Paleo Shmaleo

Ok, it's time to address the Paleo Diet.  It seems apropos, because I recently attended a "Paleo Dinner" hosted by my fellow Recyclista, Emily Susen of Sleep.Eat.Gym.Repeat.

First, in case you've actually been living in a cave and haven't heard of this diet, the Paleo Diet is a food regimen cooked up by Dr. Loren Cordain, PhD, an anthropologist at Colorado State University.  He touts this high protein diet as one that humans "were designed to eat".   In fact, he suggests that you can "lose weight, prevent and treat heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, [and] metabolic syndrome" by eating "all the lean meats and fish, fresh fruits, an nonstarchy vegetables you want".   It's a diet, he states, that has been built into our genes - the stuff of hunter-gatherer civilizations.  Only real food that you could have hunted yourself or gathered from the ground.  Sounds super healthy, right?

At first glance, it really does! Real food!  Yes, please!  Except...

The fatal flaw I find in this diet is that it is 100% impossible to implement in the modern era.  I'm not talking about a little difficult to cut out the carbs or even particularly challenging on a wild beer filled Saturday night. I'm saying that the food that our ancestors ate does not exist anymore.  It has been selectively engineered for massive scale consumption.  There is no exception.  My favorite example is that, not so long ago, carrots used to be purple and were inedible.  Modern science has altered them to be digestible, enormous, sweet, and orange.

This is a Wild Banana.  Notice how little fruit there actually is.

Further, our ancestors actually had to HUNT and GATHER their food, which added to the healthfulness of their lifestyle.  If they didn't hunt, or if there was a drought, they didn't eat.  In fact, the research that probably helps to explain why our paleolithic ancestors were so "healthy" (i.e. not afflicted by modern self-inflicted diseases) is because they were calorie restricted, not pumped up with protein from wild game. (Side note: A researcher from MIT can actually mathematically show that the amount of calories available in our modern society is more related to our obesity problem than the actual food we put in our mouths.)

LEFT:  The small plants cave men would eat.  RIGHT:  The large, genetically altered, plants you eat.

Ok, so the food doesn't exist anymore.  But the modern day equivalents are still good for you.  True.  But, in addition to the implausibility of this diet, the "scientifically based" exclusions of this diet are quite imbalanced, seemingly cherry-picked from non-human research, and typically contradictory. Indulge me for a minute, while I work out some pro's and con's of the Paleolithic Food Pyramid in the modern era. 

PRO:  Real Food.  The idea with Paleo is that nothing is processed.  So, essentially, nothing in a package.  No crackers, no KIND bars, no protein shakes, no deli-meat... I'm on board with this.  Check.

Evolution at its finest. Sigh...

CON:  No Dairy.  No dairy = no dietary Vitamin D, and you all know how much I love my vitamin D!  Bottom line...Vitamin D is essential.  If you don't have Vitamin D, you cannot absorb Calcium.  Perhaps this is why a common disorder amongst the ancient culture was ostearthritis.  This is a particular problem in the winter time for those of us that live in northern climates because your skin absolutely cannot make vitamin D.  This leads to supplementation with pills, which seems a little anti-Paleo to me...  (FYI:  No dairy also means NO BUTTER.  Maybe it's me...but I feel butter is so often hyped as a "good fat" by the high protein crowd. As long as it is "grass fed" it seems to be ok.  I'm not against sparing use of butter, but this just seems a little paradoxical to me.  My girl, Emily, uses almond butter and several oils to cook.  Which seems good to me, but aren't those processed?  And there is no way that Paleo Man was pressing his own EVOO...)

Straight from a Paleo Dietitian...I wonder if there's a certification for that...

CON:  No Legumes....including beans and peanuts.  Legumes are off the list because of little particles called lectins.  The Paleo's like to call these little buggers "anti-nutrients"...I can't figure out why.  Basically, lectins bind to sugar and may do damage to your intestinal wall (not proven in humans...only in petri dishes, but it's possibly why some people feel nauseous after they eat beans).   The thing is, all you have to do is COOK your beans properly in order to inactivate the lectins.  Soak your beans over-night.  Eat tofu (which is boiled, a process that denatures lectins).  Or eat sprouted beans (again, turns off lectins).  Also, there are a BAJILLION (made up number) different types of lectins that can be found in abundance in the foods that are on the "eat more list" in the Paleo Cook Book (apples, sesame and sunflower seeds, rhubarb, tomatoes, eggplant...the list goes on).  Each one reacts very differently with a variety of cells in your body.  It's not a "one-size-fits-all" protein.  Oh, and it's a protein (which is supposed to be the staple of the paleo diet, right??).  Turns out, not all proteins are created equal either...

Dolichos bean predates humans. Interesting...

PRO:  No Fatty Meat.  I love this one!  No deli-meat, pepperoni, sausage, lamb and pork chops, marbled steak, or BACON (all off the list according to Cordain himself).  This stuff is BAD for you.  Documented again and again.  From excessive amounts of saturated fat to an obscene amount of calories, everyone should cross this crap off their list.

The problem is, I don't think this message is actually getting out there.  Everyone that I know that "eats paleo" gobbles down any kind of protein they can get their carnivorous hands on.  The diet does call for "lean meat at every meal"  however, there are VERY FEW healthy lean meats at the grocery store.  Do you honestly think that "organic chicken breast" is anything like the wild bird the Paleo-man had to catch to eat?  AND...that same Paleo-man would have swallowed every last bit of edible flesh on that sucker - muscle, eyeballs, liver, heart, even siphoning the marrow from the bone. AND...he probably wouldn't have another bird for days, maybe weeks.

Nathaniel Dominy, PhD (a Dartmouth based dissenting anthropologist to Cordain) says that the idea that our cave-dwelling ancestors consumed animal flesh at every meal is simply unfathomable.  He actually says that the staples of the hunter-gatherer were more likely plant based and has coined the term "starch-ivores" to describe ancient populations.  In fact, a multitude of research, including a recent paper in the journal Nature, showed that our ancestors truly did subsist on a diet of grasses, fruit, and bark, not animal.  Scientists can figure this out by looking at food particles stuck to ancient teeth (gross).

CON:  No starchy vegetables (including the super-hot-right-now-sweet potatoes) and starchy tubers.  I find this to be a contradiction considering several other tubers like: turnips, beets, carrots, celeriac, and radishes are on the "eat more" list.   Interestingly enough, the Glycemic Index (a measure of sugar content) in a cooked sweet potato (44) is less than a carrot (49).  This seems like one of those cherry-picked ideas.  I get that we want to move away from processed potato products...but this appears a little random.  There are no reasons given in the book as to why sweet potatoes are a no-go. CON:  No Grains.  The problem with not eating whole grains is that you are essentially limiting very important sources of micronutrients (like Vitamin E) when you eliminate them from your diet.   The Paleo's are super high on the idea that gluten, from grains, is essentially a poison to your insides.  Again, like lectin, gluten is a protein.   People can most definitely have sensitivity to gluten, ranging from mild allergic symptoms to very serious and debilitating Celiac's Disease.  However, Celiac's is an autoimmune disorder, not an allergy.  More people in the US are actually allergic to shellfish than wheat.   PRO: No sweets (including honey).  I'm putting this one in the pro-category because we should all eat less sugar.  No question.  Sugar, more than any other macronutrient out there, is most likely to be blamed for a huge portion of our society's disorders.  However, exercising bodies need to replace glycogen with glucose.  Gluconeogenesis (making sugar from other things you eat) will happen, however, it cannot happen rapidly enough to recover when you are training.  No glucose, no glycogen. No glycogen, performance declines.  Even Cordain has admitted this in his book, The Paleo Diet for Athletes. So, overall, I think this diet has its heart in the right place.... -ish. However, it's still a diet.  A very exclusionary (and potentially harmfully imbalanced) diet.  A diet that, despite its authors claims that it mimics an ancient-genetically-pleasing nutritional composition, is impossible to replicate in the modern era.   I'd say it's stretching scientific truth...a lot.

My last thought on the Paleo Diet is that it has become an excuse for people that work out to eat copious amounts of protein, with a complete imbalance of fruits and vegetables (which the diet does actually call for).  Cordain says you can "Eat until you are full."  The main issue with "eating until you are full", especially if you are eating super high calorie foods in the modern era, is that you will over eat.  No question.  And you will most likely over eat the steak, not the broccoli.

I get that you want to be the hunter.  But this seems a bit literal...

So, what did we eat at our Paleo Dinner the other night?  LOTS of fruits and veggies (obvi!!).  Pineapple avocado guacamole, red-pepper dip, and an amazing brocolli/carrot/cauliflower/seed-y/raisin slaw.  The two meats we had were prosciutto (cured meat...on the bad list..oops) and a tuna ceviche (which, as my husband pointed out, is a deep water fish that would have been pretty difficult for a boat-less cave-man to catch...).  Details, shmetails.

I want this shirt.


I don’t eat meat.  But I think that people should.

I don’t eat meat for two reasons:  1) It’s better for your health to limit meat intake and 2) I think the practices of industrial meat production are highly questionable.  I often tell people that if I knew the name of the chicken, pig or cow I was about to eat, I would probably go back to a carnivorous lifestyle.  Maybe someday...

I think that people should eat meat for two reasons:  1)  We have physically evolved to be omnivores  - as demonstrated by our canine teeth and 2) If you don’t eat Vitamin B12, which originates naturally only in animal products, you develop pernicious anemia, severe nervous system damage and eventually die.  So, in order to avoid certain death, we need to eat animal.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need meat “for the protein”.   American’s consume  far more protein that they need on a daily basis. Despite all of the high protein diet advice you’ve been hearing, you actually only need 0.8g of protein per kilogram of body weight, no matter what gender you are.  So, a 110lb (50kg) person needs ~40g of protein per day, while a 180lb person needs ~65g of protein per day.   Even those people that are lifting weights or training don’t need much more protein intake - maybe up to 1.2-1.5 g/kg/day (timing is really the most critical part of eating while training). Currently, most people between the ages of 19-50 consume 80-90g of protein per day, about 1.5-2X the amount required.

 The great thing is, protein is in EVERYTHING, not just meat.  Amino acids (which make up protein) - the cliche’d “building block of all living things” - are in every being from algae to humans.  There are 22 amino acids that your body needs, and 9 of them are essential (meaning you have to eat them because your body cannot generate them).  So, sometimes you need to play around with the intake to get all 9 in adequate amounts, but you can do this on a completely vegetarian diet.  Look at a gorilla for example - the strongest, most muscular of any jungle animal - a strict vegetarian.

Big muscles.  No meat.

I get my daily intake of necessary animal from eggs and dairy (cheese, yogurt, cream in my coffee) as well as fish once or twice a week (also a questionable industry, I know).   However, eating dairy and fish, have been shown to provide positive health benefits in the long term - increased bone mineral density (Vitamin D and Calcium), increase cognitive function (omega-3 fatty acids), enhance flow through the digestive tract (good bacteria in yogurt), and help with overall weight maintenance.

On the other hand, a new study examining the long term effects of daily red and processed meat consumption has shown a 13-20% increase in mortality (i.e. death) due to cardiovascular disease and cancer.  Other studies have also shown red meat intake increases risk of developing Cardiovascular Disease, Hypertension (high blood pressure), Myocardial Infarct (heart attack) and all kinds of Cancer - colon, prostate, esophogeal, pancreatic… I could not find a single study with positive health outcomes associated with increased red meat consumption.

 So, why is this happening?  Aren’t we supposed to eat meat?

You would think, by listening to all the “high protein diet” pushers out there.  According to Dr. Loren Cordain, the inventor of the Paleo Diet, we should have meat at every sitting.  The claim is that we are genetically adapted to eat lots of meat.  I review the Paleo Diet in another post, but suffice it to say, the meat available at your grocery store (even the very high priced organic, all-natural, grass-fed, cage-free stuff) has very little in common with what the Paleo man had to CATCH to eat.  The Paleo man would have been eating wild animal that also had to survive in nature.  Thus, the animal would have been lean, fit, and healthy.  Not farm raised.   And Paleo man would have eaten the WHOLE animal - the muscle (what we eat now), in addition to the heart, liver, kidneys, eyeballs...even sucked the marrow from the bones.   And then he probably wouldn’t have meat again until he could hunt another animal (which may have been days or weeks, depending on the hunting grounds).


Modern Hunter Gatherers.

The idea that we are genetically adapted to eating meat at every sitting is not only untrue, it has clearly been demonstrated in the modern world to be quite unhealthy.  Our animals (cow, pig, chicken) are not naturally lean (in fact, they are often made incredibly fat on purpose), they do not forage wild leaves and berries for sustenance, they are born on large farms, typically pumped with hormones and/or antibiotics, and kept fairly immobile until slaughter.

 The fact is, modern day red meat (cow, in particular) is very high in saturated fat and cholesterol - even the “lean” varieties (which provide no extra protection against CVD or cancer, according to the study).  Furthermore, excessive intake of dietary iron from these meat products, particularly heme iron (found in meat products only…different from the non-heme iron you find in some vegetables), may also be to blame for increased risk of premature death.

Marbled (i.e. FAT) Steak...Would you want your muscles to look like this??

Processed meat (sausage, deli-meat, bologna, bacon) is even significantly worse for you than plain old cow.  These man-altered meats contain high amounts of sodium and nitrogen containing compounds (added during curing).  We know that sodium causes inflammation and increased blood pressure.  Bad, obvi.  Nitrogen compounds, called nitrosamines, are highly carcinogenic (cancer causing).  They form when meat is charred or cooked at high temperatures.

Let’s be perfectly honest, if you’re going to eat red or processed meat (i.e. steak, sausage, hotdogs, ribs) you’re going to brown it up - on the grill, in a skillet, roasting in the oven for hours - this may be toxic.


Grilling leads to carcinogenic nitrosamines.

 The thing is, this is not a scare tactic by vegans on a PETA kick.  This is very real.  This is not the “clean” meat of our cave-dwelling ancestors.  This is the highly processed, purposefully fattened, removed from nature, meat environment we now live in.

So, should you purge all red meat from your diet today???!!  No, of course not.  But, you should be very conscientious about your meat choices.

  • In general, stay away from meat shoved into a casing or sold in a plastic package.
  • If you eat red meat (remember, we are omnivores) eat it once every week or two.
  • Eat it with a GIANT, colorful salad maybe with fruit for dessert (the anti-oxidants in the veggies and fruit have been shown to combat inflammation and reduce the complications of nitrosamines).
  • Substitute red meat with fish, white meat (turkey, chicken), or tofu (come on, try it…!), which have all shown health benefit, rather than detriment.
  • Get very daring and try some meat-less dishes - add quinoa, garbanzos or soy beans make it a super high protein meal!
Changing your risk - LATimes.

Lastly, remember...if you’re going to eat red meat, enjoy it!  Buy a nice cut, cook it well, and really taste every bite.  It should be a rare indulgence to savor!  Red meat should be a treat, as it was to the hunter-gatherers of days past.