Oof. I sure got an earful from commenters on my paleo diet post from yesterday, and I’d like to address some of the criticism and counter-arguments.
A common response from paleo dieters seems to be, “But the diet worked for me!” They attest to everything from improved health and weight loss to more energy and better skin. And they rave about how eating this way provides an alternative to the Standard American Diet of processed foods, heavy reliance on pharmaceuticals for disease management, etc. Well—great! There’s a lot to love about the Paleo diet: The emphasis on fresh fruits, nuts and veggies; there’s a commitment to cutting out processed foods, refined sugars and ample carbs. These are the hallmarks of any good diet; it’s no wonder people following this advice are going to look and feel better.
But the alternative to the Paleo diet is not necessarily ‘eating like crap,’ as some commenters seem to believe. I follow a diet that’s low in heavily-processed foods, refined carbs, sugar, eggs and dairy and high in vegetables, fish, raw nuts, whole grains, plus occasional meat. It’s not paleo, vegetarian, vegan, raw or quantifiable by any other label, but it’s what makes the most sense to me, physically, ethically, and based on the nutrition research I read (which is a lot, just to respond to the allegations that I’m making up everything off the top of my head)—and it seems to do just fine at keeping me thin, healthy and energetic.
As for the grain question … if it seemed I was suggesting everyone needs to consume grains to be healthy, my bad. Some people are allergic/intolerant to gluten. Some people just feel better when they don’t eat wheat. Some people would just rather not. Fine. Of course you can be perfectly healthy on a grain-free diet. But there’s also no reason to cut out grains per se. Highly refined carbohydrates, yes, we’re all better off eating less of. But eating a diet high in whole grains is associated with a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, diabetes, stroke and obesity. Whole grains are filling. They’re packed with fiber—which keeps food moving through our bodies quickly. They’re also high in minerals and antioxidants—in fact, researchers at Cornell University found whole grains are actually higher in polyphenol antioxidants than many fruits and vegetables. If you like them, and you’re not wheat/gluten intolerant, whole grains like brown and red rice, rye, millet and barley; psuedo-grains like amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa; and grain-products like whole-wheat couscous and bulgur all very much do have a place in a healthy diet. So, yes—I object to a diet plan that says everyone should cut out all grains.
Then there’s the question of meat. Paleo foodists are quick to point out that the diet isn’t just a meat free-for-all, but instead emphasizes eating lean meat, grass-fed beef and free-range poultry. Again, great! When I eat meat, I try to follow the same guidelines. But no matter how high-quality the meat, I’m still against consuming meat with every or even the majority of meals, as most of the sample paleo meal plans I’ve seen recommend. This has nothing to do with animal welfare. But more and more research is showing how a diet high in meat consumption can have adverse health effects. Oh, but that’s only when you eat typical, fatty, hormone-laden meat, not the ‘good kind’ recommended on the paleo diet? Even if that is true (its plausible, but there’s no evidence one way or the other), copious meat consumption is neither environmentally-friendly nor budget-friendly. Even a diet of conventional meat is more expensive than one heavily based on whole grains, beans and vegetables. One of the reasons folks recommend eating less meat is that in doing so, you can afford better meat when you do eat it. But purchasing antibiotic-free, grass-fed, local, humanely-raised etc. etc. etc meat for even one meal per day is prohibitively expensive for most people (not to mention the access issue). If that’s your bag, more power to you, but it’s not an example the majority of people can plausibly follow.
But my major qualm with the paleo diet has nothing to do with meat or grains—it’s the psuedoscience the diet revolves around. Paleo diet advocates insist that not only was there one specific hunter-gatherer way, it’s the way that humans are genetically engineered to eat. Ultimately, it’s this overarching narrative associated with paleos that makes it so damn hard to take them seriously. As evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk writes in the New York Times: “Even for Darwinians, the devil is in the details. The notion that there was a time of perfect adaptation, from which we’ve now deviated, is a caricature of the way evolution works.” Humans, particularly their digestive systems, have evolved since our good old hunter gatherer days. Besides which, this standard hunter-gatherer diet paleo diet beliefs are predicated on didn’t really exist that way at all. Some hunter-gatherers ate bread. And as University of California professor Katherine Milton, writing in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, notes:
Although agriculture is relatively recent, most hunter-gatherer societies appear to have enthusiastically embraced it. For example, since well before the time of Columbus, tropical rain forests of South America have been inhabited not by hunter-gatherers but by hunter-gatherer-agriculturalists, small societies practicing shifting cultivation whose main crop was likely a single starchy carbohydrate. Contemporary ethnographers working in Amazonia noted that even when smoke racks are filled with game, if the carbohydrate staple becomes exhausted, the inhabitants say they have no food (23).
Futhermore, “because some hunter-gatherer societies obtained most of their dietary energy from wild animal fat and protein does not imply that this is the ideal diet for modern humans, nor does it imply that modern humans have genetic adaptations to such diets. It does, however, indicate that humans can thrive on extreme diets as long as these diets contribute the full range of essential nutrients.”
Paleo diet defenders argue for the diet based on its more sensible tenets, as if that’s the part people take issue with. No one’s saying it’s a bad idea to eat minimally processed, low-glycemic-index foods, though! No one’s trying to begrudge paleo dieters their fresh fruits and vegetables. No one’s saying individual dieters can’t make up their own minds about grains. The part of the paleo diet most people take issue with is that it’s based on ‘science’ that there is actually little evidence to back up. No s**t you lost weight/felt better when you cut out cheese or white bread or cookies. Now tell me why I also have to eat more meat and idolize cavemen to get those same results.
Photo: Lou Beech/New York Times