Ever get frustrated at the ever-changing and contradictory nutritional advice being spouted by university and internet trained experts?
Believe me when I say, your frustration is probably a fraction of mine.
I’m supposed to know what’s right and have all the answers, and while I enjoy researching, sometimes wading through contradictory claims can become tiresome.
I’ll be the first to admit the diet recommended by most mainstream nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors is pretty terrible, and believe it or not, I do understand why people look elsewhere for their dietary advice.
I also understand why ideas like “getting back to nature” are appealing to people, in a world where it seems everything has been tampered with in some shape or form.
With that in mind, the premise behind the Paleo diet is fascinating to me, and even more so, the followers of it.
While it’s been about for a while, what has become more apparent is that it has morphed from an idea into a movement. In fact, I struggle to think of another diet community where such a wave of nutrition belief is prevalent.
On the surface
When I examine the Paleo diet in its various forms, I find I am actually in agreement with much of the dietary recommendations (I even wear Vibram FiveFingers on occasion ;-)). The philosophy and reasoning behind the whole Paleo diet, however, isn’t something I can reconcile myself to.
Firstly, What Is The Paleo Diet?
The theory goes, people were mostly hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic age. So, they ate whatever they could kill, and everything was eaten fresh.
It launches in upon the assumption that modern dating methods are entirely accurate. So, with a hop, skip, and a jump, we’re to assume that the world is millions of years old. Now, for most people this is fine, but for the more skeptical, that’s not an assumption everyone is willing to make.
Robb Wolf illustrates it using a 100-yard football field. The first 99.5 yards are how long homo-sapiens spent as hunter-gatherers. In this time, the bodies adapted to a hunter-gather lifestyle. The last half-yard represents our species after the agricultural revolution, where the diet changed significantly, but our genetics didn’t have time to.
According to Paleo supporters, our bodies are adapted to eating meat, vegetables and seasonal fruits (that’s the 99.5 yards), whereas now we load up on grains (that’s the last half yard). If this is your logic, it’s easy to think we simply haven’t adjusted or evolved sufficiently to cope with the change, hence today’s health problems.
What they don’t tell you, though, is that this is all pure assumption, or presumption at best. And even where ‘evidence’ is presented, it’s a bit shaky.
Let me be clear, it is not my aim to promote a grain-heavy diet here. But, if you don’t automatically assume we’ve been around for millions of years, the Paleo philosophy is fundamentally flawed from the outset.
So, what foods are recommended on the Paleo diet?
Here’s a quick rundown of what Paleo followers eat, taken from Robb Wolf and “The Paleo Solution” quick start guide.
The majority of your meals look something like this:
- 4-8 oz of lean protein such as chicken, lean beef, turkey, pork loin or seafood.
- Several servings of vegetables, either raw, steamed, or lightly cooked.
- Finally, round out the meal with good fats from avocado, olive oil, or a handful of un-salted nuts such as almonds, pecans, macadamias or walnuts.
- Protein at every meal.
- 3-4 meals per day.
- Limit fruit to 1 serving, if fat loss is your goal.
- Limit nuts to 1-2 oz, if fat loss is your goal.
- Beverages are coffee, tea, mineral water. Unsweetened, this includes stevia.
Personally, I don’t think there’s much to argue about with the above advice. Although, it certainly isn’t something new, or unique to the Paleo diet.
A diet that’s rich in whole, unprocessed foods, avoids sugar, too many grains, and processed, cultivated, or packaged foods; that can’t be bad, right?
Right… well, sort of!
Impossible To Know What Paleo Man Ate
As I’ve said, a lot of the dietary advice recommended by Paleo followers, I agree with wholeheartedly.
However, calling it “Paleo” is something I have trouble with. The truth is, we really can’t be sure what Paleo man ate.
The vast majority of studies of modern hunter-gatherers have been a description of their customs (ethnographic) in nature, and therefore they are heavily influenced by the researchers own assumptions and objectives.
Remember, the researchers try to piece together a puzzle of information about how Paleo man lived. They do this with findings such as random bowls, weapons, figures, and drawings.
This is why some historical narratives are plagued with generalizations, inconsistencies and errors.
And, the data that is detailed, shows the diet composition of hunter-gatherer groups varied considerably, ranging from an almost purely animal-based diet, to a diet very high in plant foods.
If you think about it, it’s extremely difficult to gauge what someone ate yesterday, never mind what they ate in hunter-gatherer times, without the necessary data.
Because of this, we cannot absolutely define the typical plant-animal ratio, or the macronutrient distribution of Paleo man’s diet. It is impossible without more detailed records.
Bearing that in mind, let us consider some of the specific recommendations of the Paleo diet.
1. The Paleo Diet Avoids Grains
The question of whether Paleo man ate grains, or not, is an interesting one, mainly because grains (and also vegetables and fruits) biodegrade very quickly. This means it is difficult to know for sure if they were consumed in the past.
What we do know is that grains have been found in storage bins. This suggests they had a least started to investigate farming, and the storage of grains.
So, to use the term Paleo in reference to grain or carb restriction appears to be factually incorrect.
Again, don’t get me wrong on this point. I am not saying a grain-rich diet is good for health. I personally believe most people could benefit from restricting these carbs somewhat (unless very active). But, to state we shouldn’t eat grains because Paleo man didn’t, appears to be a flawed logic.
2. The Paleo Diet Avoids Legumes
The Paleo diet recommended avoiding legumes because of their lectin content. The so-called ‘baddies’ are actually natural phytonutrients, that plants use as insecticides to protect themselves.
And, contrary to what Paleo advocates teach, there is evidence to suggest that lectins can be beneficial, helping to break down the membrane of cancer cells, bacteria and viruses.
In addition to this, one large study found those who ate beans up to 3 times each week, had a reduced risk of colon cancer. Legumes are also a good source of fiber, protein, and other beneficial nutrients.
For the record, foods with the highest concentration of lectins include grains, legumes, nightshade plants (like eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers), nuts, and dairy.
However, to say we should avoid legumes because of the lectin content is a bit of a moot point, since adequate soaking and cooking significantly reduces the lectin content, and most legumes are not eaten without prior cooking.
Note: see below for more on lectins.
3. The Paleo Diet Avoids Dairy
I don’t want to get into whether dairy foods are healthy, or not. That’s another topic.
My issue with this recommendation is more about the premise behind why Paleo followers avoid dairy foods.
For one reason, Paleo advocates say Paleo man did not eat dairy products before animals were domesticated.
Aside from the fact that it is extremely difficult for us to know what they ate, it is almost certain if Paleo man was fortunate enough to score a wild animal, every bit would have been eaten, including any milk, and mammary glands.
But, let’s give the benefit of the doubt and concede that drinking milk may have been initially infrequent. Perhaps only as frequent as they caught a female mammal who was feeding offspring at the time. It might not have been frequent, but it would have occurred, and they would have eaten almost everything, including the milk.
Furthermore, I find it highly improbable that Mr. Paleo wouldn’t have quickly figured out from observation that what is nutritious to a young calf or goat, may also be nutritious to him. And from such an observation, I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken him long to take advantage. But, this is just me assuming (after all, two can play that game ;-) ).
Those lectins, again
Another reason milk is to be avoided is because it contains lectins. As already noted, lectins are basically found in all plant and animal products to varying degrees. They are present in milk because cows eat foods that contain them, and they are then passed on in the milk.
This being the case, lectins are also present in meat for the same reason they are present in dairy food, that is, because the cows eat them as part of their diet.
But of course, the paleo advocate rarely brings this up. Meat is not singled out because of its lectin content, even though this ‘baddy’ is present.
Admittedly, in sensitive individuals, certain lectins can trigger an undesirable immune reaction. That is without a doubt. However, not all lectins are harmful, and not all people will have a sensitivity to them. It’s the same with eggs, a great food that paleo advocates love, yet some people are allergic to them. It doesn’t follow that everyone should avoid them, though.
The fact remains, there is little evidence that lectins present a significant problem for the majority of the population.
So, if lectins are found in all plant and animal products, and your aim is to avoid lectins, you would need to avoid all food.
Have fun with that diet.
Modern-day father of the Paleo movement, Loren Cordain, adamantly opposes all forms of dairy, mainly because of it’s link with lactose (a sugar) and casein (a protein) intolerance.
In my view, these intolerances may be a problem for some people, but lactose and casein are found in human breast milk, therefore it’s most likely we can tolerate them pretty well.
As a side note, The Maasai in Africa provide an interesting comparison. Although they are pastoralists (raised livestock, but maintained a mobile aspect in search of fresh pasture and water) as opposed to hunter gathers (food obtained from wild plants and animals), it is significant to note that milk from grass fed cows makes up a portion of their diet.
Moreover, it seems there is some flexibility on the dairy issue, though, with certain types of dairy being more acceptable than others.
So, Is The Paleo Diet Healthier?
There are many who claim the Paleo diet is extremely healthy. And, I have absolutely no doubt that following a Paleo way of eating will provide health benefits. In comparison to the diet of many in the US and UK, it would be a vast improvement.
Nevertheless, I do find some Paleo followers a little intolerant of other diets, and there is often an air which hints Paleo is the only way. I suppose that could be said of many diets.
Getting more lean sources of protein, healthy fats, and more fruits and vegetables into our diet, as well as cutting out the junk food, is always going to be a good thing.
For some, the exclusion of dairy, grains and legumes would certainly be too restrictive, but it seems many people who try the Paleo diet out, end up modifying it to suit themselves somewhat.
Which begs the question, out of all the people on the ‘Paleo diet’, how many are really following it as suggested?
My guess is a vast majority take a much more relaxed approach, and modify it to suit themselves. But, in doing so, are they following the hunter-gatherer Paleo diet at all, or are they just eating more healthily?
I suggest that most are really just eating more healthily, which is a good thing, and I’m happy that ‘going Paleo’ has made many more health conscious.
As for the Paleo diet itself, it seems to be the diet that many are on, but few are following.
What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet? Have you tried it? What can you add to my comments?