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(Staw Man) Arguments Against The Paleo Diet

Posted Oct 23 2013 9:41am
The " Paleo Diet " sometimes called the "Cave-man Diet" or "Warrior Diet" has become very popular in the last few years.  As you know, popular doesn't necessarily mean good.  The science of biochemistry and nutrition is in its infancy.  There is no scientific consensus on what exactly constitutes healthy eating.  But the Paleo factions would have you believe our caveman ancestors got it all right.   There are books, videos and workouts dedicated to this stone age way of life.  Like any diet, it works. Like most diets, it only works temporarily.  The important key questions are:  Is it healthy?  Is it sustainable? Is it backed with reams of scientific evidence?  Is it contraindicated with any preexisting conditions?  Below are the  two major tenants of the Paleo Diet
  • We should eat the types of food our ancestors ate before agricultural times (10,000 years ago and before). 
  • We should eliminate foods (both processed and natural) which were introduced to the human diet through agriculture and civilization because our bodies may have trouble properly digesting and absorbing these foods. 
The contemporary "Paleo diet" consists mainly of wild fish, grass-fed pasture raised meats , pastured raised eggs , lots of vegetables (although no corn), some fruit, fungi and nuts.  It typically excludes grains, legumes (including peanuts), dairy products, potatoes, refined salt, refined sugar, processed vegetable oils and mostly anything else that is packaged and boxed up.  On the surface it may seem like a sensible and logical diet.  And for most people it is a healthier way of eating then the alternative - the standard American diet.  However there are some major issues with the absolutist interpretation of this eating plan.  Here are some straw-man and cogent arguments against the "Paleo Diet":
  1. We are not biologically identical to the Paleolithic man.  Humans have evolved and adapted to the drastically different world we now live in. 
  2. Foods our ancient ancestors ate are remarkably different and/or not even available today.  Most of the limited fruit and vegetables varieties available today are more sweet and less nutritious than their ancient ancestors.
  3. Stone age hunters moved a lot more in 1 day than most Americans move in a week! Thus they required a much different diet to sustain themselves.
  4. Our microbial communities are likely radically different than that of Paleo man's.  Our gut bacteria (of which there are ten to every one human cell in our bodies) have evolved to deal with all the antibiotics, toxins and other environmental stresses of modern day life that were not present 20,000 years ago. 
  5. The history of what Paleo man actually ate on a daily basis lacks scientific consensus.  No one knows for sure what hominins ate.   The fossil record is so limited it could not possibly tell the whole story.   
  6. There are many people in the world who are not lactose and/or gluten intolerant and can thrive on milk and wheat products.   In fact gluten sensitivity and complete intolerance (celiac disease), which are on the rise, still are very rare and make up less than 2% of the population .   
  7. There is very little research, if any, which illustrates adverse health effects attributed to the consumption of whole legumes.  Beans (legumes) and whole grains are common staples of some of the healthiest populations in the world.
  8. It has been established for a long time, through numerous peer reviewed studies,  a clear link between the consumption of whole grains (100% whole wheat) and a myriad of health benefits: reduces risk of cardiovascular disease , increases healthy weight loss , reduces the risk of developing certain cancers, and a protective effect against many hormone related diseases . According to a dearth of scientific literature whole wheat is healthy for most people.
  9. In clinical studies many other diet plans have shown to produce the same, if not more positive health effects than that of the Paleo plan. Maybe some of these diets are healthier or maybe simply replacing the standard American diet with something more robust like the Mediterranean , Ornish , Traditional Asian or Volumetrics diet would be just as good?  
The above arguments have all been refuted in one way or another by Paleo enthusiasts.  What is clear, is that many devotees have moved away from a pure interpretation of "Paleo" and created a newfangled explanation of the diet.  Humans are omnivores and we tend to thrive on diets of abundant food variety.  After all our Paleolithic ancestors ate what and when they could in order to survive, including bugs, grains and whatever else they could sink their teeth into.  Sadly for most of human history we did not have access to McDonalds, refined sugar and diet Cokes .  There is good evidence for omitting these varieties of processed food and sugars.   These food like substances wreak havoc on the human body and add little if any benefit.  The 'Cave-Man diet' also correctly sanctions the consumption of copious amount of low sugar vegetables and meat derived only from pasture raised animals not subjected to boatloads of hormones, pesticides and other chemicals.  I think this is something we can all get behind, no?   It is clear that switching from the standard American diet to one that is less processed is a better choice.  I'm always dubious of extreme absolute approaches to human health and diet.  Individuals have vastly different preferences, tolerances, and goals for the role and function of food in their lives. Food should make you feel and perform better.  Do what works best for you.  

Bottom Line: The Paleo diet is packed with lots of sensible recommendations.  However, the diet has not stood under the strict microscope of scientific peer review.  Tread lightly and see what works for you.  In the meantime cut back on your sugar, processed foods, refined wheat products and visit your local farmer's market to pick up some whole foods like organic vegetables and maybe a little pasture raised meats. 
Doug Joachim - NYC
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