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Unless you've been hiding under a rock for the last year or so, you know that the Paleo Diet has conquered the trendy eating terrain.
Also dubbed the Caveman Diet, the popular nutrition routine is meant to imitate that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, only involving the food that was around back then: fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, fish and grass-fed meat. The diet forbids dairy, grains, potatoes, legumes and processed food like chips and candy; even most alcohol is forbidden. Avid followers of the
self-proclaimed "world's healthiest diet" say Paleo doesn't just shrink waists—they believe the ancient eating practice can even prevent modern-day diseases.
While books were written about "the diet of the stone age" back in the '70s and '80s, Paleo was brought to the general masses in the 2010 by Dr. Loren Cordain, who wrote the food fad's best-selling bible. Paleo now has thousands of blogs dedicated to its lifestyle and recipes, boasts its own category on Amazon, and was the most searched weight-loss method on Google last year.
But not all nutrition experts are on board with Paleo's preaching. Several of the diets' core ideologies—for example, that industrialization produces evil foods which aren't evolutionary feasible, and that our diets are to blame for contemporary illness—have been disproved by research. Racked spoke with critics to break down the core tenets of the diet: You can hop on the Paleo bandwagon, but be sure you know the other side of the story first.
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Starches, carbs and grains aren't all bad for you.
Many nutritionists scoff at the Paleo diet's vilification of carbs and insist that they're actually the basis of a healthy diet. Carbs get stored in the body as energy and enable the protein you consume to be used for muscle building and tissue synthesis. Plus, carbs are needed for energy production during exercise.
Canadian fitness coach Scott Abel said he often prescribes his clients a food regimen rich in grains and starch, which he says are necessary for weight-loss goals since they keep people full. "Staples tend to stay with us longer and give a greater feeling of satiation," Abel noted. "Moreover these 'starch carbs' are nature's anti-depressants. They've been a diet staple since societies evolved."
Same goes for legumes.
Legumes are also on Paleo's list of no-no's since its mandate is to not eat anything that wasn't around during caveman times. Legumes include foods like soy, lentils, peanuts, peas, and beans— and according to Stanford University School of Medicine's Dr. Clyde Wilson, they're necessary in our diet to combat bacteria. While Paleo bans legumes because they have "antinutrients" (compounds that can impede nutrient absorption), Wilson said the diet's perspective is all in wrong in that it assumes foods in this category are meant to be eaten raw. When cooked, Wilson maintains, they actually help us battle diseases.
"The irony is that legumes are high in phytonutrients, which give the vegetables a bitter taste when they are raw," Wilson, who also works at Santa Monica's Sports Medicine Institute, said. "Paleo overlooks the story and doesn't see the positives of the plants, which come after they've been cooked. The bitter taste is how the vegetable protects itself, but when cooked for five minutes at 100 degrees, that part dies and legumes become an anti-cancer food. They also break down harmful invaders like fungi and viruses." Wilson added that legumes stabilize blood sugar levels better than any vegetable can.
In fact, no food category is inherently "bad"—and saying so dips into dangerous, disordered eating territory.
Categorizing certain foods as hands-down bad can lead to a dangerous path, Abel explained: "There are no 'bad' foods in the bigger picture of things. It's like saying some colors are bad." Diets like Paleo that are "ketogenic," or high in fat and low in carbs, are the ones that most often lead to disordered eating and emotional instability, he noted. He estimates 80% of his clients with eating disorders were triggered by keto-type diets.
"The lack of carbs intensify cravings for them and often leads to bingeing and emotional attachment to food," Abel said. "It's unnatural to make people afraid of food and cautious of the healthy emotional connection to the eating experience. No other mammal fears its food sources. Our brains aren't wired this way, so you put yourself at war with the natural wiring of our brain."
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But a meat-heavy diet can be unhealthy.
A key part of Paleo consumption is protein like beef, pork and poultry. While the diet stresses the importance of having this meat be grass-fed, independent health researcher Matt Stone, who authored the book about Paleo myths, noted that most adherents ultimately flock to the supermarket and buy whatever is available. And guess what: Eating an excess of industry-fed beef can lead to high levels of saturated fat.
"Our cells match the exact dietary composition of the food we eat, and corn-fed cow has so much saturated fatty acid that its tissues are filled with monounsaturated fat," Stone said. "Certainly the Paleo movement encourages people to source out quality meat, but most people will still buy theirs from the supermarket, and loading up on commercial-raised animals is extremely problematic."
Stone added that high-fat consumption coupled with low-carb intake can cause serious health problems: insomnia, cold hands and feet, low sex drive, dry skin, hair loss, and infertility, just to name a few. "You'll hear a lot of people with low-carb diets say they aren't feeling well," Stone explained. "If you're not eating enough carbs, it can lower your metabolic rate, causing a suppressing effect. The organs don't function well and the body's energy isn't consumed properly."
Our ancestors' farming tactics nowhere near mimic ours.
While the caveman rhetoric might make sense at face value, Stone noted the fundamentals often don't add up. Just look at the way we consume our fruits and vegetables today: "Our agriculture has huge health benefits; famines are rare to nonexistent, and that's great. But the downsides to modern methods are how the land is cultivated and how the food is produced."
In a July feature on the Paleo diet, the New Yorker called followers "conspiracy theorists" and noted that some of Paleo's favorite foods—like avocados, apples and broccoli—are nothing like their ancient predecessors since they've been domestically cultivated in the modern era. As biologist Marlene Zuk stated in her book, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Dieting and How we Live, "The reality is that we are not eating what our ancestors ate, perhaps because we do not want to, but also because we can't."
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Our diets don't cause disease.
Perhaps the most alarming theology of the Paleo diet is the claim that its way of eating prevents modern-day ailments. Its website even boasts that the food plan can "reduce your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and most chronic degenerative diseases that affect people in the Western world." Scientific research, however, doesn't link foods like rice, pasta and potatoes to chronic illness, and Stone said Paleo's reasoning is all based on pure speculation.
"The logic is certainly compelling," he said. "If we eat like our ancestors, we'll be free of modern diseases. But the biggest issue is that most of these diseases exploded in the 20th century, which was a period that also saw a huge lifestyle change. Paleo blames it on grains retroactively, and it's a seductive logic. Modern lifestyle is what's problematic—people sitting all day for long periods of time, the lack of exercise. Artificial light also interrupts health levels."
Stone added that we've been eating staples like grains and diary for thousands of years, way before heart disease and diabetes came into the picture. Foods that Paleo forbids have actually helped us become healthier than hunter-gatherers, he explained: "Just look at hunter-gatherers living today in the Brazilian and Polynesian rain forests. They aren't big and lean! Most of them are under-muscular and have potbellies."
The lifestyle ain't cheap—and to some, it's entirely unattainable.
A major complaint Paleo dieters have is just how expensive the lifestyle is. Constantly buying fresh meat, fish, fruits and vegetables while staying away from cheaper, packaged foods can balloon grocery bills and even push you into Goop territory.
According to a Paleo community survey conducted on the blog Naturally Engineered, 54 percent of people thought the diet could not be mainstreamed because of its cost and 58 percent said their cost of food increased with the implementation of the diet. Not to mention, the prices for beef and other protein have doubled in price, as compared to other food categories, according to Bloomberg; over the last five years, the price it jumped some 28 percent.
On PaleoHacks, one commenter noted that he couldn't "get out of Whole Foods for under $100 in a very short trip." Another put it this way: "I feel better the more Paleo I eat, but it can be expensive. There are a lot of tips available on how to save money on Paleo, but I haven't found any info on what it costs the average person to eat Paleo for a month. We eat few grains, lots of meat, eat organic when we can, mostly shop at Whole Foods, make the most of frozen meats and produce and don't drink alcohol. We're spending about $1,200 a month on food."