Extreme Diets: Paleo Edition



I’ve been dreading writing this post since I came up with the idea for this whole year long experiment.  I have so much to say. Once upon a time, a friend asked me my opinion, and I said, in a tone dripping with condescension, “I’m about as on board with Paleo as I am with being vegan.”  ….oh, snap. Who knows.  Maybe February 2013 will show me the error of my ways, and my comment, originally designed with sarcasm, will actually ring true, and I’ll be way into Paleo. I doubt it, but weirder things have happened.

First, some background on Paleo.  The Paleo Diet was created by Loren Cordain, PhD, and the premise of it is to revert back to the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors (from 2.3 million to 10,000 years ago), before agrarian societies were developed.

The Paleo Diet focuses on eating the following foods:

  • lean, naturally raised meats (i.e. grass fed beef, free range poultry, wild fish)
  • fresh fruits (not dried) and vegetables
  • nuts (not peanuts, which are actually legumes) and seeds
  • and minimally processed oils (namely, extra virgin olive, avocado, walnut, macadamia nut, flaxseed, and almond oils)

One great thing about Paleo is the “85/15” rule, which means that 85% of the time you follow the diet, and 15% of the time you get to cheat.  I actually think this is something that should be practiced with all diets as it reduces psychological burnout and allows you to have those little splurges without feeling like you’ve totally fallen off the diet wagon.

But back to the rules.  When I first visited ThePaleoDiet.com, my initial reaction was something along the lines of, “You’ve got to be ****ing kidding me.”  But the more I started looking at Paleo blogs and recipes, I opened up to it a bit more.  Then, my brother gave me The Paleo Diet Cookbook, and I went back to my original mindset because I realized that nearly all the recipes I was seeing aren’t truly “Paleo,” according to the way Cordain has defined it.
Here’s a sampling of things you can’t eat if you were going to do all-out Paleo:

  • Dairy: milk, cheese, yogurt, butter
  • Cereal grains: wheat, corn, rice, rye, barley, oats
  • Cereal-grainlike seeds: amaranth, buckwheat, quinoa
  • Legumes: lentils, chickpeas, all beans, peanuts, soy products (edamame, miso, tofu, etc)
  • Starchy tubers: Potatoes and all potato products
  • Vinegar and all vinegar containing products
  • Salt: essentially everything processed including most condiments, salad dressings, deli meats, bacon, pickles, virtually all canned meat/fish, and no adding salt to any foods
  • Fatty meats: pork ribs, bacon, sausage, beef ribs, poultry legs, T-bone steaks, etc.
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Sweets: candy, sugar, honey, maple syrup

Cordain states that the pattern of Western eating, characterized by refined carbohydrates, fats, and sugars; high in salt; and high in fatty meats and processed foods has led to the epidemics of obesity and metabolic diseases like Type 2 Diabetes and cardiovascular disease.  Yes. Absolutely.  There is no denying that.  However, these are diseases of the 20th and 21st centuries, not the last 10,000 years, and are really a result of our current highly-palatable, nutrient depleted food landscape compounded by a marked reduction in physical activity.

Now, I’ll go into my issues with Paleo.  I’m a hyper-analytical person, often to a fault.  This makes it borderline exhausting to be inside my brain (and I would know. I’m there most of the time).  On the plus side, it makes a life in the sciences extremely appealing.  Some may say that I’m missing the point of Paleo and I’m being too nit-picky.  That may be true, but I believe that if people are going to follow a diet, there should be evidence to back up said diet.

  • Cordain claims that if we follow Paleo, we will be eating the way Mother Nature intended us to eat.  This is a HUGE issue for me because we just simply do not have sound evidence that everything Paleo eliminates is bad for us.  Yes, our processed food intake is way too high in this country, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that foods like whole grains and lentils are going to hurt you, provided you don’t have an allergy/sensitivity/intolerance to them.
  • My approach to science and nutrition is that you need both epidemiological AND mechanistic evidence to back up any theory.  If legumes, whole grains, potatoes, etc. were so “poisonous” (as many blogs claim they are), how has mankind survived this long? Shouldn’t we have died off thousands of years ago if all these foods were causing such irreparable harm?
  • Also, mankind began to thrive with the advent of agriculture.  Agriculture allows us to get lots of calories and nutrients by growing our own food without expending so many calories on searching for food.  (We have since abused that skill, but that’s not the point of this discussion.
  • Paleolithic people were eating for survival, not for proper nutrition or joy, which is why I eat food.
  • We do not know exactly what the Paleolithic peoples were eating.  This is a huge point of contention for evolutionary biologists and archaeologists.  My friend Matt, an archaeologist, gets pretty heated when we talk about Paleo.  He was telling me that Paleolithic people living in the Andes mountains were eating all types of potatoes, while there is evidence that an important staple in the Middle Eastern Paleolithic people’s diets were chickpeas (AKA garbanzo beans).  I haven’t cross-referenced his information, but I really haven’t had time because I’ve been busy looking up too many other Paleo claims.  And, you know, writing a dissertation.
  • Why sweet potatoes, but not white potatoes? Cordain justifies this by saying that white potatoes have a high glycemic index, and thus aren’t allowed.  Two things:
    1) This seems completely arbitrary as to what we are allowing and not allowing. Are we eating like Paleolithic man? Then we should be able to eat potatoes, particularly because very few other starches are allowed.
    2) Gram for gram, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are extremely similar, regarding macronutrient content. Here is a breakdown of the differences (I didn’t double check this, but I’m pretty sure it’s reasonably close.  However, “inflammatory factor” isn’t a scientific term.  You’ll find lots of info on the inflammatory factor index on Google, but plug that search term into PubMed, and you won’t find any peer-reviewed science to support it. Pseudoscience!)
  • I wanted to know more about why legumes and potatoes aren’t allowed in Paleo.  I wish I had just accepted this fact, but instead, I went on a wild goose chase.  I have yet to find anything that says that Paleolithic man wasn’t eating these foods, but instead that these foods contain “anti-nutrients.” I had to look up what anti-nutrients are, because despite being 3.5 years into a PhD in Nutritional Science, I had never heard the term.  Apparently anti-nutrients include compounds such as lectins and saponins.

    –> Lectins are glucose-binding proteins that are in essentially every plant and animal but particularly high in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and nightshade plants (tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, bell peppers).  They can bind to any sugar moiety (pattern) they recognize, and cause agglutination (clumping) of proteins.  In fact, one of the most important immune responses we have, the complement system, utilizes lectins produced by our own bodies.  The theory behind avoiding foods high in lectin content is that lectins bind to the lining of our intestines, resulting in leaky gut syndrome, which would allow a whole host of foreign matter into our bodies to wreak havoc. I did search for some data to support this theory in humans, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t exist.  Leaky gut syndrome is also more of a hypothesis than a true pathological disorder, and is not well recognized in either the medical or scientific communities.  Of course, it takes time to conduct good science and develop legitimate evidence to support or refute an idea.  So, I’m not saying that this isn’t true.  Perhaps we just haven’t found the link yet… though a person stating that these compounds are deleterious to our health is an issue since the science doesn’t exist to support it.  If you are concerned about lectins, soaking or cooking the food (as most of us do with grains, legumes, and potatoes), and/or allowing the products to sprout will reduce the lectin content.–> Saponins are also found in many plants, particularly desert plants, legumes, potatoes, and quinoa, and they act as antimicrobial agents to fend off disease.  Cordain and other Paleo-goers state that saponins are also anti-nutrients and impair digestion of food.  Once again, I did another search to see if and what the evidence was.  I found lots of really good things. The The Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University states that saponins have a role in reducing cholesterol and secondary bile acid formation (bile acids are linked to colon cancer development) and are considered a natural remedy for hypercholesterolemia.  There is some evidence from animal sciences that saponins could be toxic if ingested in large enough amounts, but I really couldn’t find anything in human research. So, I’m not sure what the problem is with these things, but I think I’ll keep eating them.

I’m sorry for the rant.  And I’m sorry if I offended anyone with my rant because I certainly don’t think that people who follow Paleo are fools.  I hope no one thinks that.  I think that Paleo is one of many healthy diet options simply because it greatly reduces processed food intake and focuses on eating whole foods.  However, I want answers to my questions, and I think what bothers me most is that I haven’t found a good, reputable, scientific source with these answers.  That’s a red flag for me.  Maybe I’m using the wrong search terms.  I certainly haven’t read all the information out there, but it just seems like I shouldn’t have to spend so much time trying to find the evidence behind these claims.  I’m willing to take the time to look all this up, but I imagine that not everyone is willing or able to invest this much thought/time.  If anyone can provide me with SOUND evidence to answer my questions, I would be grateful, and more than willing to read it.

But for now, I will step off my soapbox, move past my scientific issues with Paleo, and follow the diet for the rest of February (it’s not an accident that I chose the shortest month to practice Paleo-ism).

15 responses »

  1. Another great post; love seeing into that busy head of yours.

    I’m curious, are you giving yourself and time between diets to attempt to regain your “baseline”? I’m thinking specifically about how you felt eating meat during the vegan diet, and now meat is a major staple of this diet. I’d imagine without some kind of downtime most of your first meals containing meat might be rough, but only because your body had acclimated to a meat-free diet, not because of anything inherent in the paleo diet.

    Just *ahem* food for thought.

    • Yep, I am. I give myself four days in between each diet to go back to my normal diet and “recalibrate,” so to speak. I haven’t really had any physiological issues with eating meat, which makes me think that it was more of a response to dairy in those couple times that I ate meat/cheese while being vegan. It would be better to give myself a whole week, but because I’m only doing each of these for a month, I figured 4 days would suffice.

  2. Ok so addmitedly this subject gets me a bit riled up, but when I read that this diet does not allow amaranth or quinoa I think I may have burst a few blood vessels. Here’s the reason: in the southwestern united states the remains of cheno-ams are found in many preagricultural archaeological sites, in fact they are one of the few types of plants that nearly all theses sites across an area covering almost a half of the united states share in common. Amaranth and quinoa are both members of this family and while now days we generally eat larger domesticated varieties they are essentially the same as their smaller wild relatives. Also why forbid honey which Is known to be eaten (albeit sparingly) in modern nonagricultural societies and at the same time allow any kind of processed oils which most nonagricultural societies both past and present had/have no acces to? I would like to propose a revision to the paleo diet that reflects what I beleive to be the views of the archaeological and ethnobotanical communities concerning nonagricultural subsistence, and it goes something like this: eat everything in your environment that is in any way edible except those things which are forbidden by your cultural or spiritual beliefs.

    If you want to know LOTS more about what people have been eating throughout history in the wester half of north America (spoiler: it’s lots of things the paleo diet doesn’t allow) check out ‘People and Plants in Ancient Western North America’ edited by Paul Minnis, or for a bit of lighter reading check out ‘gathering the desert’ by Gary Paul Nabhan

  3. You know, I went to a health conference this weekend and Dr. Eaton was there (I guess he is considered the “father” of paleo). It is interesting that he himself did not have a one specific strict paleo-style diet in mind when we asked him. Actually, a dietitian asked him about legumes and some “ancient” grains (if I can recall correctly) and he said he had no problem with those being included in the diet; and that much of the more restrictive advice has come from the later promoters of paleo.

    Well, I thought this was interesting indeed considering many try to stick to a very specific restricted diet and justify it by referring to Dr. Eaton’s work.

  4. You’re so awesome! I don’t suppose I have read something like that before.
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  6. I was wondering if you ever considered changing the structure of
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    • That’s a really great suggestion! I’m actually done writing the blog though – it was only a one year experiment that I had done. I’m obviously an amateur blog writer … I wish you had seen the blog about a year and a half ago!
      If I continue writing in the future, I will definitely be more cognizant of the layout and the aesthetics of the blog. I know I don’t read blogs that have so much text (like mine!). Thanks for the tip!

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