What is the paleo diet?
Here's a definitive guide to what the paleo diet is, what it's not and what critics are saying.
Tue, Nov 23 2010 at 5:04 PM
Over the last few years, a diet that Homer Simpson would dream and drool over has become increasingly popular.
No, the diet doesn’t involve scarfing down mass quantities of donuts, but it does involve eating lots of meat. Mmmm, meat. (Insert Homer’s drooling noise here).
While the “Donut Diet” hasn’t won any waistline-slimming converts yet, the Paleo diet has. Also known as the “Paleolithic” or “Caveman” diet, the Paleo diet consists of foods that many think didn’t exist before the advent of modern agriculture, which most historians say occurred around 10,000 years ago.
What’s on the Paleo diet menu? Basically, anything that flies, swims, runs and crawls, along with leafy vegetables, fruits and nuts.
Crawls? Yes, crawls. Insects were thought to be commonly eaten during the Paleolithic era, which began roughly 2.5 million years ago.
Don’t worry though, if you decide to go Paleo, you won’t have to eat any creepy-crawlies; the modern nutritional plan that is the Paleo diet allows for contemporary adaptations.
You won’t have to go hunting for a saber-tooth tiger or other wild game, although lean meats like venison and bison are highly encouraged, as is grass-fed beef.
Why go Paleo?
The theory goes that chronic wellness problems such as obesity, diabetes, stroke, hypertension, heart disease and the like all stem from modern diets.
Proponents of the Paleo diet shun all grains and even legumes (beans), citing their relatively recent invention on the human evolutionary scale. Dairy products are also avoided because animal husbandry wasn’t widely adapted until the agricultural revolution of 10,000 years ago.
Sugar, refined salt (think of table salt at a restaurant) and processed oils are also a no-no on the Paleo diet.
Those who have gone Paleo believe that modern humans are still genetically wired to thrive on the foods eaten by our Paleolithic ancestors.
Human genetics, proponents of this diet believe, have scarcely changed since our forefathers were foraging and hunting during their brief lives.
Criticism of the paleo diet
The short life span of most Paleolithic humans serves up a heaping portion of food for thought for those who question the merits of the Paleo diet.
Maybe Paleolithic people didn’t experience chronic illness because they didn’t live long enough to develop them, some opponents of the Paleo diet argue.
Mainstream health organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Heart Association are not going to jump on the Paleo diet bandwagon anytime soon. Both groups would certainly cite the high fat and high cholesterol consumption as potentially problematic.
A study by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also questions the logic of the Paleo diet by pointing out that it’s almost impossible for modern humans to acquire the wild game that Paleolithic humans subsisted on — when’s the last time you saw a glyptodont at your local market?
The study also questions if meat was indeed the primary source of fuels during the Paleolithic era. It was only near the poles that populations consumed most of their calories from flesh (think: Eskimos); elsewhere, the study’s authors contend, humans during this time received most of their nutrition from plant-based sources.
There are plenty of other criticisms of the Paleo diet. Some critics believe it’s not an environmentally sustainable model. Sure, grass-fed beef is good for us, containing healthy amounts of the essential fatty Omega 3 acid, but mass amounts of pasture-fed cattle won’t be able to feed the world’s population en masse.
Also, Cavemen were often engaged in intense physical activity like hunting and hauling boulders. Sitting at a desk all day and then conveniently going to the supermarket to buy food isn’t quite the Paleolithic experience.
Archaeological digs in Israel also refute the commonly-held belief among Paleo dieters that legumes didn’t exist during the Paleolithic era.
Despite its many criticisms, plenty of Paleo dieters have leaned up their physiques. Exercise, of course, is a critical component of their success.
So could Homer Simpson lose weight if he went Paleo? Probably, yes —i f he had the willpower to avoid the donuts. Mmmm. Donuts.
Judd Handler is a Certified Metabolic Typing Nutritionist and a graduate of the Functional Diagnostic Nutrition program. He provides complimentary wellness consultations. Email him at CoachJudd@gmail.com.