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Debunking Diets: Paleo Pros and Cons
The amount of dietary do’s and don’ts bombarding us on a daily basis may make sifting through bogus nutritional claims seem insurmountable. But have no fear — the Greatist sleuths are here to decode the latest, greatest, (and not so great) diets in our Debunking Diets Series. This week, we’re debunking the Paleo diet.
What you can eat:
Animal proteins (quality meats — preferably grass-fed — eggs, and fish). Fruits. Vegetables (except for starchy varieties). Nuts and seeds (in moderation). Healthy fats (olive oil, fish oil, avocado). Herbs and spices.
What you can’t eat:
Dairy. Grains. Legumes. Starches. Alcohol. Processed foods, sugars, and sugar substitutes.
Paleo dieters who engage in endurance events lasting 90 minutes or more can consume sweet potatoes and yams to up glycogen stores as part of training.
Per Paleo thinking, modern human digestive systems weren’t designed to handle the refined sugars, starchy carbs, grains, legumes, and dairy products that have snuck into our diets over the past 10,000 years. The consequence? A steady expansion of our waistlines and an uptick in disease rates.
Around 1975, one gastroenterologist suggested a solution: Go retro — to an era before we learned how to farm, homogenize, can, sugar, refine, fry, re-fry, and all those other techniques that make foods convenient, tasty, and bacteria-free. Since our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t seem to suffer from modern dietary-induced woes, the thinking went, we too might rid ourselves of our post-agricultural era illnesses by sticking to Stone Age meal plans.
Time to Go Paleo? — What The Science Says
It’s clear that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, omega-3, and other polyunsaturated fats improve our body’s ability to make use of food rather than store it as fat or keep it lingering in the blood stream as excess sugar  . The rationale behind eliminating starchy carbs is supported by studies finding that they spike blood sugar more severely than fructose (the sugar molecule found in fruits and veggies). And the low-carb profile Paleo adheres to does indeed dial down inflammation in tissues by altering the composition of the fatty acids they contain .
Numerous studies show diets mimicking what we think our ancestors ate can shrink waistlines and lower bad cholesterol levels  . Oh, and when we drop legumes and grains, dairy, and refined sugars, blood pressure tends to follow suit . So let's take a closer look at those three problem spots.
On Legumes and Whole Grains
But (and there’s a big "but"): Legumes and whole grains have also been shown to reduce risk of disease and improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels — not to mention decrease BMI    . So what justifies keeping them out of our bellies? Paleo proponents argue that legumes, grains, and other starches (i.e. potatoes) contain high levels of antinutrients (lectin, prolamin, phytate and saponins, for starters). These compounds, the Paleo philosophy holds, block key digestive enzymes, promote inflammation and, in some cases, lie at the root of autoimmune diseases and cancer .
Research does show that excess consumption of some antinutrients offsets our belly’s bacteria levels and puts us at risk for inflammatory diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel syndrome  . But there isn’t as much science to support cutting them out completely. Some studies suggest dietary lectins from legumes and grains may bolster good bacteria inside our tummies and aid digestion .
As for concerns that the Paleo diet doesn’t provide enough calcium, worriers take note: Dairy isn’t the only place you’ll find this mineral. Leafy greens like kale and spinach, for instance, trump milk, cheese, and yogurt when it comes to absorption of the bone-saving stuff. One cup of milk may contain 25 percent of our recommended daily calcium, but dairy’s acidity can actually cause our bodies to leach calcium from bones as a buffer to regulate blood alkaline levels, says Nell Stephenson, a nutrition and fitness coach and self-professed Paleoista. “You’re better off going with the 24 percent daily value of calcium a [one cup] serving of [cooked] spinach delivers,” since the natural alkalinity of veggies won’t necessitate stealing as much calcium from your skeleton.
Contrary to many misperceptions, “Going Paleo doesn’t mean eating all meat, all the time,” Stephenson says. (Remember: Fish and poultry are fair game.) “Only eating meat puts the body in ketosis — an atypical reliance on fat, rather than carbohydrates, for fuel. We need carbs to function, just not in the form of bread, pasta, and bagels.” That’s why Paleo endurance athletes chow down on yams pre-race, and why Stephenson emphasizes the need to eat more vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit for adequate energy. The macronutrient ratio she recommends is 40 percent carbohydrate, 30 percent protein, and 30 percent fat.
Should I Go Stone Age? — Diet Decision
Increasing your intake of vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, and lean proteins while cutting refined sugars, processed foods, and bread can lead to some serious health benefits.
But whether you want to go the whole caveman way and cut legumes, dairy, and grains is another question. Science shows this does benefit health as long as you make up for lost calcium and carbs via the right veggies and fruits. As always, speak with a nutritionist or doctor before making any drastic dietary decisions.
Have you gone Paleo? What’s been your experience?
- Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Jönsson, T., Granfeldt, Y., Ahrén, B. Department of Clinical Sciences, Lund, Sweden. Cardiovascular Diabetology, 2009 Jul 16;8:35.⤴
- A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Lindberg, S., Jönsson, T., Grantfeldt, Y. et al. Department of Medicine, University of Lund, Sweden. Diabetologia, 2007 Sep;50(9):1795-807.⤴
- Comparison of low fat and low carbohydrate diets on circulating fatty acid composition and markers of inflammation. Forsythe, C.E., Phinney, S.D., Fernandez, M.L., et al. Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut. Lipids, 2008 Jan;43(1):65-77.⤴
- Marked improvement in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyle. O'Dea, K. Diabetes, 1984 Jun;33(6):596-603.⤴
- Evaluation of biological and clinical potential of paleolithic diet. Kowalski, L.M., Bulko, J., Wydział Nauk o Zywieniu Człowieka i Konsumpcji Szkoła Główna Gospodarstwa Wiejskiego, Warszawa. Roczniki Panstowowego Zakladou Higieny, 2012;63(1):9-15.⤴
- Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Frassetto, L.A., Schloetter, M., Mietus-Snyder, M., et al. Department of Medicine, University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, San Francisco. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2009 Aug;63(8):947-55.⤴
- Cereal grains, legumes, and weight management: a comprehensive review of the scientific evidence. Williams, P.D., Grafenauer, S.J., O'Shea, J.E. Smart Foods Centre, School of Health Sciences, University of Wollongong, Australia. Nutrition Reviews, 2008Apr;66(4):171-82.⤴
- Cereal grains, legumes and diabetes. Venn, B.J., Mann, J.I. Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, New Zealand. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2004 Nov;58(11):1443-61.⤴
- Cereal grains and legumes in the prevention of coronary heart disease and stroke: a review of the literature. Flight, I., Clifton, P. CSIRO Human Nutrition, Adelaide, South Australia. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2006, Oct;60(10):1145-59.⤴
- Plausible mechanisms for the protectiveness of whole grains. Slavin, J.L., Martini, M.C., Jacobs, D.R., et al. Department of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Minnesota, St Paul. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1999 Sep;70(3 Suppl):459S-463S.⤴
- Phytate (myo-inositol hexaphosphate) and risk factors for osteoporosis. López-González, A.A., Grases, F., Roca, P., et al. Servicio de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales, Gestión Sanitaria de Mallorca, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. Journal of Medicinal Food, 2008 Dec;11(4):747-52.⤴
- Antinutritional properties of plant lectins. Vasconcelos, I.M., Oliveira, J.T. Departamento de Bioquímica e Biologia Molecular, Universidade Federal do Ceará, Brazil. Toxicon, 2004 Sep 15;44(4):385-403.⤴
- Modulation of immune function by dietary lectins in rheumatoid arthritis. Cordain, L., Toohey, L., Smith, M.J., et al. Department of Health and Exercise Science, Colorado State University, Fort Collins. British Journal of Nutrition, 2000 Mar;83(3):207-17.⤴
- Characteristics and consequences of interactions of lectins with the intestinal mucosa. Pusztai, A. Rowett Research Institute, Bucksburn, Aberdeen, Scotland. Archivos Latinoamericanos de Nutrición, 1996 Dec;44(4 Suppl 1)10S-15S.⤴
Comments Leave a comment
I don't think "debunking" was quite the right word for this post. It seems like Paleo passed with flying colors. Especially since it looks to me like the studies "proving" that whole grains and legumes are good for you actually just show that either (1) whole grains and legumes are better for you than eating crap or (2) that whole grains, legumes, and VEGETABLES are better for you than eating crap.
Greatist should apply the same rigor now in debunking the USDA food pyramid.
@julievank You mean the food pyramid that's no longer in use? I'm not sure what you're driving at.
@anonuser And their new "My Plate" bs is so much better? It's based on non-existent science. Back in the '80's the government moved to declare all fat as bad and starting pushing grains before there was any science to back it up. And, as a result, almost every nutritional study put out by a government organization has supported what the government said. But, not because the science is good, but because they have a vested interest in confirming their opinion, no matter the cost.
If think even moderate fat diets are unhealthy, then it's unethical to test them. If they think even moderate grains diets are unhealthy, then it's unethical to test them. And since their current stance is that fats are bad and grains are good, they have to test diets that prove themselves right. It's institutional cognitive bias.
Look at the macro ratios for the USDA's newest diet. It's too freaking convoluted to post it here in it's entirety. But, if you break it down it sure looks a lot like the old food pyramid. They just changed their marketing. The message is the same.
Great article hitting on the major points of Paleo philosophy. I would add two things:
1. Paleo actually has a lot of diversity within its ranks. For instance, many promote raw milk (myself included) for those without allergies to it.
2. Paleo is more than a diet. Paleo-ers, I think more than most who follow particular diets, are interested in far more than weight loss or some niche benefit to eating this way. They are interested in life as a whole, getting back to basics, and getting back to our roots -- diet is really just a part of it.
I have "gone paleo" after years being a weekday vegetarian. It's been a great move for me. I have found a lot of thoughtful people who care about not only what they eat but how they live and our future on this planet.
I honestly can't wait for 10-15 years from now when Paleo is looked back on as the fad diet that it is, the same way we look back at the Zone, Atkins, and all of the others of their ilk.
Anyone on Paleo eating all those insects our ancestors ate too? No? Anyone? I guess that doesn't sell books very well.
@anonuser what sort of nutritional philosophy do you use in your life?
@ztaylorwell My personal dietary philosophy is irrelevant, because it works *for me.* Diets like Paleo and other fads like it encourage people to jump into a dietary philosophy because someone else made a good case for why "oh it must be so!" without taking their own lives, cultures, preferences, and most importantly, individual nutritional needs and health into account. They encourage people to buy books and food based on what someone else says without thinking for themselves, eating what they enjoy and what gives their body the most healthful benefits, and balancing out their consumption with physical activity.
This is the problem, and we'll never be a healthier people until we give up this ridiculous notion that someone's book or magical diet will fix all of our very individual and very systemic problems.
@anonuser Which fad diet should I follow? The USDA's "all fat is bad, ignore that we have zero science to back this up, eat all these grains even though Crohn's, Celiac's, gluten allergies, and gluten sensitivity is on the rise" My Plate diet? Maybe we should all just be vegetarian because it's immoral to eat living things except for those pesky plants? Or maybe just whatever diet Men's/Women's Health has put out the most recently? Or maybe the Twinkie Diet is the most healthy?
You knock the Paleo Diet but lack the courage to suggest what you think is best. It's easy to criticize when you're offering nothing up.
@Staleek Tell you what. I'm a big fan of something new and novel called "eat what you want, in moderation, mostly fresh fruits and vegetables." How about that? Now I can go write a book about it and convince hundreds of gullible people that by "eating this not that" they can live longer, healthier lives when all i"m doing is making myself rich.
Sound good to you? Sound like "courage?" Stop pretending to take the high road when in reality all you're doing is reeling from having your favorite fad diet challenged. At least some of the other philosophies you mention are actually backed up by real, independent science, and not some ridiculous poorly thought-out logical "well it worked for millions of years" BS analogy. Try again.
@anonuser That's the first 2-million year old fad I've heard of
@sq 2 million years old?
Have you looked at a biology text, or a history book? See this - this right here is why Paleo is so successful: because there are idiots that take the "this is how our ancestors ate" analogy as somehow remotely applicable to modern life.
Our ancestors also lived outdoors, ate insects, didn't have electricity, and thought the earth was at the center of a universe ruled by an angry sun. Let's all head back to that thinking too!
@anonuser @sq Okay, but just remember that Paleo involves feeding our bodies, Our bodies and the genes that make them up have no thought processes. Our bodies are a direct product of our environment. An environment in which plants and animals provided the best way for us to function. It is silly to make the argument that we must go back to a certain way of thinking. If anything, new discoveries today confirm that our bodies were designed to be their best under a certain diet. In my opinion, the Paleo diet is the closest thing we have to eating the way our "BODIES" have for millions of years.
@anonuser @sq You seem intent to dismiss this way of living as a "Fad" because it's currently enjoying a popularity but have so far not presented any argument as to why it is not viable.
@anonuser I've read several books on how insects are excellent sources of protein and ideal for feeding large amounts of people especially in drought-stricken areas. If you've never tried them, they can be quite tasty.
Any anti-paleo article that starts out saying canola oil is a good fat clearly hasn't done their research AT ALL. Canola (rapeseed) is a horrible oil -- from a seed (which generally means includes anti-nutrients, because seeds generally have protection from digestion) and excessively over processed (which is always not paleo). Seeds in general are kind of so-so, as are nuts (because most have high omega 6s). Starchy vegetables are perfectly fine, unless you are trying to lose weight. Paleo is not a "diet" but a different nutritional approach, and many people who eat this way are gaining strength through better nutrition, not focusing on fat loss. So, for instance, there's a big emphasis on not eating just muscle meat but making sure to get the -- known -- much higher nutritional density of other parts of the animal (liver, heart, etc. etc.), which you don't mention.
Sorry, you blew it. I'm sure others will be along to point out errors in other paragraphs but you started to lose me at "lean" (we like healthy fat including *saturated* fat from good meat) and then had to toss canola oil in there, so whatever you're arguing against, it ain't paleo.
@beachrat I don't really know of any paleo proponents recommending canola oil, and agree it should probably be avoided.
Also, starchy foods like sweet potatoes, yams, squash, etc. can be healthy foods for people who don't have metabolic and blood sugar issues
@sq Good point about starches -- I would add that paleo typically fixes metabolic or blood sugar / insulin insensitivity issues (besides helping a person achieve healthier body composition). Therefore people just starting on paleo may definitely consider cutting sweet potatoes etc., but in the longer run can almost always add those foods back into the rotation.
Once you lick inflammation a whole lot of subsidiary issues tend to subside.
@Katherine Schreiber You're welcome! I know there's a lot of conflicting information -- as @ztaylorwell notes, it continues to evolve as the science continues to be assessed. In addition, different proponents interpret things differently, and adjust their perspectives at different rates! For instance Cordain, whom you link above, originally pushed only lean meats but after a LOT of investigation and thought (see his FAQs) has changed his position on healthy animal fats. So when researching paleo whether from curiosity or to adopt it, it's important to look at the dates of any "rules", be sure to read widely, and engage critically.
On the other hand, a simple heuristic is to rule out processed foods—being serious about what "processing" means. If you are buying a food product instead of a food, it is probably highly processed and very likely isn't the best thing you could be eating. If industrial machines processed first ingredients (grain) and then the product (bread), it's safe to say that's a long way from "natural" food.
Wrt oils in particular, concerns beyond O6/O3 balance include oxidation (especially when cooking, especially at high heats) and rancidity. Some oils will be, chemically speaking, highly oxidized and rancid before you buy them due to high heat and pressure needed to make oil out of the original substance. Not a simple matter to turn corn into grease, you know!
If the Paleo Diet fad is so healthy and responsible for brain growth, then why didn't the Neanderthals survive and thrive? They had 300,000 years in Europe following the diet to make themselves into "Einsteins!" Speaking of Albert Einstein, this is what he had to say on the subject of health and survival: "Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet." http://www.veganfitness.net/viewtopic.php?t=723 & http://nutritionfacts.org/.
@JimCorcoran I respect your choice of veganism and belief, like Einstein, that it will save the world and increase our health. As a former vegetarian, I don't think a life without animal products is, in the end, good for us or the planet. This is a tough issue, but strict veganism/vegetarianism has not been a diet followed by any society to date, and it may have more deleterious effects on our health and fertility in the long run - maybe even cause greater problems than for those who only eat meat (which by the way is a stereotype of paleo-ers). I encourage every one interested in a non-animal product diet to read some books to the contrary such as "Beyond Broccoli: Creating a Biologically Balanced Diet" and "The Vegetarian Myth," and maybe "Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food."
Paleo is bigger than meat, and if we just go around stereotyping these people by making crude comments about cavemen, we won't get far. Of course, Paleo doesn't mean adopting every ounce of our paleo ancestor's way of life -- it only uses that period as a general foundation and then adds modern science to it.
If Paleo is about anything (and it's a developing philosophy), it's about eating more real, whole, and traditional foods -- including fermented foods, raw milk, traditional eggs, more raw food, nuts, seeds, and plants -- many things we've gotten away from. Paleo has even taught me how to cook food (as in not too much). So for me, the issue is not about meat vs. no meat, but getting to a place where I really understand food - all food - especially traditional ways of eating.
@JimCorcoran By evolving into Homo Sapiens. And I'm not going to take nutritional advice from a physicist. Neither would I take a class on physics offered by Loren Cordain.
@JimCorcoran Well put. When all of the paleo people start eating insects and grubs, then maybe I'll give them some credibility. Until then, it's just another fad diet that's duped a bunch of mindless people looking for a silver bullet to fix their ills.
@JimCorcoran Neanderthals were victims of a shrinking habitat, not bad diet.
One thing I love about the Paleo philosophy is that I haven't see anyone preaching - "You should eat this way..." And I don't see anyone saying - you must buy these products to be healthy. the 'community' seems to be more of a; this is what we are doing, this, as far as we know works for humans, this is why - take it or leave it.Take it or leave it...In my personal experience Paleo trumps any other way of eating I've tried. It makes sense on so many levels. I can look back at the days I used to eat dairy and legumes and how I used fart continuously... It was awful. Farting and bloating is a key sign of something going on without digestive system. Within 2 weeks of cutting dairy my farting reduced to more socially acceptable levels, and bloating was reduced. Cutting grains, legumes and starchy carbs was the next level if clean insides. but that's just my experience. Key tip: as you rightly say, when you try paleo make sure you get plenty (LOTS) of green leaves to get your fibre, calcium and vitamins. And, if you are happy to invest that bit extra in your future health go organic, local farm, grass fed because it makes a HUGE difference!The only problem I can see with paleo is that it has a name people might confuse as a fad when the reality is that this is very innate to us.Oh, and that if everyone suddenly decided to eat like this there would be a huge number of job losses in some very unnecessary food manufacturing organizations. Though this would of course be a good thing, hopefully triggering more creativity. Kellogg's and coca cola had better get thinking about how they can use those distribution chains more effectively...@RichEats
@RichEats That's interesting, since that's EXACTLY what I see from the paleo community. Aggressive pushing of their ideology onto everyone, especially people who prefer alternative diets for their own personal health, and when medicine disagrees with them - or someone has a health condition that prohibits embracing paleo, the response is to attack medicine as some kind of "corporate monster" encouraging people to eat poorly.
It reminds me of the way people irrationally embrace homeopathy.
I eat bread, whole grains, and starchy veggies everyday and CUT BACK on my veggies and my digestive tract has never been better or my tummy flatter. It's about eating clean foods and maintaining portion control. I'm not willing to live my life feeling guilty about eating whole grain, organic bread.
There's no one size fits all answer. Each diet works differently for everybody depending on their body composition and lifestyle. More info about that here http://www.fatlosscheetah.com/fatloss/how-to-choose-the-best-fat-loss-di...
I've had a great experience with following a paleo diet/lifestyle. I studied up on the science for a while beforehand; the Paleo community and gurus share tons of free information online, and don't promote special products, just real food. For me: first, eliminating gluten cleared up my hand eczema, and then I did a strict month of paleo for trial and my digestion improved greatly. What I'd taken for granted as "normal" turned out to be not normal, and I felt better than I thought I could. I have eaten mostly this way ever since, but have been more or less flexible at different times. More than anything else, trying the paleo diet has made me more in tune with my body, noticing the effects that certain foods have on my digestion, so I can make more informed decisions.