Pondering Paleo: Is Evolutionary Eating Right For You?

Whether you call it the “Paleo diet,” the “caveman” or the more preferred “ancestral nutrition,” you’ve no doubt heard at least a little about this style of eating. The basic concept of the Paleo diet (a term coined by Loren Cordain, PhD, founder of the “Paleo movement”) is that it’s based on foods that humans relied on prior to the dawn of agriculture and animal husbandry. In other words, the food products of more modern living—including grain-based foods, dairy products, legumes, certain vegetable oils and virtually all “processed” foods—are shunned in favor of foods that our hunter/gatherer ancestors may have subsisted on, namely grass-fed meat, eggs, seafood, nuts and seeds, and non-starchy fruits and vegetables.

262/365 Sunflower Seeds
Sunflower Seeds / Vinni / CC BY 2.0

The Paleo Premise

The most basic premise of this eating style—that consuming more whole foods and fewer processed foods is better for our health—is not only reasonable, it’s admirable. In fact, I know of no dietitian who would quibble with that idea. Nevertheless, the Paleo “lifestyle” is debated in publications, in the scientific arena and of course, all over the Internet, should you care to investigate further. There are many points of contention, and while I think that general Paleo principles can promote a more healthful food intake for many people, there are certain parts of the Paleo diet plan that trouble me. 

My Paleo Issues

Several of the ideas behind the Paleo diet are hard for me to swallow, but primary among them are:

The promotion of the idea that the “back to basics” approach to eating is unique to the Paleo diet or created by its founder. Some of the tenets of the plan include:

  • higher fiber intake, but lower carbohydrate intake/lower glycemic index
  • emphasizing mono- and poly-unsaturated fats and limiting trans and saturated fats
  • higher potassium and lower sodium intake
  • higher intake of plant phytochemicals, antioxidants

These same ideas are present in other, more moderate, less “sexy” eating plans—and have been. Paleo diet followers don’t have a monopoly on saying “yes” to more fruits and veggies, lean protein and eating more fiber, while limiting sugar, sodium, saturated fats and trans fats. In fact, those healthy diet moves are encouraged by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The many Paleo plan rules. There are many versions of the Paleo diet. Why? Because it’s a strict plan that can be difficult to adhere to. For most of us, food is more than just sustenance. In other words, sometimes we want a peanut butter sandwich, or an ice cream cone, or a baked potato! Food is one of the joys of living—at least in my world it is. Even the creator of the original Paleo diet allows it to be followed 85% of the time, allowing 3 non-Paleo meals per week. I don’t think I’m out on a limb when I say that there are far more people who use the Paleo priniciples in part, or as general guidance than there are those who follow the rules to a T. In which case, being “part-time Paleo” might end up looking more like some other more moderate, healthy diet plans you’ve heard about.

The one-diet-fits-all mentality of the plan. I believe in a balanced approach to eating. For example, I do happen to believe meat has a place in the diet, though I don’t think it’s requisite by any means. I believe that whole grains are healthful—but acknowledge that some things made from grains are less healthful (even downright unhealthful sometimes) and that many Americans’ diets lean too heavily toward grain-based products. I believe that dairy products have a place in the diet, and that cultures that have been consuming dairy products for ages have benefited from them nutritionally.

Cutting out entire food groups never sits that well with me. Also, given that a basic idea of the Paleo plan is that we should be eating like our hunter/gatherer ancestors, doesn’t it make sense that their diets weren’t all the same, but were reflections of where they lived or the areas they roamed? Many may have been vegetarians for a good part of the year, and some may never have tasted fish. I think there is more than one path to good health.

 The notion that eating an “ancestral diet” is the answer to humanity’s current health woes (including the modern man’s leading diseases and causes of death). For sure, there is science behind some of the Paleo priniciples as far as health promotion is concerned, but there is also science on the other side. Stone-Age people generally didn’t live long enough for our leading causes of death to have killed them—they usually died from other things.

There is much information to be found about the ancestral approach to nutrition, both pro and con. If you’re interested in exploring any type of specific diet plan, it’s always wise to consult your physician or a Registered Dietitian.