Is The Paleo Diet Healthy?

CoachMel Healthy Eating 25 Comments

Ever get frustrated at the ever-changing and contradictory nutritional advice being spouted by university and internet trained experts?

Believe me when I say, your frustration is probably a fraction of mine.

I’m supposed to know what’s right and have all the answers, and while I enjoy researching, sometimes wading through contradictory claims can become tiresome.

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I’ll be the first to admit the diet recommended by most mainstream nutritionists, dietitians, and doctors is pretty terrible, and believe it or not, I do understand why people look elsewhere for their dietary advice.

I also understand why ideas like “getting back to nature” are appealing to people, in a world where it seems everything has been tampered with in some shape or form.

With that in mind, the premise behind the Paleo diet is fascinating to me, and even more so, the followers of it.

While it’s been about for a while, what has become more apparent is that it has morphed from an idea into a movement. In fact, I struggle to think of another diet community where such a wave of nutrition belief is prevalent.

On the surface

When I examine the Paleo diet in its various forms, I find I am actually in agreement with much of the dietary recommendations (I even wear Vibram FiveFingers on occasion ;-)). The philosophy and reasoning behind the whole Paleo diet, however, isn’t something I can reconcile myself to.

Firstly, What Is The Paleo Diet?

The theory goes, people were mostly hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic age. So, they ate whatever they could kill, and everything was eaten fresh.

It launches in upon the assumption that modern dating methods are entirely accurate. So, with a hop, skip, and a jump, we’re to assume that the world is millions of years old. Now, for most people this is fine, but for the more skeptical, that’s not an assumption everyone is willing to make.

Robb Wolf illustrates it using a 100-yard football field. The first 99.5 yards are how long homo-sapiens spent as hunter-gatherers. In this time, the bodies adapted to a hunter-gather lifestyle.  The last half-yard represents our species after the agricultural revolution, where the diet changed significantly, but our genetics didn’t have time to.

According to Paleo supporters, our bodies are adapted to eating meat, vegetables and seasonal fruits (that’s the 99.5 yards), whereas now we load up on grains (that’s the last half yard). If this is your logic, it’s easy to think we simply haven’t adjusted or evolved sufficiently to cope with the change, hence today’s health problems.

What they don’t tell you, though, is that this is all pure assumption, or presumption at best. And even where ‘evidence’ is presented, it’s a bit shaky.

Let me be clear, it is not my aim to promote a grain-heavy diet here. But, if you don’t automatically assume we’ve been around for millions of years, the Paleo philosophy is fundamentally flawed from the outset.

So, what foods are recommended on the Paleo diet?

Here’s a quick rundown of what Paleo followers eat, taken from Robb Wolf and “The Paleo Solution” quick start guide.

The majority of your meals look something like this:

  • 4-8 oz of lean protein such as chicken, lean beef, turkey, pork loin or seafood.
  • Several servings of vegetables, either raw, steamed, or lightly cooked.
  • Finally, round out the meal with good fats from avocado, olive oil, or a handful of un-salted nuts such as almonds, pecans, macadamias or walnuts.

Keypoints:

  • Protein at every meal.
  • 3-4 meals per day.
  • Limit fruit to 1 serving, if fat loss is your goal.
  • Limit nuts to 1-2 oz, if fat loss is your goal.
  • Beverages are coffee, tea, mineral water. Unsweetened, this includes stevia.

Personally, I don’t think there’s much to argue about with the above advice. Although, it certainly isn’t something new, or unique to the Paleo diet.

A diet that’s rich in whole, unprocessed foods, avoids sugar, too many grains, and processed, cultivated, or packaged foods; that can’t be bad, right?

Right… well, sort of!

Impossible To Know What Paleo Man Ate

As I’ve said, a lot of the dietary advice recommended by Paleo followers, I agree with wholeheartedly.

However, calling it “Paleo” is something I have trouble with. The truth is, we really can’t be sure what Paleo man ate.

The vast majority of studies of modern hunter-gatherers have been a description of their customs (ethnographic) in nature, and therefore they are heavily influenced by the researchers own assumptions and objectives.

Remember, the researchers try to piece together a puzzle of information about how Paleo man lived. They do this with findings such as random bowls, weapons, figures, and drawings.

This is why some historical narratives are plagued with generalizations, inconsistencies and errors.

And, the data that is detailed, shows the diet composition of hunter-gatherer groups varied considerably, ranging from an almost purely animal-based diet, to a diet very high in plant foods.

If you think about it, it’s extremely difficult to gauge what someone ate yesterday, never mind what they ate in hunter-gatherer times, without the necessary data.

Because of this, we cannot absolutely define the typical plant-animal ratio, or the macronutrient distribution of Paleo man’s diet. It is impossible without more detailed records.

Bearing that in mind, let us consider some of the specific recommendations of the Paleo diet.

1. The Paleo Diet Avoids Grains

The question of whether Paleo man ate grains, or not, is an interesting one, mainly because grains (and also vegetables and fruits) biodegrade very quickly. This means it is difficult to know for sure if they were consumed in the past.

What we do know is that grains have been found in storage bins. This suggests they had a least started to investigate farming, and the storage of grains.

According to this study, Paleo man did eat cereals (wild wheat and barley) and small-grained grasses. Another study suggests they produced their own flour.

So, to use the term Paleo in reference to grain or carb restriction appears to be factually incorrect.

Again, don’t get me wrong on this point. I am not saying a grain-rich diet is good for health. I personally believe most people could benefit from restricting these carbs somewhat (unless very active). But, to state we shouldn’t eat grains because Paleo man didn’t, appears to be a flawed logic.

2. The Paleo Diet Avoids Legumes

The Paleo diet recommended avoiding legumes because of their lectin content. The so-called ‘baddies’ are actually natural phytonutrients, that plants use as insecticides to protect themselves.

And, contrary to what Paleo advocates teach, there is evidence to suggest that lectins can be beneficial, helping to break down the membrane of cancer cells, bacteria and viruses.

In addition to this, one large study found those who ate beans up to 3 times each week, had a reduced risk of colon cancer. Legumes are also a good source of fiber, protein, and other beneficial nutrients.

For the record, foods with the highest concentration of lectins include grains, legumes, nightshade plants (like eggplant, tomatoes, potatoes and peppers), nuts, and dairy.

However, to say we should avoid legumes because of the lectin content is a bit of a moot point, since adequate soaking and cooking significantly reduces the lectin content, and most legumes are not eaten without prior cooking.

Note: see below for more on lectins.

3. The Paleo Diet Avoids Dairy

I don’t want to get into whether dairy foods are healthy, or not. That’s another topic.

My issue with this recommendation is more about the premise behind why Paleo followers avoid dairy foods.

For one reason, Paleo advocates say Paleo man did not eat dairy products before animals were domesticated.

Aside from the fact that it is extremely difficult for us to know what they ate, it is almost certain if Paleo man was fortunate enough to score a wild animal, every bit would have been eaten, including any milk, and mammary glands.

But, let’s give the benefit of the doubt and concede that drinking milk may have been initially infrequent. Perhaps only as frequent as they caught a female mammal who was feeding offspring at the time. It might not have been frequent, but it would have occurred, and they would have eaten almost everything, including the milk.

Furthermore, I find it highly improbable that Mr. Paleo wouldn’t have quickly figured out from observation that what is nutritious to a young calf or goat, may also be nutritious to him. And from such an observation, I’m sure it wouldn’t have taken him long to take advantage. But, this is just me assuming (after all, two can play that game 😉 ).

Those lectins, again

Another reason milk is to be avoided is because it contains lectins. As already noted, lectins are basically found in all plant and animal products to varying degrees. They are present in milk because cows eat foods that contain them, and they are then passed on in the milk.

This being the case, lectins are also present in meat for the same reason they are present in dairy food, that is, because the cows eat them as part of their diet.

But of course, the paleo advocate rarely brings this up. Meat is not singled out because of its lectin content, even though this ‘baddy’ is present.

Admittedly, in sensitive individuals, certain lectins can trigger an undesirable immune reaction. That is without a doubt. However, not all lectins are harmful, and not all people will have a sensitivity to them. It’s the same with eggs, a great food that paleo advocates love, yet some people are allergic to them. It doesn’t follow that everyone should avoid them, though.

The fact remains, there is little evidence that lectins present a significant problem for the majority of the population.

So, if lectins are found in all plant and animal products, and your aim is to avoid lectins, you would need to avoid all food.

Have fun with that diet.

Modern-day father of the Paleo movement, Loren Cordain, adamantly opposes all forms of dairy, mainly because of it’s link with lactose (a sugar) and casein (a protein) intolerance.

In my view, these intolerances may be a problem for some people, but lactose and casein are found in human breast milk, therefore it’s most likely we can tolerate them pretty well.

As a side note, The Maasai in Africa provide an interesting comparison. Although they are pastoralists (raised livestock, but maintained a mobile aspect in search of fresh pasture and water) as opposed to hunter gathers (food obtained from wild plants and animals), it is significant to note that milk from grass fed cows makes up a portion of their diet.

Moreover, it seems there is some flexibility on the dairy issue, though, with certain types of dairy being more acceptable than others.

So, Is The Paleo Diet Healthier?

There are many who claim the Paleo diet is extremely healthy. And, I have absolutely no doubt that following a Paleo way of eating will provide health benefits. In comparison to the diet of many in the US and UK, it would be a vast improvement.

Nevertheless, I do find some Paleo followers a little intolerant of other diets, and there is often an air which hints Paleo is the only way. I suppose that could be said of many diets.

For the most part, I agree with the overall diet that is promoted. Surprisingly perhaps, I’m not the only dietitian to think that. Check out dietitian’s Amy Kubal and Aglaee Jacob.

Getting more lean sources of protein, healthy fats, and more fruits and vegetables into our diet, as well as cutting out the junk food, is always going to be a good thing.

For some, the exclusion of dairy, grains and legumes would certainly be too restrictive, but it seems many people who try the Paleo diet out, end up modifying it to suit themselves somewhat.

Which begs the question, out of all the people on the ‘Paleo diet’, how many are really following it as suggested?

My guess is a vast majority take a much more relaxed approach, and modify it to suit themselves. But, in doing so, are they following the hunter-gatherer Paleo diet at all, or are they just eating more healthily?

I suggest that most are really just eating more healthily, which is a good thing, and I’m happy that ‘going Paleo’ has made many more health conscious.

As for the Paleo diet itself, it seems to be the diet that many are on, but few are following.

What are your thoughts on the Paleo diet? Have you tried it? What can you add to my comments?

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Comments 25

  1. Matt B

    Great article and thanks for the research on this Melanie! I’ve been hearing so many things about this paleo movement and it’s great to hear some other sides of the story. This article is definitely going in our weekly reads 🙂

  2. oceanside orthodontist

    I’ve only heard about Paleo, but I’ve never really got around in identifying the core essentials of the diet regiment. What’s the percentage of success for those people who have tried the Paleo diet?

    1. Melanie

      I’m not sure. As I mentioned in the article, people who I know following the Paleo diet usually end up modifying it to suit themselves. Then again, I’d say that happens with all “diets.”

  3. Mscott

    For the record, it’s not really accurate to refer to the Maasai as a “hunter-gatherer tribe”. They are pastoralists whose diet is not representative of the diet of paleolithic people.

      1. Mscott

        Hey Melanie,
        To my knowledge it’s pretty commonly stated that dairy consumption in any notable quantities started within the last 10 thousand years or so, after the paleolithic, making it an un-paleo food. And Mark Sisson’s diet is specifically labeled “primal”. Many consider that term to mean a paleo diet with dairy.

        I’ve haven’t seen such references to the Maasai in regards to paleo and dairy so I can’t really comment, but I do stand by my original comment. Of course, paleo diet adherents heavily debate the diary issue. Many see it as a unfairly maligned food which is acceptable based on individual tolerance.

        Cheers.

  4. Steve Parker, M.D.

    Hey, Melanie. Interesting article. Thanks for linking to those scientific articles that support your ideas.

    Regarding lactose digestion….
    Remember that after age 5, a majority of the world’s population loses the ability to digest or tolerate significant amounts of lactose. That’s not true for caucasians, particularly those of northern European extraction.

    -Steve

    1. Melanie

      Hi Steve,
      The milk issue is such an interesting topic. I have come across this study: http://www.ploscompbiol.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pcbi.1000491 I think they suggested 60% of the population can’t digest milk. Have you written any articles on this on your blog? I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on it.

      I’ve also read that in lactose intolerant people their symptoms disappear after prolonged lactose intake. The article I read referenced the studies below.

      Habte D., G. Sterky, B. Hjalmarsson.1973. Lactose malabsorption in Ethiopian children. Acta Paediatr. Scand.62:649 – 654.
      Montgomery R.K., H A. Bueller, E.H.H.M. Rings, RJ. Grand.1991. Lactose intolerance and the genetic regulation of intestinal lactase- phlorizin hydrolase. FASEB J.5:2824-2832.
      Reddy V.,J. Pershad.1972. Lactase deficiency in Indians. Am.J.Clin. Nutr. 25:114 – 119.
      Scrimshaw N.S., E.B. Murray.1988. The acceptability of milk and milk products in populations with a high prevalence of lactose intolerance. Am. J. Clin. Nutr.48 (suppl.): 1083 – 1159.

      What is your stance on eating dairy sources that are fermented?

        1. Lauren

          As I understand it, this is simply the body getting overwhelmed and giving up on reacting in a distinct way, rather than “tolerating” per se. Those who strictly eliminate dairy for 30 days may or may not find that they are able to reintroduce it without ill effect. Personally, I find that (especially during pregnancy) I can handle raw, whole milk to a limited degree, and fully fermented or aged dairy. Others report better luck with non-bovine milks or those from cattle producing A2 milk (specifically Guernseys) though the latter is heavily disputed anecdotally and utterly absent from the literature.

          Paleo is, in my opinion, first and foremost about food quality. More and more we are seeing the leading voices move away from the term paleo towards less polarising terms while maintaining this ‘close to the source’ focus. There are increasing connections to the Weston Price Foundation and even (at least on topics of food politics) veganism. To me the attraction of the paleo community is the willingness to question and the drive for understanding. In my reading there is little tolerance for dogma (even the paleo-boot-camp Whole30 is ultimately about cleansing your body and palatte to see what ground zero – but nothing less – looks and feels like before experimenting with reintroducing foods) although, as Dr. Mark points out, sometimes the simple guidelines are all people are willing to take on and hey, if the label leads to results, it’s all good. You could call it the no white diet, or JERF (just eat real food), but “paleo” seems to encapsulate the main points in a way people can remember and adhere to.

          1. Melanie

            Hi Lauren,
            Thanks for sharing your thoughts. One reason I find the Paleo community so fascinating is that it focuses so much on improving health, rather than being a quick fix diet to lose some weight. Very different to most of the plans which have dominated the market in recent years.

  5. Richard

    I have been on a “Paleo” diet for about three years. To me that means eating more saturated fat from meat and coconut oil and eggs and shellfish (and considering that as the main source of energy and nutrition), eating green vegetables often, minimizing carbs from grains (now mainly rice), avoiding as much as possible vegetable oils (soybean, corn, etc), and not eating fructose unless consumed as part of a fruit. Wheat is completely out of the equation due to the various proteins that are probably not eliminated except by sprouting or fermentation. (And who does that?)

    I was not fat to start with, at 5’8″ and 165, but I quickly lost about 10lbs. My IBS type symptoms decreased markedly, and I have no more heartburn. I probably consume about 100+ grams of carbs per day, but I have decided to see what happens if I cut back on those carb calories even further.

    I continue to drink wine and beer (low gluten variety). I try not to be extreme and convert everyone. What’s the point of looking good and feeling good if people avoid you and you don’t have any fun? Anyway, I’m 67 and I play tennis and work out six days a week, and work, and go out at night.

    In any event, “excess” protein, in relation to proper consumption of fat, will result in weight gain, so I disagree with the idea of low-fat cuts of meat. You don’t get fat from eating fat. You can only eat so much fat and then you feel very full. It’s not eating fat that makes and keeps you hungry.

    As for the idea that primitive man had a particular diet, you have to consider how much work and time it took to gather (catch?) and prepare (cook?) food. And primitive people in different places had to eat different things. Probably very few locations provided the ideal diet. But that may also have limited the success of those cultures, and may have made them search for alternative food sources.

    However, in that 99.5 yards of existence for primitive man, they almost certainly did not have grains to eat in any significant amount. It is hardly surprising that carbs from grains (mainly wheat) cause people so much trouble, and that grains do not trigger “satiety” as fats do. My view is that people evolved eating a diet loaded with fats, and vegetables and all the tubers they could gather. People are omnivores, and (grain) carbs in large amounts are an incidental and emergency food source, and people are not evolved (Or we could say designed…) to over-consume that emergency food source. It’s good to be an omnivore, but it does not mean that all foods are equal.

    I recently read of the reaction of Dr. Mehmet Oz to a very reduced carb diet. He was not happy. He felt bad and gave up quickly, perhaps in just a day. Many people have that reaction. What can it mean?? It means that you have something like an addiction to carbs (no, probably not an actual addiction..) and your body doesn’t want you to quit. That reaction does not mean that your body needs carbs but rather that your body is adapted to you eating them, regardless of the bad results. It should have been a clue to Dr. Oz that his situation, in terms of his choice of foods. was not entirely within his rational control, and that the carbs had become too great a source of nutrition.

    Richard

    1. Melanie

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts in detail, Richard. It’s very interesting to read about your experiences, and also what you say about Dr Oz at the end. I personally feel a lot better on a lower carb diet, too, particularly cutting bread out of my diet. It has forced me to make sure I’m getting lots of protein and veg into my meals, rather than carb-loading at meal times, and that works really well for me.

  6. Dr. Mark

    Indeed the topic of nutrition can be very confusing. However, I try to advice my own patients with very simple rules. If it was made by nature, you can eat it. If it’s made in a factory, it’s not meant for your body. Now, there are plenty of people who would love to poke holes in this approach, but people need simplicity or they just throw up their hands and give up. Following this guide, dairy would not be on the list as the dairy we consume is not natural to our bodies.

  7. Kris

    This all sounds so good. The hard part is making it work. Eating healthy should be a priority, and it is for us to a degree, but with 3 kids, 2 working parents, and not an unlimited budget, its hard to make it work. Of course, we should have started years ago, oh well.

    1. Melanie

      Hi Kris,
      It’s not always easy, but it’s about finding what works for your personally and for your family as a whole, rather than following a plan stringently.

  8. Mahindra Raj

    Hi Melanie,
    I’m glad a lot are having interest with the Paleo Diet. I just want to add that Paleo Diet definition may differ between enthusiast. I have been an advocate for 7 years now but even as an advocate, I even go non Paleo at times (if I may, my Paleo confessions can be found in my blog: http://www.paleodietrecipes.org.uk/2012/06/my-paleo-confession.html). But it made great impact in my wellness overall and those who ask me how I do it, I just tell them “listen to your own body and see what makes it feel good”. What you said to Kris is right, it’s not easy but whatever works and whatever is best for the family.

    1. Melanie

      Thanks for sharing your link Mahindra. I love your idea of telling people to listen to their body, I think many have lost that, they don’t even know what it would be like to “feel good.”

  9. Nick

    Melanie,

    I know I am a bit late to the party but o well. I like to avoid the whole anthropological aspect of the diet and focus on the metabolic science. My biggest takeaways are these: stabilize insulin and increase insulin sensitivity, replace the majority of carbs with the healthiest fat possible, and replace current protein sources with the highest quality (grass fed, organic) protein I can afford.
    Many people say glucose is the preferred fuel, but that is not true. It is just like alcohol; the body processes it as fast and efficiently as possible to REMOVE it from our system. You could say “the body processes alcohol before glucose so it is obviously the preferred fuel,” but we all know that isn’t true.
    Managing your ratios of fat is very important i.e. omega 3: omega 6, triglycerides:hdl, ldl:hdl etc. Do all you can to reduce unstable fats (PUFA), especially when cooking.
    The cavemen did this naturally via their varied diets (whatever they may have been). The true goal is to replicate their metabolic conditions, not their exact diet. Excess glucose causes inflammation, limiting that excess glucose with healthy fat is the goal while focusing on high quality protein, fresh veggies, berries, a little fruit, nuts and seeds is the way to go.

  10. sherice veith

    Helpful article . I Appreciate the information . Does anyone know if my business could possibly get a sample a form example to use ?

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