Why The Paleo Diet is a Bunch of Bullsh*t!


paleo diet myth

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. [1]  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. [2]  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.[3]  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.[4] 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. [5]  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.[6]

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.

To Recap…

  • 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.

Have any experience with the Paleo Diet?  Agree or disagree with the above article?  We want to hear from you!  Leave a comment below and let your opinion be heard!

 

 

 

 

 

[1]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paleolithic

[2]: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/07/23/human-ancestors-were-nearly-all-vegetarians/

[3]: http://evolution.berkeley.edu/evolibrary/news/070401_lactose

[4]: http://healthland.time.com/2013/06/04/vegetarians-may-live-longer/

[5]: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19307518

[6]: http://annals.org/article.aspx?articleid=746013

 

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23 thoughts on “Why The Paleo Diet is a Bunch of Bullsh*t!”

  1. I agree that it is too extreme in the “our bodies were meant to eat this way” with just the assumption that that’s how it should be. But the people I follow on the Internet that I know focus on a paleo diet really are veggie heavy. The one thing I have liked about the paleo trend is that I think it has helped bring attention to “clean eating”. At least, that has been my exposure. But I find it a little silly the extremes people will go to make a recipe “paleo friendly”. Check out Dr. Terry Wahls

    1. Thanks for the resource – I’ll check out Dr. Wahls. I don’t have a problem with the Paleo diet per se, it’s just the fact some people insist this is the one and only way to live….which clearly isn’t the case, i.e. check out those Blue Zones.

      In any event, I agree clean eating is important, regardless of the “diet” you’re on…so in that regard, perhaps the Paleo diet has done quite a bit of good.

      Thanks for your comment!

      Matt

  2. I must say that I completely disagree with you. I am pregnant so I don’t follow a Paleo diet currently however I do all the cooking for my household and my husband is 100% paleo.

    Everyone who I know that follows the Paleo diet doesn’t go crazy with the meat as you suggest in this article. If you’re going to represent this way of eating (which you call a fad and liken to the atkins diet), at least represent all sides of it. My family and friends that eat paleo eat TONS of veggies, a small amount of fruit and the same amount or a LITTLE BIT MORE meat than they used to. The main difference is that carbs are completely gone.

    For my husband, he went from filling up half his plate with carbs (i.e. a plate of spaghetti at dinner time), to now filling up the same amount with veggies. He still gets nice and full however it’s from eating veggies NOT carbs. It’s been a major adjustment for him but his energy has increased ten fold.

    You claim that there is no science to back up the paleo diet and you question if it’s safe to eliminate carbs completely… I’d love to enlighten you to the fact that there has been TONS of research which eludes to the fact that the human body WAS NOT MADE to digest both fats and carbs. It just wasn’t. That’s why 1/3 of American’s are MORBIDLY OBESE. The ketogenic diet (high fat) has been proven very successful SCIENTIFICALLY as has high carb no fats but having BOTH fats AND carbs is what ruins the body. The western diet that you seem to be in favor of is what’s completely BS.

    As for your claim that there is no scientific evidence supporting a Paleolithic lifestyle, I’ve gone through and found some LEGITIMATE sites that prove you wrong (and buddy, wikipedia isn’t a legitimate source).

    The largest complaint I’ve seen about the paleo lifestyle is that it’s too strict. I can agree with this and say that a lot of planning is needed but if you have the time and the desire, it can certainly happen. A lot of planning is needed for anyone who wants to lose weight or change their lifestyle habits so I must say that this complain means very little to me.

    Here are some sources for you:

    http://www.webmd.com/diet/features/diet-review-the-caveman-paleo-diet

    http://www.beyondveg.com/cat/paleodiet/

    http://www.dietdoctor.com/science

    http://paleodietlifestyle.com/paleo-diet-faq/

    1. First off, congrats on the pregnancy. Second off, disagreement is OKAY, it’s what makes the world go around.

      Thirdly, I think you’re a bit confused about the paleo diet. Paleo doesn’t completely eliminate carbs as you seem to think it does. Carbs are found in yams, cassava, fruits, carrots, beets, plantain, etc…..all of which are Paleo friendly.

      Your husband has made a great switch from loads of simple carbs, which are always going to be a bad thing, to healthy veggies – it’s no wonder he has more energy.

      Carbs are a vital nutrient and important for energy, muscle building, among other bodily functions. Again, Paleo doesn’t eliminate carbs as I’ve noted above.

      As far as the human body NOT being able to digest carbs, well I hate to tell you, but carbs are our MAIN energy source. Can it be obtained from fat, and to a lesser degree, protein? Yes. But carbohydrates are the most efficient energy source for human beings, and what is used (glycogen) to power ATP within our bodies. As I tried to show with my examples of Blue Zones, the individuals living in these areas of the globe are widely regarded as the healthiest populations on the planet…..and guess what….they all eat carbs, with some even completely abstaining from meat. Go figure. One third of our population is overweight because they overeat and under exercise…I know plenty of vegans, vegetarians, and other carb eaters who are perfectly healthy. Lets not blame brown rice because most Americans have little self-control and/or discipline.

      You’ve made a poor assumption in asserting that I am in favor of the standard Western diet. I’ve written numerous pieces on the problem with the standard Western diet.

      And lastly, Wikipedia can in fact be very credible, especially when an article has numerous sources listed….as was the case in the article I sourced from Wikipedia. And just as an FYI – Web MD has several articles which go AGAINST the Paleo diet….one article, by one author, found on web md doesnt prove a whole lot…for either side.

      Thanks for your comment, I appreciate you taking the time to give me your opinion and sources to check out.

      Matt

      1. Check out “The Art and Science of Low Carbohydrate Performance” for more information about carbs being the main energy source.

        It’s was quite an eye-opening book for me.

  3. I can very much appreciate this post. As a graduate student in Kinesiology, we often see people jumping on “The next Best Thing” because a few studies showed that something (in this case the Paleo diet) resulted in some desired outcome (weightloss). This post should remind people, myself including, that we need to very carefully analyze every claim that we hear. In regards to the below post…..if our bodies “were not made to digest both fats and carbs, our bodies would then not possess the enzymes or cell machinery to be able to do so. The body needs both carbs and fats in addition to protein. Carbs are the preferred source of fuel for the brain and adopting the Ketogenic diet can have a depressing effect on the nervous system; which for those with Epilepsy would be beneficial but not for everyone else. (please refer to PubMed, not a glorified version of Wikipedia–WebMd).

    Also the claim that diet (so what people are eating) is THEE reason why American’s are obese is a premature claim. There are several factors that play into obesity, diet is a very important factor but is not the only or even the most important factor.

    The fact that the paleo diet encourages increased produce consumption is a plus but an excess amount of protein (either animal or plant form) can also increase working demands of the kidneys. SO…I’m not sold yet on the Paleo diet.

    Again, as stated previously, I think this post should remind us that we cannot take every new claim we hear about diet and or exercise to the bank. There are several factors that cause false positives in research, and researchers cannot always control for those factors and sometimes do not even realize they are present. Accumulated Evidence is the best advocate for any claim, and as consumers we need to remember that and look for that evidence in reliable places (Lay websites are alright but research data bases, Google Scholar or Pubmed, are preferred).

      1. Okay there may be a lot of evidence and history backing up the name of Alabama but it’s still early so a lot can happen so watch it. Haha.

  4. It’s exceedingly rare that I agree with a blog post that even touches on paleo as much as this one. High five from me on that one. In my mind it’s yet another one of the endless fads that the fitness industry seems to pump out year over year. There are reasons it seems to work, but it is surely not because its the “diet we evolved to eat”. Good article.

  5. I would like to point out that the reasons that I am Paleo have absolutely nothing to do with weight or weight loss. There have been many recent programs that have been marketing Paleo as some sort of weight loss miracle, such as Atkins, but if you refer to the originators you will see that the pure goal of Paleo is to optimize human health and function with the elimination of any modern day processed foods and consuming Whole, Organic, and digestible foods that do not tax the immune system. It concentrates on maximizing the benefits of Macro and Micro nutrients to ultimately aid the body in increasing immune system strength and performing at its best (and easiest). You will also find that Paleo in fact recommends NOT to over-do meat, particularly red meats. It has aided me in curing my digestion issues, regulating my blood sugar levels, and has lowered my cholesterol levels by over 60 points now putting me in the optimal range. So before you label this another “fad diet,” please try and view it as what is was intended to be, simply a lifestyle that optimizes nutritional benefits for human body function. Author Sarah Fragoso has a fabulous book called “Everyday Paleo” which goes into great detail much and more about what I have mentioned. For people like her and me, this is the way to go. Thanks 🙂

    1. I would also like to add that I do not shy away from carbs. Carbs, Fats and Proteins are all vital players. The source of each of these Macros is what is important 🙂

  6. I just don’t understand why people keep falling into this. I mean.. It’s pretty simple.. When some dude pops out of nowhere with a new revolutionary diet, basically stating that we’ve had it all wrong for centuries, and that this claim is based on little to no thorough scientific evidence, but instead on some sort of theoretical concept, like paleo diet is, well… chances are that it’s all a bunch of bullshit.

    And I get kinda pissed that even people who should be rigorous scientists keep posting crap about this on my facebook. Get a fucking grip people. Yeah sure, show before and after pics on your facebook, trying to convince people that paleo diet is the only way to go, and omit mentioning that when you got into paleo, you went from eating at McDonald’s or other crap restaurants, eating a muffin here and there on the side, getting crap food in the food machine at your job, to just not doing any of that, because you now always had to cook your own meals to respect your diet, + paid extra attention to what it was that you were cooking, oh yeah and also you signed up to a crossfit gym…

    Sure.. I’m pretty damn sure that going from a crap diet to a carefully controlled diet and changing your whole lifestyle is going to land you with a better body. Which doesn’t prove that paleo’s assumptions are correct, or that the paleo regimes is the only, or the best, or even one of the best ways to go. All it proves is that having a strict diet is better than eating whatever the fuck you want at any given time without caring if it’s good or bad.

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