So you’ve probably been hearing a lot of buzz about the “Paleo Diet” (aka the “Caveman Diet”) lately. It seems to be all the rage. However, I’ve noticed it often gets boiled down into being a diet that’s basically about eating meat (as you can imagine, it has its share of detractors, as well as supporters). So, I decided to do a little research. It appears that Dr. Loren Cordain is credited as being the expert on the Paleo Diet as well as the leader of the Paleolithic Movement.
Yes, a movement.
Dr. Loren Cordain is not some fly-by-night huckster who is trying to sell snake oil as the remedy for all that ails us, either. He has quite a pedigree — he’s written more than 100 scientific articles and abstracts which have been featured in scientific journals all over the world; he’s been featured on Dateline NBC, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal; Cordain has a bachelor’s degree in health sciences, a masters in physical education, and a Ph.D. in Health; he’s been a Health & Exercise Science professor at Colorado State University for more than two decades; and he’s written five books on the Paleo lifestyle, including bestseller The Paleo Diet.
The bottom line of the Paleo Diet, it appears, is that it’s about eating wholesome foods that our “hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era, the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago.”
So, what does that mean?
What can you eat on the Paleo Diet (and what can’t you eat)?
- fresh meats (ideally grass-produced or free-range beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and game meat, if possible)
- fresh fruits
- healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut, and flaxseed)
Following the Paleo Diet means excluding any food that was grown after agriculture began, such as:
- dairy products (such as milk, yogurt, cheese, cream, etc.)
- cereal grains
- legumes (beans, peas, etc.)
- refined sugars
- processed foods
Hmmm. Well, we’ve all heard the horrors of refined sugars and processed foods, so it’s kinda hard to argue that they should be part of our diet. But cut out grains and legumes? And no milk or cheese or yogurt? Eek.
According to Dr. Cordain, adhering to the Paleo Diet plan is a good idea because research shows that hunter-gatherers were free of the illnesses and diseases that plague us today, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis)
- Type 2 diabetes
- Autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
- Myopia (nearsightedness), macular degeneration, glaucoma
- Varicose veins, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, gastric reflux
Is the Paleo Diet good for you (and me)?
According to Dr. Cordain, yes. Yes, yes, yes, unequivocally YES. He has been quoted as saying that “Clinical trials have shown that the Paleo Diet is the optimum diet that can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, help with weight loss, reduce acne, promote optimum health and athletic performance.” He also claims that while we believe that grains and dairy products are good for us, it turns out that our “genome has not really adapted to these foods, which can cause inflammation at the cellular level and promote disease.”
But wait. Isn’t meat discouraged because of its effect on cholesterol and heart health? At least that’s what I thought. But Dr. Cordain has an answer for that as well.
“There is no doubt that the fat quality and quantity in the wild animals our Stone Age ancestors ate was vastly different from the types and quantity of fat found in feedlot-produced meats,” Dr. Cordain writes on his website. So, apparently the meat in the Stone Age wasn’t quite as unhealthy — unhealthy by common standards, that is — as today’s meat. For instance, a 100 gram serving of a T-Bone steak has 23 grams of fat (eek!) and 9 grams of saturated fat, with only a mere 46 grams of omega-3 fatty acids. Cavemen might have eaten a 100-gram serving of, oh, roasted buffalo, which has just over 2 grams of fat and 0.9 grams of saturated fat. The buffalo also has 215 mg of omega-3 fatty acids.Dr. Cordain asserts that, “Despite its blood cholesterol raising effects (Editor’s note: emphasis added), recent meta analyses (combined, large population studies) show that saturated fats have little adverse effect upon the risk for heart disease…Recent clinical studies have shown that high-protein diets are more effective in improving blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels than are low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets. High-protein diets have also been shown to lower blood homocysteine levels, another risk factor for heart disease.”
Hmmm. I’m not sure I understand Dr. Cordain’s reasoning about saturated fats not being a risk factor for heart disease while admitting that saturated fats raise a person’s cholesterol. The link between cholesterol and heart disease couldn’t be put more simply than this: “The higher the cholesterol, the higher the level of heart and blood vessel disease.” At least that’s how Dr. Laurence Sperling boils it down. But he’s just the head of preventive cardiology at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. What does he know? (Editor’s note: That’s sarcasm.)
In a feature he wrote for WebMD, Dr. Sperling outlined the risks of high cholesterol — heart attack and stroke. Of course, your body makes cholesterol on its own, but you also get it from eggs and meats (and dairy products, but they’re forbidden on the Paleo Diet). I’m neither a doctor nor an expert, but I can do simple math. And this arithmetic is pretty simple. However, Dr. Cordain claims that the Paleo Diet may be associated with these health benefits:
The carbohydrates (unlimited fruits and veggies) in the Paleo Diet are of a low-glycemic index, meaning that they cause slow and limited rises in your blood sugar and insulin levels. Excessive insulin and blood sugar levels are known to promote a cluster of diseases called the Metabolic Syndrome (obesity, hypertension, undesirable blood cholesterol and other blood lipid levels, Type 2 diabetes and gout). The high fiber, protein, and omega-3 fat content of the Paleo Diet will also help to prevent the Metabolic Syndrome.
Because of the unlimited amounts of fruits and veggies permitted on the Paleo Diet, your body will be slightly alkaline – meaning that diseases and disease symptoms of acid/base imbalance (osteoporosis, kidney stones, hypertension, stroke, asthma, insomnia, motion sickness, inner ear ringing, and exercise-induced asthma) will improve.
The high soluble-fiber content of the Paleo Diet will improve most diseases of the gastrointestinal tract, and the high omega-3 fat content will improve most of the “itis” or inflammatory diseases.
Wow. That’s a whole lot of health benefits.
Critics of the Paleo Diet
And, while Dr. Cordain urges individuals to eat unlimited fruits and vegetables as part of the Paleo Diet, he does not encourage a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle. Or, at least that’s what I get from this:
“The Paleo Diet is based on foods similar to what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era – 2.6 million years to 10,000 years ago. That comprises 99.6 % of our evolutionary history; hence, our genome is perfectly adapted to eat foods similar to what we found during that period of time. This means eating meats, seafood, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. The agricultural revolution (10,000 years ago) led to a dramatic change in human nutrition. Cereal grains, legumes, dairy, vegetable oils, salt, alcohol, and refined sugars now comprise 72 % of the nutrition in the western society. These recent additions to the human diet maintain nutritional characteristics that promote virtually all known “diseases of civilization.”
Most vegans and vegetarians rely upon legumes (beans, soy, lentils, peas, etc.) and whole grains to meet the majority of their daily caloric intake. Legumes and whole grains contain some of the highest concentrations of antinutrients in any foods. These compounds frequently increase intestinal permeability and cause a condition known as “leaky gut,” a necessary first step in almost all autoimmune diseases. Further, a leaky gut likely underlies chronic, low-grade inflammation, which underlies not only autoimmune diseases, but also heart disease and cancer.
Further vegan and vegetarian diets almost invariably result in numerous vitamin, mineral and nutrient deficiencies such as B12, B6, D, zinc, iron, iodine, taurine and omega-3 fatty acids. So, to answer your question, it is simply impossible to follow a Paleo Diet without animal food (meat, seafood and eggs).”
As you can imagine, the Paleo Diet has its fair share of critics. Some refer to it as the “Caveman Fad Diet.” More than one published scientific article — in publications such as The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Preventive Medicine, and Nutrition Bulletin — has argued against this diet, pointing out that our “caveman ancestors” didn’t suffer from the diseases that the Paleo Diet is supposed to address for other reasons — such as far fewer calories in their diets, much shorter lifespans, and other factors. And, of course, some researchers have also pointed out potential health risks that could be associated with the Paleo Diet.
In 2011, the U.S. News & World Report, ranked diets based on evaluations by a panel of 22 experts. They ranked the Paleo Diet at the bottom, citing aspects of the diet such as health, weight loss, and ease of adherence. A year later, 25 diets were evaluated; the Paleo Diet tied for the bottom spot. In fact, U.S. News & World Report said the expert panel “took issue with the diet on every measure.”
Further, Dr. Kathleen Zelman wrote a WebMD expert review of the Caveman Diet, and she did not mince words. Zelman says that, because the diet is based on foods that could be hunted, fished, and gathered during the Paleolithic period, “a true paleolithic diet is impossible to mimic because wild game is not readily available, most modern plant food is cultivated rather than wild, and meats are domesticated. At best, you can eat a modified version of the original diet that’s gluten-free and includes lean meat, organ meats, fish, poultry, eggs, vegetables, fruit, and nuts. It’s a wide variety of foods.”
Zelman admits that “Eliminating all grains, dairy, processed foods, sugar, and more will most likely lead to weight loss. But it may be tough to follow this plan long-term due to the diet’s strict nature.” However, she also cites some other experts, such as Keith Ayoob, EDd, RD, an assistant professor at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, who asserts, “People who eat diets high in whole grains, beans, and low-fat dairy tend to be healthier because these foods are nutrient-rich and there are mountains of research about the health benefits of diets that include, not exclude, these foods.”
Also weighing in on the “Caveman Diet” was Heather Mangieri, MS, RD, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “This diet has some great aspects, but the limitations make it another diet that people go on but can’t sustain for a number of reasons, including a lack of variety, [cost], and potential nutrient inadequacies,” as a result of the avoidance of certain foods.
So, who is the Paleo Diet for?
Obviously, vegetarians and vegans won’t be trying out this diet. However, those who eat gluten-free will do pretty well. Are you on a low-salt diet? Well then, the Paleo Diet should work for you in that regard. But — if you’re on a low-salt diet due to hypertension or heart issues, then there are other aspects you might need to consider, like the fat and cholesterol effects of eating meat and eggs. A sample Paleo Diet menu indicates that you’d be getting about 39 percent of your calories from fat (that’s, um, a lot…even more than the government’s recommended 35 percent maximum). As far as the “governmental recommendations,” the protein intake on the Paleo Diet is about 38 percent, as compared to the government’s recommended 10-35 percent.
The Paleo Diet, of course, recommends exercise (who doesn’t?), which makes sense…since cavemen were not a sedentary people. Far from it. But will you burn calories at the rate of a caveman? Probably not. Unless you’re constantly on the move. Which, ya know, you’re probably not. (Even if it feels like it.)
But if you want to check out the Paleo Diet — or just get your feet wet with a few Paleo Diet recipes, you could try some of the Paleo Recipes featured at This Flourishing Life (like the Paleo Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars or the Paleo Chili) or this healthy Paleo Breakfast Smoothie at Confessions of an Overworked Mom!
Or, if you’re not quite ready to take the full plunge into the Paleo lifestyle, you could try this Almost Paleo Carrot Cookie Recipe from The Horrible Housewife. Maybe baby steps will help you make your decision about Paleo.
You might also be interested to read how The Horrible Housewife is investigating the connection between the Paleo Diet and Multiple Sclerosis — to find out if the Caveman Diet brings about any positive results. I encourage you to see what she has to say…because it presents some very encouraging and motivating information.
I’m curious to find out what people think about the Paleo Diet…have you tried it? Did you like it? What were the results?