I’m noticing a wave of unfortunate news concerning the paleo diet lately. The latest news comes from Jill Richardson, author and ” founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board” via Alternet. If you’re unfamiliar with the Paleo concept, here it is in a nutshell:
The premise of the diet is simple: your body evolved to eat a radically different diet than what most Americans eat today. Go back to that original diet, and you’ll lose weight and eliminate a host of diseases.
Sounds plausible. What could possible be wrong with that hypothesis?
Needless to say, it’s impossible to accurately lump together the diet of every single human ancestor or even just the Homo sapiens who lived in this period. “The truth of the matter is there is no paleo diet,” summarizes Katharine Milton, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management at UC-Berkeley. “The only thing you can do is generalize very broadly and you can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that paleo peoples were eating wild plant and animal foods because there was no agriculture and there were no domesticated animals.” A piece in Nature backs her up, showing how difficult it is to reconstruct human diets of the distant past through a variety of means.
Sounds likely. After all, how can we know what people ate way back when, and how could we assume those who lived in various environments possibly eat the same types of food?
There is some good news, though.
No matter what, there are several aspects of this diet that deserve praise. Cutting down on sugar, salt, alcohol, and processed foods is a healthy move. So is switching to pasture-raised meat, if you eat animal products. And the oils recommended each provide healthy ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, thus addressing a common problem in the American diet. The diet also preaches variety, telling dieters to switch up what they eat every day, instead of relying on the same handful of foods. These are all concepts that are broadly recommended by many nutrition experts – and they can be adopted without turning back the clock 10,000 years to before the dawn of agriculture.
However, real world hunter-gatherers don’t exactly follow paleo guidelines.
One example does not make a rule, but the Kumeyaay diet blows through several claims made by paleo experts like Cordain. They ate salt, they ate grains, and they ate legumes. Logic tells us that our ancestors absolutely ate grains and legumes elsewhere in the world too. How do we know that? Because our ancestors ultimately domesticated grains and legumes and cultivated them as food on farms. What are the odds that an ancient people found an entirely inedible seed and began planting it and selecting it for desirable traits, trusting that eventually, perhaps in decades or centuries, it would evolve into an edible grain or bean?
And then we have the whole grain discussion. Paleo folks don’t care for grains. Why not?
Cordain dismisses grains, calling them “nutritionally inferior foods compared to fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish and seafood.” He adds that, “most grains in the U.S. are consumed as fiber-depleted refined grains, and as such represent one of the greatest dietary contributors to the ubiquitous high glycemic load in the U.S. diet, which underlies numerous health issues including obesity and the metabolic syndrome.”
True – but why not simply tell people to eat whole grains instead of refined ones?
I totally agree that refined grains can be a problem. But whole grains? I think it’s unfortunate when people demonize a bowl of brown rice the same way they’d disparage sugar infused pastries. We’re talking two exceedingly different foods lumped into one category.
And then we have this:
What about the paleo diet’s claim that one must eat meat? In his book The Paleo Solution, Robb Wolf writes, “Your protein source needs to have the following criteria:
1. It needs a face.
2. It needs a soul.
3. You need to kill it, and bring its essence into your being.
It’s hardly worth commenting on this piece of tripe, but I’ll take my diet without a dose of idiotic metaphysical tripe. “Bring its essence into your being?” Seriously?
The article goes on to illustrate how a few studies cited by the paleo gurus is less than accurate.
In other words, Cordain is selectively quoting this study’s findings to give a false impression of the results. The study found that vegetarians are 24 percent less likely to die of heart disease than their meat-eating counterparts, and no more or less likely to die of anything else.
I rather liked the conclusion:
Long story short, while many aspects of the paleo diet are uncontroversial and beneficial, like increasing fresh fruit and vegetable consumption, switching to pasture-raised meat, and cutting out processed foods, the overall premise of the diet as well as some of its key components appear based on pseudoscience and unsubstantiated claims. But, you might notice that many of the most popular, well-known paleo diet Websites sell books, diet plans and memberships. It appears that this diet might be more successful in generating profit for its proponents than producing health for its followers.
Yup. Buyer beware. Your health is your greatest wealth. Treat it that way.