The paleo diet, also known as the “caveman” diet, has become popular in the past few years but what is it?
The paleo diet is a diet that believes that the only diet that will truly keep us healthy, and even help us lose weight, is that of what our Paleolithic ancestors ate.
The paleo diet started to gain popularity when Dr. Loren Cordain published his book The Paleo Diet in 2002, which was revised and republished in 2010. In his book, the paleo diet claims to help you lose weight and help you reach optimal health based on a diet we are “genetically designed to eat.”
What do you eat on the Paleo Diet?
The basic idea of the paleo diet is that you eat meats, fruits, and veggies. Here’s a list of things you can and cannot eat.
What you should eat:
- Meat & Fish
- Fruits & Veggies
- Raw Nuts & Seeds
- Healthy Oils
What you should not eat:
- Legumes (peas, peanuts, beans, lentils)
- Refined Sugar
- Refined & Processed Foods
Cutting out processed foods, sugar, potatoes, and other unhealthy foods and eating more meat and veggies sounds great, doesn’t it? It also seems healthy too. In fact, studies are showing that the paleo diet is healthier, compared to the current western diet, but more data is needed to provide further information and benefits. However, while studies are showing this is a healthy diet, it is not necessarily healthy for the reasons The Paleo Diet claims.
Reasoning behind the Paleo Diet
There are a few reasons why this diet works, some true and some not.
1. Eating strictly what our hunter and gatherer ancestors did will provide optimal health
The idea of eating more meats, veggies, and fruits is great but there’re a few problems with eating “strictly what our ancestors did.”
First off, our ancestors in the Paleolithic era did not all live in the same spot, let alone eat the same food. What they ate was based on what was available in their regions. This info graph shows how differently people ate.
Image source: Jen Christiansen (Scientific American)
How can we live strictly by a Paleolithic diet when people from the Paleolithic age ate different things? While scientists have been able to tell if our ancestors ate more meat or veggies, they haven’t been able to tell exactly how much of each food their diets consisted of.
2. People of the Paleolithic age were healthier
There is this idea that if our paleolithic ancestors weren’t killed by either a disease or an accident that they were healthy and could live as long as we do now. Because they didn’t have refined foods and ate “healthier,” they did not suffer from some of the health issues we have today.
Unfortunately, our ancestors did suffer from diseases, parasites, and even heart disease.
The cause of heart disease is often thought to be modern western diets. However, a study of 137 mummies from around the world showed that about 1/3 of the mummies suffered from heart disease. Regardless of the diet and lifestyle, there were signs of heart disease which now leads scientist to believe that heart disease is related to aging, not diet and lifestyle.
While the idea that eating a Paleo diet will ward off diseases, especially heart disease isn’t well supported, a study by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg showed that it can significantly lower diabetic blood sugar levels, helps lose more body fat, and can help improve blood pressure and glucose tolerance.
3. Humans haven’t evolved to eat modern foods
A lot of the foods that are eliminated from the diet are due to the idea that our bodies have not evolved to eat them. However, this is not true. We don’t even eat the same plants that our ancestors did due to the cultivation of different plants and the plants themselves evolving or going extinct. If humans supposedly haven’t evolved to eat things like grains and dairy and only to eat what was available to our ancestors, how did humanity survive?
Our bodies naturally use different organs to break down and absorb fats, protein, carbs, and vitamins. This is engraved into our system and doesn’t change very fast so bacteria in our gut adapts and changes to break down other foods that weren’t common in the paleolithic times. This bacteria also changes every time you eat, so the chances that the bacteria in our gut matches that of our paleolithic ancestors is slim.
Some mutations that have been passed down generation after generation allows us to digest certain foods such as milk. This specific mutation causes the body to continue to produce the enzymes that break down milk so that we can continue to drink milk after we are infants. Our bodies have changed and are changing to eat different things.
4. If our ancestors didn’t eat it, neither should we
Let’s break down some of the food groups the Paleo Diet eliminates.
Processed Foods & Sugars
Cavemen didn’t have Twinkies and pizza and if you talk to a doctor or a dietitian, these are things they recommend we not eat to stay healthy today. It is well known that processed foods and added sugars are not good for you. A lot of these food items have empty calories, no nutrition, and are full of chemicals and additives that are not healthy for us (some can even increase your risk of cancer!). Eliminating processed foods and things with added sugars regardless of your diet is good for you.
As discussed above, dairy is often avoided because of the idea that our bodies have not evolved to handle it. Thanks to a mutation passed down from our ancestors, we actually can.
There’s still a debate on whether or not humans should even drink milk (especially since we are not baby cows). What we do know is that milk does contain calcium, proteins, and other vitamins that are beneficial to humans.
One reason behind avoiding legumes, including peanuts, is that may of them contain anti-nutrients, such as tannins and lectins.
Anti-nutrients are compounds found in plants that prevent the body from absorbing certain vitamins and nutrients. These compounds can be reduced or even nullified by doing things like soaking, sprouting, fermenting, or cooking legumes. By doing this, legumes are safer to eat and can even be beneficial.
There’s still a debate on whether or not we should eat legumes at all, though they are full of protein, fiber, and vitamins and minerals and many say this outweighs any negatives of properly prepared legumes.
When it comes to legumes they get a negative rep in the Paleo world but it should ultimately come down to personal preference. Legumes are an important source of protein for vegans and vegetarians and a big part of cultural foods. Many people will avoid legumes or specific legumes (they are not all created equally!) because of allergies or intestinal issues.
Our paleolithic ancestors were hunters and gathers so they didn’t consume grains, right? Actually, no. A new study in Italy has found evidence of a not-so-fancy mortar and pestle being used for grinding oats. Starchy plants, from things like roots and even corn, were dried out and ground down to make bread like pita, naan, and tortillas. So our paleolithic ancestors were eating grains and bread.
However, even though our ancestors may have been eating bread, does the Paleo Diet get it right that we should avoid grains (even though our ancestors did eat grains)? Well if we go back to the first group, processed and sugary foods, then yes avoiding these processed, bleached, and chemically filled white bread and sweets are beneficial to our health. Some grains are, in fact, healthy. Whole grains can reduce the risk of certain diseases and sprouted whole grains are even better. In the study done by Dr. Staffan Lindeberg, they found a Mediterranean diet, which consists of whole grains, dairy, veggies, fruits, fish, and oils, reduced body fat and improved diabetic levels. Those in the study eating a Paleo diet had even better results, but the study also showed that whole grains don’t make things worse.
Like many things, depending on how grains are prepared can affect how healthy they may be. Whole grains can be beneficial but grains aren’t for everyone. Those with Celiac Disease and a gluten intolerance should and do avoid grains due to health issues. Many diabetics will avoid grains because they are high in carbs. Our ancestors have been eating grains for a long time but they aren’t for everyone.
Does the Paleo Diet work?
Short answer, it can but it’s not for everyone.
The diet is an interesting idea and cutting out processed and sugary foods and increasing the amount of meats, fruits, and veggies will show health improvements compared to eating the standard western diet.
The diet can work but some of the reasoning behind why we should and should not avoid certain foods is either debated or isn’t well supported. Do your own research, learn what your body can and cannot handle and modify it to fit your personal needs. Talking to a trained doctor or dietitian to make a good meal plan for you is a great option.
Just remember, no one knows your body like you do. Diets are not a one size fits all, no matter the diet.
–The Paleo problem
–How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer
–Paleo People Were Making Flour 32,000 Years Ago
–Your Digestive System and How It Works
–A Brief History of Bread
–WHAT TO EAT ON THE PALEO DIET