Currently, the Paleo diet is one of the most popular approaches in the world, and there’s no doubt that it works for many people.
But how does paleo work, exactly?
Spoiler alert: The reason it works has little to do with the story Paleo advocates tell.
Paleo works because it emphasizes mostly whole food sources of lean protein, organic fruits and vegetables, fruits, low-glycemic carbs, and healthy fats, and it eliminates the most common causes of inflammation, like sugar, grains, and dairy.[Tweet “Paleo, vegan, and gluten free have all become commonplace. “Healthy” has dropped by the wayside.”]
What is Paleo?
Paleo harks back to a time before processed foods, pesticides, additives, and preservatives. No, I’m not talking about the 1950’s.
The concept of the Paleo diet is to follow what our paleolithic ancestors, the ‘cave men’, would have eaten over 100,000 years ago – during the ice age.
“Whereas the environment of an organism such as Man may change very rapidly, physical and functional changes in him are accomplished only through a process of evolution, and such adaptive alterations occur in Nature only with profound deliberation, over millions of years. Thus we can envision a collision course existing between unchanging Man and his rapidly changing environment. The more rapid his environmental changes, the more imminent is the inevitable collision.”
-_Diet.pdf”>Walter Voegtlin, MD, father of the Stone Age Diet (1975).
Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet and developer of its modern form, originally defined the requirements of Paleo as follows:
- 55% of energy should come from protein
- 15% from each of the following three areas:
- non-sugary fruits
- non-starchy vegetables
- nuts and seeds
- All grains, legumes (beans, non-tree nuts, and peas), some fruits, all starchy vegetables, processed foods, processed oils, and salt are off the menu.
Since its inception in 1975, changes have been made to make Paleo more accurate and inclusive.
For instance, it has been amended to include 35% protein and 45% fruits and vegetables. Recently, it has developed into an extremely popular “lifestyle diet.”
It sounds appealing, but are we really meant to eat a meat-centric diet with no grains?
According to anthropologists, the answer is no.
What did Paleolithic humans actually eat?
Hunting fish and game and gathering berries, tubers, and mushrooms – modern humans do none of these apart from the occasional hunting trip and some urban foraging (at the grocery store).
Instead of eating whatever nature provides, we follow “diets,” which are really just lists of restrictions.
Unfortunately for Paleo fans, these food restrictions based on what cavemen (and thus we “primitive” modern humans) ate is illusory – and scientifically wrong.
Amanda Henry, a paleobiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology says, “There’s been a consistent story about hunting defining us and that meat made us human. Frankly, I think that misses half of the story. They want meat, sure. But what they actually live on is plant foods.”
In 2015, her team found starch granules from plants on fossil teeth and stone tools, suggesting humans have been eating grains and tubers for at least 100,000 years – and we evolved to be able to digest them.
Cordain dubs these “starvation foods,” and yes, they are used to bolster food supply and prevent famine in drought years, but until the last century, a substantial amount of carbohydrates were continually harvested from these wild, grassy plains, and made up a large and regular portion of African diets.
“Understanding how we evolved could, in principle, help us make smarter dietary choices today. But the logic behind the Paleo diet fails in several ways: by making apotheosis of one particular slice of our evolutionary history; by insisting that we are biologically identical to stone age humans; and by denying the benefits of some of our more modern methods of eating.”
-Ferris Jabr, Scientific American Magazine
According to current theory, the human population may have dropped as low as 2,000 people during the last Ice Age.
These individuals then left Africa and spread throughout Europe and Eurasia, discovering new foods and learning new food-gathering techniques.
By 50,000 years ago, humans had traveled as far as Australia and were eating foods that included sweet fruits, starchy tubers, and grains. They consumed these foods because they were desperate, because of environmental changes, and also because they had begun to adapt and learn.
“What bothers a lot of paleoanthropologists is that we actually didn’t have just one caveman diet. The human diet goes back at least two million years. We had a lot of cavemen out there.” -Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City.
Paleo has clear “do” and “do not eat” foods, but there are still many foods in the gray zone.
Some of them are banned simply because they weren’t available to paleolithic humans – the milk of wild animals, for example. Some forbidden foods, like fruit, have evolved to barely resemble what would have existed then.
For Paleo fans, grains and starchy vegetables definitely aren’t on the list.
According to Dr. Karen Hardy from the University of Chicago, our ancestral hunter-gatherers probably would have eaten a fairly high percentage of carbs – as much as 40% of their caloric intake – from tubers, berries, and honey.
It’s this added glucose that allowed us to grow our bigger brains, which now require 25% of our energy.
Additionally, hunting game is surprisingly unsuccessful. African Bushmen hunter-gatherers bring home meat less than half the time when using bows and arrows.
Paleoliths armed with spears wouldn’t have been eating anywhere near the amount of protein advocated for in the Paleo lifestyle.
Hardy believes “eating meat may have kick-started the evolution of bigger brains, but cooked starchy foods [made] us smarter still.”
What should we be eating (that Paleo says we shouldn’t)?
Voegtlin posited, “Were these multiple dietary requirements (vegetables, carbohydrates, dairy) really necessary to maintain a state of health, man, in his restricted and rigorous primordial environment, obviously would have succumbed many millenniums before even the dawn of civilization. Why, then, should modern man, in his salubrious surroundings, require more complicated nutriments than his primitive ancestors?”
We learned, adapted, and evolved.
Legumes (beans, peas, peanuts, and lentils) have only been part of the human diet for 8,000 years. Nutritionally, they’re an excellent source of complex carbohydrates, fiber, minerals, and vitamins. Physically, they reduce the risk of heart disease and lower blood cholesterol.
They are also a great source of non-meat protein, especially when eaten in conjunction with cereals like rice, and they are a source the Paleolithic humans didn’t have access to.
But does that mean we shouldn’t eat them?
No, it does not.
Carbohydrates have been the poster-child for a “bad diet” for the last thirty years (despite the fact they are a dietary staple worldwide), but good quality carbs are actually important!
Yes, your body can make its own glucose (via gluconeogenesis), as it does in a ketogenic diet. This ability can be helpful for people with migraines, epilepsy, or an intense training schedule, but it can also stress your liver and adrenal glands, and it may be detrimental to your metabolism.
Getting a moderate amount of your calories (10-30%) from complex, unprocessed carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables can keep your hormone levels stable. It ensures that your liver makes sufficient thyroid hormones to prevent hypothyroidism, prompts the release of leptin to tell your body it’s not starving, and boosts tryptophan, the precursor to serotonin, your brain’s happy hormone.
Explore which foods work for you. Many people don’t handle lactose or gluten well, and for some, a strawberry is a death sentence.
Instead of restricting yourself with a “diet,” explore your food. Elimination (at least 21 days without a food, followed by gradual reintroduction) is an excellent way to determine how your body reacts to different foods.
Listen to your body, and structure your own, nutritionally diverse, well-balanced diet.
There is no one solution that works for everyone.
So am I just bashing Paleo?
I think Paleo is a good place to start, but I also think that it should be used as a template, rather than a structured dogma based on bad science.
Blacklisting nutritious foods does more harm than good – including in the case of whole grain carbs.
Rather than being restrictive, the focus of any diet (that anyone realistically expects to follow) should be inclusive of a wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains, fats, and protein
Paleo does get one big thing right – the lack of processed foods.
Modern “food” is a mess of additives, preservatives, colorants, and fillers, and at times, it barely resembles food at all.
Rather than a non-nomadic lifestyle, progression from hunting and gathering, or a grain-inclusive diet, the industrialization of nutrition is the main cause behind our obesity epidemic.
Food should be fresh, leafy, and natural, but it seems we’ve forgotten what we spent the last 100,000 years learning.
Unfortunately, Paleo seems to be quickly going the way of many fad diets, including the well hyped “low-fat” and “no-fat” processed foods of the nineties. The market for processed Paleo foods is growing rapidly.
You can find paleo candy, tortillas, cookies, and protein powders.
But are these good for you?
Well, they’re certainly better than the conventional version with artificial additives or sugar. Just like anything, however, there’s a right and a wrong way to do it. Processed food, even if it does fall under the Paleo umbrella, is not the way.
As Paleo has gained popularity and society has experienced a shift encouraging its members to be more environmentally, socially and nutritionally aware, dietary restriction demands have become ubiquitous.
Paleo, vegan, gluten free and dairy free are all common requests heard by restaurateurs and grocers. “Healthy” has dropped by the wayside.
The word Paleo has become vernacular for meat and vegetables, and although it does make it easier to request specific food.
Healthy, whole food with simple ingredients shouldn’t need to be a special request!
“Following a Paleo diet/lifestyle today is not about re-enacting the exact diet/lifestyle of our ancestors. Instead, it’s about embracing the principles of their diet and lifestyle to a modern context: eating nutrient dense, toxin-free, whole foods, moving our bodies regularly, sleeping at least 8 hours a night, managing our stress, and playing and having fun. But instead of saying all of this each time, it’s a lot easier to just say “Paleo”!”
–Chris Kresser, author of New York Times best seller Your Personal Paleo Code
In the end, Paleo gets more right than wrong.
But for most, it’s unnecessary to follow such a strict dietary ideology with an unreliable genesis.
I suggest you take the good from the Paleo approach, consider what foods your body prefers, and get rid of the silly dogma.
Hopefully, people will soon stop using the word Paleo as a shorthand buzzword for eating unprocessed, healthy, nutritious food.
So what should you do now?
- Go slow. Big, sudden changes are hard to stick to. Eating more healthily is a transition, not an overhaul.
- Make sure you eat enough! Substitute less nutritious items for healthier foods – don’t just cut things out.
- Eat grass-fed meats, fish and poultry, and quality, saturated fats.
- Eat lots and lots of veggies!
- Keep some carbs – low glycemic, fibrous carbs like buckwheat, groats, and brown rice.
- Don’t be exclusive. Keep your diet varied.
- Avoid processed foods, including those labelled as Paleo.
- Use the elimination technique to see which foods are best for you.
- Don’t be preachy about your diet!
Want to get started with some
Paleo recipes that avoid all the processed junk?
Check out these 10 Mouth-watering Paleo Recipes designed to help
satisfy your cravings and keep you energized
throughout the day.