There are few diets, or some would say ways of life, that draw as much fanatic support as the Paleo Diet has in recent years. Often the diet of choice for Crossfitters and other obsessive-compulsive types, the Paleo Diet is based upon the idea that modern-day humans, in order to achieve optimal health, should mimic the diet of our ancestors from the Paleolithic period. Proponents of the Paleo Diet claim the human body has evolved very little in this time and as such, our systems are ill-suited for handling dairy, grains and certain types of oils. By getting back to our roots we’ll be in a better position to avoid disease, eliminate excess body fat and lead overall healthier lives….or so they say.
Despite all of the unbridled support for the Paleo Diet, I’m calling shenanigans here. In fact, I’m calling it “Atkins Diet Re-Incarnate”. The Paleo Diet is trendy, faddy nonsense that is backed by little science; on the contrary, scientific studies have punched holes in the core beliefs of Paleo dieters at an increasing rate in recent years. Today, we’re going to take a look at the Paleo Diet and see if there’s any truth behind their philosophy, or if it’s all just a bunch of good marketing and frankly, BS.
What is Paleo?
First, let’s define what the Paleolithic period really means. The Paleo period is generally considered to have begun 2.6 million years ago, and ran right up until about 10,000 BC.  Clearly — that’s a LOT of time. We’re talking over 2.5 million years. That’s MILLION. You really think every early human from all areas of the globe ate the same meat-heavy/low-carb diet for 2.5 MILLION years? Of course not.
The Paleo Diet seems to indicate that all of our ancestors from this incredibly large and diverse period, ate the same thing. Commonly accepted science has debunked this and shown a wide range of diversity in diets, across several sub-sections of human development during the Paleo Period. As a matter of fact, during perhaps the longest sub-period during the Paleo period, diets consisted of largely vegetables with very little meat intake.  So the next time someone tells you how amazing it is for your body to eat like your ancestors did during the Paleolithic period, ask them at which point during this roughly 2.5 million year period they’re referring to, and in what part of the world.
Evolution on a Small Scale
For argument’s sake, let us take the diet of our most recent caveman ancestors – those from the end of the Paleo period (10,000 BC). Hardcore Paleo dieters put a lot of stock into the notion that the human body has evolved very little since this period of time, and thus, we still lack the ability to process whole grains and dairy.
Put simply, they are incorrect. The ability of MOST modern-day humans to process milk and dairy products is but one example of a relatively recent evolutionary trait that has developed. Lactose tolerance is a trait that has been demonstrated to have evolved in humans within the last 5-6,000 years. While our Paleolithic ancestors would have likely gotten quite bloated and gassy if they drank milk, our most recent ancestors and most people today have absolutely no problem. Why? Because we’ve evolved as a species. We’re NOT working with the same evolutionary traits as those from the Paleolithic period….so why are we banning foods that would not have worked for them?
As if that wasn’t enough, the evolution of malaria resistance among vast groups of people living in sub-Saharan Africa and various tropical settings across the globe is another indication that evolution happens far quicker than Paleo Dieters lead us to believe. This adaptation to the malaria virus has occurred within the last 5,000 years. Seems fairly obvious to think that there was a lot more evolving that probably took place in the last 2.6 million years. Could it possibly be that our ability to handle certain foods has evolved during this time period too….or does that just seem way too far-fetched?
Is All That Meat a Good Thing?
Paleo dieters are certain about one thing – a diet high in animal-protein is a good thing. Their claim is “THIS IS THE WAY WE WERE MEANT TO LIVE, PEOPLE!” Protein, protein, protein, plus some veggies. This is the typical Paleo diet. Beef jerky, bacon, ground beef, steak, chicken, turkey…these foods are all Paleo-approved. But have you ever thought about the consequences of such a meat heavy/low-carb diet?
We’ve known for years that low-carb diets are great for helping to lose weight in the short-term (6 months-2 years). The informed among us also know that the propensity to put this lost weight back on is all but guaranteed. So yes, the Paleo Diet may help you lose some immediate weight, but if you fast-forward two years down the road, it’s likely that weight has crept back on.
This would, however, explain why Paleo dieters are so cult-ish in their undying support for this way of eating – anything the delivers fast weight loss, improved muscle tone, and has a large fan base is going to become widely accepted. This happened with the Akins Diet almost 20 years ago….and it’s happening again with the Paleo Diet. But is all that meat really a good thing? Most studies seem to think not.
The overwhelming majority of studies indicate those individual living a vegetarian diet live longer, healthier lives. Do a quick Google search and you’re going to be hit with dozens upon dozens of long-term, well-respected studies showing the effects of a low meat diet on human health. If you’re skeptical of what those damn scientists are saying, just take a look at the real-world implications of low-meat diets.
Blue Zones a Blue Print for Success?
There are areas around the globe, referred to as blue zones. These areas range from Loma Linda, California to Okinawa, Japan. While their overall lifestyles vary slightly, inhabitants of blue zones all share a few traits in common; low levels of cancer, heart-disease, and obesity. Additionally, blue zoner’s enjoy the longest life spans on planet Earth – the majority making it to 90 and a high percentage going north of the century mark. When examining the diets of people living in the blue zone, one thing becomes very clear – high consumption of veggies and fruits, very low meat consumption (in same areas NO meat consumption) and a diet high in whole grains and fiber.
Hmm…now doesn’t this just fly in the face of one of the very premises of the Paleo Diet? If humans weren’t meant to be eating some of these foods, why in the world are “blue zoners” enjoying these long lifespans and low-levels of chronic illness? Clearly our ability to handle foods like whole grains, for instance, has adapted, and quite possibly is contributing to the great health of these specific groups around the world.
Paleo Dieters Don’t Differentiate
A major facet of the Paleo Diet that has irked me the most is the lack of differentiation between animal products. The inclusion of bacon, jerkies, and other red meats in a regular diet doesn’t seem to faze those drinking the Paleo Kool-Aid. Unfortunately for them, study after study has illustrated the negative health effects of red meats – yes, even those grass-fed, free-ranging, animals.
A recent study by the National Institute of Health (NIH) drew a connection between red meat consumption and increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and obesity.  All this red meat that these folks are putting down may be well and good for helping build muscle in the short-term, but the long-term consequences of this way of eating may prove disastrous 15-20 years down the road. What’s more, there are [a href=”http://blog.shareitfitness.com/2013/vegetarian-protein-ideas/”>plenty of ways to get necessary muscle-building proteins WITHOUT the added animal fat, cholesterol, or health effects associated with red meat].
And while we’re on the topic of dietary studies, another such study (which has been replicated numerous times over) indicates the consequences of a animal-based low-carbohydrate diet. This NIH backed study examined the lifespans of and cause of death of men and women over a 26 year period. Researchers determined that those individuals on a low-carb/high-animal protein diet experienced the highest all cause mortality rates. Those individuals on a low-carbohydrate diet, consisting primarily of plant-based foods, experienced the lowest morality rates, as well decreased risk from heart disease.
In (slight) Defense of the Paleo Diet
All that said, the Paleo Diet does have good intentions – organic, grass-fed, and pesticide-free produce is always going to be better. Eliminating white flours, refined sugars, alcohol, and other such pollutants from our bodies is definitely a good thing. But just because it has some admirable points, doesn’t mean it should blindly be followed.
I truly believe a best practice approach would be to take the emphasis on organic and grass-fed from Paleo dieters, throw out their insistence on meat heavy meals, and assume a balanced approach to the inclusion of whole-grains/carbohydrates in your diet.
- Early humans living during the Paleo period had a wide variety of diets – during one such period within the Paleo period, diets consisted largely of vegetables and very little meat.
- Humans have in fact evolved significantly since the Paleo period; new-found abilities to break down lactose and malaria-resistance in specific populations are two such examples.
- Far more studies indicate a vegetarian diet leads to longer life spans and less disease than a mostly meat-based diet.
- Blue Zone diets consist largely of things that go against the Paleo Diet – yet “Blue Zoners” enjoy the longest and healthiest lives on the planet.
- Red meat, even grass-fed, has been associated with higher risks of obesity, heart disease, and cancers.
- Paleo does have some bright spots – the avoidance of processed sugars, refined flours, and alcohol is an important recommendation.
Look, if the Paleo Diet works for you and you are not concerned about the implications of such a meat heavy diet down the road, then by all means, go for it. If on the other hand, you want to enjoy the benefits of a long, healthy life, and believe in the real-world and scientific research that has gone into analyzing this lifestyle, I would highly suggest avoiding the Paleo diet.
Unfortunately, most proponents of the Paleo diet know very little about their dietary lifestyle. They know even less about the science behind their following, and rely on the oft-repeated, and incorrect assumption that the healthiest way to live is achieved by mimicking the dietary guidelines of our hunter and gatherer ancestors. This approach is short-sighted at best, and down right dangerous at worst.
Do yourself a favor, skip the trendy, faddy diets; use a little common sense, and do what you think is right for you and your body.
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