The paleo diet, and it’s followers come in for a lot of stick, but is it deserved or is it people missing the point?
When you look around at their often almost religious devotion to the diet you soon realise why ‘Paleotards’ come in for so much flack. And this is before they start preaching to you that the rice you’re eating is going to kill you.
Though they’re a mixed bunch many paloe adherents come to the diet via CrossFit, a group also known for their cultish behaviours. In fact many are just doing the diet because their coach or gym buddy told them to, and the justifications given by those coaches/training partners/etc are often shaky, and that’s being kind.
On the flip side – the arguments against – paleo can appear pretty strong, but are they right? Here’s the main ones below, and why they’re often flawed
(I’ll preface all this by saying that I actually quite like what ‘going paleo’ does for a person’s diet, but that ‘paleo’ is not the only way to eat a better diet.)
The arguments against paleo …
“The whole paleo argument is post hoc.”
This is the #1 argument against Paleo. Just because it (diet) happened to be that way doesn’t mean it’s the way it should always be, after all ack in the prehistory we also lived in caves, is this optimum? Many would argue not.
The counter to this is that we’re animals, our life and health is biology and that evolution is the underlying tenet of biology. An understanding of evolution and what that means for function within an environment can inform us as to what we should be doing.
“There is no one ‘paleo’ diet”
Again, very true. Humans spread relatively quickly to all corners of the globe. From the equator to the poles and from large land masses to the smallest most remote islands. These different environments and locations means there was a huge variety of foods on the menu.
Look around at the different populations of hunter gatherers either alive today or until very recently and you see that some eat almost entirely plant-based diets whilst other eat virtualy all their calories in the form or animals.
That said to use this as a criticism of the paleo diet is to expose your ignorance of what it is. There is no one modern paleo diet because it doesn’t really give much detail of what, or how much of it to eat.
In fact I could eat just, say, prawns, and be paleo. Would this be optimum? No, but it would be paleo.
“It’s too high in meat or fat”
This common criticism is pretty easy to dismiss. The argument often draws on the idea that paleo is a type of stoneage Atkins. Whilst research does point to some ancient diets being very high in meat the modern paleo does not prescribe an amount of meat and/or fat, or anything else. It’s more about what you don’t eat.
Some undoubtedly use ‘going paleo’ as an excuse for a rib n steak fest. Is that unhealthy? Well who knows, the last decade or two has seen a reversal on our ideas about the health implications of fat and meat, and of course context is key, are you eating that with a massive salad or vegetable oil deep fried chips?
“Hunter-gatherers aren’t/weren’t that long lived.”
Again a valid argument, with some reservations. What kills us today is not what killed paleo people. We benefit from good pre and post natal care and of course can get injuries and many diseases treated.
When talking ‘average’ lifespans you have to remember there were low because infant mortality was much higher, and having a significant percentage of your population dying at 0 or 1 really brings down your average.
Of the people that made it to adolescence and adulthood things were tough. Falling out of a tree and breaking your leg today just means you have a story to tell. 10,000 years ago it was a death sentence.
Lives were tough and physical, this meant that you had to be lucky to get to old age. The thing is though that if you look at hunter gatherer populations alive today many do make it into old age and are in incredibly good health, as compared to a typical western population.
“There are no ‘paleo’ foods”
Again hard to argue against. We’ve taken the plants and animals of those prehistoric days and over thousands of years changed them. We’ve taken animals and made them tastier and more calorie dense, boosting the levels of fats in meat. We’ve bread plants to contain more sugar and starch whilst at the same time decreasing the levels of bitter but potentially healthy phytochemicals they contain.
Through the power of selective cultivation and breeding the foodstuffs today look nothing like the ‘wild types’ they came from.
So yes, unless you’re hunting and foraging in the wild you’re not eating paleo foods, but just because there’s less phytochemicals and a bit more fat in that salad steak and salad doesn’t mean you laugh it all off and have a doughnut instead.
Though I would argue there is space for both the salads and the doughnuts, it’s about amounts.
“The Paleo Diet lacks nutrients”
The context to this argument is the prescription against whole (or any) grains, dairy and even legumes, foods that are staples in many healthful diets, such as the Mediterranean diet.
Whilst there are lower levels of a few nutrients like calcium the overall argument is a tough one to win as these three foods tend to be calorie-for-calorie less nutrient dense than paleo foods..
The modern processed versions of these foods are of course even worse, offering significantly less in the way of micronutrients, fibre and quality proteins, whilst at the same time being much more calorie dense, easier to overeat and so on.
Matt Lalonde did a lecture vid highlighting the issues.Obviously this ignores a lot of connected issues like availability etc, but you get the point. (note he’s a paleo advocate and this was at the Ancestral Health Symposium)
“Paleo is a cult and a form of eating disorder”
There’s no getting around the fact that Paleos can be a more than a little cultish, accepting the diet more are (pseudo?) scientific dogma than something they should actually think about before trying.
Paleo is of course restrictive and does make eating more difficult, and that might impact on food behaviours negatively. In fact many diet strategies share this issue. That doesn’t make the food selections themselves less healthy of course, but it is a real criticism of the diet.
Paleo is expensive and just like vegetarianism or veganism the restrictive nature of the diet puts people at greater risk of nutrient deficiencies and may impact upon long term eating behaviours and attitudes to foods.
So what can we take away from all this? I suppose it is that people like buying into things, be it a diet cult or an argument against it, and that it is important to make up your own mind given the facts, and not just some of the facts, the fact you want to hear and the ones you don’t. Some of the arguments against paleo are as boring as even the most evangelical paleo dieter, but there’s valid points on both sides.
Following a diet based on what you heard at the gym is as lazy as critiquing it based on an article you read or a conversation you had, but dismissing paleo out of hand based on criticisms that may or may not be relevant, whilst ignoring the actual prescription misses the point, i.e. the diet itself.