Paleo: The Good, The Bad, And The Nonsensical

What is The Paleo Diet?

Several variations of The Paleo Diet have been around since the 1970s with terms like “primal” “stone age” and “evolutionary” attached to them. Depending on which book you read, there can be some variations as far as what The Paleo Diet means. However, for the sake of this article, let’s operate with some of the most commonly shared principles:

1)   The proposed goal is to eat, as closely as possible, the diet that early humans in the Paleolithic area would have eaten. The claim is that this is the diet that the human body was “made” to eat, and that it played a pivotal role in our evolution up to this point.

2)   The Paleo Diet avoids foods that supposedly would not have been available at the time, such as: dairy, grains, legumes (including beans and peanuts), processed oils, refined sugar, salt, alcohol, or coffee.

3)   The modern Paleo Diet calls for eating more meat and seafood, fewer carbohydrates (only from non-starchy vegetables), and high fiber intake through consumption of non-starchy vegetables and fruit. 

Disclaimer: I want to remind readers that there are variations on The Paleo Diet out there, depending on which article or book you read or who you speak with and their interpretations. It’s beyond the scope of this article to incorporate every variation! The above is what I have personally seen most often and heard most often within the industries of popular nutrition, nutritional science, and wellness/fitness.

The Good

There is something to be said for some of the principles at the foundation of The Paleo Diet.

The primary component that makes sense is the consumption of whole and more local foods. According to our most recent research, humans evolved to eat foods in a “whole package” including the indigestible components of food. Fiber, for example, slows down the speed at which food travels through our digestive system; this keeps our metabolism in check and allows the lining of our intestines to absorb more nutrients.

Fresh produce allows us to consume adequate nutrients without over-consuming calories. Local produce is inherently more fresh than imported because it was harvested closer to the time of purchase and consumption.

The elimination of dairy makes sense on many levels. There are many ethical implications at play, but we’re going to stick to the health aspects for the sake of this article. Firstly, there is simply nothing natural about consuming the breast milk of another species after one is weaned and consuming solid foods. Logic tells us this. Secondly, the breast milk of a cow or goat are perfectly formulated for the digestive system of that species; when humans consume this breast milk, the body becomes “acidic” and requires neutralization. This neutralization comes in the form of minerals, namely calcium, which is pulled from our bones. It has been demonstrated time and time again that consumption of dairy leaves the body with, at best, no positive nutritional gain and, at worst, causes a loss of nutrients in order to digest. (please visit www.pcrm.org and www.nutritionfacts.org for many informational articles and videos that explore these findings in more depth).

The elimination of refined sugar is crucial for the human body to operate optimally. While fructose is necessary for proper nutrient absorption, fruit contains more than enough for the human body to thrive. Refined sugar behaves differently in the body, and we also tend to consume far more than we need for the proper digestion of whole foods.

The Bad

The Paleo Diet calls for the consumption of much more meat than is optimal by any modern scientific standard. Hundreds of studies (especially over the course of the last 40 years) have demonstrated the link between high meat consumption and obesity, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and many other of the chronic disorders affecting the majority of affluent populations in the world.

The elimination of whole grains and legumes poses two huge problems, as I see it.

1)   Legumes are whole foods that offer some of the most efficiently assimilated protein, complex carbohydrate, fiber, and phytochemicals compared with many other foods. They are especially beneficial for building lean muscle mass, and it has been demonstrated that consumption of beans/legumes lowers LDL cholesterol in the human body.

2)   Whole grains and legumes are some of the most cost effective and accessible sources of nutrients available to most populations. Removing these foods as an option makes this diet especially difficult to sustain over the long-term.

Many individuals on The Paleo Diet end up consuming too little fiber and are deficient in antioxidants because their meals are dominated by animal products (which contain zero fiber or antioxidants).

There are no long-term or epidemiological studies indicating that there are long-term health benefits eating this way. If anything, the evidence that exists indicates that consuming more animal protein and fewer grains and legumes have a negative impact on long-term human health.

The Nonsensical

Here’s where The Paleo Diet is, frankly, quite silly. As mentioned above, there are some good points to the diet. But the foundational concept that this way of eating mimics the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors – and that that is even a good thing – is way off-course.

First and foremost – THERE IS NO SINGLE PALEOLITHIC DIET. Early humans ate what was available to them, and so there is no chance that humans living in the Arctic were eating the same way as humans living in the same time period near the Equator.  Right away, it is evident that the human body can manage to adapt and develop on a wide range of foods.

There is no solid evidence that Paleolithic peoples consumed large amounts of meat. In fact, in the majority of inhabited regions, they would have eaten primarily plants. The concept that their diet was built around animal foods is largely based on nitrogen stable isotope analysis. The conclusions reached through this type of study, however, are erroneous because we would need to consider factors such as water access and regional isotopic ecology. We really don’t know enough about Paleolithic eco systems to be able to fill in these gaps; most of what we “know” is simply speculation and scientists specializing in this area of study readily admit that. In addition to this, we have the long intestinal tracts of herbivores (not the short ones of carnivores), we must consume vitamin c (carnivores produce their own), and we do not have carnassials (the specialized teeth that carnivores have in order to shred).

It turns out that there is abundant evidence that peoples in the Paleolithic era DID consume grains and legumes. Stone tools, used for grinding, have been found dating back 50,000 years – which is 20,000 years PRIOR to the invention of agriculture. In addition, a new method in the field of ancient dietary study is showing that the dental plaque of early humans contains microfossils and proteins of barley, legumes, and tubers. This method is called “dental calculus,” and is still expanding.

Many of the foods we eat today don’t at all resemble the crops and animals of the Paleolithic era. Bananas and lettuce currently available are incredibly different from those naturally occurring in the wild. Foods like broccoli, almonds, and apricots didn’t even exist at that time. And olive oil (an approved food in The Paleo Diet) requires at least rudimentary presses to be extracted; this is a tool that no Paleolithic human would have invented or had access to. The animal food used in most Paleo recipes are from farmed and domestic animals, not wild game, and contain none of the bone marrow and organs that would have been consumed at that time. No number of “organic” “grass-fed” or “free-range” labels changes the fact that these are not animals that existed in the wild.

Finally, let’s look at logic alone. When it comes to consuming large amounts of meat, let’s consider reasonable access and use of resources. It would have taken more time and energy to make the tools and go hunt for meat than it took to gather crops (not to mention that it could be more dangerous to hunt!). This alone is enough to figure that, at least in areas with access to plant foods, meat was likely something consumed rarely and in small amounts. Nothing like what the Paleo Diet calls for today.

And evolution. Oh, evolution! What does evolution want from any species? It wants us to grow to a reproductive age, raise young until they can survive on their own, and then it wants us to die because we are no longer of any evolutionary use. Even if we could conclude for certain what different Paleolithic people in different locations consumed, I still would rather eat food that is shown to promote longevity, prevent the diseases affecting the current human population, and to help me thrive despite my location.

What do we know for sure?

Across all ways of eating that have any scientific basis whatsoever, we know that:

1)   Whole foods are optimal

2)   Processed foods are detrimental, especially refined sugar

3)   It is virtually impossible to eat too many vegetables

4)   Dairy does not contribute positively to any human body

5)   Local produce is best when available

6)   Consumption of even modest amounts of meat from domesticated and farmed animals is detrimental to human vitality, and we have access to all the nutrients we need to thrive in plant foods.

7)   Variety is key – eat the rainbow!

If we stick to what we currently know to be true, and not jump from fad to fad, we’ll be much healthier, happier, and we can be more confident that we are making our best effort to nourish the body we were given.

Take Care!

-Jill C.