The Paleo diet has grown massively in popularity over the past decade. It has been high on the list of the most “Googled” diets the last couple of years, and the number of blogs, scientific papers, and books devoted to this ancient nutritional strategy has increased exponentially.
It’s obviously a good thing that more and more people seem to take up a diet that is centered around nutrient-dense, whole foods. That said, things could have been even better in Paleo land. There are many misconceptions about evolutionary nutrition out there – even within the ancestral health community – and a lot of people fail to harvest the full benefits a hunter-gatherer style diet can offer, in large part because they have a flawed understanding of what the Paleo diet actually is.
Some people seem to be under the belief that contemporary versions of the Paleo diet are virtually identical to the diets our Paleolithic ancestors actually consumed. However, those who’ve read the scientific literature on ancestral nutrition and/or looked at what the fossil evidence and anthropological data tell us about what our ancient ancestors actually ate, know that this is not the case. The fact is that many popular versions of the Paleo diet bear little resemblance to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors
Since the foods we find at the supermarket today differ nutritionally from the ones our hunter-gatherer forebears ate, it’s inevitable that contemporary Paleo diets will differ, to some extent, from ancestral ones. This is well known, and not the focus of this article. Rather, the focus is on discrepancies between true Paleolithic diets and contemporary versions that are due not to how we produce, prepare and process food, but to a flawed interpretation and application of the Paleo diet concept.
1. Saturated fat, high-fat dairy, and fatty meats
Today, many Paleo dieters eat butter, cheese, bacon, dark chocolate, and other similar foods with a very high fat density and content of saturated fat. This is not surprising, as the Paleo diet historically has been promoted as a high-fat diet within the blogosphere. Many health bloggers and diet authors have long made the case that saturated fat is completely harmless, and that the aforementioned foods can safely be eaten in fairly large quantities. As you know if you’ve read my articles, I disagree with both of these statements. While occasionally consuming these types of foods, or using butter, coconut oil, etc. for cooking, is generally not a problem, a high intake certainly can be.
When I first became interested in ancestral nutrition and low-carb dieting many years ago, a common belief within the Paleo/low-carb community was that you could basically eat as much fat as you wanted as long as you restricted your intake of carbohydrates. The Paleo diet that I saw promoted on most websites was one that was very high in fat, including saturated fats, and contained little carbohydrate and fiber. So naturally, this was the diet I adopted.
For years, I stuck with this approach, even though my health and physical performance seemed to worsen rather than improve. In retrospect, I think the reason I stuck with it regardless of the negative results was that I was convinced that basing my diet on an ancestral nutritional template was the way to go for good health. Today, this belief remains as firm as ever. What I’ve realised is that it wasn’t the underlying premise of the evolutionary approach I was following that was flawed; it was the interpretation and application of the dietary concepts.
Butter, cream, bacon, cheese, and other similar evolutionarily novel, high-fat foods that often pass as “Paleo” these days have a very different nutrient composition than wild meat, nuts, and other foods from which our pre-agricultural ancestors derived their hard-earned lipids. Perhaps most importantly, they have a markedly higher calorie and fat density and contain more saturated fat and less omega-3 fatty acids. Also, some of these foods contain problematic proteins (e.g., casein), hormones, and other substances our pre-agricultural ancestors didn’t get through their diet.
A contemporary Paleo diet high in these foods bears little resemblance to the diets that conditioned the human genome, and can adversely affect the blood lipid profile, induce endotoxemia, and cause chronic low-grade inflammation, among other things.
2. Fiber, food hardness, and dietary bulk
Five to seven years ago, the general belief within the Paleo community was that the benefits of dietary fiber had been overblown by the mainstream nutritional community. Some authors and bloggers even went as far as to say that fiber was merely a substance that irritated the intestinal lining and contributed to gastrointestinal distress, and that most people would benefit from replacing fiber-rich foods with ones heavier in protein and/or fat. My impression is that these ideas arose largely because many people within the movement originally adopted the Paleo diet because they had experienced a decline in health from following a grain-based, “fiber-heavy” diet.
In the years that have passed since then, a lot has changed. It has become increasingly recognized among ancestral eaters that the trillions of microorganisms in our gut play a critical role in our health, and that eating sufficient amounts of fiber is essential to achieve a healthy, flourishing community of gut bugs.
That said, most contemporary Paleo dieters still eat much less fiber than hunter-gatherers (both contemporary and ancient), largely because domesticated fruits and vegetables are markedly lower in fiber and higher in sugar than non-cultivated versions. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think eating a super strict Paleo diet, which entails completely shunning fiber-heavy food groups such as grains and legumes, is necessarily a good idea.
Furthermore, when compared with Paleolithic people, modern humans – regardless of dietary habits – tend to eat a smaller quantity/volume of food. Our ancient forebears didn’t have access to cheese, butter, oils, fatty meats, and other similar high-calorie foods. They had to make do with wild plant and animal foods, which tend to require more chewing and contain fewer calories than modern foods. Moreover, they were more physically active than us and therefore may have required a greater number of calories to make it through the day. In other words, they ate a greater quantity/volume of food than we do today and put a lot more stress on their masticatory system.
This is crucial to keep in mind, because a large body of evidence suggests that the worldwide transition from a bulky, hard-to-chew ancestral diet to a calorie-dense, soft modern diet has contributed to increases in multiple health disorders, including malocclusion, caused largely by inadequate use of the masticatory system during childhood, and obesity, which results partly from eating calorie-dense foods rich in fat and starch instead of foods rich in fiber and water.
Our Paleolithic ancestors obviously didn’t use supplements. By itself, this doesn’t necessarily mean that contemporary people should avoid all supplements. After all, we have to remember that the human condition has changed dramatically over the past 10,000 years. Modern humans are less physically active than hunter-gatherers, we’re not spending as much time outdoors, we eat less omega-3, we’re not as physically fit, and we get less sun exposure. This tends to be true even among Paleo adherents, who typically strive to lead a healthy lifestyle. In other words, our dietary needs may differ somewhat from those of forager people.
That said, most people can get pretty much everything they need through their diet, and even if they don’t, they may still not benefit from taking a supplement. A lot of people, even savvy Paleo dieters, use way too many supplements.
If you’ve looked online for information about dietary supplements, you’ve probably come across health & fitness writers who claim that there’s solid scientific data supporting the health benefits of supplements such as probiotics, whey protein powder, and vitamin and mineral pills. The problem is that most of the studies in this area are of short duration and give us little information about the impact supplement use has on our general health.
I’ve written several articles about dietary supplements in the past, in which I’ve gone into what the scientific literature tells us about the pros and cons of using nutritional products such as probiotics and whey protein powder. The key takeaway from these posts is that the evidence as a whole indicates that many, if not most, dietary supplements actually do more harm than good. This is consistent with what the evolutionary health template predicts, namely that the human body is ill-equipped to process evolutionarily novel, “man-made” food products with an abnormal nutrient composition.
Again, this is not to say that supplements can never be useful. It just highlights the fact that we are generally best off getting our nutrients from real, whole foods.
4. Paleo cookies, prepared foods, and energy bars
“Paleo” is today a multi-million dollar industry, and you can find everything from cookies to energy bars to meal-replacement shakes that are labeled as Paleo friendly, Gluten free, or Primal. This isn’t surprising, as everything that becomes popular ultimately attracts the interest of people who see an opportunity to make money. This is both a good and a bad thing. The positive side is that the increased influx of capital into Paleo land supports the growth of magazines and businesses that promote an ancestral lifestyle. The negative side is that some people have been led to believe that they can replace homemade meals based on nutrient-dense, whole foods with Paleo cookies, supplements, shakes, and energy bars.
The main difference between these “healthy” convenience foods and normal/conventional cookies, energy bars, etc. is that the former contain what is considered to be healthier ingredients, with sugar replaced by “natural” sweeteners, wheat flour by almond flour, and so forth. While I think some of these products are indeed healthier than their sugar-filled counterparts, they obviously shouldn’t be classified as health foods.
These processed food products have a very different nutrient composition from that of real, unprocessed whole foods. Moreover, they often contain high concentrations of substances the human body is ill-equipped to handle in large quantities. Actually, I suspect that some “Paleo friendly” convenience foods may be less healthy than their conventional counterparts, as they contain large amounts of nut butters, almond flour, and other foodstuffs that can promote leaky gut and digestive distress when eaten in large quantities.
I don’t see any problem with occasionally eating some of these foods, but regular consumption is certainly not a good idea. We have to get back to the original message of the ancestral health movement: Eat real food.
Picture: Creative commons picture by Amazing Almonds. Some rights reserved.
Note: A previous version of this article of mine was published in Paleo Magazine, the first, and only print magazine dedicated to the Paleo lifestyle and ancestral health. You can subscribe to Paleo Magazine here!