The Pitfalls of Paleo

by Dr Angie Clonan, Post-doctoral researcher, ardent supporter of social justice in relation to food, and fan of qualitative research

 

I remember encountering the ‘Paleo Diet’ as an undergraduate food and nutrition student, perusing the local charity shop book offerings, and stumbling on a copy of Loren Cordain’s very first edition of the book outlining the concept : “The Paleo Diet; Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat”[1]. With such an enticing title I was instantly drawn in, and as I read the first few pages was swept away by the idea that as humans our food consumption patterns have ‘strayed from the path designed for us by nature’ [1]. The book proposed a diet advocated eating a wide variety of foods, and had a firm focus on fruit, vegetable and nut consumption (although the latter in moderation).  Interestingly, this was around the time when foods containing gluten (think of all our starchy staples like bread and pasta) were also suffering from something of an image crisis, and so when I read that ‘cereal grains are best left for the birds’ (I kid you not, this is actually written) it seemed to somehow all fit into place, and appealed to me as the perfect antidote to counteract all that ‘processed food’.

Dairy products, grains, refined sugars, salt and processed foods also had to be avoided, (as did alcohol) and so off I went with my shopping list, focused on lean meats, fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables, and nuts and seeds. My first hurdle was at the checkout, when I realised that this was not going to be a cheap way to eat! A diet centred on animal based protein would already be costly, however the advice to choose free range options (where possible), and wild fish/seafood made it more so.  Some of the recipes provided in the book were interesting, and with salt being off limits, it was necessary to include significant amounts of the various herbs and spices to achieve a decent flavour (ahem, more pennies). I’m not sure quite how long I managed to continue on this path, which followed an 85/15 rule (15% of meals could be cheat foods), however I can recall losing weight, which is hardly surprising in retrospect considering how many food groups were being avoided. And I suppose herein lies the problem with a Paleo style of eating; for me it was just too restrictive.

No grains at all (this includes barley, corn, millet, oats, rice, rye, sorghum, wheat, no cheese (or pickles!), no milk, no cakes or chocolate, no legumes (peas, beans, lentils, peanuts), no starchy roots (yes potatoes are also out), and no fatty meats. Meaning that bacon and lamb were off the menu too! So, whilst weight loss was pretty much inevitable, adherence was impossible, particularly if I didn’t want to be permanently miserable. Additionally I was left wondering about the potential nutrient deficiencies which could arise from such restricted eating, for example calcium and folic acid.

What still fascinates me most about the Paleo diet is the controversy and debate it continues to generate, some 15 years on. There are dozens of websites offering advice on how to embark on a Paleo diet, many of which also endorse and/or offer links to products aimed at this type of ‘lifestyle’. Go to any food or health blog online and you will read comments from hundreds of devoted fans of the Paleo style of eating, along with frequent reporting of reversals in autoimmune diseases such as arthritis and other health conditions.  Analysis of these internet contributions would make for a very interesting piece of research, and a great starting place would be the comments left by YouTube’s watchers in response to Dr Christina Warinners Ted Talks piece, ‘Debunking the paleo diet’[2]. In this short video, Dr Warriner, an archaeological geneticist, questions the foundational archaeological concepts which underpin the entire premise of the Paleo diet, highlighting many interesting points, not least the fact that meat was certainly not available in such abundance as a food source for Paleolithic people as it is today. I guess modern day agriculture has its good points afterall?!

Whilst I can still get on board with the idea of a diet based around consuming fresh fruit and vegetables, and minimising consumption of heavily processed food, I believe that the Paleo style of eating places an unhealthy emphasis on animal protein consumption. Protein is, without question, an essential nutrient for the human body, and also imparts satiety, (therefore is useful in mediating the possibility of overeating), however higher income countries, such as the UK already consume on average 60% more protein than we actually need. Both the environment and our own health would benefit from a reduction in animal protein in particular[3].  As previously mentioned, consuming a diet rich in high quality animal protein is costly, rendering the Paleo diet accessible only to those who can afford it, which to my mind makes the consumption of high quality animal protein a class issue.  And before you inform me that there are many cheaper cuts of high quality animal protein available (I’m thinking of the ‘nutrient rich’ organs and bone marrow here), consider how many of us have the necessary kitchen skills or time available to enable a palatable production of any of these on a regular school night, never mind enduring the ensuing disgust from children or spouses when faced with a plateful of offal.

 

  1. Cordain, L., The Paleo Diet; Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Food You Were Designed to Eat. 2002, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.
  2. Warriner, C. Debunking the paleo diet. 2013 [cited 2017; Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMOjVYgYaG8.
  3. Clonan, A., K.E. Roberts, and M. Holdsworth, Socioeconomic and demographic drivers of red and processed meat consumption: implications for health and environmental sustainability. Proc Nutr Soc, 2016. 75(3): p. 367-73.