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The Paleo Diet Review
Should you eat like a caveman?

Is eating like a caveman the solution to our obesity epidemic?
Is eating like a caveman the solution
to our obesity epidemic?

The Paleo Diet, or caveman diet as some call it, is one of the most successful diet concepts in years. The promoters of this plan make a simple and compelling claim. They say our bodies, carefully tuned to live as hunter-gatherers for tens of thousands of years, are getting fat and sick because of our modern western diet.

It makes a great sound bite, but lousy science. Lets start with our genetics. The environments humans live in are extremely varied. From the high altitudes of villages in the Himalayas to the scorching heat of a dessert. Each of these areas has influenced the genetics of the people living there to better adapt to the foods and resources available.

That means that for the paleo diet to actually work, there would have to be a version for people from Asia, another for Europeans, a third for native Americans and so on. The foods and resources each of these groups had access to was quite different, so their "ideal" paleo diets would also have been different. There is no single "paleo diet" that could be the ideal for a varied genetic human race. The Paleo Diet "genetic argument" is fatally flawed.

I'm not saying what most Americans eat is healthy. It's not. But the solution isn't eating only foods that were available twenty thousand years ago to a group of people you may or may not be related to. The solution is to eat healthy foods that are available to you now.

The Paleo Diet also makes claims about what our ancestors ate, that are in sharp contrast to what we know about hunter-gatherer societies. You don't have to rely on the archeological record to guess what primitive societies lived off, simply look at those societies today.

In Tanzania, the Hadza are the world's last full-time hunter-gatherers. They live off what they find. When they go out to collect food, they carry with them a type of stick used to dig tubers, which is one of their primary foods. However, the Paleo Diet says you should avoid things like "starchy tubers" because primitive people didn't eat them. Even though we know they did, because the only remaining hunter-gatherer societies that exist today still do!

 

Another glaring flaw in the Paleo Diet is something I call "false cause and effect." That's when a claim is made that doing one thing like, "people who ate the most fruits and vegetables" will lead to another thing, "...had the greatest bone mineral densities and the strongest bones."

Eating more fruit and vegetables isn't a bad thing. But to tell people you'll build stronger bones because of it is simply false. The Paleo Diet claims that, "If your diet has high levels of acid, you'll lose more calcium in your urine." Then they say to build stronger bones the solution is, "...eat more alkaline foods, you'll retain more calcium."

It sounds perfectly reasonable, but rigorous clinical studies have not been able to show such a neat cause and effect. In a large "study of studies" researchers found that yes, changing the diet can alter the amount of calcium we pee out, but that doesn't ultimately change bone metabolism. They concluded that the promotion of an "alkaline diet" like the Paleo Diet as a way to prevent calcium loss is "not justified."

(The study was published in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research and the title is: "Meta-Analysis of the Effect of the Acid-Ash Hypothesis of Osteoporosis on Calcium Balance.")

The Paleo Diet's recommendations to eat more whole fruits, vegetables and lean meats is certainly a good idea. But their statements that it's better because of the way we're genetically programmed, or that it's better because it's based on the foods that were available to our ancestors or that it somehow changes the acidity of alkalinity of our bodies is simply wrong.

Claims that modern food groups like whole grains or dairy products should be avoided are also equally flawed. If you've been diagnosed with celiacs disease, you should certainly stop eating wheat. People who are lactose intolerant would be better off skipping dairy. But to give a blanket recommendation to avoid entire food groups that are generally beneficial is irresponsible. Toss this fatally flawed diet.


UPDATE: 9/15/15

Paleo people ate grains and oats! New evidence has emerged that the original paleo dieters ate grains around 32,000 years ago. Evidence came from a cave called the Grotta Paglicci in Puglia, southern Italy. The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


UPDATE: 10/18/2015

Cavemen (and women) ate carbs!

The human brain uses about 25% of your daily energy budget. About half that energy comes from glucose (sugar). A Paleo diet that consists primarily of meat and fruit wouldn't generate enough energy to meet the needs of the caveperson brain.

The only way our brains could have the energy to make us as smart as we are, is if our caveperson ancestors ate a diet high in starchy foods like potatoes and tubers. Exactly the type of foods paleo dieters strive to avoid.

It's a simple argument with rock solid logic. Despite what paleo diet promoters want you to believe, we're around today, with the brains we have, because our ancestors ate carbs for more than 800,000 years. The paleo diet is a paleo fantasy.

The study was conducted by, Karen Hardy, Jennie Brand Miller, Katherine D. Brown, Mark G. Thomas, and Les Copeland. “The Importance of Dietary Carbohydrate in Human Evolution.” The Quarterly Review of Biology: September 2015.

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3/15/2015
Update 9/15/2015
Udate 10/19/2015