The Paleo diet promises better health, a better looking body and increased longevity, but who says so, and why?
The Paleo Diet goes by a bunch of different names such as the caveman or stone age diet, there’s also the Primal Diet, but that’s a bit different, more on that later.
The idea behind the paleo diet is to mimic as closely as possible using today’s foods the type of diet that our ancient ancestors might have eaten, the paleo argument being that these are the types of food we’re most suited to, and as such that best support out health.
A potted history of Paleo
Paleo type eating pops up again and again through medicine over centuries, with certain doctors and health gurus promoting the approach. People like Joseph Knowles approach paleo from the lifestyle perspective and was a champion of the wilderness movement. Others like Art Devany have recently brought a more modern and ‘evidence based’ approach to the lifestyle
Paleo has been more convincingly championed in the last 15 years by the likes of Staffan Lindberg and in particular Loren Cordain who, in his role as an academic in the area of health and exercise, has done a lot to build an evidence base to the paleo argument.
In more recent years people like Robb Wolf have done a lot to champion the diet via books and other media, bringing it to the masses and offering advice on how it can be used for different goals. There’s also other closely linked approaches, kind of ‘paleo plus’ type diets, like Mark Sissons Primal Diet where certain types of ‘high quality’ non-paleo foods are allowed, such as grass fed whey and butter.
Paleo doesn’t start and end at food though, for many it’s a whole lifestyle which includes exercise, and the ‘paleo movement’ er ... movement has been catching on fast thanks to people like trainer and nutritionist Darryl Edwards.
What are ‘paleo’ and ‘non paleo’ foods
Put in it’s simplest terms paleo foods are
- Meat and fish
- Nuts and seeds
- Fruit and berries
- Many herbs and spices
Non paleo foods are
- Grains and grain based/containing foods
- Dairy and dairy based/containing foods
- Legumes including peanuts
- Processed vegetable oils
- Virtually any processed food like bacon, tuna in oil and so on.
Why would you ‘go Paleo’?
The argument goes like this: evolution, given enough time, produces an organism that is incredibly well suited to its environment. In fact it is so well suited to that particular environment that it generally doesn’t do well in other ones. A penguin for example wouldn’t like the plains of Africa any more than a vulture would like the Antarctic.
Humans, although we like to try and forget it are just another part of the natural world. Over the millions of years that we and our close forebears adapted and evolved they became dialled into a range of environments. Humans though, are highly adaptable and have been able to spread across the globe. We live in a range of habitats but a massively important part of any environment is the food you eat, and here, about ten thousand years ago everything changed.
At the start of the agricultural revolution we started to shift our diets rapidly, (as a consequence of this our lifestyles changed as well), we went from eating mostly meat, fish and vegetables with minimal dairy, grains and legumes to consuming much more of our daily calories from these foods and those based on them.
Today in fact most of our calories come from a relatively low number of different foodstuffs like rice, bread and vegetable oils that simply didn’t exist thousands of years ago. So what does this mean for us, and our health?
The Paleo argument is that this shift in foods has directly affected our health. Today there’s a range of diseases with strong links to diet and malnutrition, these include the big killers like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Paleo proponents insist that by dialling down the non ‘modern’ foods and relying on the paleo choices we’ll prevent disease developing and in some cases be able to resolve the diseases we’re already suffering from.
It is a flexible and easy way to select foods and build a diet that supports health, without the need to worry about the details like amounts of vitamins and minerals.As such they argue that it is alos easy to use and practical.
Big claims and a higher profile means more criticism.
Weaknesses and criticisms
I’ll cover these in more detail next week, but for now the main points of criticism are:
“The whole paleo argument is post hoc.”
You can’t say that just because it happened to be that way doesn’t mean it’s the way it should always be. Back in the paleolithic era we also lived in caves in fear of predators, is this optimum?
“There was no ‘paleo diet’ that was eaten.”
This is of course true, given the huge range of places ancient humans lived. The easy response to this argument is that there’s no one ‘modern paleo diet’, more likely there’s as many different paleo diets as there are paleo dieters.
“The diet is unhealthy due to its reliance on high amounts of meat.”
Again it’s true that the research supports the position that diets high in meat are an issue, but this is before we get into critiquing the research and it’s application to paleo. But anyway how much meat does a paleo diet suggest? There is no hard and fast answer
“Ancient peoples weren’t that long lived.”
It’s true, times were harsh and they died early from injury and illness, but then this ignores the modern context and the existence of medicine etc.
“There are no paleo foods.”
We’ve taken the plants and animals of those prehistoric days and over thousands of years changed them through selective cultivation and breeding so that they don’t resemble the ‘wild types’. Plants have more sugars and less bitter phytochemicals, animals contain more fats, in short we’re not eating what paleo people would have eaten.
That all said there are potential strengths in the paleo diet, but like anything it depends upon how you actually do it day-to-day. Paleo is just like any other diet, and you can mess it up or do it well.