Why Would Anyone Follow The ‘Paleo Diet’?

When I first started writing for Blisstree a few months ago, my boyfriend suggested I post about the ‘Paleo diet,’ which he had a few friends following. I thanked him for the suggestion, but dismissed it—a couple of weirdos eating bunches of meat did not a trend make. Since then, however, I’ve seen references to the Paleo diet—also called the caveman or Stone Age diet—cropping up in the media more and more. And everyone I’ve talked to seems to know someone on it. So, all right, all right—I’ll bite (no pun intended): What’s up with the Paleo diet, and could it really help you lose weight or stay healthy?

The Paleo diet’s closest mainstream counterpart is the Atkins diet. Like Atkins adherents, Paleo eaters shun refined starches and sugars and processed foods, instead emphasizing protein (meat, fish, eggs, nuts) and fresh fruits and vegetables. So far so good, right? But the Paleo diet also recommends eliminating all grains, beans and dairy products, since those weren’t found in paleolithic diets (the guiding principle, more or less, is “What Would Cavepeople Do?”).

Advocates say that returning to the hunter-gatherer diet of our Stone Age ancestors could save us from the ailments that plague more modern eaters, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. If the needs of the human body haven’t changed all that much since caveman days, why should our diets differ drastically? Arthur De Vany, a 74-year-old former economics professor and author of the 2010 book The New Evolution Diet: What Our Paleolithic Ancestors Can Teach Us about Weight Loss, Fitness, and Aging, explains it like this: “We began getting heavier and developing new diseases once we ceased to be hunter-gatherers and instead became farmers — or more specifically, once we started eating the food we grow rather than gathering food.”

It doesn’t take much historical knowledge to know, however, that a lot of other lifestyle changes accompanied our transition from a hunter-gatherer society to an agrarian one, and even more between our agrarian and industrial days. Picking and choosing one element of that is just silly. Loren Cordain, a professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University who credits himself with bringing the Paleo diet from “an obscure idea” to something “known worldwide,” told the Associated Press that peer-reviewed research has shown the Paleo diet is better than the Mediterranean diet or US dietary guidelines at promoting weight-loss and overall health. But in U.S. News and World Report diet rankings published earlier this year, the Paleo diet came in absolute last.

Experts took issue with the Paleo diet on every measure. Regardless of what a dieter’s goal is—weight loss, heart health, or finding a diet that’s easy to follow—most experts concluded he or she is better off looking elsewhere. In one expert’s words: “A true Paleo diet might be a great option: very lean, pure meats, lots of wild plants. The modern approximations … are far from it

[…] By shunning dairy and grains, you’re at risk of missing out on a lot of nutrients. Also, if you’re not careful about making lean meat choices, you’ll quickly ratchet up your risk for heart problems.

Nutrition guru Marion Nestle noted that the life expectancy of Stone Age man was around 25 years “suggesting that the Paleolithic diet, among other life conditions, must have been considerably less than ideal.” And other academics have taken issue with both the evolutionary logic of the diet (“peoples have not been shown to have special genetic adaptations that suit them for such diets”) and the idea that today’s meat is the same as that of yore:

The take-home message seems to be that if we emulated such hunter-gatherers and derived more of our energy from animal foods, we might be able to avoid some of the “diseases of civilization” (eg, obesity, coronary heart disease, and type 2 diabetes). Such a suggestion, however well intentioned, seems ill advised given the high fat content of domesticated livestock relative to that of wild prey.

Obviously, cutting back on processed foods and refined carbs is a good dietary idea. There are ways to do that, however, that don’t cut out perfectly good grains, like quinoa and couscous  (as people have been pointing out, couscous is a *grain product,* not a grain itself, so let’s say rice or barley or millet instead) or rely on becoming a ravenous carnivore. People love diet plans that tell them to eat more meat, though—and The Sensible, Balanced Diet Plan just doesn’t sell books like a kooky fad angle can. I expect we’re going to be hearing a lot more about the Paleo diet in the months to come …

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