Within the past few years, the paleo diet has gained a massive amount of interest and has become an increasingly popular diet to follow, especially for athletes and very active individuals. The premise is to eat in a way similar to our Paleolithic ancestors. According to the paleodiet.com, this is comprised of a diet higher in protein, lower in carbs and a moderate-high intake of fat (focusing mainly on unsaturated varieties). Additionally, it also includes a focus on consuming foods lower in sodium and higher in potassium, fiber, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Although this may sound like a healthy approach, there are many flaws to this way of eating and little research to back up the purported benefits of “going paleo”.
Let’s start by a breaking down which foods are allowed and which ones are not:
Fresh fruits and vegetables
“Healthful oils” (olive, walnut, flaxseed, etc.)
Foods NOT Allowed:
Legumes (including peanuts)
Refined vegetable oils
Ok, this isn’t all bad, so let’s first discuss the pros:
1.) Emphasizes whole foods
Fresh, minimally processed foods such as fruits and veg, nuts and lean meats are the focal point, which is great! We should all try to eat more of these foods and the majority of American’s are lacking in this area thanks to a high consumption fast food and packaged products.
2.) No processed foods
See above. The vast majority of Americans consume far too much processed food, which is detrimental as it has been linked to the obesity and every major disease.
1.) Complete elimination of grains and dairy
While I do support the reduction of refined grains (i.e. white bread, cookies, cakes, white pasta, etc.) this diet completely eliminates any form of grain including heart-healthy ones like oats, whole wheat bread and brown rice.
Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy and multiple studies indicate that decreasing them negatively influences performance and health. A study conducted by Rosenkranz and colleagues found a rise in total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol in triathletes after following the low-carb diet compared to a traditional one. Additionally, workout performance actually decreased in these athletes as they experienced feelings of tiredness and fatigue while on the low-carb condition1. Even if you are not an athlete, this evidence is important to keep in mind if you are considering using paleo as a weight-loss tool.
Dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese are also important sources of calcium and vitamin D, both of which help to prevent bone fractures and osteoporosis. Consuming milk has also been linked to improved exercise performance and enhanced muscle growth and recovery2,3.
2.) No potatoes or legumes
I’m pretty sure our ancestors had these available to them back in the day…I just don’t get this one. Again, while potatoes are higher in carbohydrates compared to other vegetables, they are healthy, complex carbohydrates. They also provide a hefty dose of fiber as well as a variety of vitamins and minerals like potassium.
Legumes, are a lean source of protein, fiber and nutrients. Eliminating them makes the paleo diet very non-vegetarian friendly. It also possibly promotes an overconsumption of meat since other forms of protein are taken away (dairy, beans, grains).
3.) No processed foods
Yes, I am listing this as both a pro and con. Confused? Hear me out. I am not advocating the consumption of processed foods like chips, soft drinks or candy. However, any form of food that is altered from it’s original form in any way is deemed processed. This means, even nutritious items like dried fruit, granola bars and whole-wheat bread are technically processed. Again, this eliminates a huge variety of healthful foods and also makes this diet unrealistic to maintain and carry out for the average person.
Although the basic premise of the paleo diet is healthy (i.e. more fresh foods, less processed ones), the extreme restrictions and complete elimination of all grains, dairy, legumes and potatoes make it a poor choice to follow long-term. When searching my laptop to find photos to break up this wordy post, I was struck by how few paleo-friendly meals I consume! I enjoy cheese, yogurt, hummus, peanut butter and oats too much to be paleo. Oh, and wine and dessert.
The combined research does not support the paleodiet.com website’s proposition that following this type of eating plan is a healthier choice compared to a normal, well-balanced diet. I want to end by pointing out that everyone is different. As such, the paleo way of eating might be practical and enjoyable to someone, making it a healthy choice for THEM. However, the blanket statement suggesting that paleo is right for everyone and a healthier lifestyle compared to a normal well-balanced diet is simply not true.
References for further reading:
1.) Rosenkranz RR, Cook CM, Haub MD. Endurance training on low-carbohydrate and grain-based diets: a case study. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 2007 Jun 1;17(3):296.
2.) Karp JR, Johnston JD, Tecklenburg S, Mickleborough TD, Fly AD, Stager JM. Chocolate milk as a post-exercise recovery aid. International journal of sport nutrition and exercise metabolism. 2006 Feb 1;16(1):78.
3.) Lunn WR, Pasiakos SM, Colletto MR, Karfonta KE, Carbone JW, Anderson JM, Rodriguez NR. Chocolate milk and endurance exercise recovery: protein balance, glycogen, and performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2012 Apr 1;44(4):682-91.