The Paleo Diet is a hot topic among health conscious eaters, athletes and people simply looking to lose weight. But is the Paleo Diet actually the way the Paleolithic people ate? Christina Warinner is an Archeologist Scientist and does a great job debunking this fad diet with her TEDxOU talk. After a few of the facts are reviewed I’ll give my take on the modern Paelo Diet and what I believe is a healthy diet.
In 1975 a book called The Stone Age Diet was published, which essentially was the beginning of the Paleo Diet. But not until 2002 when The Paleo Diet, by Loren Cordain, was published did the diet really go mainstream. Essentially, it is based on the idea to eat like our Paleolithic ancestors to rid ourselves of many modern diseases and live a long and fruitful life all while abandoning modern agriculture. Meat and vegetables are the main staple of the diet and avoiding dairy, legumes and grains are a must.
As the Paleo Diet is increasingly popular, there are a few myths that Warinner points out about the connection between the diet today and what paleolithic people actually ate over 2.6 million years ago. The first myth she talks about is:
- “Humans are evolved to eat meat and Paleolithic peoples consumed large quantities of meat”
There are actually no known adaptations to meat eating for the Paleolithic people. There are only adaptations for eating plants. An example is that as humans, we can not produce our own Vitamin C and so we must get this from eating plants. Carnivores can produce their own Vitamin C in contrast. Another point Warinner makes is that our teeth are designed for chewing plants, not the sharp meat tearing type seen in carnivores. Our digestive tract is very long in length which aids in processing the minerals in plants versus the shorter GI tracts of carnivores.
She is not stating that paleolithic people were vegetarians, only that they did not eat an only meat diet or meat in extremely large quantities. And when they did eat meat it was more likely to be lean game meat which also included the bone marrow and organs. Most of the meat advertised in a Paleo Diet is from cows and chickens, which are purposefully fattening on the farm.
- “Paleolithic peoples did not eat whole grains or legumes”
Warriner states that there is evidence of stone tool use during this time. They used it to grind grains and seeds. Also, her team is studying the plaque found on teeth from paleolithic people and are able to identify foods such as barley, a grain which is not allowed on the modern day Paleo Diet.
- “Paleo diet foods are what our Paleolithic ancestors ate”
Ads for the Paleo Diet food today show modern products of agriculture. Warriner explains this with a few examples: Bananas are no longer found in the wild, they have been farmed to look as they are today. If they were to be found in the wild they would be unrecognizable with all their seeds. Lettuce is also a product of modern agriculture. Humans have been able to produce it without the latex that is found in wild lettuce so it is easier to digest. Another example is olive oil. It is true that olive oil does not need extremely high temperatures or synthetic chemicals to extract the oil but the actual pressing mechanism would not have been around in the Paleolithic time.
In today’s world food travels from all over the globe to our table. In order to have the fruits and vegetables available at the supermarket year round we truck, ship and fly foods from other states, countries and continents to our local stores. Paleolithic people ate according to the seasons. They also did not use preservatives such as salts, sugars, vinegars and chemical additives.
Warinner concludes her TEDxOU talk with a few lessons:
- Diversity is key. There is no 1 diet to follow. Warinner says a “high species diversity is needed in our diets.” In other words, don’t eat the same thing everyday. Soy, wheat and corn is found in almost every processed food. This is a lack in diversity which is another reason to avoid processed foods.
- Eat foods that are in season. Avoid preservatives. She brings up the idea that preservatives are in foods to inhibit bacterial growth in order to last longer. But our GI tracts need bacteria to function. So she is questioning the effect of those preservatives on our own good bacteria.
- Eat whole foods. Not much explanation needed here after all the points above but simply reap the benefits of the whole food, ie the fiber in a whole apple versus apple cinnamon flavored rice crisps.
What are my thoughts?
I am not an advocate nor against the modern Paleo Diet. I believe it has positively promoted the idea of people adding more vegetables into their diets and eliminating the fillers such as rice and pasta. I am not against eating rice or pasta, but I do believe it shouldn’t be the main ingredient in your meal. If I were to have a “great meal” it would consist of 50% vegetables, 25% protein and 25% carbohydrates. The more vegetables I have the better, but I also understand the importance of protein whether it’s from a meat, nut or legume source. I do eat dairy, but have cut back due to the inflammation effects I feel from eating too much. I consider myself lucky that I do not have any health issues that require me to cut certain foods out of my diet. I simply choose to be proactive in eating a healthy, whole foods diet in hopes to avoid any unwanted health issues in the future.
Another big plus to the Paleo Diet is the elimination of processed sugars. Warinner makes a good point in her talk about how hard it would be for a Paleolithic person to consume the amount of sugar found in a 32oz soda, especially in as little as 20 minutes! They would of eaten 8.5 feet of sugar cane! Remember, sugar cane is processed to extract the sugar we use to add to a lot of our foods. Paleolithic people did not have access to the machines we use for this process and therefore did not have anywhere close to the amount of sugar we eat in today’s world. Sugar is extremely hard to cut out of our diets but I am trying to live by the 6 days per week with no added sugar policy. So far so good. 😉
I am not a vegetarian. One of my favorite meals, even as a child, is steak. I rarely have it but when I do it’s damn good. Vegetables seem to be the only food without any controversy. Everyone says to eat them, they have an enormous amount of vitamins and minerals that we need for optimal health and I have never heard a good reason not to eat them. Meat, on the other hand has it’s controversy. My attitude towards meat is moderation and variety. Every dinner doesn’t have to include meat. I try to have 1-2 vegetarian meals per week. And chicken is not the only meat on my plate. Ideally I’d love to only eat local and organic meats, but budget is also a factor in what food I buy so this is only accomplished sometimes.
Variety is key. I shop at the local markets in the summer to take advantage of all the amazing food grown around my town. But on the contrary I also show at Costco. Again, this helps with the budget side of things and I try to fit in as many local, organic and seasonal foods as possible. Overall my goal is always to keep my meals as close to whole foods as I can without adding unwanted processed foods.
So the modern Paleo Diet may not be 100% accurate in regards to what Paleolithic people ate, but I like the emphasis on eating whole foods, vegetables and staying away from sugar as a positive for everyone in general.
US News just ranked the Paleo Diet in last place for Best Diets Overall of 2014. Interesting…