, due to a variety of reasons, cavemen simply did not live long enough to develop such diseases which are associated with old age. This fact is substantiated by numerous sources, including researchers from the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago.
One of them goes on to say, “ there is neither convincing evidence nor scientific logic to support the claim that adherence to a Palaeolithic diet provides a longevity benefit.”
Paleo followers are quick to combat this research, saying that modern hunter-gatherer communities share their paleolithic counterparts luck in the sense they seem to be immune or have very little diseases of affluence, despite a significant number of elderly citizens above the age of 60.
Once again, this is countered by science. Geoffrey Cannon, Science and Health Policy Advisor to the World Cancer Research Fund says that humans are designed to work very hard physically to produce food for subsistent living, to survive periods of food shortage, and that we’re not adapt to a diet rich in energy-dense foods (like sweets, sugary drinks, bagels, donuts, ice cream, butter, steak, sausage, and fried meats). Likewise, William R. Leonard, professor of anthropology at Northwestern, states that the problems facing modern post-agricultural revolution societies stem not from deviations from a specific ancestral or ‘Paleo’ diet, but rather from an imbalance between calories consumed and calories burned, a state of energy excess uncharacteristic of ancestral lifestyles. In other words, we as a society simply eat too much these days.
Fundamental Hole #5: Who Says We Haven’t Evolved?
Scientists from the Department of Food Science from the University of Hanover question the notion that 10,000 years is not enough time to ensure an adequate adaptation of the human genome to be able to properly handle the products of agriculture, assuming that there was indeed enough selection pressure to warrant evolutionary change.
The scientists turn to examples of increased lactose tolerance in Europe and increases in the number of copies of the gene for Salivary Amylase (which digests starch) which have both occurred in the past few thousands years, to explain that the body, when necessary, can indeed adapt in a relatively short period of time.
Fundamental Hole #6: Who Says Our Digestive Physiology Changes Significantly At All?
Following on from the last fundamental hole, Katharine Milton, a professor of Physical Anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley disputes the fact that there was enough selection pressure to warrant an evolutionary change to our digestive system at all.
Relying on many of her publications, Milton states that “there is little evidience to suggest that human nutritional requirements or human digestive physiology were significantly affected by such diets at any point in human evolution.”
In other words, she believes that to date, at no point has any particular food group caused any significant change (like that proposed by the Paleo Diet) to the human digestive system. Food for thought.
Fundamental Hole #7: The Animal to Plant Ratio
This is more a personal gripe than anything else, but according to strict Paleo Dieters, the ideal Paleo Diet has approximately 67% of its total calories come from animal sources, and only 33% (again, approximately) from plant sources. In other words, they believe that that most cavemen ate that way.
Now I don’t know about you, but I highly doubt that all, or even most cavemen were able to supply roughly two-thirds of their diet with animal sources. Once again, I think this is highly presumptuous and location dependent. Sure, those societies which lived in significantly colder environments often had only animals to choose from, since plant life didn’t survive well. But in lower latitudes, I think that a great deal more calories would come from plant scavenging, both due to availability and ease of retrieval.
There is some research to support my thoughts. A publication in Evolutionary Anthropology titled Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution discusses how, excluding cold-climate foragers, the typical Paleolithic diet was probably closer to 50% from plant calories, 25% from hunting, and 25% from fishing. Those numbers sway even more in favor of plant calories when you go further back into the Stone Age, since fishing didn’t become common place until 35-40,000 years ago.
Observations of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in New Guinea show that large animals are only killed a few times in a hunters entire career. And unlike all but the very late Stone Age humans (either late Palaeolithic or early Mesolithic), modern-day tribes have access to bows and arrows and other more advanced stone tools. An average days hunting of modern hunter-gatherer tribes in this region consists of one or two baby birds (not even half an ounce each), a few frogs, and a lot of mushrooms. Those that made these observations hypothesize that it’s unlikely that Stone Age hunters in this same area had greater success with hunting and thus most likely had a diet which loosely mirrored those of their ancestors.
Fundamental Hole #8: Why Idolize the Caveman Diet, Anyways?
What’s the big obsession with the diet of a caveman? I mean why should we, with all our food availability and variety, choose to idealize the diets of those who were forced to eat whatever their local environment provided for them? They weren’t eating to ‘be healthy’. They were eating to survive, eating anything they could get their hands on. Why is this healthier than the healthiest options of a modern diet? Why is this better than an egg on 100% wheat toast with a glass of milk for breakfast?
The truth is, the idea that the ‘Paleo Diet’ is inherently healthier – simply has no scientific basis whatsoever. I’m sorry if I just broke your heart.
The Dynamic Duo: The Paleo Diet and the Occupy Gluten Movement
As I touched on at the beginning of this article, I suspect that much of the popularity of the Paleo-style diet has a lot to do with the recent rise in popularity of the gluten-free movement. Both nutritional groups share the gluten-free philosophy – and swear by it.
People on the Paleo Diet will tell you that they feel better than ever. That they have more energy, have better sleeps, less headaches, and a whole lot more. And I don’t think they’re lying, either. I truly believe that they think the Paleo Diet is the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Behind the scenes, I think what’s actually happened here is that the Paleo Diet has won over many food-sensitive individuals who didn’t realize that they are in fact food sensitive. What do I mean by food sensitive? I mean anyone with a food allergy or intolerance. Whether it be peanuts, lactose intolerance, or gluten intolerance, the Paleo Diet covers by far the most common food allergies and sensitivities. Recall that peanuts, dairy, and grains are all on the Paleo no-fly list.
It’s very common for people to be mildly sensitive to a certain food group and have it undiagnosed. Some people can live their entire lives and not realize that the gluten in grains actually caused them to feel unwell, that it gave them a mild case of IBS, or headache. When an individual like this switches to the Paleo Diet, they suddenly feel phenomenal, and proceed to sing the good diets praises.
In these cases, I’m all for the Paleo, or gluten-free approach. However, for normal people who lack food insensitivities, I can’t with good conscious tell them that the Paleo Diet is healthier than a balanced and nutritious modern-day diet. It’s interesting to note that Paleo was first created by a gastroenterologist – someone who had to deal with IBS and a host of other conditions that are all the result of food sensitivities. Paleo would be a safe diet and ‘cure-all’ for many gastroenterologist patients.
Pro’s of the Paleo Diet
That said, while I believe the fundamental concepts and basis of the Paleo Diet are flawed, I don’t completely condemn it. In fact, I strongly agree with many of the principles laid out in the diet, and think that many people would benefit from them. Paleo advocates eliminating any excess sugar in your diet, places a good deal of importance on protein consumption, bars the use of alcohol, and tells you to avoid refined sugars and vegetable oils. I whole-heartedly support these aspects of the program.
I completely agree with the Paleo Diet when it comes to eating more natural foods. In general, I think the less processed the food is, the better it is for you. However, I don’t turn a blind eye to things like cottage cheese and whole grains which have been proven to be healthy for the average person simply because cavemen didn’t have access to them. I believe it is silly to shun certain food groups when there is no tangible evidence whatsoever to support it.
I also give credit to the Paleo Diet when it comes to calorie density. Many of the foods acceptable under the Paleo philosophy, particularly vegetables, are very filling and yet contain relatively few calories, giving them a low energy density. In modern energy-dense diets, it’s very easy to overeat and gain weight. For this, I praise the Paleo Diet. I think everyone should replace heavily refined sugars and oils with more vegetables and other healthy options. This will cause people to feel more full on less food, and make it easier to shed those unwanted pounds. This is also the main reason why many people who go on the Paleo Diet lose weight at first – but it’s important to note that people can do this as part of a normal, balanced, non-Paleo diet as well.
Successful weight loss comes down to, at the simplest level, a calorie deficit. If you’re eating less than your body needs to maintain its weight in a day, you will lose weight. The Paleo Diet makes it easier to eat less than your body needs during a day than a typical Western modern-day diet due to it’s low energy density, but it’s certainly not the only way to achieve this.
If you take anything at all away from this article, it’s that you should try to eat more naturally. Avoid the cookies, the bacon, the cake, and the soda. Instead, eat more vegetables, choose whole wheat over highly processed white grains, and beware everything you read on the internet. When in doubt – do your own research.