Eating like a caveman is all the rage. But is the Paleo diet really the (only) path to better health?
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Countless numbers of you have asked me to weigh in on the popular Paleo diet trend. To be perfectly honest, I’ve been stalling for months now, hoping that the furor would die down. It’s not that I think it’s such a terrible diet. It’s more because, from what I’ve seen on the web, Paleo dieters tend to be very intense and rigid about their philosophy—and, as you probably know by now, my approach to healthy eating is anything but rigid.
See also: How to Create Your Own Best Diet
But the Paleo diet does not seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. If anything, it’s gotten even more mainstream. So today, I’m going to wade into the fray with a short list of what I see as the primary pros and cons of this approach.
Disclaimer: If you’re a hard core Paleo enthusiast, I doubt anything I have to say here will change your mind.
What Do Paleo Dieters Eat (and Why)?
For those of you who may not be familiar with it, the underlying premise of the Paleo diet is that we should try to emulate the diet eaten by the hunter-gatherer humans who roamed the earth millions of years ago, before the dawn of agriculture and domesticated livestock. These early humans ate primarily wild-caught meat and fish, and whatever edible plants they could forage. Their diets did not include grains, legumes, dairy—or Oreos.
The argument is that our 21st-century bodies are still better adapted to this prehistoric diet than they are to the more eclectic dietary patterns that emerged later in our history, after we learned to grow wheat, cook legumes, and make cheese. Those who buy into this argument see today’s widespread rates of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes as evidence that these more modern foods are actually toxic to us.
What Do We Really Know About Paleolithic Diets?
I think there are several weaknesses in this argument. For one thing, our knowledge of what Paleolithic humans were eating and how healthy they actually were is limited. Secondly, the differences between the Paleolithic lifestyle and ours go far, far beyond the differences in our diets. Thirdly, just because a food was not eaten by Paleolithic humans, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the food would have been toxic to them. In fact, the diets of Paleolithic humans varied greatly depending on where on the planet (and when within the rather lengthy Paleolithic Era) they found themselves living. I think this illustrates that, when it comes to diet, we humans are actually pretty darned flexible. Perhaps one of our greatest survival advantages as a species is that we can thrive on variety of dietary patterns.
Lastly, I’d just point out that the foods that Paleo enthusiasts object to have been staples of the human diet for millennia. The modern epidemic of diet and lifestyle-related disease, on the other hand, has emerged within the last hundred years. Perhaps the problem isn’t that we started eating dairy and wheat, but that we started making Cheetos and Frosted Flakes out of them.
Paleo Diet Pros
OK, so much for the logic and rationale. Let’s take a look at how the diet stacks up purely from a nutritional perspective. I see two primary advantages of the Paleo diet:
You eat less bad stuff. The diet eliminates processed and junk foods, added sugars, and refined grains—empty calories that most of us are consuming in excessive quantities.
You eat more good stuff: Comprised of meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, nuts, seeds, fruits, and healthy, natural fats, the Paleo diet is super nutritious, for sure, and an enormous improvement over the standard American diet.
Paleo Diet Cons
On the other hand, if you choose to limit your consumption of animal products for ethical or any other reasons, or you’re concerned with the environmental impact of your food choices, or you have a limited food budget, or you enjoy eating a variety of cuisines and traditional foods, I think you’ll find the Paleo diet rather challenging.
I also think the diet is more restrictive than it really needs to be. Although I agree that we tend to overeat grains (especially refined grains), for example, I don’t think it’s necessary to completely eliminate grains in order to be healthy. After all, vegetarians tend to be healthier and longer-lived than the general population. Yet most vegetarians get a very large proportion of calories (not to mention protein) from grains and legumes, foods which are completely forbidden on the Paleo diet.
Take the Best, Leave the Rest
I’m not surprised that people who “go Paleo” feel pretty good—especially if they were previously eating a typical American diet. The question is whether they could be equally healthy on a less extreme regimen—because, in my experience, it takes an awful lot of commitment to stick to super restrictive diets like this for the long term. Now, obviously, if the Paleo diet were the only way to be healthy, we’d just have to rise to the challenge. But I’m not at all sure that’s the case.
Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing thing. You can go 60% Paleo if you want. I won’t tell on you! Shifting your diet to include fewer processed foods and empty calories and more whole and nutrient-dense foods sounds like a great idea. But seeing as both the scientific rationale and the long-term effects of this diet are highly speculative, I think you should feel free to modify the approach to fit your lifestyle, budget, and priorities.
Paleo image from Shutterstock