Fad diets tend to promise a lot, but they really rely on one thing: short-term weight loss and health. The Paleo (Paleolithic) Diet is a very popular diet based on Dr. Loren Cordain’s book, which asserts that the diet our ancestors may have followed more than two million years ago must also be the best diet for us today. The Paleo Diet consists of foods that can either be hunted (meats and seafood) or gathered (eggs, vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts). It excludes grains, legumes, dairy, salt, refined sugar, alcohol and processed oils.
The Paleo Diet claims to be “the world’s healthiest diet.” This is a pretty fantastic claim — if it was true and could be substantiated. As Food Safety News reported in June, the diet has not received particularly high marks for being backed by research.
Though consuming more vegetables, fruit, roots and nuts, and cutting down on sugar, salt, processed oil, dairy and alcohol is always a good idea, I do not agree that people should exclude whole grains and legumes from their diet. Nor do I agree that people will become healthier by consuming large amounts of meats, seafood and eggs.
To say that we should eat like cavemen is short-sighted considering that we are much different today, as is our environment. Ancient man most certainly exercised more, had less chronic stress, drank and inhaled fewer pollutants, was exposed to fewer toxic chemicals and had a different genetic makeup (just to name a few).
The Paleo Diet promulgates the diatribe against carbohydrates. To set the record straight: whole grains (i.e. complex carbohydrates) do not make people fat or sick — assuming you stick to whole grains. Refined grains on the other hand are stripped of nutrients and fiber and are often enriched with a mere fraction of the nutrients they once possessed. Whole grains are an important part of a long-term, healthy diet. They provide ample doses of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and are associated with a lower risk of heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
Legumes are also an important part of a long-term healthy diet, and include foods like beans, peas, lentils, soy and peanuts. Legumes are a nutritional powerhouse packed with fiber, and essential vitamins and minerals such as iron, folate, magnesium and potassium. Whole grains and legumes like quinoa, beans, steel-cut oats and edamame will not make you fat — as long as you don’t over do it. Any diet that advises against consuming whole grains and legumes is focused less on your health and more on selling books.
Another problem with the Paleo Diet is that it’s not environmentally sustainable if adopted on a mass scale — not to mention expensive (grass-fed, pasture-raised meats that the Paleo Diet encourages are more expensive and less available than conventional meats). Ninety-nine percent of farmed animals bred, raised and slaughtered for human consumption in the U.S. don’t roam on grassy fields, but are confined in factory farms – -a far cry from the animals that our ancient ancestors hunted and consumed. Animal agriculture is also considered the greatest contributor to global warming — producing more greenhouse gases than all forms of transportation combined.
A final problem with the Paleo Diet is that it promotes a high protein, low carbohydrate intake ratio, which puts stress on the body. High protein, low carbohydrate diets have been linked to high cholesterol, heart disease, cancer and kidney damage.
Based on the evidence available today, it’s smart to stand by a plant-based diet. Consuming more whole, plant-based foods benefits everyone’s health. The phytochemicals, antioxidants, fiber, vitamins and minerals that are abundantly present in plants are essential components of a long-term healthy diet. A whole foods, plant-based diet includes liberal quantities of vegetables, fruit and legumes, hearty amounts of whole grains, nuts and seeds, and sparing amounts of dairy, eggs, seafood, meat and refined sugar.
I wish everyone who is jumping on the Paleo Diet bandwagon the very best of health, but hope that in the end the “cavemen” will go for a more balanced approach and add legumes and whole grains back into their diet.
Melody Cherny is a graduate of the University of Washington, where she studied psychology. She lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Association of Maternal & Child Health Programs (AMCHP). Melody has been a long-time advocate for public health and nutrition, and has volunteered with the National Eating Disorders Association and the Vegetarian Society of D.C.