The Paleo diet is one of the more misunderstood fads in the nutrition and fitness world. People (mostly, but certainly not limited to Crossfitters) have adopted this theory without much thought, or a clear view of what “Paleo” actually is. I read the Paleo Diet book last spring and I still feel that it’s a classic example of an author trying to make the pieces fit when they really just don’t.
What, exactly, is Paleo?
Most people think that Paleo foods are any of those that can be found, unadulterated, in nature, and that the Paleo Diet is a diet that just asks us all to eat un-processed foods.
However, this is not true. In The Paleo Diet, the author is clear in excluding many, many foods to which our ancestors didn’t have access. Basically, if our native eaters couldn’t dig it up, kill it or forage for it, it’s NOT Paleo. His appeal is that our GI tracts evolved on foods eaten by our ancestors, so eating foods that they didn’t eat causes our bodies nutritional distress and dismay.
So, the “Paleo” term in the paleo diet refers to his main point, which is:
If our ancestors didn’t eat it, our bodies didn’t evolve to eat it, and therefore we shouldn’t be eating it now.
The Author Forgets His Own Main Point
Problem is, the author really can’t make his argument add up, and so to keep people on board, he includes and excludes certain foods based on criteria beyond Paleo-ness.
I just jumped on the paleo diet website and read the first article that jumped out: Why Potatoes are not Paleo. The author explains why white potatoes are very unhealthy because of their glycemic index and anti-nutrient content. However, he doesn’t address his own core criteria for his diet: were our ancestors digging up and eating white potatoes?
Well, in certain parts of the world, they likely were – potatoes grow very close to the soil’s surface. Again, this is the crux of his argument: that if our ancestors didn’t eat it, our bodies aren’t evolved enough to eat it. But, like many other foods, he appeals to criterion for wholesomeness rather than Paleolithic-ness.
Green Beans? Snow Peas? Lentils? evil. Not Paleo.
Did you know that legumes are excluded from the Paleo Diet? This includes foods like green beans, snow peas, beans, lentils, and many other widely-regarded-as-healthy foods, some which are staples in other very successful diets like Tim Ferriss’ Slow Carb Diet.
Many legumes were inaccessible to our ancestors, sayeth the Paleo author. But, they also contain certain compounds that bind other nutrients, which is his real crux for excluding them. An explanation that recognizes the shortcomings of this exclusion is found here.
But…Wine is PALEO! woo!
In ancestral times, drunk-driving arrests among cavemen were pretty few and far between, so it’s safe to say they enjoyed their wine in moderation.
In The Paleo Diet, green beans are forbidden. But, wine is given the go-ahead. Why is wine “Paleo?” Because the antioxidants and reservatrol in wine are shown in some studies to be good for you.
OK – Great. Wine has some health benefits, but our ancestors’ gastrointestinal tracts certainly didn’t evolve on it. Again, this is the author making a baseless exception to include a non-Paleo food in his diet.
Fruit is also okay, but only in moderation.
The author demonizes the fructose and overall sugar content of fruit, declaring it unhealthy. We can eat it (thank you, great leader) but only in moderation, which brings me to my next point…
…Our ancestors didn’t possess moderation.
20? 30? You’d probably carry as many home as you could, right? Right.
If you found a nut tree, how many nuts would you eat? Just a palmful, right?
No, you’d shake every last almond off that tree directly into your mouth. You’d eat until you fell asleep. A bear would probably eat you and your food baby as you slept – no moderation on Yogi’s part, either.
Thing is, the author of the Paleo diet recognizes this when he explains that you can eat all the lean meat you want on his diet; he explains that when humans killed big game, they’d gorge themselves. Well, they’d probably do the same with nearly any food cache they discovered, including fruit and nuts, which we are NOT allowed to gorge on.
Again – another example of making the pieces fit, explaining why caveman behavior on one hand (gorging on meat) tells us how we should eat, but then demonizing that same behavior with another food that he deems less healthy.
So, yeah – Moderation isn’t paleo, either.
Really, nothing about modern life is even remotely like the way our ancestors lived.
Telling us that we can eat a certain food in moderation isn’t consistent with the way our ancestors likely ate. But, it is consistent with most other diets that allow for wider food variation, as long as moderation is a staple.
Think of it this way – there are more poisons, carcinogens, toxins, etc. in the food, air and water that we consume. We’re still not dropping dead, and we are, in fact, living much longer lives than our ancestors. But, we don’t eat carcinogens by the pound, or else we would die. I’m a pretty healthy guy and I’m sure I have higher levels of lots of carcinogens than any caveman we could poll. I’m going to outlive said caveman and I’m living a good life.
Really, the amount of poisons in modern life just proves that moderation works – we can tolerate quite a lot of these bad substances and still live long, mostly healthy lives. Don’t forget that healthy eaters who exercise get cancer, too.
So, How Should You Eat?
If you want to eat Paleo and exclude tons of foods, fine – you’ll be healthier for it than the next guy who eats Cinnamon Toast Crunch (which cavemen would LOVE, by the way) and lots of processed foods as staples.
But, we shouldn’t be comparing the Paleo Diet to the American diet; we should compare it to other quality diets that emphasis healthy, natural foods. This is where the efficacy of the Paleo Diet gets foggy – does it really out-perform diets that stress unprocessed foods, but aren’t exclusionary on an ancestral basis? Probably not.
There’s little reason to eat Paleo instead of a diet that includes the same focus on whole, natural foods that come unprocessed from the earth. Will a dollop of very un-Paleo sour cream contribute to your downfall? A few potatoes or green beans? Absolutely not.
At Warbird Academy, we chose Precision Nutrition as the nutrition guide to provide to all of our clients. It’s not dogmatic, not overly exclusionary and written in layman terms by a very smart Ph.D in nutrition. Point is, there are other diets out there that won’t shame you for eating a potato or having a beer once in a while.
Once holes are poked in the argument made by Paleo-enthusiasts, and we make clear that many exceptions are made to his core argument, it’s clear that we can add most other foods in moderation…it’s a slippery slope when exceptions start being made.
- If I can drink a little wine, certainly I can eat a few potatoes, green beans and super-deadly snow peas
- Even though cavemen were bad at digging, apparently, I can still bake a sweet potato and eat it. And, my body will get a lot of nutrition from it.
- I can eat a few desserts and whatever, in moderation, and not get cancer, die, or become instantly fat or unhealthy.
- I am also permitted to not be so snotty about how amazing I am at adhering to the Paleo diet.
If I do all those things listed above, and make exceptions in moderation, is it still the Paleo Diet?
No. It’s Healthy Eating. Healthy eating existed before the Paleo Diet.
The Paleo Diet didn’t invent eating healthy, natural foods, in the same way that Crossfit didn’t invent squatting, deadlifting or weightlifting in general. It’s just a different way of organizing it. You can organize your diet in any way that best fits you, so long as you have the fortitude to withstand the scowls from the Paleo gestapo.