Go Paleo?

Paleo

What you will learn:

  • What the Paleo diet is
  • A critical analysis of its validity
  • A critical analysis of its application
  • My recommendations

Who this is applicable to:

  • Anyone considering following the Paleo diet
  • Anyone currently following the Paleo diet
  • Any cavemen that want some reassurance and guidance
  • Anyone interested in nutrition

Who should not read this:

  • Anyone who has a close, passionate heartfelt relationship with Paleo, this may hurt.

Enjoy, and please leave feedback. Unlike many, I am open to critique; it is the only way I will ever improve as a practitioner, coach and a person.

First off, apologies for the lack of blog activity over the last few months, I hope this more than makes up for the barren few months.

Ok, the Paleo diet. The diet that has become synonymous with health, and pretty much adopted as law by the sport of CrossFit, for one reason or another. The diet that is so popular that people are now investing time and effort to conjure up ways of making all time greats such as cookies and muffins, Paleo.

The Paleo diet is proposed as one of the healthiest diets of modern times, a diet that mimics the diets of our caveman ancestors. Who were apparently really healthy?

Now, before I begin I must clarify that it is by no means my intention to criticise the Paleo diet, or proponents and supporters of the Paleo diet. Rather I am going to objectively analyse the theory and application of the Paleo principles using the existing evidence-base and scientific literature, highlighting and commenting upon both its strengths and weaknesses. I think this is necessary in order to create an evidence-based scientifically sound diet. Please be open-minded.

A long, long time ago…

The Paleolithic era was characterised by men hunting their food, living active lifestyles and eating fruits and vegetables that grew on nearby trees and in nearby pastures, utilising only stone tools. The introduction of heavy machinery during the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago allowed for more intensive farming and grain production. This shift toward production of grains and intensive farming methods is believed to be responsible for the “diseases of civilisation”. It is proposed that the human genome is not adapted to the consumption of these new foods.

The Paleo diet essentially proposes that the foods common of modern times are allergens of great detriment to health. Interestingly recent research has indicated that eight major foods or food groups account for 90% of total food allergies (1). Four of those eight foods are Paleo-approved foods – nuts, eggs, fish and shellfish – seems strange, right? Just out of interest the other major allergens are milk, peanuts, wheat and soybeans.

Quite a radical ideology, although its already showing some weakness let’s discuss.

Now I’ll begin by saying that I don’t disagree that the Paleo diet does well in its promotion of various meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits and nuts, all of which when consumed within a calorie controlled diet will offer a host of health benefits over the highly processed diet so common of recent Western times.

But what I disagree with is the Paleo diets dim view of other foods. There is currently no scientific data to support the suggestion that the Paleo diet is any better than a fibre and macronutrient matched non-Paleo diet. As demonstrated by a myriad of recent peer-reviewed research papers there are great health benefits of some of the non-Paleo foods, including dairy and whole-grains, so avoidance of these foods would be detrimental to human health.

But first may I remind you that since the agricultural revolution, mankind has undertaken two more significant shifts towards being fat and lazy. Both the industrial revolution that occurred approximately 200 years ago, and the digital revolution that we are currently experiencing are characterised by significant reductions in activity and human movement, and a great upshift in food intake and availability. The industrial revolution saw men transition from man-powered machinery to hand powered sit on the seat of your pants machinery. The digital revolution marked the global introduction of the Internet and smart phones, now we don’t even have to leave the comfort of our armchair to buy a pint of milk!

Both of these periods are defined by marked shifts in energy intake and energy expenditure, resulting in a large, prolonged energy imbalance. Restaurants now compete with each other by offering slightly bigger portion sizes, that famous American catchphrase ‘would you like cheese with that’ can be directly translated to ‘would you like an extra 250 Calories with that’. Food is now available on every corner, 24-hours a day.

Do we really have to look back 10,000 years ago to find out what a healthy diet is? In truth researchers don’t accurately know what happened back then, although some researchers have made estimates (2). There is however, evidence from at least 105,000 years ago that man consumed grains and legumes (3), well before the advent of agriculture. One piece of research found a “large assemblage of starch granules” on the surfaces of Stone Age tools, suggesting reliance upon grass, grains and legumes as a dietary resource (4), further research supports this finding (3; 5).

there is also evidence of cannibalism (7). The archaeological evidence is weak, meaning researchers are solely reliant upon correlational estimates, with no idea of the frequency or amount of food, just estimates of food types.

The Paleolithic era was defined by extreme human resourcefulness. The Paleolithic people ate out of necessity, they did what they could to survive, making use of only what they could find around them. They ate with a degree of flexibility, with food choices dependent on geography, location, and the season. If they happened to stumble across a chocolate bar and a pint of milk, they would have consumed it, for sure, in a mere act of survival.

For a more detailed discussion on this debate I would suggest you watch this extremely informative YouTube video by an archaeological scientist (8). Obviously proponents of the Paleo diet are ignorant of all of this data, as it does not align well with their ideology, their story.

What’s more is and I quote from a recent piece of research “however, there is a rapid increase in population associated with domestication of plants, so although in some regions individual health suffers after the Neolithic revolution, as a species humans have greatly expanded their population worldwide”. The development of mankind actually benefitted from the domestication of plants and animals, completely contradicting the suggestions made by Paleo diet proponents (9).

Now I would agree that the overconsumption of heavily processed foods is one of the causes of the increase in the “diseases of civilisation”. But the devil is in the dosage, not the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago.

A look at the research into dietary patterns of modern times reveals…

Research has comprehensively demonstrated that humans in 2010 consumed 445 kcal more than back in 1970, where back in 1970 the average energy intake was 2,169 kcal per person per day, and in 2010 that figure was 2,614 kcal (10).

Further research has also revealed that occupation-related energy expenditure has reduced by 142 kcals since the 1960’s (11). Combined, the increase in energy intake and the reduction in energy expenditure alone has resulted in a 587 kcal positive energy balance, which over 50-years equates to a total of 10,712,750 kcal. Even with a basic understanding of the energy balance and thermodynamics it is evident that this energy imbalance is more than enough to explain the current epidemic of “diseases of civilisation”.

Interestingly, this research also concludes that the increase in energy intake appears to be more than sufficient to explain weight gain in the global population (11). They go on to suggest that for the situation to be rectified, a reversal of this trend must occur, and I quote “for the US population to return to the mean weights of the 1970’s, the increased energy intake of 350 kcal/day for children (which equates to roughly 1 can of coke and 1 snickers bar, or roughly 1 avocado for the Paleo peoples) and 500 kcal/day for adults (which equates to roughly 1 large hamburger, or roughly 1 avocado and 4 slices of bacon for the Paleo peoples) would need to be reversed”.

So the research clearly demonstrates that we eat more and move less than we did in the 1970’s. This alone is a significant finding. Applying the basic principles of the energy balance and thermodynamics it is hardly surprising that we are currently experiencing an obesity epidemic with the incidence of “diseases of civilisation” at an all time high.

Furthermore, research has conclusively demonstrated that excess weight is clearly associated with the development of many of the “diseases of civilisation”, including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, stroke, dyslipidemia, osteoarthritis, and some cancers (13). Research also concludes, and I quote “the prevalence of obesity-related comorbidities emphasizes the need for a concerted effort to prevent and treat obesity rather than just its associated comorbidities” (14). To this end any diet that aims to treat or prevent the “diseases of civilisation” should be tailored towards treating and preventing obesity. So any diet that sustains a caloric deficit consistently for long-periods will treat and prevent the “diseases of civilisation”. Complex ideologies such as those employed within the Paleo philosophy are unnecessary.

Are the grains, dairy & legumes to blame?

Proponents of the Paleo diet are wrong to suggest the population are fat and unhealthy because they are eating foods that humans are not supposed to eat. Humans are supposed to eat everything and anything they can in order to survive. Humans are supposed to be resourceful. The issue is simple. The issue is that humans now eat more, more of everything, and move less, much less. That is the issue.

Fundamentally, addressing this issue does not take radical rocket science it just takes common sense. The reversal of this current trend will result in a shift towards normal body weight and improved health in the global population.

Grains, dairy and legumes could be to blame for the rise in obesity and ill health. But not solely. An increase in their consumption has contributed to the increase in energy intake, which has resulted in obesity and ill health. But there is nothing about grains, dairy and legumes that can result in obesity and ill health when consumed within an individuals daily energy and macronutrient requirements. When portion sizes are controlled.

Strive for energy balance. That should be the message in the media.

It is easy for journalists to write compelling stories about sugar, grains and dairy being the cause of this. Something as simple as an energy imbalance would not sell newspapers, it would not make headlines and it sure as hell wouldn’t get anyone to the top of the Amazon bestseller list!

A closer look at the foods demonised by Paleo.

Paleo proponents are strongly against the consumption of dairy products, grains, gluten, aspartame and added sweeteners, there are probably many more as the list continues to grow and the list of acceptable foods narrows daily.

Without going into too much detail, dairy products do not adversely effect biomarkers of inflammation (15). Dairy products are actually considered to be some of the most nutrient dense foods in existence (16), the avoidance of dairy could actually be detrimental to health. Research has indicated that the consumption of 3 or more servings of dairy each day is associated with better nutrient status, improved bone health, lower blood pressure, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes (17, 18). Dairy products are the best provider of dietary calcium, with research indicating that that dairy products provide calcium with ensured absorption (19). A final note on pasteurisation, pasteurisation does not significantly change the nutritional value of milk (20). Pasteurisation is actually the most effective method of enhancing the microbiological safety of milk and dairy products (21).

No studies indicate any long-term health risks from consuming aspartame through drinking diet soda. Research has demonstrated that diet soda is not harmful to health, well-being, or body composition, nor do they impair fat loss or stimulate insulin release (22, 23, 24). Furthermore, the inclusion of artificial sweeteners in an energy-restricted diet did not impair weight loss (25), in fact in many cases is promoted weight loss (26).

People with medically diagnosed celiac disease, wheat allergies or gluten sensitivities should avoid gluten consumption. With large-scale research into the global population indicating that less than 10% of people have medically diagnosed celiac disease (27). But there is no evidence that having an allergy increases your risk of disease (28) and there is no evidence that gluten is detrimental to the health of any individual without any of the aforementioned diseases or allergies.

The existing evidence also clearly demonstrates that whole grain and legume consumption offers a host of beneficial health effects. Including improved blood lipid profiles, improved glucose control, reduced inflammation, and reduced risk of stroke and coronary heart disease (29).

Paleo proponents also suggested legumes and grains are best avoided because they contain phytates and oxalates, believed to be anti-nutrients. Both phytic acid and oxalic acid impair the bioavailability of certain nutrients, particularly the micronutrients. That much is true, but green leafy vegetables contain high concentrations of oxalates and nuts are a rich source of phytic acid as the table below illustrates, as such both are anti-nutrients. But Paleo hasn’t demonized them? In fact nuts and green leafy vegetables are a mainstay? In all honesty, I’m confused, this is exactly what happens when you rely on unsubstantiated, unreliable, inaccurate sources of information.

Food sources of phytic acid as a percentage of dry weight (31)

Food

Minimum

Maximum

Brazil nuts

1.97

5.36

Almonds

1.35

3.22

Oat meal

0.89

2.40

Beans, pinto

2.38

2.38

Corn

0.75

2.22

Peanuts

1.05

1.76

Wheat

0.39

1.35

Whole wheat bread

0.43

1.05

Brown rice

0.84

0.99

Chick peas

0.56

0.56

Lentils

0.44

0.50

Research has concluded that there is no evidence to suggest that an alkaline diet is protective of bone health. Further, dietary acid load does not have a measurable negative effect on bone health (31, 32).

Looking at the existing evidence it can be comprehensively concluded that soy intake is not associated with serum sex hormone concentrations (33, 34).

Research also demonstrates that a number of omega-6 fatty acids, demonized for their inflammation promoting properties, actually exert beneficial effects on inflammation and in some cases are anti-inflammatory (35, 36).

And then the fairytale turns into a comedy…

Interestingly, since the advent of the Paleo diet there have been a number of companies and organisations that have developed ‘Paleo’ versions of their respected products to take financial advantage of the cult. Take protein powders for example (37) a number of companies have been manufacturing Paleo protein powders. Pretty sure they are missing the point of Paleo?

Also, the number and prevalence of Paleo friendly recipes across the worldwide web is now astronomical, and growing rapidly. These websites are bursting with beautiful Paleo versions of typical Western foods, cookies, muffins, ice cream, you name it there is a Paleo version for it!

These acts of trying to emulate traditional Western foods just underline and highlight the reality of how the Paleo diet is just another fad diet. A slight twist on the Atkins diet with a cute little storyline, a little dose of pseudoscience and the input and support of a few high profile Dr’s.

Concluding remarks

The theoretical basis of the Paleo diet is that the agricultural revolution occurred 10,000 years ago, this represents <1% of the evolutionary timeline. The whole thing is based upon flawed logic and assumption.

It is unnecessary to look back 10,000 years to determine what a healthy diet looks like, in truth that serves little more than to create compelling copy to use in book writing and marketing. Modern times indicate that some of the longest-living, healthiest humans on planet earth consume a diet rich in non-Paleo foods. Blue zone populations, the populations with the longest life expectancy in current existence commonly consume a largely plant based diet, with no over-eating or large portion sizes, locally grown foods, carbohydrate being the predominant macronutrient, all 5 of the Blue zones consume grains and legumes, frowned upon by Paleo proponents (38). Do we really need to look back 10,000 years to find out what a healthy diet looks like when we have populations on earth at present that live extremely healthy lifestyles for over a century?

Essentially the Paleo diet provides a fantastic foundation, the focus, and emphasis on lean proteins and minimally processed foods is great, although it is far too restrictive. The weight of the current scientific literature strongly disproves many, if not all of the Paleo diet ideologies. Developing successful dietary habits requires consideration of lifestyle, taste and preference, living like a man from the Stone Age in modern times is impossible. If you wish to be a true Paleo person you must be flexible and resourceful, make the most of your surroundings. That means eating a varied diet, with predominantly fresh produce, with focus on maintaining a long-term energy balance. Fretting over whether “its Paleo” is unnecessary.

A diet does not require a name in order to be healthy.