I’ve researched both the pros and cons of what some refer to as “Paleofantasies,” and generally speaking, I would have to cast my vote more with those on the con side.
Last week in Paleo Diets Exposed, Part 1, I defined the Paleo Diet itself in more detail, while presenting some arguments and evidence in its favor.
Now, get ready for Paleo Diets Exposed, Part 2, where I’ll present some arguments and evidence that make a rigid adherence to the Paleo diet look less convincing, if not less appealing, in the light of day.
Paleo Diet Recap
The Paleo Diet, in a nutshell, is a narrow eating regimen, coupled with exercise, and it encourages the consumption of only fruits, vegetables (particularly of the green, leafy variety), lean meats and fish, as well as nuts and seeds.
In essence, if our caveman ancestors didn’t have it available, according to the Paleo Bible, you can’t eat it. So, no starches, grains, sugars, processed carbs, legumes, etc…. oh, and no alcohol.
A vast majority of nutritionists will acknowledge that the Paleo Diet, even in its most limited definition, is right on in at least one count: that eliminating or at least reducing processed sugars, carbohydrates and other foods that have been significantly modified from their natural state using different processes, additives, or preservatives makes perfect dietary and health-conscious sense.
Some examples of modified foods would include: processed pastas, white bread/refined flour-based products, some packaged lunch meats and factory-produced cold cuts, processed cheeses, potato chips (when were these EVER good for you?), salty and sugary snacks, and of course, cereals heavy with added sugars.
These kinds of processed foods will usually be lower in protein, fiber, and iron. In addition, some of them are overloaded with additives and sodium–so much so that they even amplify cancer and heart disease risks.
OK, so now…I don’t claim for this to be an all-inclusive list of critiques, but here are four specific issues that critics take with the Paleo Diet:
First, one spot where the logic behind the argument in favor of such a restricted eating regimen, not to mention the crux of the Paleo Diet itself, seems to reveal some holes, is in the following:
Anthropologists will tell you that the human body adapted itself to life in what it calls the “Stone Age” and our genetics and anatomy have not changed significantly since then.
Paleo dieters use this to make a case for us in the modern world to imitate those diets of our ancient ancestors as closely as possible in order to live healthier. They reason that cancer, heart disease, diabetes, depression, anxiety, insomnia, obesity, and other modern-day maladies are due in large part to the disparity between the original human body blueprint and our typical contemporary diet/lifestyle.
And while they may be right that processed foods/additives/preservatives have been shown to be unhealthy, these proponents may also not necessarily be right in terms of adherence to their beloved diet.
This particular “healthy/clean living” lifestyle all sounds good in theory, but may or may not be substantiated by scientific evidence. I will point out again that the diet has not been around long enough to be able to track any long term results definitively.
Plus, other evidence and research soundly demonstrates the ability of our bodies to adapt and adjust accordingly to any number of internal and/or external conditions.
Second, consider the fact that the Paleo diet, when most narrowly defined, demands more than merely the elimination of highly-processed junk foods. In its most textbook form, it also intends to cut out the consumption of any kind of food theoretically inaccessible to our “Paleolithic” hunter-gatherer predecessors.
This would include the elimination of calcium-rich dairy products, grains chock-full of digestive-friendly fibers, as well as legumes and vitamins stocked up with proteins. In other words, the Paleo diet isn’t quite as balanced as most nutritionists recommend.
Third, dieticians have called the diet’s requirements too narrow and even too fickle, referencing its expectations of only eating very lean meats and pure plants. These requirements seem to be unrealistic and inaccessible for most individuals. It’s unreasonable to assume that your average person could adhere to such a diet as strictly as it’s laid out.
As “Scientific American” asserts, “The Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter-fathers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter-gatherers because they want to.”
Again, any eating regimen that limits certain food groups and overly promotes others is off balance, experts will say. There doesn’t exist, as of yet, any strong evidence that the Paleo crowd lives any longer than non-Paleo people, or that they are more healthy because of their eating choices.
To put it bluntly, the diet hasn’t been resurrected long enough to be able to measure and monitor its long-term outcomes. Other critics go a step further to claim that it’s impossible to even determine exactly what ancient humans ate or didn’t eat, or what they did or didn’t have access to.
They also assert that the foods that were eaten back in the Paleo days are no longer available, so how can we possibly know what the diet was or wasn’t?
Fourth, let’s start with a brief recap: The Paleo diet prescribes relatively high, or at least moderate, levels of fat. Again, this would contradict any recommendation from any respected dietitian today, at least any respected dietitian who was in his or her right mind.
Though the diet – reasonably and rationally – does recommend fiber from fruits and vegetables, it prohibits whole grains, as previously stated. Note that solid evidence exists that some of our predecessors were already eating legumes and grains around 30,000 years ago. Take that, Paleo people!
Expert Critics Weigh In
In seemingly equal numbers, both Paleo proponents as well as detractors seem to have met at the Paleo cave debate platform, and both camps have more middle-of-the-road followers as well as fanatical “I have to be right” members. Some critics will even say the diet’s premise is ludicrous, not to mention sometimes even flagrantly damaging to the human organism.
An evolutionary biologist, Marlene Zuk, of the University of Minnesota, does her own deconstruction (and apparent shredding) of the diet in her book “Paleofantasy” – needless to say, the title might not be meant to conceal any spoilers or hidden opinions. In the book, she identifies what she terms as “myths” underlying the Paleo diet, as well as the Paleo lifestyle ethos in general.
“‘Paleofantasies’ call to mind a time when everything about us—body, mind, and behavior—was in sync with the environment…but no such time existed,” Zuk writes in her book. “We and every other living thing have always lurched along in evolutionary time, with the inevitable trade-offs that are a hallmark of life.”
I’m not sure that processed sugar/high-sodium foods and snacks were meant to be part of our “evolutionary lurch,” but point well taken.
Making a case for the adaptation powers that the human body possesses, biology professor Gregor Yanega, at Pacific University in Oregon says, “Our guts are special because they are less specialized. They can accommodate so many changes in the foods that surround us … we can even eat some of the world’s more difficult foodstuffs: grains, leaves and plants. Berries, nuts, meats, sugars, those are easy. Eating them together [in unison] is pretty rare.”
Not the Paleo-miracle it Claims to Be
While she agrees with the Paleo tribe’s concern regarding today’s processed convenience foods, salty snacks, and sugary sweets, New York City nutritionist Jennifer Andrus is perhaps more concerned about modern gluttonous eating habits. “I think processed food deserves the criticism, but probably not because we haven’t evolved; more likely because we eat too much of it and most of it is nutritionally void,” she says.
Andrus readily acknowledges some solid nutrition-conscientious principles in the Paleo diet, for example, the fish and lean meats, in addition to the fruits and vegetables, but her claim is that it’s not necessary to go to some of the extremity and rigid embracing that many in the Paleo camp do.
“It eliminates dairy, legumes and some other foods that can be a healthy part of one’s diet,” she warns.
She goes on to suggest a more common-sense strategy, one that other advocates of the diet say they can get behind. “Some people like to abide by the 80/20 rule; if 80% of your diet is perfect, there’s wiggle room for the rest,” Andrus says. Let’s be honest, “There’s a lot of space between Paleo and a crappy diet of Pop-Tarts and McDonald’s.”
Indeed, Ms. Andrus. Perhaps the warnings and critiques are meant to be reminders to have more common sense, and avoid fanatical adherence to extremes. Rightly so.
By Jonathan Crowell