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Is the Paleo Diet Good?

The basic premise of the Paleo diet is to eat what people purportedly ate between 10,000 and 2.5 million years ago. There are both good and questionable aspects to this way of eating. First, here are some weak points to the premise:

  • It is extremely difficult to say what foods, and in what forms, people ate that long ago. I have read a few original source accounts of archaeology and the evidence for anything is sketchy at best. A lot of assumptions are made before coming to “conclusions.” From ancient record keeping to abnormally preserved remains, the data is sparse, as well as hard to interpret.
  • How do we know we are seeing a representative cross section of past communities? Not all climates are equally conducive to long term survivability of remains. Some civilizations have been so built over and continually lived on that “getting to the bottom” of things might be impossible.
  • People in different cultures and environments probably ate different foods. For example, even in our day and age you may hear that McDonald’s is expanding to China, but unless you have been inside one of those restaurants there, you may not realize how different the menu is from American fare. I have also been in very fancy establishments in China. Once in Shanghai, I had a very nice meal served to me in which the only food I recognized was a slice of lotus root because I had happened to live in Taipei for a while previously. The rest of the meal was so full of foreign tastes, smells, and textures that I actually could not eat. Please, don’t tell me I need to convert to a Paleo Chinese diet!  (An aside: there were some foods I became fond of in Taiwan, but there were many local favorite foods that we failed to become accustomed to.)
  • Some people define “Paleo” as pre-agarian, claiming that such tribes that fit this definition in our time have no signs of “modern” diseases. I suggest to you that it is because the unfortunate individuals with such diseases have already died. Without some of the cleanliness, surgeries, or dietary options, the weaker or injured members of their society don’t live long. Someone with diabetes has no hope. A person with a food allergy expires without anyone knowing why. Case in point: While we lived in Taiwan, someone with a shellfish allergy visited us. Taiwan is an island and they eat a lot of shellfish. We had a hard time explaining this concern to our local friends. None of them had ever heard of someone being allergic to shellfish. I have to wonder if such a susceptibility simply resulted in death early on so that no one with those genetics lives there any more.
  • The term “pre-agrarian” (meaning before farming) is used alongside the assumption that every culture went through a stage when all they did was chase wild animals around and eat the plants growing where they found them. Given the fact that a wide variety of methods for obtaining food exist now, including this “hunter-gatherer” method, there seems to be just as much reason to suppose there was the same variety in ancient times. Discrepancies in dating of ancient remains are prevalent, so there is ample opportunity to come to wrong conclusions about how old things are, further confusing the discussion of who ate what when.
  • If the assumption is made that before a certain time period all people were pre-agrarian, it is likely that any evidence to the contrary will be ignored or misinterpreted. This tendency is exhibited every day in our current affairs, such as when we are told things about economics. Scientists who specialize in studying history have just as much of a need to be cautious about assumptions as the general population and there is no reason to believe they are uniquely to be trusted.
  • It is impossible to keep separate the affects of a high activity level of a hunter-gatherer when talking about overall health.
  • If the hunter-gatherer lifestyle was truly so healthy for most people, it seems the populations of such cultures should be booming. Instead, when such tribes are encountered, they tend to be small in comparison to those who grow and raise food in greater variety. And since only the sturdiest hunter-gatherers survive, there is not much of a youthful or aging population. So much for passing on learned wisdom.

There are also some good points to the “Paleo” way of thinking about food, but these really have nothing to do with it being associated, in a marketing kind of way, with a group of people that probably never existed as described. Some of these good points still need to be examined for exact meaning of vocabulary and how they might be applied to individuals.

  • Less processed, or refined, foods are probably good. But what does that mean? Does “refining” wheat berries by crushing them and making them both more digestible and easier to use significantly change their food value.  Not everyone needs or is healthy with the same amount or kinds of “rough, raw foods.” At what point does refining something enable better storage (very important in many climates) and preparation of the food. Are all foods affected equally by “processing.” And how do different types of processing vary? Many of these types of questions get glossed over by flinging around the words “refined”, “processed”, and “natural” (probably one of the most abused words on the planet). Answers likely depend on availability of food and personal food tolerances. I, for one, can become quite ill if I eat very many raw vegetables. After experimenting with this for over 50 years, I think it is safe to conclude that cooked veggies provide me with better health since they actually stay where I put them and I am not incapacitated from eating them.
  • Cutting back on some types of food may help rein in excessive eating or nutritionally dubious snacks, but that doesn’t mean that a whole category of edibles is bad by default. The fact is, a high level of nutrition is most likely with a high variety of foods.
  • It is good to be thoughtful and develop self-control in eating habits. However, some people equate desire or cravings for certain foods with wrong choices. Maybe, instead, the body is sending signals by these desires. Maybe you are actually NOT eating enough fat or salt. Maybe you need some quick calories after that vigorous activity?
  • It is good to research and examine the information offered to us about nutrition. Especially if the government told us to eat a certain way. They are nearly always influenced by all manner of political “opportunities.” If research is being published by an “independent source,” it is wise to question who is funding the research. There is really no expert you should blindly trust, including Paleo experts. Once a person makes a name for themselves selling a certain topic, there is financial incentive to continue. There is nothing wrong with a profit, as we all need some source of living, but the age-old maxim of “let the buyer beware” is still good advice.
  • We don’t need to be held captive by what is commonly eaten in our culture. What is “common” is like what is “average.” It never truly exists anywhere. There is nothing inherently wrong with an idea because it is not what everyone else eats. Still, you have to decide how much of a food snob you are going to be. Food is an integral part of how we interact with others.
  • A diet that teaches a lifestyle mindset is at least partially on the right track. Any successful, long term advantage can only be maintained by making it normal for you. That doesn’t mean never experiment or eat for plain fun, but it does mean it is useful to evaluate eating patterns in terms of sustainability over time. This includes whether the foods are affordable, available, and palatable. Are they likely to be prepared on a regular basis.

The Paleo diet makes all the same promises that every diet does. And, like the rest, it is based on creative assumptions and malleable scientific data. If someone wants to give it a try, there will probably not be any long term harm, but it will not likely provide the key to youth and longevity any more than the other fancily named diets. An “unlabeled” diet of moderation and variety, coupled with regular activity that stimulates circulation and muscle strength, may not sound as exciting, but it will probably get the job done at least as well, with less fuss and less cost.

(Read about why healthy eating is not rocket science here.)

 

  • brad mayeux

    i do believe our bodies are “tuned” to our past.
    I have done a bit of research into early human diet, and it seems even during our hunter-gatherer stage we ate very little meat.
    in fact, it should be called “gatherer-scavenger”

    Another thing which is typically misunderstood, is that cooking probably went back much farther into our past than most people think. There has been resent research to verify this.

    Actually they have determined that brain size may have even been prompted by cooking. Giving us easier to digest foods and nutrients for the brain.

    I have been a vegetarian for 28 years, but not a strict vegan.
    and everything i am learning now pretty much backs what i eat.
    steamed and cooked veggies, fruits, some grains (usually cooked) and fish, oysters, or shrimp once a month or so.
    Needed fatty acids come from olive, sesame and other oils. Nuts, avocado, artichoke etc…

  • lauraimprovises

    Thanks for taking time to comment, Brad. I’m glad to hear that you are being thoughtful about your diet. I do have to stand by my conclusions that the data available on diets of the past is very sketchy and a lot of the claims made are based on assumptions. Also, the claims of “experts” any given year conflicts with the claims of last year (not to mention the other “experts” who disagree with them), so learning from experts is a tricky business.

  • brad mayeux

    “diets of the past is very sketchy”

    Well,, that is true, to a good extent, but rather than just being at odds with each other, sometimes they help build a larger picture.

    I absolutely agree that early man probably had different diets in different areas/cultures, and they have found several pre-human ancestors, going back to around 5-6 million years.

    There are also things like tooth wear, Isotope analysis, not to mention looking at our bodies as they compare to other animals, meat eaters and herbivores.

    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2012/07/23/human-ancestors-were-nearly-all-vegetarians/

    Especially our closest relatives, the Chimps, Orangs…

    this explains that idea fairly well…
    http://blowgun.lefora.com/topic/4322857/How-humans-are-not-physically-created-to-eat-meat

  • lauraimprovises

    If the data is just plain thin then it seems unlikely that it can build a very reliable bigger picture. As far as teeth go, there are some pretty gnarly teeth on herbivores, that look a lot like those on carnivores. Thanks again for coming by.

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