SIGN UP FOR THE LIFEMAG BRIEF

Receive our top articles each week direct to your inbox

LIFEMAG Original

The problem with Paleo

by Harriet Easton Published on 7th Sep 2015

by Harriet Easton Published on 7th September 2015

Hattie Easton and Tasneem Dustagheer set out to discover if the Paleo diet really is worth all the hype.

Our brains’ and bodies’ needs have evolved considerably since the Stone Age, and so too have the foods we eat. Yet, as the most googled diet of 2013, it would seem that the Paleo diet has provoked a serious case of nutritional nostalgia. Increasing numbers of people are choosing to revert right back to the basics; anything which was not on our ancestors plates should not be on our plates today.

So, what are the basics according to Paleo dieters? Meat, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and even more meat. Dairy products, refined carbs, processed foods, legumes, coffee, alcohol and sugar are all strictly off limits. The theory is that we are just not genetically built to consume these foods. Paleoistas firmly believe that this ancient diet is the solution to living a longer, healthier life. However, not fitting to everyone’s budget or lifestyle, the diet is arguably overrated and its popularity unjustified.

The logic behind the Paleo Diet

At first glance, one might tend to agree with the Paleo dieters’ rationale. They claim that the foods introduced into our diets by the agricultural revolution are responsible for many of our modern-day allergies and intolerances. They also argue that our contemporary menu has supersized us. The statistics certainly support the Paleoistas on this latter point. According to the World Health Organisation, 38% of the adult world population is overweight, and 13% is obese. Strokes, heart diseases, cancers and musculoskeletal disorders are rampant.  

However, as far as allergies and intolerances are concerned, studies  have shown that the human body did in fact adapt to cope with the new foods that were a product of the agricultural revolution. For example, our bodies adapted in order to be able to break down starches into carbohydrates.  The fact that the human digestive genes have evolved, and will go on evolving, renders this part of the  Paleo dieters’ argument quite redundant. 

Moreover, the University of Chicago’s Quarterly Review of Biology recently released a report which calls into question another one of the Paleo dieters’ core beliefs: that the advent of hunting equipment during the stone age, and the subsequent switch to a meat-heavy diet, led to an increase in human brain size. According to evolutionary biologist Karen Hardy and her colleagues, it was in fact carbohydrates which played an essential role in the development of bigger brains. High-functioning human brains require large supplies of glucose, as provided by carbohydrates.

Dieticians have been equally critical of the paleo diet. For example, in January 2014, Lucy Jones, a spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, told The Telegraph that the paleo diet trend was a ‘dangerous fad’ on the grounds that “its demand that you exclude food groups essential to health such as dairy, grains and legumes could leave people seriously deficient in essential vitamins and calcium, not to mention constipated from the lack of dietary fibre.”

Impractical and unbeneficial

Indeed, a diet which advocates the elimination of so many foods groups can be extremely difficult to follow in practice. So restrictive is the Paleo diet, that even some of its most enthusiastic supporters say that they are only 100% Paleo 80% of their time .

Another point with regards to impracticality, is that this diet is based around some of the most expensive foods on the supermarket shelves: meat, fruit and vegetables. This is not a diet which all can financially afford to follow.   
Granted, the Paleo diet fits well with certain, highly-active lifestyles.

Indeed, the diet initially gained popularity in the 1970s, and even more in the 1990s thanks to a new genre of fitness training - CrossFit. The main aim of this hugely popular regime is to empower and strengthen the body by lifting extreme weights. CrossFitters expend a huge amount of energy during their training, hence burning a huge number of calories. Our hunter-gatherer predecessors also expended a lot of energy - hiking long distances, hunting extensively, and most probably fighting off wild animals. With calorie requirements similar to those of our ancestors, CrossFitters thus felt the need to mimic the diets of our ancestors.   

CrossFit aficionados can afford to eat larger than average quantities of red meat, since they know they are training their bodies. A diet rich in protein can help to build up the muscles required for such an activity. But what about the rest of the population, who do not have time for such intensive training? For them, the very same red-meat-heavy diet can be life threatening.  Nutritionists from all over the world will tell you that there is a link between consuming large amounts of red meat and cancer, particularly colorectal cancer. An excess of red meat can also bring about cardiovascular problems and hypertension. Therefore, it is important to remember that the high animal protein content of the Paleo diet is not necessarily beneficial for all.

Slimming down

Sure enough the diet has proven to be effective for a number of individuals. Many reported that they lost weight within a few weeks of implementing the diet, and they continued to lose weight if they stuck to it in the longer term.  This isn’t surprising, given that the diet encourages people to eschew junk food in favour of buying fresh food to cook at home; a common sense approach to healthy eating in general.  

As such, there is one aspect of our loincloth-wearing, club-wielding ancestors’ diets which we would all undeniably find beneficial; namely, the principle of cooking meals from scratch with fresh ingredients. In this respect, there is nothing wrong with feeling a sense of nostalgia for the pre fast-food era.

Longevity?

So what about the claims to longevity? Conclusively, whilst the Paleo diet has certainly helped some people to lose weight and feel healthier in general, we cannot say for sure that it is helping people to live for longer.

There is not a single legitimate study which proves that the paleo diet alone directly correlates with significantly increased lifespan, and this, in spite of the diet’s popularity, is what counts.