The Paleo diet is taking the world by storm.  People looking for quick weight loss are attracted by its claims, people wanting better health while still eating their favourite foods are drawn to it, health nuts and gym bods love all the vegetables and protein on the menus.

Right now, Paleo is hip.  It’s cool, it’s organic and it’s here!  And probably at your local cafe.

It is true that Paleo has many enticing elements that are attractive to Westerners.  But what does the science say about its features?  After all, every fad diet has grandiose claims – but if the science, the biochemistry, doesn’t support those claims, it is bound to backfire.  With your workout-friend, your mother, your neighbour, your work-colleague all being drawn into the Paleo world, it is vital for everyone interested in their health to become aware of what is good in Paleo and what is simply unscientific hype which is best avoided if health is our goal.

First: what is good about Paleo?

The Paleo diet includes the following health benefits, all supported heavily by science:

  • more non-starchy vegetables, such as salad vegetables and steamed vegetables
  • more raw nuts and seeds
  • fewer foods processed with sugar (like ice-cream and sweet desserts)
  • no refined grain products (like doughnuts, cake and pizza),
  • (usually) no dairy

These are good things in the Paleo diet, and a major reason many people experience real health and weight loss benefits, at least initially.  Read some of my other spots to see the benefits of these food choices.

What are the negatives that make Paleo a dangerous diet?

It’s story-time: “A long, long time ago, when people lived in caves….”

The whole premise of the Paleo diet is based upon a story – that our distant paleolithic and neolithic ‘hunter-gatherer’ ancestors ate a high animal product diet and were healthier for it.  This is a myth, and most anthropologists agree that early man ate more like the apes – a plant-based diet.  Most hunter-gatherer societies of recent years are actually more ‘gatherer’, with only a little ‘hunter’.  Many such societies eat up to 80% root vegetables and green vegetables or fruit, with only small amounts of animal foods such as insects, lizards, small trapped fish and the very occasional large hunting catch.

Eat like a cave man?

Humans are not designed to run animals down day after day.  Before the rifle was invented, catching enough larger animals to feed a tribe consistently, day in, day out, week in and week out, was unreliable and virtually impossible, and tribal people generally depended on what plants they could grow or gather plus small catches (as mentioned).  Meat in quantity was only a special occasion meal and took an inordinate amount of energy and risk to accomplish.

Basing your health upon the premise that millions of years ago, humans may have eaten one thing or another, and disregarding what the science actually shows about what is healthy and what is not now, is following a philosophy.  It has nothing at all to do with good health.

It is irrelevant what people thousands of years ago ate to survive;

we have an abundant food supply now and survival is not the goal of most Westerners – living healthy to an old age is – and that is quite a different goal requiring a very different approach.  Sure, if all you want to do is live long enough to reproduce, you can eat what you want, but hopefully we have learned more about nutrition over the centuries, and that is what really matters for health.

In the next 3 posts, I want to look at what the science actually does show about the major do’s and don’t’s of Paleo.

But first – one troubling part of the Paleo teaching:

 

Limit fruit.  All that sugar is fattening.

Many Paleo teachers recommend the limiting of fruit as it contains fruit-sugars.  This seems a reasonable idea, until we consider the bigger picture – that societies that eat 2 or more pieces of whole fruit a day are the healthiest, and people eating fewer than 2 pieces of fruit a day are sicker of all causes, especially in the case of children.  Worse, children eating little or no fresh fruit have higher disease rates even 20 years later. People who eat 3 – 5 pieces of whole fruit a day and an unprocessed, balanced, plant-centred diet do not tend towards weight gain. It is other things that cause weight gain, but not fruit.

This is just one example of Paleo being about a story and little if at all about good nutritional science.  Only diets predominantly made up of whole plant foods bring about long term health.

In the upcoming posts, we will look at the Paleo myths surrounding –

  • meat
  • fat
  • grains, and
  • legumes.