If you’ve been wondering what the paleo diet is all about; if you’ve been following the paleo diet for any length of time; or if you’re looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle through diet: this article is for you.
First a Little Background
The paleo (“paleolithic” or caveman) diet posits that our ancestors evolved over millions of years to eat whole, unprocessed foods that they either foraged or hunted. Farming, whether it be plants or animals, is a relatively new practice, and paleo enthusiasts argue that our bodies have not had time to adapt to these “new” foods, particularly when consumed as frequently as they are today. Paleo diets encourage fruits, vegetables, wild-caught fish and seafood, and pasture-raised or wild animal proteins. Nuts, seeds, chocolate, wine and spirits, and raw honey may be consumed in moderation. Dairy, grains, legumes (including peanuts), added sugar, and all stereotypically “processed” foods are out. It’s really no wonder paleo has gone as mainstream as it has over the past year: It offers a new outlet for anyone who loved the Atkins carbohydrates-are-evil approach 20 years ago; and it conveniently fits into the recent boom in gluten-free dieters by rejecting gluten-containing grains. It in no way sought to capitalize on these popular diets (and in fact has been around for many decades), but they surely aided its momentum.
So it’s popular, but is it healthy?
Avoiding processed foods is by far the greatest component of the paleo diet. Suddenly, we’ve eliminated cakes, candy, ice cream, chips, fast food, and basically every other trigger food in the Western diet. If you followed no other tenet of the paleo diet but this one, you would be healthier. Period. More homemade meals is a happy byproduct. If you can’t rely on those quick convenience foods mentioned above, you’re going to wind up making more food yourself. Restaurants also become iffy, since the animal proteins they serve are not often pasture-raised and the fish not often wild-caught. Out of necessity, you will be cooking and prepping food more which is associated with improved health whether using paleo-friendly recipes or not. (As an aside, the more popular paleo gets, the more companies and restaurants will offer convenient paleo-friendly items, which will make this particular benefit less of a give-in.) Dairy, grains, and legumes do bother some people. These individuals may feel better when they do not consume these foods or, at the very least, when they consume them less. If you think you may react poorly to one or more of these foods, a registered dietitian can help you pinpoint them and suggest nutritious alternatives.
There are many experts debunking the accuracy of the paleo diet, but that doesn’t really concern me. Whether today’s paleo diet is The Real Deal doesn’t matter as much as carefully considering the risks and weighing them against the potential benefits. Most people can’t sustain extreme diets that label certain foods as “good” and others as “bad.” The “bad” forbidden fruit become infinitely more appetizing, until you fall off the wagon into a gluttonous, guilt-ridden binge of potato chips and Ben & Jerry’s. I’ve seen it happen with paleo. It’s not pretty. Restrictive diets risk nutrient deficiencies. Cutting out dairy removes our largest source of calcium, while beans and whole grains offer fiber, potassium, and B-vitamins, among other nutrients. It is absolutely possible to get these nutrients elsewhere, but it takes a bit more effort and a substantial amount of nutritional knowledge. Loose interpretations may miss the point. It’s true that the heart of a paleo diet is vegetable-rich, but the average individual only hears, “you can eat meat but not grains.” Thinking of paleo as an excuse to eat more meat and go low-carb is not a recipe for improved health. Another risky interpretation is going overboard on the paleo-friendly versions of non–paleo-friendly recipes, especially dessert.
The bottom line: Fit or flop?
FLOP, but not because going paleo doesn’t have its merits. There are a lot of awesome components of the paleo diet: namely, eating more vegetables; eschewing highly processed, chemical-laden convenience foods; and swapping factory-farmed meat out for wild game and pasture-raised options. However, I think we lose something when we vilify entire food groups and slap a label on ourselves, which only winds up feeling claustrophobic and divisive. Instead of “following the paleo diet,” can’t we just agree to eat more real food? Paleo, raw, vegan: they’re just splitting hairs and distracting us from the real issue: our society is completely disconnected from our food, and that’s a problem. Eat lots of vegetables. Cook more from scratch. Involve the whole family. Savor your food. Let’s stop harping on our differences, gather around the table together, and talk about all that we agree on for a change.