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Top 10 Misconceptions About the Paleo Diet

June 30, 2012

I’ve spent the past week avidly reading, and sometimes joining in, a vigorous debate in response to The Top 10 Reasons I’m Not Paleo. The author apparently felt it necessary to defend her choice to eat croissants, cheese, and sprouted grain products (as part of a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet). We are all, of course, free to eat as we choose, and I’m not the food police. I only object to the misrepresentation of the paleo/primal/ancestral health movement, which has much to teach us about healthful living.

I don’t label myself as “paleo.” I’m just a Real Food lover who struggles to put what I have learned into practice. Several paleo/primal living gurus such as Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, Chris Kresser and others have certainly influenced me on my food and health journey — and none more than the late, great nutrition researcher Weston A. Price and his chief evangelist, Sally Fallon Morrell of the Weston A. Price Foundation.

Some of the following points are quotations from the post, and some are my extrapolations. 

1. Paleo is just the latest “fad diet,” and it’s already carved in stone.

A way of eating patterned after the original human diet — largely meat, fish, greens, tubers, nuts, berries and insects — can hardly be called a fad. By comparison, grain eating, a practice less than 10,000 years old, is a mere tweet in time. The paleo or primal diet concept seeks to take humans back to our roots to the types of food we evolved on and are best adapted to. I prefer the term “Ancestral health” myself, encompassing the wisdom of traditional foodways as documented by Weston A. Price, the species-appropriate human diet indicated by traditional hunter-gatherer diets, and evidence derived from anthropology, botany, medicine, and other scientific research.

Not only is the diet not carved in stone; it is a growing area of research (it’s evolving!) and has spawned at least two research symposia, the Ancestral Health Symposium and Paleof(x). The latter site has a nifty, concise introduction to the world of ancestral wellness and paleolithic nutrition in the modern world. A way to keep up with developments in the paleo world is to listen to some of the excellent podcasts out there: Chris Kresser’s Revolution Health Radio, Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution, and Angelo Coppola’s Latest in Paleo. (Search those terms in iTunes.) There are some excellent, science-grounded paleo blogs out there like Evolvify.com.

What’s more, weight loss isn’t the only goal, or even the primary goal, necessarily, of paleo adherents. It’s usually about improved health and performance, feeling good, and having more energy. That’s what I’m after!

Re-enactment, not paleo

2.  “Paleo is based on fantasy,” followers are “rigid” and it’s “too restrictive.”

Fantasy? No. It’s not about being an actual hunter-gatherer or engaging in historical re-enactment of paleolithic times. Andrew at evolve.com put it best in a tweet last year: “Paleo is a logical framework applied to modern humans, not a historical reenactment.”

John Durant of hunter-gatherer.com got a lot of attention after a New York Times article on “New Age Cavemen and the City,” but we don’t all aspire to go back in time or emulate the Cro Magnon brute look, parodied in the original blog post. But there are lessons to be learned from taking a fresh look at the differences between how modern, urbanized humans live and how more “primitive” peoples live or lived. (Meet “Grok” here.) Jared Diamond famously declared agriculture the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” and had positive things to say about hunter-gatherer culture. Sally Fallon also questioned the image of our ancestors inevitably leading lives that were “Nasty, Brutish, and Short.”

Good health is about more than just diet, and life is about so much more than perfectly following any diet. One is not required to be “rigid.” People who follow a paleo diet seem to do so because it makes them feel better, period.

Even if some paleo followers are rigid, the same could be true of followers of Weston A. Price, vegetarianism, veganism, The Zone, Atkins, the Palm Beach Diet, etc. This is a meaningless pejorative. And “rigid” or “restrictive” to you may mean “disciplined” to me. It’s also “life-saving” to some. (Check out some impressive testimonials here and here.) Paleo is a flexible framework, not an immutable list of foods that must be weighed and measured and eaten in certain proportions.

Most paleo gurus advocate trying it for 30 days (see Robb Wolf’s The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet) or even just 21 days (Mark Sisson’s The Primal Blueprint 21-day Total Body Transformation, or the Primal Blueprint) and seeing whether you look, feel and perform better. If not, one can always go back to merry pie-eating ways.

3. “Paleo is all about meat, meat and more meat,” just another high-protein diet fad.

No. It’s about eating real, fresh, unprocessed, nutrient-dense food like that enjoyed by our ancestors prior to the agricultural revolution of about 10,000 years ago in order to avoid the health problems that have plagued humans since the adoption of grains.

While it’s generally considered an animal foods-based diet, even some vegetarians follow a paleo-inspired diet. Some paleo/primal folks such as Nora Gedgaudas (Primal Body, Primal Mind) advise against eating meat in excess and encourage eating plenty of low-starch vegetables and healthful fats from plants and animals. Only so much protein can be metabolized at a time, and excess may be converted into glucose. The goal is to get accustomed to burning fat as the major fuel, instead of glucose. (This is not to say that some glucose isn’t necessary and desirable. As to exact amounts, your mileage may vary.)

Take a look at any paleo/primal cookbook and you’ll find an abundance of vegetables, fruit and nuts. Meat, too, but not typically 12-ounce steaks. Perhaps taking their cue from the Weston A. Price Foundation, paleos now caution against over consuming nuts, and more people are learning to soak them in salt water before dehydrating, in order to improve digestibility. Likewise, lacto-fermented vegetables and other cultured foods are increasingly advocated by paleo gurus.

In just a few short years since the first modern studies of a paleolithic diet by, among others, Loren Cordain and Art DeVany, prominent paleo adherents have come to reject the early advice to select only lean meats (typically from a supermarket) and now advocate seeking out pastured meats and eggs from the farmers market or directly from a local rancher. The gurus I respect now advise eating plenty of saturated fats such as lard, tallow, coconut oil, and avocados. This puts them in good company with followers of Weston A. Price, who in the 1930s studied first-hand the dietary habits of healthy non-industrialized populations eating their traditional diets, as written up in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration. (A good, easier-to-digest introduction to that work is found in Traditional Foods Are Your Best Medicine: Improving Health and Longevity With Native Nutrition, by Ron Schmid.)

Avocados? Totally paleo

4. “Paleo is low carb.”/ Paleo dieting is all about weight loss.

No. It is not, by definition, a low-carbohydrate diet. In practice, it may or may not be, depending on the foods chosen. Sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, starchy fruits, even white potatoes (usually peeled to avoid anti nutrients) are eaten by paleo folks who need more carbohydrates to fuel an active lifestyle. Yes, moving a lot, lifting heavy things sometimes, playing, getting out in the sun and getting plenty of sleep are all part of a healthy lifestyle, as pointed out by the paleo gurus. I like Mark Sisson’s take on the major lessons gleaned from so-called primitive peoples in this post on the basics of the Primal Blueprint.

As to weight loss, this is partially true for many people, but it’s also about health, energy, stamina, body composition and performance, whether athletic or just life. I’ve read many testimonials of people who say paleo saved their life. Given that obesity and related ills (diabetes, heart disease, inflammation) are rampant in our society, a safe, reliable way to lose weight isn’t a bad idea.

5. “Paleo is not scalable.”

This point didn’t really match the arguments that followed it, so I’ll just respond with what I think “scalable” means: sustainable. To quote my main comment on the original post:

As to which dietary approach is most sustainable, I’d suggest reading, or rereading, The Vegetarian Myth, by Lierre Keith, for some ideas. Sure, agriculture has had its benefits, but those have come at great cost (see also Jared Diamond). I’ve been avidly studying farming, gardening, and permaculture for approximately the same period I’ve been involved in the WAPF/Real Food movement, and the inescapable conclusion is that only truly sustainable food systems are those based on pastures (meat from grass-fed animals), food forests (permaculture gardens of perennial plants and trees), and ocean life, with less emphasis on grains and row crops. …

The vast majority of agriculture in industrialized nations is row-cropped monoculture food production; and natural forests are being replaced by tree farms (if not soybean fields), which lack the biodiversity necessary for a rich, self-sustaining ecosystem. The cultivation of grains, even done “organically,” wastes topsoil, water, petrochemical fuel, and the lives of myriad animals, plants and insects. [See anything on or by Joel SalatinPolyface Farm, or managed intensive grazing for further explanation.] …

In contrast, a prairie or a pasture-based system that mimics prairies and savannas (birds following ruminant animals) increases biodiversity, builds soil, and provides wildlife habitat, and the most nutrient-dense foods around. The Alan Savoy Institute has done pioneering work in Africa helping to restore drought-damaged lands by returning grazing livestock to them. It is actually possible to be pretty self-sufficient with that kind of farming, while restoring damaged ecosystems at the same time. Permaculture activists do amazing things with techniques such as mulch, micro-irrigation, swales, and trees to literally green the desert. (Please see this remarkable short video on greening the desert, which I never tire of watching. )

Growing grains? Not so much.

Many farmers in the Joel Salatin or permaculture mold think we can not only feed ourselves without conventional chemical farming, we can feed ourselves if we just convert lawn to gardens and restore the land used to grow the grains that supply Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) into prairies and pastures. That would be totally paleo. We have the land and the technology. We’re just mis-using our resources because of ignorance, greed, pick your explanation.

Fast food: chicken, chard, sauerkraut

6. “Paleo is impractical.”

Yet soaking and sprouting grains, grinding the flour, and then finally baking something is practical? Well, it does take some effort to do things that really matter, and if it works for you, fine. I’m into soaking and sprouting seeds, which I feed to my chickens.

It’s much physically easier to eat a paleo diet now than in actual paleolithic times: We don’t have to become hunter-gatherers and slay our own mastodons to follow the general framework of their diet. We can shop at real stores, at farmers markets, join CSAs, buy sides or quarters of beef from a local rancher, grow our own veggies, raise our own chickens and goats. We can eat out at restaurants if we can afford it. There are many ways to feed oneself. I find it very practical to feed myself healthful food.

Does it take longer to cook fresh food rather than zap a frozen meal in the microwave? For sure. Is it worth it? It is to me.

Does it take longer to prepare pastured meats and organic vegetables than it does to soak, sprout and/or ferment grains? I highly doubt it. It’s a matter of adjustment. If you’re not making a sandwich for lunch, what do you do? For me the answer is usually salad topped with meat, fish or eggs, plus dried fruit, nuts and homemade dressing. In the winter it’s often a hearty soup based on homemade bone stock. Sometimes I take homemade liver pate on gluten-free crackers or celery, or even store-bought liverwurst. Again, check the above links from Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson, and Chris Kresser for lots of free advice and recipes to support paleo nutrition.

7. “Paleo is expensive.”

Quoting myself again:

Dismissing paleo as too expensive is exactly what many people say to disparage organic food, or food from the farmers market, or biodynamic food, or, say, fermented cod liver oil. And the answer is still, “pay the farmer, or pay the doctor.” Beans and rice are good because they’re cheap? Well, yes, if that’s your only criteria, and it certainly helps to combine them with good fats. But there are anti nutrients in them, as you know. Proper food preparation is one way to deal with the problems. Going on GAPS temporarily seems to work for a lot of people. Avoiding those foods entirely, or even just most of the time, is another perfectly legitimate response.

As with any Real Foods diet, there are resources out there to help you shop on a budget. I save money by not buying or even making bread, cheese, ice cream and pie. (However, my partner still insists on having those around. Except for the pie.)

8. “The paleo diet is a waste of time and energy.”

The example given is that supposedly paleo folks are preoccupied with questions such as “Is honey paleo?” (Yes, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it in unlimited amounts.)

I’m not sure how it’s a waste of time and energy to eat nutrient-dense foods that agree with your digestive system and build your health. While some people do “fine” on the Standard American Diet or on a grain-heavy version of a Weston A. Price diet, it’s hard to see why they wouldn’t do well on paleo, which is devoid of the most problematic foods for most people. Be that as it may, some people say they don’t do well. Maybe they aren’t getting enough protein to meet their needs, maybe not enough fat, maybe not enough carbohydrates. Each has to find his or her own level of macronutrients. Maybe there are food allergies or intolerances or severe damage to the digestive system or metabolism that somehow can’t be helped by removing the major anti-nutrients in the typical diet. Maybe it’s not one-size-fits-all.

Typical paleo pyramid

9. Gluten intolerance other issues raised in Wheat Belly are just “a load of hogwash.”

I haven’t yet finished reading William Davis’s Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health, but I find it pretty impressive and thoroughly documented. No doubt it has some mistakes and some other researcher will refine his thesis. Similar evidence is cited in all the paleo books and blogs (including peer-reviewed studies published in scientific journals). The idea of cutting out grains, legumes and, generally, dairy foods doesn’t just come out of nowhere. Lots of people have trouble digesting those foods, and researchers are finding more and more health conditions connected to them. While it’s undoubtedly true that soaked, sprouted and/or fermented grains and legumes and raw or cultured dairy are more digestible and therefore preferable to the short-cut commercial versions, those foods will still be intolerable in many cases.

Some people will find they can heal their gut and overcome allergies and other issues by following a grain-free or at least gluten-free, sugar-free diet for a time, such as the GAPS diet (Gut and Psychology Syndrome), reputed to be excellent for healing the digestive system. Once healed, some people find they can add back properly prepared grains and legumes, which are generally shunned by paleo adherents, but some people can’t ever go back, or don’t want to. Why eat stuff that makes you feel bad?

Primal pyramid

10. It’s unthinkable to go without grains for life.

Ah, now we’re at the heart of the matter. The first points in the The Top 10 Reasons I’m Not Paleo list were actually:

  1. I really like cheese.
  2. I really like bread.
  3. I really like cookies. And cake. And pie.

Gee, so do I! Add coffee ice cream and stress to that list, and you have explained the 5-10 pounds (I’m guessing, haven’t weighed myself) that I put on recently, when I was definitely NOT eating paleo. And I didn’t feel well, and now I have a muffin top to get rid of. Sigh. But my personal attempts to move in the paleo direction already feel better. I really hate the whole concept of “dieting” and I am adamantly not doing that, but I’m back to avoiding wheat and other grains, and legumes and cheese, for at least a few weeks to see how it goes. Hey, I can always go back to bread.

Personally, I love bread and cheese, but bread, for sure, does not feel good in my body. It bloats me and drives cravings for more bread and carbohydrates in general. It’s just plain addictive (well explained in Wheat Belly). With my history of systemic candidiasis, this is not a good road to go down for me, and you can decide for yourself. And I suspect that dairy is what has caused weird red bumps around my eyes and nose in recent years. When I skip cheese and yogurt, the bumps tend to go away. Hmmm, sometimes we just have to wake up and accept the messages our bodies are giving us.

(I’ve avoided regular milk for years, due to the lactose intolerance that I figured out as a teenager. Even raw milk doesn’t agree with me, though I love the taste. I still use cream, ghee and especially butter, liberally. They don’t seem to be problematic, so maybe it’s the casein in cheese and milk?)

Years ago one of my brothers asked me why he could comfortably eat bread in Europe (he worked in Germany for about 6 months), but bread in America hurt his stomach. I hadn’t figured out all the pieces at the time, but now I know that the U.S. pioneered not only modern hybridized dwarf wheat that has undesirable characteristics, but also ways to speed up bread production with the use of added patented yeasts instead of wild strains, as well as various “dough conditioners” that in no way adequately replace soaking and sprouting grains and fermenting (souring) the dough.

You just have to do what’s best for you. It bears repeating that everyone has to tweak any dietary advice to fit their own body and circumstances.

If you’ve made it this far, here is a bonus point:

The original paleo babe

11. The paleo diet is bad for women.

That’s the implication in various anti-paleo blog posts I’ve seen. Unfortunately, health and medical research still too often exclude women because our more complex hormonal issues, compared with men’s, muddy the waters when trying to isolate factors to study, so generalized guidelines aren’t always tailored to fit women’s needs. That’s not really helpful. There is some evidence that eating too low in carbohydrates may cause adrenal fatigue under some circumstances (too much stress or exercise, unaddressed hormonal issues, etc.). It may be necessary to experiment with adding back more carbohydrates, to start, but that doesn’t have to mean grains or legumes. But if that works for you, that’s cool. Getting more sleep and reducing stress (I’m talking to myself here) are also incredibly important for women, especially.

Paleo for Women may be of some help. It covers categories including: Disordered Eating, Fasting, Hormones, HPA axis, Hypothalamic Amenorrhea, Menstrual Cramps PMS PMDD, Mental Health, Neurobiology of Eating, PCOS, Sex, Sleep, Weight Loss. Sounds fun!

I also recently found and love Ancestralizeme. Here’s one woman’s response to the “Top 10″ post with her own paleo success story.

And Robb Wolf, Mark Sisson and Chris Kresser all seem to be well tuned in to the needs of their female readers, so dig in and do some research. (Chris has a free e-mail series on Beyond Paleo with much more information, and his recent podcasts are also invaluable.) There are also plenty of paleo blogs and podcasts by women out there. Here’s one. And here. I don’t have an exhaustive list, but Google does.

10 Comments
  1. Excellent overview of Paleo, Jeanmarie. I think people all too often confuse “diet” with “losing weight,” when in reality everyone is on a diet– a diet is simply what you choose to eat.

    Out of curiosity, do you think Paleo would have been possible in Japan? I’ve travelled to Japan, China and Korea and can’t imagine the difficulties of adhering to (and explaining) the Paleo diet. But I’m sure there’s a way. It would be interesting to see some Asian-inspired Paleo recipes.

  2. KindFoodFarm,
    Thanks so much for the shout out, and what a great write up. I can’t believe what a stir Cheeseslave’s original post created, but am glad to see others responding thoughtfully and rationally! I look forward to reading more!
    – Christina G
    http://www.autoimmunepatient.com

    • KindFoodFarm permalink

      Hi Christina,
      Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you liked it. I hope you continue to do well.
      I’ve been alternately amused and appalled by the comments on Cheeseslave’s original post, as well as the post itself. I’m not commenting further, but I’m still reading the updates in my inbox, or at least skimming them.

      I’m really trying to get on a more regular blog schedule. Life is quite hectic right now (just right now?!), but I have a lot to say! Right now I’m working on a book review (still reading the book). I may post some of that review here.
      Thanks again,
      Jeanmarie

  3. What a fantastic, thorough post! Thank you so much for linking my post at the end! :-)

    • KindFoodFarm permalink

      You’re welcome! Thanks for checking mine out. Obviously, I don’t have the readership Ann Marie does, but I wanted to get my thoughts out there. Glad at least one other person saw them.

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