The Paleo Diet Craze: What’s Right and Wrong About Eating Like a Caveman

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Call it Paleo Chic. The eating habits of cavemen have never been more popular. But should we be taking menu cues from our ancient ancestors?

The protein-heavy, low-carb principles of the Paleo diet are popping up in restaurants like HG SPLY Co. in Dallas and Hu Kitchen in New York City; exotic new Paleo-inspired products such as grass-fed beef pemmican, a Native American meat paste, are hitting the shelves. And celebrities from Miley Cyrus to Kobe Bryant are reportedly avid followers.

While the Paleo diet has been around for years, it’s just now gaining some mastodon-like momentum. But many nutrition experts are not impressed. On June 3, Scientific American ran a long story that ridiculed the Paleo diet as “half-baked.” The magazine suggested that the caveman the movement was imagining—“a tall, lean, ripped and agile 30-year-old” was an invention. Though cutting down on preservative-packed processed foods was smart, the article noted, the idea that banning “any kind of food unavailable to Stone Age hunter-gatherers,” including dairy products, grains and beans, was nutritional bad-think.

Likewise, U.S. News, in its 2014 rankings of “Best Diets Overall,” announced that the Paleo diet was at the very bottom, tied at No. 31 with the Dukan diet. “Experts took issue with the diet on every measure,” the magazine scolded.

What is the experts’ beef, as it were, with the diet? When it first surfaced in academic circles in the late 1970s, and as popular diet books started emerging in the 1990s, the program was promoted as a lifestyle as well as a weight-loss method, first cousin to Dr. Atkins and the low-carb craze.

The theory behind the diet is simple: our hunter-gatherer forebears, who survived on meat and fish that was not saturated with growth-stimulating antibiotics or hormones, as well as on fresh fruits and vegetables, were on the right track until the Agricultural Revolution introduced toxins into the food chain some 10,000 years ago. So the goal is for citizens of the 21st Century to lean back—way back—and eat the way primitive people did in the Paleolithic Era, circa two million years ago.

But dieticians find its restrictive, even finicky, requirements such as sticking with very lean, pure meats and plants, unrealistic. As Scientific American put it, “The Paleo diet is founded more on privilege than on logic. Hunter-fathers in the Paleolithic hunted and gathered because they had to. Paleo dieters attempt to eat like hunter-gatherers because they want to.” Any diet that restricts certain food groups and emphasizes others isn’t balanced, these experts say, and there isn’t strong science to prove that Paleo-eaters live longer, or are healthier than those who don’t follow the diet.

Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Minnesota, has a different gripe. In her new book, “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live,” she rips apart many of the contemporary notions about our Paleolithic ancestors. “I didn’t write a diet book,” she says, “and I don’t want to tell people how to eat. But I do want people to understand evolution.”

But the Paleo crowd passionately defends its ancestral diet. Kellyann Petrucci, a nutritional clinician who is the author of three popular “Dummies” book about the Paleo lifestyle (“Living Paleo,” “Paleo Cookbook” and “Paleo Workouts), offers herself as Exhibit A of the benefits of primal habits. “I became interested in Paleo because when I hit 40 a few years back, I crashed and burned,” she says. “I was gaining weight like crazy…my skin looked lifeless, my hair started thinning and I had no energy. When I followed the Paleo template, it was clear to me that something was happening on a deep cellular level. Not only did I get myself back, but a healthier, more vibrant version.”

Perhaps the most outspoken defender of Paleodom is Chris Kresser, whose new book  “Your Personal Paleo Code” (read excerpt here)  provides a detailed road map to the lifestyle. Kresser, who practices integrative and functional medicine in Berkeley, Cal., credits the diet with restoring his own health after years of a painful digestive disease. “Today, I’m blessed with excellent health, a loving family, and a flourishing practice,” he says.

Kresser argues that science in fact supports the Paleo principles: “There is broad consensus among scientists that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed primarily meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds and starchy tubers.” He rejects the claim that the diet is too labor-intensive for the average person, or that it’s hard to find the ingredients of these ancient diets, citing a plethora of restaurants and new convenience foods such as gluten-/sugar-/soy-free beef jerky, kale chips and grain-free crackers and deserts.

In the past three years, he says he has treated 900 people in his Berkeley, California office. “My practice has been closed to new patients for most of the last two years,” he says, “because there is such a high demand for clinicians who embrace Paleo in their work.”  Kresser says that the diet is booming in popularity because “Many people experience a profound transformation in their health after switching to Paleo and they’re excited to share that with others. This has created a powerful, grassroots, word-of-mouth movement of people eager to spread the word.”

That word alone isn’t enough, however. New York City nutritionist Jennifer Andrus sees some nutritionally wise principles in the diet, such as the lean meats and fish, and fruits and vegetables, but says it’s not necessary to go to the extremes of the Paleo crowd. “It eliminates dairy, legumes and some other foods that can be healthy part of one’s diet.” While she shares the Paleo crowd’s concern about modern convenience foods and sweets, she is also worried about our present-day gluttony. “I think processed food deserves the criticism, but probably not because we haven’t evolved; more likely because we eat too much of it and most of it is nutritionally void.”

Andrus suggests a common-sense strategy, one that Kresser says in his book he can endorse. “Some people like to abide by the 80/20 rule; if 80% of your diet is perfect, there’s wiggle room for the rest,” she says. After all, “There’s a lot of space between Paleo and a crappy diet of Pop-Tarts and McDonald’s.”

85 comments
MarilynJeaneEcholls
MarilynJeaneEcholls

@pronrekichak66477  - WOW, you are the king of spam, aren't you? Thanks for being so self-centered that I cannot find any actual relevant comments. Learn some manners, please. I will not be clicking any of your links and hope no one else did - I learned 20 years ago not to click a ink from a stranger. Still a good rule of internet use. 


TIME, please hire a Mod. This is ridiculous. 

kratos1256
kratos1256

I do not see how whole grains are unhealthy. I consume tons of whole grains and am in perfect health. My blood pressure is perfect, my bad cholesterol levels are extremely low, my good cholesterol levels are extremely high, I have plenty of energy constantly, etc...I also consume meat, fish, eggs, raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc...along with some dairy occasionally (mostly because I don't care much for it). I suppose you could say I eat Paleo but with lots of grains too. The primary benefit of whole grains is for raw energy. They are complex carbohydrates that break down slowly in your body, so they do not spike your blood sugar level and hence your insulin levels. They allow your body then to utilize the protein it takes in for muscle and tissue building and repair.


I think a lot of the people who have their lives changed by Paleo is not because of Paleo itself but rather because they switch from an unhealthy diet to eating a much more healthy diet. I would bet those same people, if they were to consume a lot of whole grains and legumes in their Paleo diet as well, would find they have the exact same health benefits as pure Paleo gives them. I mean if you go from eating pizza, fried chicken, beer, cheese steaks, etc...to Paleo, yeah, you'll see some big health improvements, but it doesn't mean Paleo is a complete diet.


Also, certain people react differently to grains then others. If you are overweight and starting to eat healthy, you probably want to keep whole grains more to a minimum. On the other hand though, if you are lean, whole grains are great for energy. The article makes mention of a Paleo follower who says our ancestors ate lots of starchy tubers. Well my understanding was Paleo rejects tubers, saying they supposedly weren't available to our ancestors, so which is it?


Regarding dairy, most humans are lactose-intolerant, like most animals, because the body stops producing lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose, once breast-feeding as a baby stops. However, a certain sub-group of Africans who drink goat's milk, and white northern Europeans and their descendants, evolved the ability to produce lactase continually throughout their lives.


What this means is that going strictly by how humans were evolved to eat can get a little iffy in some areas. If humans had to switch to a certain type of food that they weren't per se evolved for, their systems over time would evolve. So, in the case of those Africans and people descended from white northern Europeans, humans are, in fact, evolved specifically to digest milk and dairy. Other humans however are not.

MarilynJeaneEcholls
MarilynJeaneEcholls

@kratos1256 Whole grains are wonderful! I am vegan and many of my nutrients and yes, protein come from whole wheat. There is a surprising wealth of god things when we eat food the way it was meant to be eaten... not stripped of its nutrients. I still don't get white bread or whatever that cruddy rice many of our Moms fed us that was devoid of nutrients.

I don't find much use in a "Paleo" diet, it seems silly to me to eat "like cavemen", but have always been a strong proponent of eating whole foods, in-season foods.... and not taking a life when the earth has so many amazing things in it that do not require an animal to suffer and or die for me. We aren't cave-dwellers. I really think this is a fad that will go the way of all foody fads. I certainly hope so, as so much flesh is in this diet. And dairy, which baffles me, since humans are the only mammals who drink the Mother's milk of another mammal (and a cow has to have just given birth to be lactating, so gee, how is it that they are lactating so often?? Heinous, really)


Absolutely no science supports your claim that we "evolved specifically to digest milk and dairy". I really encourage you to do some research and find out where that cow milk comes from, how it is so available when lactation only takes place naturally when a mother has a baby to feed. Let the baby cows have the cow milk. 

ScrittySEO
ScrittySEO

51 comments,it says at the time of posting this -  I count 35 links, the vast majority clearly to the commenters own affiliate sales page.

Pay a fortune for someone to tell you low fat, high fibre is good for you.

How with this level of idiocy we live more than twice as long as our paleolithic ancestors is a mystery to me.

The fact we live well over twice as long also tells you something. - but don't let facts get in the way of selling stuff.

StacyK.
StacyK.

Wow, very informative article. I know there is no such thing as the "perfect" diet out there, but I am going to try this Paleo diet. Currently I am looking to loose body fat and gain some muscle so I am gonna give it a shot with these Paleo recipes http://bit.ly/1A3C2YE          


I heard good review on those recipes!

tommey2008
tommey2008

Guess 1.2 billion Chinese and 900 million people living in India all white rice eating cultures for 1000's of years they have created the largest populations in the world. Asian culture in general have very low animal meat and fat content in their diet.  They seem to be doing pretty well.

OrionAntares
OrionAntares

@tommey2008 Actually white rice is generally considered the one safe grain as long as you need the carbs. It's brown and wild rice eaten in the same quantities that would be taken issue with because of the lectins in the hull.

kratos1256
kratos1256

@OrionAntares @tommey2008  Brown rice is extremely healthy. I consume tons of brown rice and other whole grains, along with meat, fish, raw and cooked vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, etc...and am in perfect health. My blood pressure is perfect, my bad cholesterol levels are very low, my good cholesterol levels are extremely high, etc...

Chi_Guy
Chi_Guy

The "Paleo" diet is a lie that keeps on giving. I feel sorry for those that have been duped into accepting this junk science. Wheat and steak have one thing in common, if you eat any one of these in excessive amounts on a regular basis you are going to die sooner rather than later. To claim that one food group is excellent and another is poison is quakery. To claim that paleo is a good thing because cave-dwellers were too stupid to come up with agriculture is insane. Vegitarians and Paleoquacks are opposite sides of the same lie-based coin. They both push junk science as fact. All things in moderation versus extreme diets is always the best solution. Anyone who belives that the paleo fad is good for their long-term health is in for a rude awakening.

btesanovic
btesanovic

@Chi_Guy You should read on chemistry on how grain protect itself from predators, and if you are eating grains than make sure you are fermenting flour at least for 24h to get rid of 80% anti nutrients (This is  how bread was made earlier  ) . Basically listen to your body, I have tried gran free diet for 10 days , WOW what a difference ...

OrionAntares
OrionAntares

@Chi_Guy Actually what they have found in meta-analysis of previous studies related to the negative effects of meat consumption is that once they correct for vegetable consumption those supposed negative effects are gone. The proposed reason for this is that grain consumption is displaying vegetable consumption in the diets to cause the negative effects of meat to present rather than be negated by the displaced vegetables. This basically explains why the 80/20 approach mentioned in the article would be as effective as a 100% approach. Only eating poorly 20% fo the time would give you time to heal.


Also, the main point of the life style isn't to not "die sooner rather than later" but to live in a healthy state while you are alive rather then entering a degenerative state when your body simply is too old to handle the damaging food you're feeding it.

MarilynJeaneEcholls
MarilynJeaneEcholls

@Chi_Guy I agree with your assessment of the Paleo "diet", but absolutely disagree and think you have perhaps missed the point of a vegan diet. For many of us, it is a moral and ethical choice to not eat animals. If people had ANY real idea of how animals who will become "food" are treated? I hope that so many would choose to be cruelty free. But we do live in a world where people think it is OK to kill innocent humans for fun, so I know it's a fool's errand to convince a stranger especially to try to eat a plant-based diet. 

DanielŠkubal
DanielŠkubal

Very good article, and I love Paleo diet from my experience however I would say everybody is different and can react to different things and raw food or any other diet is not a exception. We shouldn’t create a dogma. I can not say which diet is the best but I can say that so far raw food works the best for me since I was on normal diet, Paleo diet and now on raw food (all my allergies or even inflammation of the intestine is gone and doctors said I will be taking pills to the rest of my life). But there are definitely some negatives in regards of un-cooking, digestive problems or even right food intake in order you could get all nutrients to your body. Check out this article as well – 5 Negatives of Raw food diet below - http://www.rawmanrawoman.com/05-5-negatives-of-raw-food-diet.html


MarilynJeaneEcholls
MarilynJeaneEcholls

@GogoSolar First, you will have to convince a LOT of us that Dr Oz is not a quack. I loved him, loved his sweet spirit, wished my doctors had half of his "bedside manner". But he has just endorsed too many things that aren't safe and seems more interested in agreeing with everyone, rather than tell the truth and possibly - oh the terror - offend someone. 

csum2008
csum2008

I started the paleo diet back in 2004.  I followed it pretty strictly for about 8 years until my healthy radically turned for the worse.  I think for those that are naturally thin, the paleo can be very dangerous as you can lose too much weight and body fat.  Fortunately Matt Stone from 180 degree health shed light on the subject as to why for the first few years on paleo things seem to be better and then turn worse.  A lot to do with hormones, increase in cortisol and adrenaline which gives you "energy" however after years of doing this your body is basically stuck in flight or fight mode and you begin losing your libido, happiness, hair and sleep.  Oddly enough my testosterone levels were at an all time low of 100 while on paleo after 4 years.  Nowadays I eat a lot more freely and have brought my levels back to normal.  I guess for some, pancakes, fries and soda can be helpful.  Yeah, I'm sure I'm going to get a lot of crap for this post.  Just accept that some people react differently to certain diets.  Paleo was definitely not for me.

OrionAntares
OrionAntares

@csum2008 Something to consider also is the Paleo diet of 2004 isn't the same one of 2015, at least from what I've gathered. The current version of the diet views saturated and monounsaturated fats as healthy fats in whatever amounts you need to consume them because they are important to hormone regulation. The only fat to be limited would be polyunsaturated fats since they regulate the inflammation response of the body, you want a near 1:1 balance of omega-3 to omega-6 and you want to avoid having to cook those fats as much as possible. You also need to find the level of carbs your body needs to consume to operate properly which really is dependent upon your activity levels.

EdwardSt.Amant
EdwardSt.Amant

I have followed Dr Cordain Paleo-Diet from the time a good friend of mine died of an unexpected heart attack; he was in his sixties. At first, I did it as a 30 day test, but my youthful energy returned as I lost weight and I began following it incrementally more strictly. I was able to start a exercise program and began running. They say you don't have to be so strict; and if you are young and in good shape, that may be so, however, the thing sells itself once your on your way. It becomes a lifestyle event,see www.eastamant.com Articles, Licensed to Kill for the story of the death of my friend.