I got into quite an interesting conversation over the weekend with a friend of mine who swears by The Paleo diet and have decided to shed some light on the matter with my readers. The Paleo diet (also nicknamed the caveman diet, primal diet, Stone Age diet, and hunter-gatherer diet) is hugely popular these days, and goes by one simple question: What would a caveman eat? The paleo diet runs on the same foods our hunter-gather ancestors supposedly ate: fruits, vegetables, meats, seafood, and nuts.
The argument is that our 21st-century bodies are still better adapted to this prehistoric diet than they are to the more eclectic dietary patterns that emerged later in our history, after we learned to grow wheat, cook legumes, and make cheese. Those who buy into this argument see today’s widespread rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes as evidence that these more modern foods are actually toxic to us.
In fact, the health benefits of the paleo diet are unproven. Our ancestors ate this way and didn’t have many of the chronic diseases we do, but that doesn’t mean the food they ate is the reason why; drawing that conclusion would be like saying we live three times longer than our Paleolithic ancestors because we eat fast food. Still, a handful of small studies have tried to determine if a paleo diet is a healthier diet.
I think there are several weaknesses in this argument. For one thing, our knowledge of what Paleolithic humans were eating and how healthy they actually were is limited. Secondly, the differences between the Paleolithic lifestyle and ours go far, far beyond the differences in our diets. Thirdly, just because a food was not eaten by Paleolithic humans, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the food would have been toxic to them. In fact, the diets of Paleolithic humans varied greatly depending on where on the planet (and when within the rather lengthy Paleolithic Era) they found themselves living. I think this illustrates that, when it comes to diet, we humans are actually pretty darned flexible. Perhaps one of our greatest survival advantages as a species is that we can thrive on variety of dietary patterns.
The foods that Paleo enthusiasts object to have been staples of the human diet for millennia. The modern epidemic of diet and lifestyle-related disease, on the other hand, has emerged within the last hundred years. Perhaps the problem isn’t that we started eating dairy and wheat, but that we started making Cheetos and Frosted Flakes out of them. Here are some things for you to consider before taking on the paleo challenge.
Going paleo means giving up modern foods
Anything that comes in a box, jar, or bag should be avoided on the paleo diet, as should anything that just wasn’t consumed back then. That means no grains, dairy, added salt, or legumes (including peanuts, beans, lentils, and soybeans). While potatoes are generally outlawed on the diet, they are okay to eat sparingly as long as you earn them through exercise (more on that next). Alcohol and honey are also generally considered paleo no-nos, but red wine tends to be the closest option there is to a paleo drink, and honey is far preferred to table sugar or artificial sweeteners.
Paleo is a lifestyle
The paleo diet is by no means a temporary diet. It’s meant to be a lifestyle, just as it was thousands of years ago. You don’t just stop it if and when you start feeling better or reach your goal weight, you stick it out for the long haul.
Paleo isn’t just about food
Exercise is a vital part of the live-by-your-genetic-code equation. Surviving in the Stone Age meant a constant on-the-go lifestyle that probably required 4,000-plus calories a day. Even most people who hit the gym regularly won’t need to eat that many calories, but the principle of using food as fuel to exercise still stands.
It’s impossible to completely mimic our ancestors
Our ancestors didn’t chase cows and chickens around in the wild. They hunted game, antelopes, buffalo, and probably some animals we’ve never heard of that are long extinct. Their meat was generally quite lean, and provided more healthy omega 3s than meats from modern day animals, even the grass-fed ones. Many of the plants that thrived back then are also extinct today, making it impossible to truly follow their meal plan.
You can eat too much protein
Experts estimate that our ancestors consumed a one-to-one ratio of calories from meats to produce. Since you have to eat a lot of salad to consume the same amount of calories in a steak, the paleo diet should ideally include mostly fruits and vegetables. However, many people don’t realize that and eat too much meat. Consuming excess protein and not enough carbs can cause kidney damage and also increase your risk of osteoporosis. Plus, since most of today’s meats are higher in saturated fat than those of yesteryear, it can increase the risk of heart disease.
Many of paleo’s banned foods are good for you
Nutrients in legumes, whole grains, and dairy — all of which are forbidden on the paleo diet — can help to lower the risk of osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease, reduce blood pressure, and promote a healthy weight. Cutting dairy, the primary source of calcium and vitamin D in modern diets, is especially worrisome for women who want to avoid osteoporosis.
The paleo diet is difficult
Paleo eating requires a lot of planning, prep time, and mental resolve. For instance, eating out on the diet isn’t as simple as ordering chicken and a salad. Think: In what oil was the chicken cooked? Did any of the salad toppings come processed, canned, or packaged? As with every elimination diet, it’s just not doable long term. While weight loss is far from the sole purpose of eating paleo, going on and off of the diet can lead to big weight swings. Any yo-yo diet starts in weight loss from both muscle and fat, and usually ends with weight gain of all fat, which contributes to a slower metabolism and increased insulin resistance.
Paleo can be expensive
Following the paleo diet can be pricey. Inexpensive and healthy non-meat protein sources like soy and beans are off-limits, and a recent study shows that healthy meats like lean ground beef and boneless, skinless chicken breasts cost an average of 29 cents more per serving compared to less-healthy ones, such as high-fat ground beef and chicken drumsticks. Even switching from peanut butter to paleo-approved almond butter will cost you, it goes for up to $13 a jar.
It’s not surprising that people who “go Paleo” feel pretty good — especially if they were previously eating a typical bad diet. The question is whether they could be equally healthy on a less extreme regimen, because it takes an awful lot of commitment to stick to super restrictive diets like this for the long term.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. You can go 60% Paleo if you want. I won’t tell on you! Shifting your diet to include fewer processed foods and empty calories and more whole and nutrient-dense foods sounds like a great idea. But seeing as both the scientific rationale and the long-term effects of this diet are highly speculative, I think you should feel free to modify the approach to fit your lifestyle, budget, and priorities.
Visit Health.com for more.