The Pitfalls of the Paleo Diet

I mentioned the Paleo diet in last week’s post about the ethical conflicts and health considerations surrounding meat and other animal foods.  (If you missed that post, check it out HERE.  I’d love to hear your input!)  Paleo is an extremely trendy diet right now, so I’d like to expound upon that a bit for any of yall who may be currently “eating Paleo” or considering doing so in the future.  As I’ve said before, I eat what I want and don’t follow a particular diet plan (nor do I practice the “If It Fits Your Macros”/”IIFYM” style of eating, but that’s a topic for another day), so I’m not a Paleo devotee.  I actually have some serious concerns about the diet, although I can see a few benefits it would provide as well.  I will outline the basics of the diet for those who are unfamiliar, and then give a brief explanation of the major pitfalls of Paleo, as well as the handful of redeeming qualities I see in it.  More importantly, I’ve linked to all kinds of resources, most of them articles authored by folks far more eloquent than I, so that you can read in more detail about the specific details/problems in which you find yourself most interested.  If you are interested in giving the Paleo diet a go and I can’t deter you, there are links below that will take you to resources that will help you to try the Paleo diet in what I hope will be a safe, healthy, and open-minded personal experiment.

paleo

First, let’s talk about what the Paleo diet entails.

The Paleo diet has its roots in evolutionary theory, and is based on the idea that the diet that humans or their predecessors consumed during the Paleolithic era (thus, the name “Paleo”) is ideal for human health.  Therefore, the foods that are included in the Paleo diet are:

  • meats
  • fish and other seafood
  • eggs
  • green/colored vegetables
  • fruits (many sources recommend limited servings)
  • nuts and seeds (many sources recommend limited servings)
  • unsweetened dairy products (technically, a diet that includes dairy is considered “Primal,” but for all intents and purposes, the diets are otherwise identical)
  • coconut oil and olive oil (depending on who you ask, butter and ghee are also acceptable)

Not only that, but foods that came about in/after the Neolithic era (i.e. after the dawn of agriculture) are thought to be detractors of health, for the reason that the human species has not yet had sufficient time, in scheme of the macro-evolution timeline, to adjust to these Neolithic foods.  The Paleo logic states that the human body is therefore not capable of properly digesting, utilizing, and benefiting from the following types of food:

  • grains (all varieties)
  • legumes
  • refined sugars
  • soy (all forms)
  • dairy (except for those in the “Primal” camp)
  • refined vegetable oils (corn oil, safflower oil, etc.)
  • tubers and other starchy vegetables are a grey area – some Paleo “gurus” strictly prohibit them, others deem them acceptable in certain contexts (such as for athletes who are currently in season), and others such as the Whole9 team are now claiming they are a perfectly healthful food so long as they are not deep fried.
  • alcohol (this can also be a grey area depending on who you ask and what’s in the drink…a margarita is clearly not Paleo, but what about absinthe?)

If you’d like more information on the details of the Paleo diet, I’d suggest checking out Mark Sisson’s website, starting with THIS explanation of the diet. Sisson leans Primal – he is the author of The Primal Blueprint, after all – but his site encompasses all of the Paleo tenets plus the addition of those Primal-specific modifications (like the inclusion of high-quality dairy products).  Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution, is considered by many to be one of the best Paleo authorities; you can see a brief description of his take on the Paleo diet HERE.  Lastly, Jason Seib and Sarah Fragoso of the Everyday Paleo website have made Paleo easy to understand and practical to implement with their website, free podcasts, and individual books (The Paleo Coach and Everyday Paleo, respectively).  The Whole9 website also has a good deal of information and is the source of the every-popular “Whole 30” Paleo challenge.  Keep in mind that these are all very pro-Paleo sources, so be sure to read the rest of this post (and as many of the linked articles from the other point of view as possible) before deciding that you want to jump into the Paleo waters with both feet.

So, what are the pitfalls of the Paleo diet?

To start, it doesn’t include sourdough bread or whiskey sours.  That’s obviously a deal breaker.

In all seriousness, though, the main problem I have with the Paleo diet is the logical fallacy.  There is no single Paleolithic diet.  As you’ll see in THIS excellent article from Precision Nutrition, the diets of paleolithic people’s varied by location.  The archaeological evidence reveals enormous discrepancies in the amounts of various plant and animal foods that were consumed in each geographic location.  This leads me to the next major problem, which is that the Paleo diet is based on speculation.  The first speculation is the theory of macro-evolution; while treated as gospel, it is a theory, just like Creationism, intelligent design, and the like are theories.  While archaeologists may be able to find evidence that certain foods are likely to have been consumed more than others, or that humans from a certain era most likely lived out a certain average lifespan, we have no hard evidence to give a definitive answer as to what the Paleolithic people ate, their quality of life, or how that might have been different had they had other options available (i.e. Neolithic/agricultural foods).  Another problem, if the goal is to mimic the diet of Paleolithic man, would be the difference in food quality.  There is no way that the Tyson chicken breasts you picked up from Safeway or Kroger on the way home from work are of the same nutritional quality (for better or worse) as the wild buffalo that our hypothetical thriving Paleolithic man hunted down with nothing but a spear and maybe a loincloth.

Another big concern I have with the Paleo diet is the tendency towards restricting carbohydrates.  A Paleo diet does not outright imply limited carbohydrates, but check any of the Paleo authorities listed above and you’ll see that they recommending limiting total carbohydrate intake, on top of already limiting acceptable sources of carbohydrate.  Low carbohydrate diets have their own host of problems, including impaired thyroid function, lowered immunity, hormone disruption, loss of muscle mass, insulin resistance, decreased glycogen stores, and poor athletic performance.  (See THIS article for more details.) Additionally, restricting carbohydrates after already restricting carbohydrate sources can also breed fear and anxiety regarding food, which can lead to disordered habits and thought patterns surrounding eating and diet.  There are also a number of carbohydrate foods that provide immense nutritional benefit, but which are excluded from the Paleo diet.  Nutrients such as B-vitamins, dietary fiber, phytonutrients, magnesium, selenium, and other trace minerals are plentiful in legumes and grains (in their whole form, as opposed to the refined grains in commercial bread and packaged snacks), but legumes and grains are not considered acceptable in a Paleo diet regardless of who you ask.  (If you’re interested, THIS is a great article from Whole Health Source regarding the role of legumes in a Paleo diet.)

Does the Paleo diet get anything right?

In spite of all the glaring pitfalls, there are a couple of benefits to the Paleo approach to eating.  The emphasis on antioxidant-rich vegetables, in all their colorful glory, is something that would benefit just about everyone.  Protein is also a cornerstone of the Paleo diet, and while I may still be conflicted about protein sources, there is no denying that higher quality protein, often in a relatively-higher quantity, will benefit the health of most individuals.  Although it is not necessarily an official component of the Paleo diet, most Paleo advocates will strongly urge individuals to choose animal proteins that are of the highest possible quality – grass-fed/pastured beef and milk, wild fish, free-range chicken and eggs, etc.  The high quality of these animal protein sources is typically indicative of a high quality of life for the animals and ethical living conditions and slaughter process.  In my eyes, this is hugely important.

I also really appreciate the more holistic approach that many proponents of the Paleo diet advocate, taking the entire context of an individual’s lifestyle into consideration with the diet.  Many Paleo proponents fiercely promote a fitness regime based on strength training (almost always with equal emphasis on proper rest and recovery), for the purpose of building lean mass, increasing bone density, and all-around improving health, longevity, and quality of life.  This obviously warrants a big fat stamp of approval from yours truly.

What’s the bottom line?

While the Paleo diet is not something that I would recommend cut and dry, I know that there are more than a few folks out there who have experienced greatly improved health by eating the Paleo way.  My suggestion would be to look at the Paleo diet and take any constructive practices from it and apply them to your own diet.  Each individual is living in their own unique health-context, which is affected by their occupation, sleep, training, non-exercise activity, recreation, social network and family support, diet, nicotine/alcohol/drug use, and physical/non-physical stress.  The variations in these factors mean that certain individuals will benefit from more or less of certain foods/nutrients, where as others will benefit from more or less of a different food/nutrient.  Individual responsibility is key: do your own research, listen to your own body, and consult the experts in your corner (doctor, nutrition coach, personal trainer, etc).  Chris Kresser has a fabulous article about this subject; you can read it HERE.   Make the wisest choices you can, observe the results, and adjust as necessary to best suit your body in whatever context you’re living.  Life is not linear, and neither are dietary recommendations.

 

Let’s discuss:

What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet?  

What kind of diet do you think best facilitates overall health?

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3 thoughts on “The Pitfalls of the Paleo Diet

  1. I love this post so much. I have been on a “lenient” paleo diet for almost a year for the sole reason of the pitfalls you mentioned. I love how it gets me to eat my vegetables and wonderful sources of meat and protein, but have had to find other ways to include carbs into my diet. Overall, I feel great since I’ve started. Maybe it’s the fact that it cut out gluten, but I really haven’t ever felt better. The most important thing, I think, is to listen to what your body needs. If it needs more carbs or anything else, do it! Thanks again for this post!

    1. That’s so good to hear that you’ve had success with more of a Paleo “template” vs. a strict “Whole 30” type diet! I really do love how Paleo can shift folks’ mindsets…we just need to remember that any dietary guidelines are tools to be used for health, not a law to be followed to achieve some kind of dietary piety!

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