Going Paleo Without Really Trying
Going Paleo Without Really Trying: What Happens When You Cheat On Paleo?
By John Blasi, M.D., Ph.D.
The paleo diet is a very popular one among those interested in health and wellness, but it’s not without its critics (and even some proponents). Some people have strong opinions about the diet, which are based largely on misinformation or outright lies. I’m going to address these myths here so you don’t get burned again.
Myth #1: Paleolithic man ate only meat and vegetables.
Paleo advocates often cite the fact that our hunter gatherer ancestors lived long before agriculture existed and didn’t eat grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar or processed foods like chips or soda pop. They also claim that their diets were full of fruits, nuts, seeds and other whole foods.
In reality, they probably did eat all these things, but not in the quantities we’re accustomed to today. For example, there was no such thing as “paleo fruit” because humans weren’t eating any plants with edible seeds until after the advent of farming around 10,000 years ago. Our ancestors did eat honey and other bee byproducts, however.
They also ate a lot more vegetables than you might think.
Some archeologists and nutritionists believe that before the advent of agriculture our hunter gatherer ancestors were getting up to half or more of their food from vegetable sources. Most of this would have been in the form of wild roots, grasses and other assorted plants found in abundance in many regions throughout the world. They wouldn’t have been able to store these for use throughout the year like they could with animal products, though.
Some of these same nutritionists also believe that meat wasn’t as much of a staple in the human diet until the advent of farming. It’s certainly true now that most people around the world get more of their protein from plants than they do from animals. Excess meat consumption in the paleolithic era also would not have been a good idea for a variety of reasons.
Meat can carry a lot of harmful organisms, so most ancient hunters probably ate only the meat on an animal they killed immediately and didn’t routinely eat vast amounts of it.
The main point is that our hunter gatherer ancestors definitely ate a lot more vegetables and hardly any processed food and did so over the course of many years. That wasn’t necessarily the healthiest way to eat, though.
A lot of these same nutritionists believe that early humans were plagued by numerous nutritional deficiencies that started to become apparent only after the advent of farming. One of these was a lack of dietary cholesterol which had serious health implications for early humans who failed to consume enough sources of it. This might explain why so many people have problems with excessive cholesterol even when they eat a healthy diet these days.
Another problem was a lack of fiber in the diet. This caused digestive problems for early humans and was only remedied after someone thought to start farming.
A third potential problem is that our ancestors were lacking important vitamins and minerals that can only be obtained through meat, especially animal organs. For whatever reason, paleolithic man (and woman) didn’t eat much organs and while this didn’t immediately cause problems, it would probably have done so after several generations.
It’s important to note that none of these potential problems negates the paleo diet in general. It was just a different way of eating than we’re used to today and had its own set of nutritional issues.
The point is, it seems very odd that there isn’t more historical variation in what’s considered a healthy diet when there are so many factors that contribute to how humans invent their own methods of getting all the necessary nutrients they need to survive.
It’s obvious that our species has had many different cultural methods of going about this even within the timeframes covered by written history.
This doesn’t even take into account the hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of writing when humans were presumably doing things even differently than their predecessors.
People have already pointed out that following a paleolithic diet is probably not a good idea since we didn’t actually evolve eating that way over thousands of years. But, following a diet similar to the one our agricultural ancestors ate is also problematic for many of the same reasons.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about this is how most people tend to think that their own diets are the “healthy” ones while all others are inferior in some way.
The reality is that every diet has its pros and cons and none of them are ideal since they’re all products of a particular time and place.
What you come away with is the understanding that there is no universal “healthy diet”. There are only ones that are better or worse for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.
This is all based on the assumption that “healthy” is even a meaningful word when it comes to describing the various diets that humans have invented over the years.
There’s nothing wrong with eating healthy in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with driving a car so long as you understand that this doesn’t make you superior to everyone else who might be traveling by horse or riding a bike instead.
Ultimately, it’s about finding something that works for you as an individual even if that thing might not be the same as what your neighbor considers to be ideal.
If it makes you feel better, you could even think of what you’re doing as part of a paleolithic diet. It probably won’t make much difference to your health and might make you feel a little better about all the bread and pasta you’re shoveling into your mouth on a regular basis.
But remember, even if you find yourself following the paleo diet, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re part of the “paleo tribe”. The true paleo folks will still look down on you as an imposter who doesn’t even understand what it really means to be paleo.
This is the same kind of stuff we cover in our guide about FODMAP diet. Check it out, if you are interested.
The paleo diet is one that involves eating only those things which were available for consumption to our early human ancestors. This means no dairy, no grains and no legumes.
The paleo diet is based on the idea that our bodies are not evolved enough to handle the foods that became available to us after the agricultural revolution and so we should avoid them altogether.
The paleo diet is often criticized for being hard on people with specific food allergies or those who cannot afford to exclusively buy organic food.
Also, the paleo diet is not a balanced diet by modern standards and may cause certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies unless great care is taken to make up for these inadequacies.
Finally, the paleo diet does not take into account that there have been huge advances in the field of nutrition and biochemistry since early humans lived. We now know that certain foods that were unavailable to early humans are healthy for us and so should probably be a part of our diet.
These include many fruits and vegetables as well as certain oils such as olive oil.
The paleo diet may be effective for weight loss, but only in the short term. There is no evidence that a paleo diet is superior to any other balanced diet with regard to weight loss and there is some evidence that it is actually worse in this regard.
There is also no evidence that the paleo diet is better for athletic performance than other diets as some paleo advocates claim.
As a weight loss diet, there are more effective alternatives.
So, is the paleo diet a myth?
Well, in a way it is and in another way it isn’t. The paleo diet does take into account the actual evolutionary history of humans and this is a good starting point when it comes to making recommendations for a healthy human diet. Grain consumption was relatively rare in most hunter-gatherer societies and dairy consumption was non-existent.
The idea that our early ancestors got a lot of exercise and thus could get away with a diet that contained a lot of carbohydrates is also a valid point.
However, even in paleo diet sources you’ll find a lot of evidence that attempts to twist the facts to fit the theory. And many make the assumption that early human beings were fundamentally healthy without any evidence to back up that claim.
Given the state of nutrition science, it’s extremely difficult to make any definite claims about what is and isn’t healthy. There are numerous conflicting studies on various subjects that give contradictory results. We also have to rely on evidence from largely artificial conditions such as laboratories and studies involving small numbers of people.
Given this situation, it seems that the best approach would be to take note of what our ancestors may have done and make practical recommendations that take into account all the available evidence. An evidence-based approach that takes into account as many factors as possible and not a single theory.
What is definitely true is that the original paleo diet promoted by S. Boyd Eaton, M.D.
and Melvin Konner, M.D. is far superior to the version described above in terms of nutritional balance and getting the best mix of nutrients.
This is well documented but in the interests of keeping this page shorter I’ve left out their version.
The basic paleo diet, which excludes dairy products and grains but includes lean meat, non-starchy vegetables, fruits and nuts is a great start for losing weight and getting into shape but you might want to make a few changes if you want to optimize your health and well-being.
Some versions of the paleo diet also include raw meat, organs and bone marrow which can introduce a number of potential health risks and make eating out and social events awkward to say the least.
Getting Started: Rules of Thumb
Here are ten rules that will help you get the most out of your paleo diet experience (in alphabetical order).
1. Eat protein with every meal – Protein is a fundamental building block of the body and helps your muscles, nerves, organs, skin, hair and immune system do their job.
While carbs and fat can be converted into glucose (a sugar) for energy, this process isn’t very efficient and can lead to complications in the longer term. Protein can only be turned into amino acids which are necessary for a whole host of bodily processes. Aim for a ¼ lb of lean animal protein (i.e.
beef, lamb, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, eggs and dairy) per meal. If you’re vegan try to get as much protein as you can from vegetable sources such as tofu, legumes, lentils, nuts and seeds.
2. Eat fat to fuel your workouts and your body – There’s still a lot of confusion about fat in the mainstream media.
Contrary to popular belief, not all fats are bad for you. Some of them are actually essential for good health. Avoid trans and partially hydrogenated fats found in processed junk food, instead go for foods high in monounsaturated fats such as olives, avocados, nuts and seeds.
Eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as fish, seafood, flax seeds and chia seeds. If you’re going low-carb try to get most of your fat from these healthy sources.
3. Get at least one serving of vegetables at every meal – Lacking in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber, a diet consisting of nothing but meat and fat would lead to a host of health problems and might well send you into a state of ketosis.
While it’s true that with the paleo diet you’ll be getting some of these nutrients back because you’ll be using a lot of organically grown, pastured and wild foods, some vegetables are still essential. Go for non-starchy veggies like spinach, lettuce, asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower and zucchini. Any others can be eaten in moderation according to your personal preferences.
4. Get the right amount of fat – Contrary to popular belief, fat isn’t something to be afraid of.
It’s actually a necessary nutrient for your body and helps you maintain a healthy weight, ideal cholesterol levels, a youthful appearance and energy. There are two types of fat: saturated and unsaturated. Unsaturated is further divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Limit your saturated fat from animals (meat and dairy) and processed foods, and instead eat more of the unsaturated fat. Here’s an overview of the most common types of fat and what they do for your body:
Saturated Fat – this type of fat is solid at room temperature. Sources include: coconut oil, palm oil, red meat, egg yolks, butter and cocoa butter. Saturated fat is generally solid at room temperature.
It can be found mainly in animal foods like red meat, butter and dairy products. It’s also present in high-fat processed foods like doughnuts, cakes, potato chips and other junk foods.
Saturated fat has long been recommended as the dietary villain for increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, but some recent evidence suggests this isn’t the whole story. Saturated fat from healthy foods like red meat, dairy and tropical oils don’t appear to affect your risk of poor heart health. While there are legitimate concerns about the increased risk of cardiovascular disease with diets high in processed saturated fats, you should count saturated fat from whole food sources as a blessing because it remarkably good at satisfying your hunger and helping you maintain a healthy weight.
Satisfies Hunger Helps Maintain Healthy Weight Good for Skin Boosts Muscle Growth Increases “Good” Cholesterol
Unsaturated Fats – these are liquids at room temperature and become solids when refrigerated. Sources include: nuts, vegetable oils and fish oils. Unsaturated fats come in two types: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
Unsalted nuts (especially almonds, hazelnuts and pistachios) and vegetable oils (including olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil and safflower oil) are good sources of monounsaturated fat. Oily fish like mackerel, tuna and sardines are the best sources of polyunsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fat and fish oils also contain a special type of polyunsaturated fat called omega-3 and these fats are particularly beneficial for your heart health. A diet rich in unsaturated fat from whole food sources protects your heart, improves blood flow, boosts metabolism and helps reduce the build up of arterial plaque. Unsaturated fat:
Improves Blood Flow Reduces Arterial Plaque Reduces Body Fat Boosts Metabolism & Insulin Sensitivity Good for Skin & Hair
Saturated or Unsaturated?
Both saturated and unsaturated fats have their benefits. While the focus on reducing your intake of saturated fat has some truth, its importance has been overhyped. In fact, you need some saturated fat to survive and it’s found in many healthy foods. It’s best to avoid food with hydrogenated oils (trans fat) and get your saturated fat from whole foods like red meat, dairy, nuts and tropical oils. Choose unsaturated fats instead of saturated fats whenever you can but don’t stress too much about it. Remember to focus on getting sufficient quantities of both into your diet because both are essential for good health.
In the ancient world, grains like wheat and barley were not as easily available and a few types of rice were about the only grains that were. The average life span of 30-40 years was also shorter than it became after the introduction of farming, so the need for dense nutrition was not as important as it is today, when most people live well into their sixties and seventies and some into their eighties, nineties and beyond.
Foods high in saturated fat: Meat and dairy (butter, cheese, cream, ice cream, milk and all types of meat, especially beef.), coconut oil and palm oil. Tropical oils like coconut and palm oil are good for cooking at high temperatures without the formation of trans fats.
The fats that are solid at room temperature are termed ‘saturated’ because they are “saturated” with hydrogen atoms, which are attached to the carbon atom. This makes them “saturated” with hydrogen, hence the name.
All animal fats are saturated, and include fat found around the organs (internal visceral fat), bone marrow (bones contain marrow) and muscles (especially muscles that get a lot of exercise, like in predators).
There is a strong association between saturated fat and cholesterol in the diet and heart disease.
Sources & references used in this article:
- Paleo vs. Type 1 Diabetes (R Wolf – robbwolf.com)
- The Promise and Pitfalls of Paleo (C Gressier – Illness, Identity, and Taboo among Australian Paleo …, 2018 – Springer)
- The Actual Pros and Cons of the Paleo Diet Is eating live a caveman really linked to health improvements? (PD Rules – alucio.net.id)
- The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Paleo: Discover the Health and Weight Loss Benefits of Eating Like Our Ancestors (J Glaspey, N Quinn – 2012 – books.google.com)
- The paleo paradox: re-wilding as a health strategy across scales in the anthropocene (C Leiper – Geoforum, 2019 – Elsevier)