Paleo Diet Reviews: The so-called new Paleo (a.k.a Caveman, a.k.a. Primal) eating movement isn’t all that new. It actually had its genesis in the 1970s when it was first suggested by gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin. It then tiptoed out into the health food world in 1995, with Ray Audette’s self-published book, NeanderThin: A Caveman’s Guide to Nutrition. In five years Audette sold 10,000 copies, mostly through a handful of Texas bookstores. Not exactly a movement yet.
Then, in 1999 Audette followed up with NeanderThin: Eat Like a Caveman to Achieve a Lean, Strong, Healthy Body, a spruced up version of the previous book, but this time published by St. Martin’s Press. Now Audette’s ideas were on a national stage. But the movement didn’t really take off until 2002, with the publication of The Paleo Diet, by Dr. Loren Cordain.
And by “gaining momentum,” I mean to say it exploded into the mainstream. According to Google Trends, searches for the Paleo Diet surpassed searches for vegan in 2010. For the past three years, Paleo has been the number one most searched diet on Google.
Today there are over 100 books listed on Amazon in regards to Paleo eating, Paleo cooking, Paleo lifestyle, and Paleo breathing (I made that last one up), a good portion of which have been bestsellers. Celebrities like Jessica Biel, Megan Fox, Miley Cyrus, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Matthew McConaughey swear by it.
Naturally, as the popularity of Paleo eating has grown, it has started to come under substantial scrutiny. Paleo has its share of detractors. Lots of them. Scientific American has called the Paleo diet “half-baked.” The Guardian has reported on new research suggesting the evolutionary premise of the diet is faulty. (Apparently, this stems from the discovery of grass, grains, and flowers stuck in the teeth of ancient Neanderthals.)
Perhaps most damning, US News & World Report recently ranked it dead last—that’s number 38 of 38—on its list of Best Weight-Loss Diets and number 36 of 38 on its list of Best Diets Overall. And, the influential evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk, author of Paleofantasy, calls it “misinformed.”
[Interesting tidbit: Marlene Zuk is a nifty lady. Soon after Paleofantasy was published, she gave a fascinating TED talk called “What we learn from insects’ kinky sex lives.” You should check it out.]
So, yes. This is yet another article about Paleo, precisely because there is so much information out there, pro and con, to the point that most of us don’t know who to listen to or what to believe. (Ahem. Ladies and Gentleman Welcome to the internet.) This article is an attempt to get past all the “experts don’t agree” noise and present some of the chief points of each argument.
In a nutshell, the Paleo Diet boils down to one cardinal rule: If the cavemen didn’t eat it, we shouldn’t either. This means loading up on fresh vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, fruit, and nuts. No processed foods. No dairy. No grains. No legumes. (I could go further here and say, “No Pop-Tarts…. No potato chips… No soda….” but I think you get the idea.)
[Actually one of the better guidelines I have heard is, “if it used to moo, oink, or make some other sound, it’s almost certainly paleo.” I love that.]
The theory goes like this: Throughout much of our time on the planet, we humans were hunter-gatherers eating wild game and plants. Our current genetic makeup was shaped by that lifestyle. Ten thousand years ago the Agricultural Revolution happened. Suddenly, our diets were radically changed. Yet, as human evolution is slow, we still have our ancient genes. The new diet/old genes mismatch is the root cause of high rates of obesity and other chronic diseases in the modern era.
In other words, we basically hung around for six million years eating whatever wild thing we could kill or yank out of the ground. Then along came agriculture—a mere 10,000 years ago, barely a blip on the evolutionary time scale—and all that changed. Our bodies could not adjust and our health started going to hell in a handbasket. The solution to all this is to return to the hunter-gatherer diet of yore. As Cordain explains it, eating like our Neanderthal ancestors will “put our diet more in line with the evolutionary pressures that shaped our current genetics, which in turn positively influences health and well-being.”
So that’s the premise. Now, what specifically is eating like a caveman supposed to do for you? Long story short, the claim is that you will lead a fitter, healthier and more disease-free life. Here are three of the main benefits touted.
The argument is that all of the above conditions are the result of inadequate blood sugar management, autoimmune issues, and inflammation, all of which are said to be caused or exacerbated by eating grains and legumes. By eliminating grains and legumes from the diet, these conditions should be improved or go away entirely. Again, the supporting evidence is anecdotal.
And now we move on to the naysayers, the haters, the trolls, the Debbie Downers. The bulk of criticism from the anti-Paleo crowd seems to focus on three main areas:
- The premise itself is faulty.
- It is not easy to follow.
- It ignores whole food groups.
Let’s look at this one by one.
Evolutionary biologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists are all over this one. Here are their main points:
- The notion that we are genetically programmed to thrive only under conditions that existed more than 10,000 years ago misconstrues how evolution works.
- It is not possible to recreate the diet of cavemen because every species of plant and animal consumed today is drastically different from its Paleolithic predecessor.
- The idea that cavemen were healthier, leaner, less prone to disease, and lived longer is debatable. For example, archaeologists have pointed to signs of atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) in ancient mummies.
For what it’s worth, I’m not an expert on any of those things and am willing to accept all the above as true.
This is definitely right on the money. It is not so much that it’s hard to figure out what you can eat. (Just remember the moo-oink rule.) However, in this day and age, it is very hard to completely avoid processed foods. They are everywhere and alternatives are not always available. Plus, fresh produce and meat ain’t cheap in comparison with the packaged and/or processed varieties. And finally, no milk? No cereal?? No bread???
On the other hand, I’m not sure the hard-to-follow argument is entirely fair. The truth is most diets are hard to follow. Even diet “kits” like Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem are hard to maintain after you go off the pre-packaged meals. Also, as the Paleo movement continues to gain steam, with no sign of abating any time soon, restaurants, grocers, food bloggers, and cookbook writers have paid attention and are starting to come around by providing Paleo options, recipes, and meal plans. For example, look how quickly “sugar-free” and “gluten-free” labels popped up on everything.
Well yes, that it does. The Paleo Diet completely cuts out grains and legumes. This is understandably concerning to nutritionists who believe its adherents will not get all the nutrients they need. Some nutritionists go so far as to say this makes the diet somewhat unsafe and not entirely sound.
There’s a question mark up there because it’s not so cut and dried. But for that matter, nothing really is when it comes to science and human behavior, is it? People and experts will always disagree.
For what it’s worth, I’m not sure the first two arguments are that important. Paleo adherents don’t seem to be that concerned about the evolutionary theory behind the diet or the fact that they can’t buy Mastodon or Wooly Mammoth at the supermarket. They like the diet because they believe it works for them.
Bottom line, many of the claims have not held up to scientific scrutiny. However, long-term Paleo adherents who have committed to the lifestyle say it has helped them lose weight, feel better, and alleviate their chronic ailments and conditions.