Is Paleo ‘pathetic’? My opinion on Dave’s opinion.

Are you a Nickelback fan? I didn’t think so. The chances are slim as I think there are six of us, including his mum and April Levine. It’s not something I tell a lot of people as it leaves me wide open to be mercilessly mocked. As you will know, music is a really personal thing and when somebody attacks it, it feels like an attack on your character. This week those same emotions were evoked when I read an opinion piece in the Herald about the paleo diet, written in response to a press release advertising a new paleo lifestyle book (Clean Living) by Luke and Scott from My Kitchen Rules (my favourite show). As is standard media, it is far more likely to spark some interest if the subsequent article took an angle that is in opposition to promoting paleo. Regardless of why it was written, I took it personally – an endearing (?) yet flawed character trait that I’m completely aware of. I viewed it as an attack on my personal and professional integrity. That someone would label paleo as ‘pathetic’ is calling into question the foundation of what I believe (and advocate) to be healthy, and I felt the piece was perpetuating misconceptions of what it means to eat paleo. I shared this with Dave (the author) on Twitter.

Ego aside, the other (more important) reason it didn’t sit well with me is that it sends the wrong messages to anyone reading it who is unfamiliar with the paleo approach to eating. For people who eat a paleo diet, an article that bashes it wasn’t going to make or break their dietary habits –they’re likely to have read a lot about it themselves to have begun following paleo anyway, and inevitably be more informed about the topic. However there are a lot of people who might be struggling with their health, their weight, their energy levels and are mildly curious as to what this ‘paleo’ is that they are hearing more about lately. They look to an authoritative voice such as a dietitian for some solid, evidence-based information. Reading an article like this might effectively quash their desire learn more, which could have lead to them adopting the principles and experiencing real health benefits experienced by many who follow a paleo approach to eating.

What were my main issues with the article? Pretty much the reasons that were put forth to NOT follow a paleo diet:

Caveman didn’t eat meat everyday. Most advocating a paleo-approach to diet would advocate a broad range of available animal proteins including eggs, meat, poultry, seafood to enable people to get important vitamins and minerals that are essential co-factors for bone and skeletal muscle metabolism and repair, and help with blood sugar regulation. Eating some form of animal protein at most meals is actually just good health for those choosing to include it in their diet. People preferring to follow a plant-based diet are clearly not in this camp. Yes, 500g rump steak in one sitting is unhealthy. Not many health professionals advocating paleo would advocate that.

Cavemen didn’t eat modern day paleo foods such as bacon and sausages. Can’t argue with that. But that implies that advocates treat bacon as a separate food group. Not so. Most of us view bacon as a condiment, not an obligate part of the diet. And sausages? You can get great sausages of real meat from the butcher. Perhaps not from the Mad Butcher though. Those $10 bags of 20 sausages are barely food, let alone paleo.

Cavemen ate everything available. Yes. Paleo advocates who have done reading around the topic don’t think we evolved to eat one diet. That said, there are certainly commonalities within a lot of ancestral diets. Meat, seafood, seeds, nuts, tubers, milk (for some), fruit, vegetables featured in ancestral diets that have been studied in varying amounts depending on the environment.

Caveman weren’t afraid of fruits. Neither are paleo advocates. Except for nashi pears. (and large amounts of fruit for people who have trouble regulating their blood sugar (and subsequent insulin) levels.)

Caveman ate carbohydrates. Of course they did. Unless someone is metabolically disregulated (as above), a moderate amount of whole food sources of carbohydrate such as potato, kumara, bananas, taro is part of a paleo diet. Paleo isn’t necessarily low carbohydrate but certainly, compared to our standard westernised diet, it will be lower in carbohydrate. As a side note, the dietary contribution of carbohydrate varied quite substantially from one region to the next.

Caveman weren’t training for specific sports. And? This point against paleo confused me, but anyway; nutritionists and dietitians consulting on diet for athletes note that people can really benefit when moving from a standard athlete diet to a paleo approach. The change in diet to a lower carbohydrate, higher fat, nutrient and fibre-rich diet results in marked improvements in appetite, blood sugar regulation, and the ability to burn fat during training and recover after hard sessions. This could be due to less oxidative stress in the body that would typically be caused by sugar being dumped in the system. As a whole, for these athletes, they are able to train consistently – a key factor to improve performance. While we do have a few studies either up and running at AUT or about to begin in the new year investigating these factors in different cohorts of athletes, those experiencing the benefits of paleo don’t need a peer-reviewed paper to prove to them the real effects of eating a whole food diet.

Caveman lived shorter lives. Despite the obvious technological, societal, medicinal advances that are now present in modern society which enable us to live longer, the evidence doesn’t support this, once you examine the data without children and mothers dying in childbirth. In addition, public health experts now believe parents of today could outlive their children due to the pandemic of chronic disease the western world is experiencing.

Caveman ate organic and free range. Yes they did. Those who can afford to do that today also do. However I think overall that as much as possible, people who would like to follow a paleo diet can do so much by swapping out processed food for fresh fruit, vegetables, canned meat etc without breaking their bank accounts.

There are certainly better critiques that examine arguments against the paleo diet (think Chris Kresser, Paul Jaminet, Jamie Scott and Robb Wolf to name a few). I think, overall, Dave has missed the point about my opposition to his opinion piece. A paleo approach to diet is not about emulating all things caveman like. It’s about taking an evolutionary approach to diet and health and applying the lessons learned to modern day living. Dave advocates a whole food diet (as I do), and pointed out that any educated reader would see this. Not the point. To advocate this in one breath and bash paleo in another implies to anyone reading the article that paleo is not that whole food approach to diet. Any reader, educated or otherwise, would see this.

2 thoughts on “Is Paleo ‘pathetic’? My opinion on Dave’s opinion.

  1. Hi Mikki, would you consider doing a post on grains? I’m not convinced they should be eliminated from the diet since the traditional Meditteranian diet contains them and they live long, healthy lives. Also asian countries tend to have lower levels of chronic disease and they eat rice. Would be interested in reading a bit about the research/reasoning behind this. THanks!

    • Hi Nicola,
      The best places to go for sources of information re: grains in the diet (to my mind) are from paleo proponents who share similar views as to mine with regards to food and health. The place of grains in the diet is individual, certainly – and for those who have symptoms related to grain intolerance (which can range from gastro intestinal symptoms to fatigue, skin conditions etc – not all related to the gut) then removing these to reduce inflammation over a time period of 4 or so weeks can be a good start to see if you have an aversion to them. Then reintroduce (one at a time – the only thing you reintroduce) for a week to see how you feel. However grains (the way they appear in the diet now) are typically highly refined and are present in large amounts in the modern diet. They offer little in terms of nutritive value compared to other sources of CHO. The toxins in grains can be problematic in that it affects our overall gut health – and as 70% of our immune system is found in the gut, the change in gut bacteria (an overgrowth of bad, and less ‘good’ gut bacteria – the ‘gate keepers’ of our immune system) contribute to a lot of health problems – research around the gut microbes is beginning to garner a lot more attention in the last couple of years. (this is a nice summary of the state of the research: http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2013/sep/gut-microbes-closely-linked-proper-immune-function-other-health-issues)
      There is no real ‘one’ mediteranean diet – and indeed a study was published just last week that showed, instead of 3, the eating pattern potentially of most health benefit for some was one where there were two meals and not three (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/11/131128103839.htm) – again, there is no one diet. The Med diet is more of a ‘dietary’ pattern and, regardless of make-up, the contribution of grains to the diet is significantly lower than that of a standard westernised diet.
      Traditional Asian diets certainly get a substantial amount of energy from rice – however, their overall caloric intake is a lot lower, and there are other health promoting benefits of their eating patterns – these, along with the rice they eat (white rice is one of the most innocuous in terms of toxins in grains), will certainly reduce risk of chronic disease. As regions in Asia are now adopting more of a westernised diet, they are experiencing the same health issues related to diet as the US, UK and Asia Pacific.
      These paleo-proponents below are great sources of information and I encourage you, if you’re interested, to look further at the information:
      http://chriskresser.com/9-steps-to-perfect-health-1-dont-eat-toxins
      http://robbwolf.com/2012/11/15/meat-grains-live-sustainably/
      http://perfecthealthdiet.com/category/toxins-and-toxicity/wheat-grains/

      There are differences in their views but, ultimately, the message is to take lessons from lifestyle prinicples that we’ve been doing for hundreds of thousands of years which have kept us in good health, and apply these as much as we can to modern day. This isn’t just diet – it’s sleep, physical activity, stress etc. It’s good to ask the question (grains/no grains) and ultimately whether or not you’ll benefit from removing grains is entirely individual.
      PS : for a light hearted look at the history of grains, youtube fathead https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/fat-head-youve-been-fed-load/id476528098
      Mikki 🙂

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