Dear Holly: Is the “Paleo Diet” healthy? -Considering the Caveman Diet
Dear Considering the Caveman Diet: the modern “Paleo Diet” became popular in the 1970s and promotes only eating meat, fish and poultry, vegetables, nuts and fruits and recommends avoiding legumes (beans), grains, dairy, refined sugars and refined oils.
Like anything, there are strengths and weaknesses. Our food looks very different than it did 10,000 years ago. You’d be hard pressed to find the same foods our ancestors ate in our modern day grocery store. Our ancestors had no oil presses for olive oil, and wild blueberries are a fraction of the size of our cultivated fruit. Cabbage, brussels sprouts, kale and broccoli are all cousins that evolved from the same plant. So while it may be fun to “hunt and gather” at your grocery store – you’re not actually finding the same food.
As a dietitian, I like that this eating plan focuses on whole, minimally processed foods. Too often we’re relying on convenience foods that are doing little to promote our health and wellness. We evolved to eat whole foods. Even the components of our food that we do not digest, such as fiber, contribute to our health and wellness. That is why an apple is a better choice than apple juice.
Another strength of this diet is that it eliminates sugar. It is to our benefit to dramatically reduce our intake of sugars and this diet does just that. The Standard American Diet is sticky sweet!
The paleo diet usually promotes eating meat from grass-fed animals; this promotes sustainable agriculture and more nutritious foods taken from these animals. Most of the meat grown these days is from a feedlot where animals are kept in close confinement, fed grains (not grass as nature intended), antibiotics and steroids. These techniques promote climate change, deterioration of our soil, poor health in the animals and poor nutrition from the meat, milk and eggs.
I, too, recommend eating meat from grass fed animals, locally whenever possible, and to consume the entire animal. In contrast to most paleo plans, I also recommend following the United Nations’ plea to consume less meat total. The paleo plans promote very high meat consumption. It is more sustainable to eat lower on the food chain – our ancient ancestors weren’t feasting on buffalo three times a day- they were also eating lizards, small fish, bugs and snails. You, too, can eat bugs – there is a company making protein bars out of ground crickets!
I have a hard time getting on board with a diet that excludes beans and legumes. Beans are chock full of nutrients, are a sustainable source of protein and fiber, taste great and are super cheap.
Advocates for this diet are excluding certain food groups. They say that grains should be avoided because of their phytates, which are “anti-nutrients” and inhibit the absorption of certain minerals. Grains do have phytates. Tannins and oxalates can also inhibit mineral absorption and can be found in tea and green leafy vegetables. Paleo advocates are probably going to recommend green leafy veggies and tea, but not grains. It is not sound science to apply principles selectively.
I am a fan of whole grains, but not of highly processed, bleached and brominated white flour. Recommendations these days are too often broad strokes that do not take into account the details. The standard American diet could do with fewer grains total, and to focus on a diverse selection of minimally processed grains – not just wheat, soy and corn, but also rice, quinoa, barley, oats and spelt. Our ancestors did eat grains. There is archaeological evidence of them eating barley 30,000 years ago.
Our bodies are meant to be omnivores, eating a diverse diet, not to be carnivores, eating only (or mainly) meat. Evidence includes our long GI tract, our inability to synthesize vitamin C and our multipurpose teeth. We can study populations around the world and find evidence of health and vitality in groups that have very different diets. There is more than one right way to do it.
What is a healthy diet? One that promotes your feelings of vitality, is kind to the environment, is diverse from day to day and across the seasons and is based mainly on plants. Can you be healthy eating a paleo diet? Probably. Would I recommend it to my clients? Probably not.
What’s your question for Holly? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information and to make an appointment to work on your goals, visit Grass Roots Nutrition, LLC and BrideBod, owned by me, Holly Larson, a Registered Dietitian. Visit me online at hollylarsonrd.com and follow us on Facebook. Have a delicious, healthy day!