Paleo: The Key to Good Health or Just Another Fad?

animal-food-vegetablesAnything “new” and unconventional that gains a lot of popularity in a short period of time tends to attract criticism and opponents, and Paleo is no exception.”Paleo” has now become a buzzword that is used to sell everything from protein bars and meal replacement shakes to clothes and fitness gadgets, something that has probably contributed to shaping people’s perception of Paleo in a negative way.

The important thing to remember is that all of the marketing hype, poorly researched newspaper articles, and “buzz” surrounding Paleo is just noise: It doesn’t change what science tells us to be true, it doesn’t alter millions of years of evolutionary history, and it certainly doesn’t take away the validity of the premise underlying the ancestral health movement.

What is Paleo?

If you ask someone in the ancestral health community what he associates with the word Paleo, he may say that Paleo is a template for a healthy life; a template that includes a whole host of things, ranging from optimal sun exposure to stress management to barefoot running.

However, if you ask the average Joe who knows fairly little about health and fitness the same question, he’ll likely tell you that he associates the word Paleo with a diet, which is not surprising as it is the nutritional component of the Paleo lifestyle that has gotten the most attention in the popular press and blogosphere, by far.

Most people have now heard about The Paleo Diet, and it seems that “everyone” has an opinion on this nutritional strategy. Many have never read any of the research on evolutionary nutrition, but base their opinions on what they’ve read in the popular press or on various health and fitness blogs.

This is obviously problematic, because if you follow the dietary trends in our society and read about nutrition in the media, you may get the impression that what constitutes a healthy diet changes from week to week. One day, the Paleo Diet is featured in the New York Times as the perfect diet for weight loss, while the next day, the “latest research” suggests it will give you high blood pressure and weak bones.

It doesn’t help the situation that many health & fitness bloggers jump on the latest trends: When the Paleo Diet is hot, they write articles discussing its many benefits, but when it cools off, they start critiquing its possible downsides.

Contrary to what some may think, I believe I would attract a broader and more voluminous readership if I didn’t promote a Paleo-inspired lifestyle, as many people feel that the whole Paleo thing is too hard and restrictive for them to follow and/or have negative preconceived notions about Paleo and therefore stay clear of ancestral health blogs. Also, if I started advocating a “whole foods diet”, instead of a hunter-gatherer style diet, I wouldn’t have to deal with internet warriors who seem to have made it their personal mission to comment something negative on everything that has the word Paleo on it. However, I’m not going to do that, as I’m not willing to compromise what I believe in just to attract more readers or to avoid having to deal with stupid comments online.

I wish that I could say that it doesn’t matter what you eat as long as you steer clear of the obvious offenders like candy, pizza, doughnuts, and other “westernized foods”, as this would have made everything a lot easier and made it much simpler to stick to a healthy diet. However, as you probably know, I don’t believe that simply ditching highly processed foods is enough to achieve great health. Yes, it’s a good first step, but it’s not enough to get optimal results.

Eating like a hunter-gatherer

Even those people who don’t familiarize themselves with the ancestral health community usually agree with many of the principles of a Paleolithic lifestyle: They acknowledge that we would be a lot healthier if we slept in concordance with the natural fluctuations in light and dark, they understand that a loss of microbial old friends have contributed to the epidemic of inflammatory diseases in the modern world, and they agree that the prevalence of cardiovascular disease would drop dramatically if we all started adhering to a hunter-gatherer fitness regimen. However, when it comes to nutrition, they may argue violently against the notion that we should adjust our modern diet so it resembles that of our Paleo ancestors.

I think some people bash the Paleo Diet as a means to justify their own food choices. It’s much easier to adopt the mindset that the Paleo Diet is a fad diet that lacks scientific support, than it is to avoid certain food groups and actually give the Paleo Diet a try.

It’s important that we avoid the pitfall of critiquing a diet as a means to justify personal food choices. The goal has to be to define what is healthy or “optimal”, and then use that as a starting point for designing a diet that fits each person’s situation and goals.

My perception is that many people who came to the Paleo movement when it was in its infancy 3-7 years ago started out with a pretty strict Paleo Diet, but then slowly mellowed their stance and started following (and advocating) a diet that includes more non-Paleo foods.

My thinking over the years has actually changed in an opposite direction. The more I read and learn about nutrition, the more convinced I become that a fairly strict Paleolithic Diet is the healthiest diet for H. sapiens. That doesn’t mean that I eat a very strict Paleo Diet myself – or recommended that to clients, as I think most people find this type of diet to be too restrictive for them to actually follow over the long-term. Also, I believe that the downsides of consuming some non-Paleo foods such as red wine and grass-fed butter is quite small, so it’s not really worth stressing about.

However, I think it’s important to say that if someone asked me how they should eat to achieve the best health possible, I would recommend some version of a strict Paleo Diet, probably with some traditionally fermented foods added in. I’ve previously discussed in-depth why this is the case and summarized some of the most important information on the main diet page here on the blog. To avoid making this post into a 10000 word piece I wont repeat myself here. However, I will briefly discuss the main reason why I’m such a strong proponent of Darwinian Medicine and Paleo…

Incorporating the most powerful idea in all of biology to the study of nutrition

When I first started getting interested in Paleolithic nutrition and ancestral health almost a decade ago, I – like most people out there – knew very little about the premise and research underlying the Paleo philosophy. The idea that adjusting my lifestyle to better match that of our ancient forebears could improve my health made intuitive sense to me, but I hadn’t yet discovered how powerful, yet simple, the foundational ideas underlying the ancestral health movement really are.

Evolution via natural selection is by many considered to be the most powerful idea in all of biology. This foundational concept binds all of the different branches of biology together and helps guide scientists in their search for answers.

Sadly, evolutionary theory hasn’t yet made its way into the young discipline that is nutritional sciences. Some diet researchers and nutritionists will even tell you that there’s not much that can be gained from applying principles of evolutionary biology to the understanding of human nutrition. Perhaps needless to say, nothing could be further from the truth. The evolutionary template is the foundation that supports everything else and that helps us make sense of all the chaos and conflicting information in the world of nutrition!

As all the regular readers of this blog know, our genome has changed little over the last 10.000 years. There has been inadequate time and selection pressure for natural selection to sculpt the human body into one that is well adapted for the modern, industrialized environment, meaning that there’s a mismatch between our genetic make-up and the milieu we now live in. This simple fact, which I believe no one with a basic understanding of evolutionary biology will disagree with, is what makes up the underlying premise that supports the whole Paleo concept. The Paleo Diet works because it’s the diet that is best matched with our genetic make-up.

I want to see hard data!

It could be argued that we don’t really need anything more than a basic understanding of evolutionary biology to “prove” the validity of the Paleo philosophy. However, it’s important to note that the evolutionary template is just one of the many pillars that the Paleo movement rests upon.

If you read some of the stuff that’s printed in the media and on various health & fitness blogs, you may get the impression that the Paleo Diet is a “fad diet” that lacks proper scientific support. This is simply not true. There is – contrary to what the latest newspaper article on the Paleo Diet may claim – solid modern scientific research backing the Paleolithic Diet.

I wont bore you with all the randomized controlled trials (which suggest that the Paleo Diet is “superior” to other so-called healthy diets like the Mediterranean Diet) or data on nutrient density, reward value, satiety index score, and calorie density, as this is something I’ve done time and time again in the past. The bottom line is that the Paleo Diet has all of the characteristics of a diet that science tells us make you lean and healthy. You don’t have to take my word for it, dig into the research for yourself, or at the very least, check out the 5-point summary on this page.

These papers are a good starting point for those who want to get an overview of what Paleo is all about:

Applying ancestral health principles to our modern lives

So, where does all of this leave us? Should you adopt a strict Paleo lifestyle – never eating non-Paleo foods and perhaps even giving up your iPhone and TV? Well, if you want to, feel free to do so. However, for the majority, this is clearly not a viable option.

It’s important to understand that Paleo is not about replicating every aspect of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Rather, it’s about acknowledging that we evolved to live in an environment that is very different from the one we now occupy, and then taking steps to realign our lifestyle with our genetic identity.

These adjustments will vary from person to person, depending on goals, living situation, etc. While some people find that they are be able to stay true to the Paleo philosophy in every aspect of their lives – from sun exposure to exercise to diet – others find that they have to compromise in certain areas. That’s fine, as the goal isn’t to strive for perfection or live a very stringent life, but rather to find a way of living that promotes happiness and enjoyment.

We have buoilt our modern society in such a way that everything is as easy and convenient as possible: We have the option to be sedentary for our entire lives if we want, we can eat calorie-dense, highly palatable food every day, and we can spend long nights in front of the computer.

We may believe that we become happier when we design our environment this way – and to a certain extent that may be true. However, I think it’s safe to say that in the modern, industrialized world, we’ve taken things too far. We’re hard-wired to take it easy when we can and seek out highly palatable and calorie-dense foods, an adaptation that helped us survive in an ancestral environment, but works against us in a world of abundance. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors could just let their immediate desires guide their actions. If we do the same, we may quickly end up sick, fat, and unhappy.

In the end, I think the overarching message Paleo has to offer is that we should base our choices not on what gives us immediate benefits and pleasure (at least not all of the time), but rather on what makes us happy and healthy in the long run. Paleo is a blueprint that allows us to resolve the conflict between our ancient genome and our current environment and helps us make choices that enhance our long-term health and happiness.

If Paleo is a fad, it’s the longest running fad in human history. Paleo, evolutionary nutrition, ancestral health, evolutionary health promotion… Call it what you want, it’s here to stay.

Picture: Creative commons picture by Artizone. Some rights reserved.

Comments

  1. Hi Eirik. Good article. You know, I’ve never really gotten into the whole ancestral factor. In my opinion, the name, Paleo, is something of a misnomer since I don’t know for a fact that my ancestors ate well at all. I do know that my grandparents ate a lot of sweets, even though they were homemade sweets, but they also had fewer conveniences and therefore got a lot more exercise than is common today. Possibly that offset the not-so-healthy diet to some degree.

    For me, Paleo has always meant simply eating as close to nature as possible. This means an abundance of fresh produce, meat, fish, nuts, eggs, healthy fats, and the avoidance of processed, man-made foods. (Breads and pasta are processed foods, by the way, although most people don’t consider them as such.)

    I think the notion of Paleo being a fad stems from the fact that most of us Paleo eaters avoid grain products. For non-Paleo folks, that’s unthinkable. Bread is downright biblical for some, the staff of life and that sort of thing. Never mind that grains can really pack on the weight unless one is extremely active. Also, as with anything these days, commercialism creeps in and distorts the entire principle. For me, grabbing a handful of processed gluten-free substitute foods from the supermarket isn’t Paleo at all, yet it gets hyped as such.

    • Hi Shary! Several lines of data show that our Paleo ancestors ate a very nutritious and healthy diet.

      As for the rest of what you’re saying, I agree with everything. Your last paragraph is really spot on. For someone who’s used to eating grains for pretty much every meal, the idea that we should take this food group out of our diet completely may seem extreme or unthinkable.

      One of the main problems is that the average Joe doesn’t really know what Paleo is all about. He probably asscoiates the word Paleo with a diet, but as we know, that is only one of the many elements of a Paleo lifestyle.

  2. It’s because people use to change even the best idea to be something which is “better” for their desire.
    The same is with Paleo diet, on every Paleo site you can finde many recipes for Paleo sweets ( sometimes I have impression they are most important;-)) , and other way , sorry but nice steak with cauliflower mash is far from real Paleo. ( trying to make it more modern people friendly we lost the clue of the diet) I ‘ m from Europe and as I can only remember diet from my grandparents full of inner parts of animals. Most of the animal was eatable and now its odd bites for most of people.
    And insects? No one is eating them now.
    Other problem , from my point of view , as trainer , most girls I know choose this diet to loose the weight ,and I’ m not talking about obese people, only they have a little bit here a little bit there, changing from one diet to another searching for Holly Grail – diet, having problem with normal eating. And then they are proud:” I’m on Paleo ” eating coconut cake with honey and making bad impression of Paleo idea

    (For everyone sorry for my English, it’s not my language, but I hope It’s clare what I say:-))

    • Hi Isabela!

      Several good points you’ve got there.

      I think like you say that a lot of people fall into the trap of using the Paleo Diet as a short-term solution to lose weight. When it gets too hard or they come across something new, they quickly jump ship. Getting them to realise that they should look at Paleo as a lifelong plan for healthy eating, not a short-term diet, can be tricky. I think a good approach is to get your clients to do a 30-day strict Paleo Diet. When they get results, they may be more inclined to adhere to this nutritional strategy over the long haul.

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