Full disclosure here: I work for a paleo woman who has her own blog about the wonders of eating like a caveman and how it can cure you of everything from heart disease to wrinkles. So, this topic is actually very personal to me. She is actually a really nice lady and I like her a lot. But it freaks me out to read some of the propaganda she and her colleagues spout. This wouldn’t be so worrisome except that the paleo diet is incredibly trendy right now. I’m not just talking Beyonce diet trendy or even Atkins Diet trendy. According to Google, there was an average of 823,000 searches for “paleo diet” per month last year. Even broader terms like “paleo pumpkin muffins” get 5,400 searches per month!
Yes, There is Some Truth to It
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that everything these paleo diet people say is quackery. If it was all based on nonsense or motivated by book sales, it wouldn’t have gotten such a following. Yes, we should all cut processed foods from our lives and replace them with real foods like fresh vegetables, fruits, and grass-fed meat. Okay, I’m not a supporter of eating meat but I am one of those vegetarians who admits that meat can be healthy when eaten in moderation (not getting into the ethical arguments here). I also fully believe the reports which claim that cows and other animals fed a natural grass-fed diet produce meat which is much more nutritious than factory farm cows which are fed an unnatural grain diet (and who knows what else!).
The problem is that people take one small truth and use it to justify much broader ideas. I can fully understand why someone would want to believe the paleo hype. After years of health experts telling you to avoid red meat and fat and count calories, the paleo approach (which includes using extensive amounts of bacon fat in everything) sounds great. So long as you can have your yummy bacon on the paleo diet, who cares if you’ve got to give up grains???
The Leaky Gut Jump
Let’s take one look at how the paleo people use small facts to justify their dogma. One popular theory is that today’s diet is causing “leaky gut syndrome”. Here is the gist of it:
Undigested particles of food are making it through your stomach lining into your bloodstream. Your immune system attacks these particles, causing inflammation and other problems. If this keeps happening, your immune system can get confused and your body starts attacking itself! This leads to all sorts of autoimmune problems, like type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Scary! I better do what they say to heal my leaky gut.
The problem with this is that there is absolutely no evidence that leaky gut syndrome really does exist.
Sure, the gut really is semi-permeable (that’s how digested nutrients make it from the gut into our bloodstream). Sure, in diseases like Crohn’s disease, undigested food particles can get through the gut. Sure, food sensitivities are on the rise. Sure, the immune system does get confused sometimes and attack itself. But this doesn’t necessarily add up to the picture they are trying to sell. Even if leaky gut syndrome does exist, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is causing the long list of symptoms they say it does. And the list is long. I found one list which mentions dozens of different things, including fatigue, eczema, acne, inflammation, celiac disease, ulcers, and multiple sclerosis. One famous paleo blogger scarily sums it up as “all disease begins in the gut”.
The Science is Whack
Reading articles at paleo websites is enough to scare the bejesus out of you. But if you take a step back, you realize that the science behind (almost) all of it is whack. Or, at the very least, they are jumping to some pretty big conclusions by selectively quoting some “studies” but ignoring all of the studies and evidence which goes against what they want to say.
This wouldn’t really bother me (after all, everyone is entitled to free speech and to believe whatever they want). But the problem is that people are taking this stuff like gospel – and it could have downright dangerous consequences. Like all the things that the paleo world says about saturated fat being good for you and grains being bad for you.
The Origin of the Madness
The origin of the paleo mindset is a guy named Weston Andrew Valleau Price. He was a Cleveland dentist who lived from 1870 to 1948. Now, keep in mind that Price was practicing in the fallout of the Industrial Revolution and during the world calamity of the Great Depression. Considering the fact that we didn’t know much about nutrition during this period either, it is no surprise that Price saw a lot of tooth decay in his practice. Price was rather revolutionary to equate tooth decay with nutrition. He got the really revolutionary idea to travel to remote parts of the world and study “savages” to see what their teeth look like.
Apparently, in visiting “savage” peoples, Price found that these non-civilized people had great dental health compared to people in the Western world. He also found that they lacked many other diseases common in Western cultures. In 1939, Price published a book titled Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. The book basically claims that all ailments are linked to nutrition and blames processed food. The pictures in the book comparing savage people with civilized people are very convincing.
(*note: I’ve looked at pictures of “uncontacted tribes” in the world and some of them have really nasty teeth. So, I wonder if Price didn’t just ignore all of the people with bad teeth as a means of supporting his theory…)
This led to the idea that we should all eat like “savage people” (though the “Pricies” have now replaced the word savage with “our ancestors”).
Now, the Weston A. Price Diet (WAPD) is not the same as the Paleo diet. There are some key differences, like the WAPD diet including some grains whereas the paleo diet is vehemently anti-grain. WAPD diet includes legumes and beans but the paleo diet doesn’t. Paleo diet is anti-dairy whereas WAPD diet says to consume it so long as it isn’t pasteurized.
But both diets are the same in that they purport a diet which supposedly resembles what our ancestors or traditional peoples ate. Also, the paleo diet people often use “research” from WAPF to support their ideas (also shunning the mountains of research which prove other than what they want to believe).
Note about the “research” which comes out of the Weston A. Price Foundation
You can prove anything so long as you are willing to overlook all the evidence to the contrary.
But why would people be so willing to dismiss mountains of widely-accepted science for ill-founded evidence and theories? Well, for starters, people will eagerly ignore logic so long as the “evidence” supports something they want to believe. Like bacon being good for you.
It is more than just a subconscious desire to believe things which encourage your bad habits though. The Weston A. Price Foundation has been incredibly successful because they promote a “with us or against us” mentality. They publicly shun any expert who criticizes their ideas or who supports mainstream medical beliefs. They truly believe that they are more “enlightened” (I’ve seen this term used at many WAPD and paleo diet blogs). Because they are “enlightened” enough to reject mainstream medicine, they develop a superiority complex. Who doesn’t like a nice dose of ego? That feeling is the real draw to these trendy diets.
I don’t want to get into detail about why the science coming from Weston A. Price Foundation is whack. There are already lots of great articles to that extent. I suggest reading this one from Veg Source, this one from Disease Proof, and this one from Zen Habits about the WAPF’s stance on soy.
Paleo People: You Aren’t Really Eating Like a Caveman
I agree with the paleo people that we should avoid processed foods in favor of fresh, natural foods. But the diet they are promoting has nothing to do with eating like a caveman. Or even eating like “our ancestors” for that matter.
For starters, the “paleo” period goes from 2.6 million years ago up to around 10,000 years ago. The earth varied a lot during this timeframe! Likewise, the primitive paleo people would have eaten very different diets depending on where they lived and during what time period. Actually, it isn’t exactly correct to call them paleo “people” because some of these were the ancestors of homo sapiens. The first evidence of modern homo sapiens dates back to Africa around 195,000 years ago. Contrary to what the paleo diet supporters claim, our bodies have adapted in this time. One example of modern human evolution is the development of the lactose enzyme around the time humans starting consuming milk – about 2-20 thousand years ago depending on which estimate you go by (source).
Paleo People Did Eat Grains
As for the argument against grains and legumes, our ancestors did eat these. There is ample evidence of grains being eaten as far back as 30,000 years ago. Grains have been found in caves. Grain residue has been found on grinding stones. In Mozambique, there is even evidence of grain residue on stone tools which were dated to be 105,000 years old! (source)
So why do we have this picture in our head of cavemen eating nothing but meat all day? Probably because it is a lot easier to find evidence of meat consumption than grain consumption. Bones are a lot easier to find at a dig site than soft materials like grains which break down.
But, it is very likely that grains were eaten well before this too. The problem is that grains and legumes don’t last as long as bones, which is why we find bones in Paleolithic sites but not
The Meat of Our Ancestors is Not the Same as Today
I concede that our ancestors probably did eat meat. Heck, I even admit that there are some healthy aspects of eating meat (my ethics as a vegetarian aside, meat is rich in lots of nutrients like iron and protein). But even this can’t be used as a reason to consume a diet of meat today.
The meat of today is a heck of a lot different than the meat our ancestors may have eaten. Today’s factory-farmed meat is produced from animals which are fattened up with hormones and through a diet of corn and grains. Okay, but the paleo diet encourages people to eat meat which is grass-fed and pasture raised (free range). Yes, this meat may be more similar to the wild game of the past. But it still does not resemble the lean game of the past (source). Almost all of those paleo recipes are made with meats from chicken, beef, pig, and fish. I’ve yet to see one which includes rabbit, reindeer, lizards, turtles, or squirrel meat.
Our Ancestors May Have Been Mostly Vegetarians
With its emphasis on meat, the paleo diet is probably the most vehemently anti-vegetarian diet you could adapt. This is pretty ironic considering that evidence shows early man may have eaten mainly a vegetarian diet!
Anthropologists generally say that our Stone Age relatives ate a diet which was 65-85% vegetarian. Eating meat was rare and was probably small game (source). An article in the Scientific American got a lot of backlash from the paleo diet community because it analyzed the guts of various animals to further prove that our ancestors were likely vegetarians.
The SA article also talks about how our bodies evolved with the start of agriculture to deal with digesting the food (again going against the paleo diet idea that our bodies haven’t evolved). Suddenly, some human people have extra amylase genes to deal with starchy foods. Our guts (gut health is an obsession with paleo people) also evolved. Interestingly, Russians have colons which are an average of 5 feet longer than Turks. Is this another example of evolving to a grain-based diet?
*Note that Weston A. Price actually said that a vegetarian diet could be healthy after observing mostly-vegetarian tribes in India. Today, the Weston A. Price Foundation conveniently ignores this part of Price’s beliefs!
But What About All Those Health Benefits They Claim To Have from Eating Paleo?
If you read the paleo blogs (and I’ve read a lot of them), you’ll find testimonial after testimonial of all the great benefits they’ve achieved. I actually believe some of these testimonials and here’s why:
Most of the paleo gurus don’t recommend going 100% paleo. Instead, they say to aim for 80/20, meaning paleo 80% of the time and allowing yourself non-paleo treats like some gluten-free bread (they are pretty hardcore on the anti gluten thing) for the rest of the time.
But wait? Isn’t 80/20 just a balanced diet then???
When you factor in all the slipups which include grains, nightshades, legumes, and other forbidden paleo foods, and then also factor in that paleo says to stay away from processed foods, and also that it does incorporate some superfoods like fermented drinks (hooray kombucha!), you end up with a better alternative to the crap Standard American Diet (appropriately called SAD).
Compared to SAD, it is no wonder that the paleo diet produces some benefits! This doesn’t mean all the dogma is correct though. It certainly doesn’t mean that it is the best diet for mankind either.
Learn to Think for Yourself
I fully understand why people feel the need to adopt the paleo diet, or some other diet which lists specific rules about what to/not to eat. After all, in today’s world of mega supermarkets with their attractively-packaged processed foods, it can be hard to make smart food choices on your own. It is a lot easier to believe the dogma and follow a prescribed diet rather than learn to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
And since the paleo diet is so trendy, you also find yourself with a whole new group of enthusiastic friends to act like cheerleaders for you each time you ferment a new batch of kombucha or figure out a new way to include bacon fat into your meals. This social element is surely one reason why diet plans like Weight Watchers have lasted through the years, and also why so many people who go at diet changes on their own fail miserably.
You don’t need to follow a prescribed diet plan to lose weight and be healthy! Just eat real foods in balanced proportions. Be active. Get lots of sleep. And try to cut the stress out of your life. No matter what name you put on the diet, you will probably find yourself feeling a lot better than when you ate all of that crap junk food.