The Problems with…Paleo

This blog post will be the first in a series looking at trendy diets and the problems with them. If you have questions about keto, that topic was covered in a past blog post that holds up well two years later. The alkaline diet has also been examined in this space already.

As for the “Paleo” diet, it’s been around for a little while now. The diet aims to mimic the food choices of our ancestors from the Paleolithic era, which is often called the “Stone Age.”

Why would we want to eat like our Paleo ancestors? The thought process behind the diet is that since we ate a certain way between 10,000 and 3 million years ago, our best food choices today are those that mimic this eating style.

The modern Paleo diet emphasizes foods that could hypothetically have been obtained and consumed during this time period, specifically hunted or gathered. There are variations of the diet, but it usually includes meats, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. It excludes all grains (including whole grains), legumes like beans or lentils, dairy, potatoes, and all processed foods.

Are there advantages to the Paleo diet? It does focus on whole foods, which is a good thing. It ideally should feature fruits and vegetables, although many Paleo followers turn it into something closer to a carnivore diet.

The list of problems, however, is much longer. The first issue is with the black-and-white exclusion of entire food groups. Without rehashing the entire argument, this approach to eating is rarely effective and is a hallmark feature of problematic and unsustainable dieting behavior.

Additionally, some of the prohibited food groups are actually very nutritious. Whole grains and legumes are actually foods we should be eating more of. As a population we chronically under-consume fiber, and these foods are some of the best sources of it available. Some people cannot digest dairy, but if you can there’s not a good reason to avoid it.

It’s also important to note that there was not a single diet for our Paleolithic predecessors. Factors like geography and climate dictated vastly different diets from one group of Stone Agers to the next. There’s no reliable way to determine what your specific ancestors were eating 50,000 years ago.

Plenty of evidence contradicts the absence of grains from the actual Paleolithic diet. Although they weren’t yet farming, anyone living in the Stone Age would have happily consumed wild grains and tubers (like potatoes).

The science of our biology also indicates that we’ve adapted quite well to eat foods that our Paleo ancestors wouldn’t have had access to. Depending on your genetics, your body produces varying amounts of the lactase enzyme to allow for digestion of the lactose in dairy. Our ancestors 100,000 years ago did not possess these biological adaptations.

There are undoubtedly certain people who will do fine on a Paleo diet long-term. But most won’t, and the main reason is that it’s unnecessarily rigid. It also excludes nutritious foods like beans that we should be eating on a regular basis. As with most diets, you can take the useful advice (eat whole foods) and discard the rest.

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