The Paleo Diet – Pros and Cons

by Brian on March 6, 2011

This post is a continuation of my What and Why to Eat for Optimal Health series that explores optimal eating habits and compares the pros and cons of different diets including vegan, vegetarian, raw food, and the paleo diet.

Probably the least well known of the diets I researched, The Paleo Diet is the only one that advocates meat as a primary source of nutrition. At first glance it appears like just another low carb, high protein diet like the Atkins Diet. However, there are some subtle and important differences.

“Paleo” in the name of the diet comes from the Paleolithic (caveman) period. The basic logic of the diet is that the environment humans evolved in was essentially unchanged for millions of years until the relatively recent development of farming and processed foods. Hence eating the way our paleolithic ancestors ate ensures we are eating the foods that our bodies were evolved to thrive on.

Broadly speaking, there are 3 main principles to the Paleo Diet:

  • Eat as much lean meat, fruits, and vegetables as you want.
  • Eat nuts, seeds, and starchy tubers (potatoes) infrequently and in moderation.
  • No dairy, grains, soy, legumes, or processed foods.

If we think about the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have lived, these principles makes sense. Hunt all the naturally low-fat animals you can find. Pick as many fruits and veggies as you can find. Nuts and seeds by their very nature would have only been available here and there in small amounts. Unprocessed grains (think raw wheat) would have been completely inedible. And even if you could manage to catch a wild beast, good luck milking it.

The nutritional content of the diet is fairly straightforward. We get protein, and a good chunk of other nutrients, from meats. We get fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients from fruits and vegetables.

No dairy, i.e. no milk and cheese, flabbergasted me when I first read about this diet. Like most Americans, I grew up with “Got Milk?” commercials telling me to drink milk for strong bones and healthy teeth.

However, it turns out that milk is actually net acidic. Which means that while milk does contain calcium, its acidity actually leeches calcium from your bones to neutralize the acid rather than adding calcium to your bones.

Another problem with milk is lactose intolerance, which is actually a problem that grows with age (ever noticed that milk makes you fart?). Babies are born with the enzyme to digest mother’s milk and this enzyme production drops off as you get older.

No grains (wheat, corn, barley, etc.) is a double whammy. No milk and now no grains? Surely this diet must be insane. Grains are the base of the USDA food pyramid (issued by the government of the United States!).

However, it turns out that dairy and grains are big business (with big federal subsidies) and the USDA may have its constituents more in mind than the health of us citizens. One analysis discovered that the USDA food pyramid was the same dietary breakdown as hog feed used to make pigs fatter–this should provide some obvious clues to rising obesity in America.

The main problem with grains is a protein called gluten. It damages your stomach lining and intestines. It has also been linked to cancer, diabetes, and a host of other health problems.

If that weren’t enough, grains actually contain anti-nutrients called lectins that are natural insecticides plants generate to fend off bugs. It turns out that they’re not so good for human health either.

The other health hazzard related to grains is processed foods, which nearly all contain high fructose corn syrup–a sugar made from corn. This sweetener is in nearly every food that “doesn’t grow that way” including Coke, bread, cereal, candy bars, frozen pizza.

Soy and legumes are also ruled out because of their anti-nutrients. Soy may be particularly damaging to young boys because it contains an artificial estrogen. Starchy tubers (potatoes) are problematic because of their high carbohydrate (sugar) content.

For me, the scientific evidence overwhelmingly points to a Paleo Diet of mostly meats, vegetables, and fruits as the optimal way for humans to eat. Modern food related ailments, examinations of paleolithic teeth, and the findings of many pre-historic cook sites filled with charred, cut-marked bones make it abundantly clear that this is the way our ancestors ate and the way that we should be eating as well. I personally have been following The Paleo Diet principles for the past three years with excellent results.

The one downfall of the Paleo Diet is ethical concerns over killing animals for food. It does not sit well with me that another living creature has to die for my dinner. The main reason for my recent push through nutrition literature was to see if there are viable meat-free alternatives such as veganism or vegetarianism.

In the next post I will take a brief interlude from the discussion of diets to take a closer look at the impact of Organic, Conventionally Grown, and Genetically Modified Foods on our health.

Recommended Reading:

The Paleo Diet

The Primal Blueprint

The New Evolution Diet

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