Prehistoric humans hunting a giant Glyptodon, one of the many now extinct animals paleolithic humans had on their extensive menu. Public domain picture.
Some days it looks like the world has gone paleo. Everywhere I go I run into people who wish they were cavemen, extolling the virtues of the paleo diet, the diet our cavemen ancestors supposedly ate. Everything has to be paleo for some people, or they won’t go near it.
Now obviously I am not a paleo adherent. I don’t believe that just because our prehistoric ancestors ate a certain way means we should eat that way. That said, I do agree with the anti-dairy stance of the paleo diet, and also agree with eating a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, I tend to disagree with the paleo position on meat eating. I also believe the term “paleo” is misleading, since most of the fruits and vegetables paleo people eat are very different from the fruits and vegetables cavemen ate(the same goes for most commonly eaten meat). For example, the wild ancestors of modern potatoes, carrots, and apples were much smaller, and a lot less sweet. Just about all the fruits and vegetables at the market are the product of thousands of years of selective breeding.
I also take issue with the extreme anti-grain position of the paleo diet. I realize that paleolithic humans ate little to no grain. According to paleo proponents, it’s not just that our prehistoric ancestors didn’t eat grain, humans as a species haven’t evolved to eat grain, even if we count the 10,000 years from the dawn of the agricultural revolution(it started in the Middle East and later spread through the rest of the world). However, does this mean we shouldn’t eat them? I eat a lot of grain(and so do a lot of other healthy people), and so far do not seem to be suffering from any of the poisonous effects and diseases grain and only grain seem to cause, according to paleo adherents.
It is refined grain and carbohydrate that is unhealthful, and should be avoided, not all grain, in my opinion. Whole grains are generally better, providing a good source of slow to digest carbohydrate along with minerals, vitamins, protein, and fiber. Yes, whole grains contain “toxins” and “anti-nutrients”, but then so does meat, and virtually all fruits and vegetables. Cooking tends to reduce some anti-nutrients and toxins.
None of my objections necessarily means the paleo diet is especially unhealthy for you. On the contrary, I think it is better than the SAD(Standard American Diet), at least when done right and you eat generous amounts of fruits and vegetables. I know many very athletic, very healthy people who follow the paleo diet religiously, and it would be hard to argue against this success. I just don’t believe meat is necessary for living a long and healthy life, or that all grains, even whole grains and legumes, should be eliminated.
In the end, and in the spirit of fairness and scientific integrity, what really matters is what the science says about the paleo diet. Is it a healthy diet? Does it prevent or reverse diabetes and heart disease? According to Lund University, Sweden, in Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study:
Over a 3-month study period, a Paleolithic diet improved glycemic control and several cardiovascular risk factors compared to a Diabetes diet in patients with type 2 diabetes.
This sounds impressive. And they were comparing the paleo diet to an already “restricted” diabetes diet that is usually prescribed to type 2 diabetes patients. And the paleo diet was the better one!
Does this mean I should go paleo? Hold on a second, let’s see how a vegan diet does when it comes to similar risk factors for diabetes and heart disease. According to George Washington University School of Medicine, Washington, DC, in A low-fat vegan diet and a conventional diabetes diet in the treatment of type 2 diabetes: a randomized, controlled, 74-wk clinical trial:
Both diets were associated with sustained reductions in weight and plasma lipid concentrations. In an analysis controlling for medication changes, a low-fat vegan diet appeared to improve glycemia and plasma lipids more than did conventional diabetes diet recommendations. Whether the observed differences provide clinical benefit for the macro- or microvascular complications of diabetes remains to be established. This trial was registered at clinicaltrials.gov as NCT00276939.
Well what do you know, a low fat vegan diet helps improve certain risk factors for diabetes and heart disease, in a similar manner to the paleo diet. And the vegan diet also did better than the standard diabetes diet. But how can this be, when these diets are practically opposites?
Paleo adherents might claim the improved health of people following the paleo diet is due to excluding grain – but how can this be if those following the vegan diet showed similar improvements and continued to eat grain? So something else is going on here. Over-consumption of grain isn’t good obviously, but this is because overconsumption of anything isn’t good. Restrictive diets(excluding grain/simple carbs or all animal foods) will show positive results if they end up limiting unhealthy calories overall.
Ultimately, if you adopt a healthier lifestyle and decrease your risk factors for heart disease and other diseases, it doesn’t matter what you call it. Just about all dietary approaches agree on one thing – eating more fruits and vegetables. Whether it is “paleo” or “vegan” isn’t as important as the results, and yes, there are in fact some “paleo vegans” out there who are vegans who do not eat grain. It would be interesting to see how their health compares to grain-eating vegans.
1) Don’t Eat Like a Caveman
2) Grits from Heaven: Why I don’t do Paleo