Weighing in on Paleo Diets

So my husband recently started becoming a fan of Cross-Fit, and it appears from what I have been told, that a lot of Cross-Fit cult fans are also following the Paleo Diet.  He is not following this diet (probably because I’d give him hell for it and also because being an endurance athlete, thankfully he likes his carbs), but he wanted to know what my thoughts were on this diet.  When I gave him a laundry list, he said “you should blog about it”.  So here it is….

The thing with Paleo, is that like many diets, there is some truth to it and and some logic.  It’s kind of like a religion (or politics).  You can make something sound good, have it make sense, then you can tell someone an enormous amount of lies, but they will believe you because you made a lot of sense, initially.  (Maybe that’s a bad example, but it works in my mind).   My point is, many things contain half-truths and this misleads people.

Paleo diet is based on the concept that humans have existed for thousands (hundreds of thousands, millions in some form) of years and grains were only recently introduced into our diets about 10,000 years ago.  So supporters of this diet claim that humans primarily existed on a non-grain diet, therefore, we are not meant to eat them.  You can easily see someone hearing this for the first time saying to themselves “yeah, that makes sense!  Maybe we shouldn’t eat grains!”.  Go one step further and note that the obesity epidemic is happening at a time where people are eating high-carbohydrate diets.  Now we really have a connection!  Go another step further and notice that people who go on Paleo diets, lose weight!  Bingo, we have a winner!  Well, not really…

Let me address each of these, in reverse order.  Yes, people do lose weight on Paleo, just like they do on Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig or any other diet.  When you take in less calories than you need, you lose weight!  It’s pretty simple, basic math really.  When people go on what I would term “restrictive” diets (diets that promote eliminating foods and food groups), you inadvertenly reduce your caloric intake.  For example if you normally eat a cheeseburger at lunch, but now your on paleo so you just eat the meat, you reduced your lunch by 230 calories.  Also, when people go on diets, they usually do other things to try and lose weight like increase exercise and reduce other less-nutritious foods like desserts.

Second point, grains and obesity.  In 1960, 13.4% of adults (in U.S.) were obese; in 1991, 23% were obese; and now in 2012, 34% are obese.  In a matter of 50 years, we went from 1 out of 9, to 1 out of 3.  The problem is not grains from 10,000 years ago, the problem is from something(s) taking place within the last 50 to 60 years.  People have been eating grains for a long time without obesity being an issue. 

Lastly, the point about millions of years without grains, or other forms of agriculture.  Yes, we existed on completely different diets long ago.  But the idea of evolutionary change is that species will change over time to adapt to their environment.  This change occurs because of every species’ need to continue survival.  It is possible that agriculture was invented because it was the only way to continue survival (perhaps the food normally consumed was running low, or was getting difficult to maintain and feed everyone).  Innovations develop out of human need.  Producing grains creates a large amount of calories, with nutritional benefit, with reduced amount of land compared to raising livestock.  (And to be truly Paleo, you would not consume livestock, only wild animals.  However, most Paleo dieters don’t follow this).  Remember what I stated earlier about half-truths?  Well, if you discredit agriculture, you really need to discredit any type of food discovery including cooking.  We used to eat raw animals before our ancestors discovered fire.  Therefore I would ask a Paleo supporter, “is cooked food making us fat?” (Welcome to the Raw Foods Diet…., again, half-truths).

Not every innovation is good, but most have made human lives much better.  Everything from cooking, growing crops, canning foods, vaccinations, prosthetics, etc… have allowed us to increase our life expectancy from about 19 years old (Paleolithic times) to 77 years old (today).  Oh yeah, when we lived Paleo we were lucky to make it to 20 years old.

Innovation also allowed us to discover vitamins and minerals, and how important they are to optimal health.  We have vitamins, A, D, E, K, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and more.  One vitamin, B6, serves many important functions including energy metabolism.  Without B6, you’re body could not break down stored glucose (glycogen) into available glucose for energy.  B6 is found in grains, beans, fruits and vegetables, as well as lean meats and some kinds of fish.  The Paleo diet is low in B vitamins.  One of the benefits of a balanced diet that is diverse and includes many different food groups is that each food group has a predominance of certain vitamins or minerals.  When we start removing entire food groups, we also remove a large portion of certain vitamins and/or minerals from our diets which can lead to deficiency or poor health.   

One thing I will say is that there is some truth to all of this.  But it lies in the fact that as a society, people are eating too many of the refined carbohydrates, not healthy nutrient-rich grains.  Some aspects of Paleo are good because they help people eat more whole foods and less refined foods.  This is good.  The problem is found more in the restrictive nature of the diet.  You would be better off learning the whole foods concept, but remembering that natural foods in each category bring well-balanced nutrition and optimal health.  

About Kimberly Dawson, M.S.

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