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.”

23 comments
skeptic15
skeptic15

6) Legumes are fine for many people

skeptic15
skeptic15

1) Neither we, nor the foods we eat, are the same as 10000 years ago

2) We are descended from different migratory paths out of Africa - each with different diet compositions - some more grain based and others more animal protein based

3) Sustainability of animal protein consumption is an issue with current population growth

4) Insects were, and are consumed, by many humans - are they embraced by the "Paleo" community?

5) The diet works for many, predictably so, simply because of caloric reduction and eating better quality foods - if everyone prayed to a milk jug, 30-50% of people would have their "prayers" answered - does that make the milk jug "god?" By the logic of many “Paleo” advocates, it appears so

chrisdoyler
chrisdoyler

I support a diet that concurs with early man's creation of tools.

aksa
aksa

I started Paleo 3 years ago when I was newly diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. With this the diabetes went quickly into remission. Is it so hard to believe that eating a diet based on fresh produce and other foods close to nature will restore health? All I did was cut out sugar, grains and processed foods, which are all grain and sugar based anyway. The folks who will have you believe that such foods are necessary for health are – guess who – the food industry, and the governments that are financially supported by the food industry. Why else should grains and grain products occupy the largest section of the old food pyramid? These foods are what made me sick in the first place.

lbw1972
lbw1972

I am 10 weeks on the Paleo diet and I would do an infomercial for it.  I was 160lbs and 15% body fat and every afternoon I would feel tired and sluggish and unable to drag myself to the gym.  Since starting the Paleo diet, I eat more food than I ever did, but it is healthy food.  I am never hungry.  I and still 160lbs but I am now under 10% body fat.  I'm never sluggish and my workouts are booming.  So muscles are growing at about 8oz a week and fat is melting at about the same rate.  So at first the scale was disappointing me, and then I looked in the mirror after 10 weeks and I saw a reflection that looked like is did 20 years ago.  I feel 20 years younger and I look 20 years younger (except fo the eye wrinkles - diet can't fix those).  People can say what they want about this diet.  Try it for 2-3 weeks and if you feel/see a difference then you will know.  I am hooked.  This is an easy lifestyle to get used to.

mmaruca34
mmaruca34

I suggest you do your homework before so ignorantly talking about the topic.  I appreciate your views and opinions but you it would be an important edit to make that the Paleolithic Era began circa 2 million years ago, and ended just 12,000 years ago.

Rich1417
Rich1417


Andrus suggests a common-sense strategy: “Some people like to abide by the 80/20 rule; if 80% of your diet is perfect, there’s wiggle room for the rest. ” 


This makes perfect sense--for someone who has self control and has never been fat. But for the 70% of the US adult population which is overweight or obese, common sense of this sort will never work. It's actually much, much easier to exclude certain categories of food--like sugar--which fat people always eat too much of.
I think of this problem like alcoholism. It's fine for someone with no problem to drink a couple of beers now and then. But moderation does not work for alcoholics. They have to go cold turkey forever. They cannot have just one drink.
Fat people cannot just have one plate of ice cream or one bowl of sugary cereal or one candy bar. The sugar in them messes with their minds and leads to overeating of everything.
Once a person cuts out all sugar, all dairy and all gluten from his diet, it's very easy to have self-control over everything you do eat. All fat people who try to follow the advice of people who say "just eat small amounts of bad things" will go on the fat-fit-fat roller coaster the rest of their lives, until they simply give up and gain 50-100 pounds and never try again.

swierzbi
swierzbi

 This is a poorly informed article and cites generic reasons that give Paleo a bad name. It is clear that the author has not read The Paleo Diet by Dr. Loren Cordain. I'm not an expert, but I have read the book and do follow a paleo lifestyle. Here's each response to the cons of the paleo diet that the article suggests. 


1) The magazine suggested that the caveman the movement was imagining—“a tall, lean, ripped and agile 30-year-old” was an invention. This is not at all what the Paleo Diet promises. It takes evidence from the fossil record to show that our paleolithic ancestors had none of the diseases of civilization that plague us today - losing weight and looking good are just an after affect of the overall health it promotes. 
ˆ2) the idea that banning “any kind of food unavailable to Stone Age hunter-gatherers,” including dairy products, grains and beans, was nutritional bad-think. The Paleo Diet explains in detail why cutting out these groups is beneficial, probably citing at least 10 scientific studies for each that show why these foods are not optimal and actually detrimental to our health. The catch line of “any kind of food unavailable to Stone Age hunter-gatherers" is just an overused principle that is assumed about the paleo diet. Yes it is based on this, but it then explains how these foods that were unavailable to paleolithic people are physically harming us once they enter our bodies. 
3) the program was promoted as a lifestyle as well as a weight-loss method, first cousin to Dr. Atkins and the low-carb craze. In one of the first chapters of the Paleo Diet book, it describes how it is so different from the Atkins diet, how the Atkins diet is very unhealthy and illogical, and how paleo can easily become a lifestyle. 
4) But dieticians find its restrictive, even finicky, requirements such as sticking with very lean, pure meats and plants, unrealistic.Is it hard at first? Yeah. But the excuse that any diet that restricts whole food groups is just incorrect. The government’s food period is largely influenced by companies like General Mills who find it rather beneficial for Americans to believe that they need more grains than any other food group, when science clearly demonstrates why that is just not true. Nutritionists have been trained to believe that what the food pyramid says is how you should eat and therefore find it difficult to completely change their way of thinking, thus the paleo diet is labeled extreme. 

5)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”. This is true, but the Paleo diet is all about putting foods in your body that are going to let it function optimally, this includes being at the weight you should be, avoiding diseases of civilization, and feeling energized and healthy. It doesn’t say that legumes are extremely unhealthy for you and that you can never eat them, but it does say look, in comparison, protein, veggies, and fruit are clearly the best things you can put in your body nutrition-wise. It's a matter of premium vs. regular gas in your engine. You decide.  

AndrewBassett
AndrewBassett

I'm an avid Paleo fan, but that doesn't keep me away from the occasional piece of buttered bread at a fancy restaurant, or the rare rum and coke at a party. When people realize that diets are not all-or-nothing propositions, they will be much less scared by them.

theirmind
theirmind

Follow the evolution of the diet, along with changes in our ideas.

DavidNoland
DavidNoland

Either this author did not do her homework and just needed to turn something in, or her editor butchered the facts about Paleo and Kresser's views. Kresser is an integrative practitioner who takes a balanced approach to treatment, albeit ancestral-based. He's not a dogmatic paleo practitioner and is quick to point out the shortcomings of the paleo diet. One example is his use of grass-fed A2 dairy, something both the author and the nutritionist failed to understand before criticizing. While I agree with the nutritionist that processed food is nutritionally void, I don't see how that negates the idea that we haven't adapted to them. Get gluten out of your diet, then get your facts straight please.

JanHeuerCordell
JanHeuerCordell

Where did the idea come from that you eat huge amounts of meat on the Paleo/Primal diet?  Every blog that I read in the Paleo arena stresses normal amounts of the highest quality meat/protein you can afford to buy.  I've been eating Paleo/Primal for almost 3 years now, and my normal daily diet consists of regular amounts of meat/protein and 8 servings of vegetables, and 2-3 servings of fruit and healthy fats.  I have never felt better.  My IBS is gone, my blood pressure has normalized and my blood work is freaking awesome!

straydog
straydog

While I don't follow a Paleo diet, I'm very familiar with it and have been an avid reader of Paleo and Primal blogs for years. I have seen, first hand, how easy the diet is to adapt (a Primal one, anyway), and the kind of results that both regular people get, as well as athletes/personal trainers. Every single person I've ever spoke with about a Primal Diet (similar to Paleo---a little less restrictive) has loved it and have always gushed about how awesome they started to feel after adopting it.


That said, it's not for everyone. It does require work--it's a lifestyle--not a 'diet' and lumping it in with such does it a huge disservice.

KatieNieland
KatieNieland

Paleo is different for everyone who does it. Primal people eat dairy, I eat fatty meats, some eat a higher carb percentage from fruit/tubers. But 2+ years of being migraine free, IBS finally under control, husband loses 70 pounds... I'll think I'll stick with Paleo.
Also, Paleo is a lifestyle. We also focus our energy on exercise, sunlight, play, sleep, stress reduction, etc. All these articles on the 'diet' are kind of missing those factors.
Also, Chris Kresser is awesome. His blog is super great.

MelC
MelC

I now tune out articles that use "nutritionists" (and worse, "dietitians") to bring in opposing views - credentials for these jobs seem to be the adamant belief that saturated fat is "artery-clogging" and grains are "heart-healthy." They believe in the false concept of "balance," as if because all types of food are edible, we should eat them all.


Think about that last quote in the article, where someone who is paid to advise people on nutrition advocates eating crap 20% of the time over not eating crap at all. (The context was likely "if you can't stick to Paleo..." but since that's not the article's angle, it's used to provide the "common sense" that you should "balance" your diet with some bad food. (The use of "very lean meats" above tells me how little the author knows of Primal, where fats are considered a positive - in fact they're what your body burns for energy.)


I'm not full-on Primal/Paleo, but there are really strong principles there, such as eating a damn vegetable regularly, eating properly raised food (look into the profile of factory-farmed beef vs. organic pastured, they're like night and day) and staying away from what is sold to us as "grains."


I just have a hard time with the underlying but unspoken supposition that a diet based on purely natural, clean, unprocessed food is too hard, so there must be something wrong with it. 

DenaKelley
DenaKelley

I've eaten Primal (a variant of Paleo), Mediterranean, and Anti-Inflammatory style. They all have their points. I think largely the take-aways from these diets is to avoid processed foods period (which gets rid of added sugars, hormones, HFCS, dyes, etc) and eat as free-range/organic as possible to avoid hormones, antibiotics and pesticides. I do think the emphasis in Paleo/Primal on meat is too much- I find I feel best when I follow a more Anti-Inflammatory style diet which is sort of like Paleo but with a higher emphasis on plants in the diet. I do avoid wheat and corn, however- in the US those two foods are so heavily GMO that I want nothing to do with them and feel better when they aren't in my diet.

RogueHedonist
RogueHedonist

I'm into working out and lifting weights at the gym. I began around a decade ago, when I was 15. Since then I've been on a high protein diet to build muscle ( and also because it tastes so damn good). However, I've been diagnosed with high uric acid, which could lead to gout. I've been asked to stay off protein foods for a few months at least. I suggest that people interested in such high protein diets examine any possible long term side effects.

skeptic12
skeptic12

@swierzbi

1) The Paleo Diet by Dr. Loren Cordain has many scientific errors - I will let you sort those out on your own - you seem to be intellectually curious.

2) Have you mapped your ancestral DNA migration path out of Africa, say with the Genographic Project, researched the dietary habits of your specific ancestry, and matched your actual ancestry with the dietary practices of your actual ancestry and geographic regions?

3) Several friends of mine follow the "Paleo" diet - and I've seen good results - it is predictable when you consider the elimination of processed foods, caloric reduction, and better quality foods. But what is troubling, to me, is the level of animal meat consumption - in large quantities, this may be detrimental in middle age and there is "sustainability" to consider (as well as humane treatment of animals, imo).

JenniferAndrus
JenniferAndrus

@MelC  MeIC, it’s clear that you have some strong feelings on this topic, but I’d like to clarify a few things. I’m not sure why you have so much distain for dietitians; I have an MS in Clinical Nutrition from one of the best universities for public health in the country. I’m a Registered Dietitian and a Certified Diabetes Educator.

I’m open to seeing any scientific evidence that you have proving that whole grains are not heart healthy or that saturated fat in vast quantities is good for you. I never stated that just because all kinds of foods are edible, we should eat them all. I’m also confident that balance is in fact a very important concept in eating. One would put him or herself at risk by, for example, only eating grass fed beef and nothing else. If you would like to expand on the idea that balance is a false concept, I’m interested to hear what you mean.

By suggesting that there’s room for some moderation in one’s diet by using the 80/20 rule, I was certainly not suggesting that folks eat 20% of their calories from poptarts. Balance in my world refers to a balance of nutrients, not a need to balance good food with bad food. I believe you are misinterpreting the concept. The need for this “wiggle room” comes from the reality that very few people have the means or the ability to eat a 100% unprocessed diet. I have been counseling patients for 17 years and the need for moderation is a reality. I never said that there is something wrong with eating unprocessed food, but in fact, for our busy population, it’s simply a very difficult thing to do 100% of the time.

If you look at the second to last paragraph, the author shares my view that there are some sound ideas in Paleo and that I do believe processed foods deserve the criticism they get as well as the fact that I am concerned about the perils of modern convenience foods and sweets.

It’s pretty clear that you did indeed “tune out” everything that was actually said after the word nutritionist was used.

Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion, I simply want to be clear on what my advice actually means. Thank you!! 

DavidNoland
DavidNoland

@JenniferAndrus

@JenniferAndrus

Jennifer,


While I respect your education and experience, your response to Mel strongly suggests you are not keeping up with the scientific literature. While there are numerous populations that consume large quantities of grains, none of those grains contained gluten. I'm surprised you're unfamiliar with the antigenic properties of gluten and its effect on the gut microbiome, gut permeability, and the brain.


Furthermore, your comment about saturated fats suggests you are unaware of the protective properties of saturated fats, their resistance to oxidation, and their contribution to pattern A phenotype when testing for cholesterol particle size (with VAP or NMR). As you said, someone who only consumed grass-fed beef could put themselves at risk, but no one is suggesting that, and this would be primarily due to a lack of leptin, not because of saturated fats. Qualifying saturated fats as "bad" is a fading paradigm. Healthy, pasture raised animals (and their fats) provide a superior profile of micronutrients, o-3 to o-6, and conjugated linoleic acid when compared to the grain-fed, feed lot variety America has become accustomed to. I would encourage you to reexamine your views (and the data) on saturated fats (versus easily oxidized PUFAs) and the detrimental effects of gluten on the gut, thyroid, liver, and the brain.


I understand the realities you face with your clients, but in my opinion, a balance of nutrients cannot be achieved with processed foods and incomplete information. Nutrition is the only thing we have control over, and it's the lowest hanging fruit when it comes to improving our health. Educate them, demand more, and change the reality.