QUESTION: What’s the deal with the Paleo diet? Is it all the rage or just another fad?
That’s an excellent question, friends! When it comes to assessing a diet or fad you have to look at a few things: what is it, how restrictive is it, is it sustainable, is it evidenced based? The following are some bullet points to help you navigate through it.
So to understand Paleo, we must define Paleo:
- Claims to follow foods that our ancestors ate, food straight from nature, basically pre-agriculture, in our hunter-gatherer time
- Also claims that disease started in mankind after this shift in our food
- This is done by cutting out food groups and sub groups like dairy products and legumes with the claim that human disease started AFTER these items were introduced into our diet and that we are not able to digest these foods well
- This also means that all food has to be non-GMO, ultra organic, pasture raised, etc.
What are some of the concerns regarding Paleo:
- It is a difficult diet to maintain because of it’s restrictive nature, so many people cannot keep it up long term.
- The diet in it’s original form removes complete food groups like dairy products (our primary source of calcium) and grains and legumes (sources of many of our B vitamins).
- As the diet focuses on “straight from nature the way our ancestors ate”, it is very pricey. Buying organic, pasture raised, etc. for every food is very expensive. This is a barrier for many individuals.
Is it evidenced based?
- Some studies have shown positive results in regards to certain disease management but there aren’t any long-term studies at this point.
- The claim that we didn’t have grain agriculture more than 10,000 years ago is also not accurate. Studies show that humans began eating grains far before that.
- The claim that our ancestors didn’t have disease is also possibly inaccurate; perhaps they didn’t live long enough to identify them? Perhaps we just didn’t know they had them.
- Some mummies were discovered that go back as far as 4,000 years and a third of the mummies showed signs of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries which leads to heart disease). This included 5 mummies that came from a hunter gatherer population with 3 of them showing the start of the disease.
Are there any pros?
- It is changing and starting to allow for the introduction of diary and legumes in certain amounts so it is becoming less restrictive.
- Focuses on whole foods, lean protein, fruits and veggies, nuts and seeds which all can benefit from.
- Focuses on grass fed animal products which can have health benefits and is also more humane (which appeals to some audiences).
To learn more, this article by Precision Nutrition breaks it down well and provides resources for further nutrition: The Paleo Problem: Examining the pros and cons of the Paleo Diet.
In summary and my professional opinion:
As a dietitian, I think following a strictly Paleo diet in it’s original form can be harmful physically as what is removed from the diet actually limits nutrients the body needs. It can also have mental consequences as food restriction may lead to negative relationships with food and in turn our bodies and have negative health consequences down the road. I also think this diet ignores the lifestyle differences between 21st century humans and 10,000 years ago (no digital technology, more physical activity, more exposure to the natural elements, etc.).
That being said, there are elements of it that can be beneficial: more fruits and vegetables, choosing lean protein, incorporating healthy fats like nuts and seeds. If I’m being honest though, these are elements of the basics of eating well. No need for titles, or for restricting oneself. On a personal level, I am a fan of the push towards pasture raised meat from an ethical perspective (but you don’t have to be Paleo to do that).
I follow a very non-restrictive approach to nutrition in my practice because restriction can be harmful and can create unhealthy relationships with food and body. If you’re looking to make changes that you would like to sustain and take with you for the rest of your life, I’m your dietitian. We’ll drop the labels and just focus on the nutrition. Reach out to me today!
– Dua Aldasouqi, MA, RDN, Certified Health Coach