I am extremely conflicted about the paleo diet (not leastwise for the reason that I want to spell it “palaeo” because I am Australian, damn it).
In a practical sense, the paleo diet is essentially a grain-free, dairy-free diet with a big focus on whole foods, avoiding additives and processing as much as possible. It tends to be a low carb sort of diet, which I (naturally) think accounts for much of its positive effect.
A lot of people who switch to a paleo diet rapidly report feeling a hell of a lot better – better energy levels, better mental focus, better, ahem, regularity – and given the carb content of a standard American or Australian diet, this does not surprise me. People who were having big insulin spikes and sugar crashes are now not having those things; they’re probably cooking more, and may well be eating more veggies.
It’s a bit of a no-brainer. Paleo is very compatible with keto, meaning that when searching for keto recipes I often substitute the word “paleo” in just to get a few more options. My diet is not paleo, though; I eat a lot of dairy.
Nutritionally, with even my own minimal and non-professional knowledge, I can’t fault it. If people are turning up at the doctor with terrible blood work and vitamin deficiency or ill health as a consequence of the paleo diet, no one is talking about it – and we really can’t say that about the S.A.D.
At the same time, the paleo diet gets a hell of a lot of bashing and thumping from various quarters, and while most of it is just pointless trolling, I can’t say that some of it isn’t deserved (how’s that for a double negative first thing on a Friday morning?).
Primarily, it’s the use of the word “paleo” itself, which is deeply problematic, and reflects an underlying philosophy that is at best unsupported and at worst a bizarre fantasy that perpetuates a false understanding of evolution.
In case you are unaware, the assumption of a paleo diet is that we have not evolved to eat the food that we currently eat – meaning grains, dairy, processed foods and food colouring 412 (I just made up a number, but upon looking it up, I have learned it is vibrant green) – and that we have evolved to eat what our Paleolithic ancestors would have eaten.
The assumption of that is, of course, that evolution stopped 10,000 years ago, that all Paleolithic peoples ate the same sort of diet, that 10,000 years is too short for gut enzymes to evolve effectively and – what I find most distressing of all – that evolution is perfect.
Evolution’s chief driving force is a combination of random mutations, systematic favourability of those changes, and wild successes and failures. There is no such thing as a “perfectly evolved” organism or system, unless you’re referring to the fact that a well-evolved system increases your reproductive fitness, i.e., you can live long enough to produce young, you can produce more than carriers of competing genetic makeup, and those young are high enough quality to persist in the population. That’s not taking into account random events that may wipe out more promising lines.
Meanwhile, it’s true that ten thousand years is not a long time for major structural evolution to take place. It is, however, a perfectly reasonable amount of time for small changes in gut enzymes to take place. For example, humanity has evolved lactase persistence (the ability to consume milk past infancy) at least three times, independently, in various populations
And outside of fixed genetic traits, individuals are incredibly adaptable just in terms of day-to-day functioning. We can get energy from an extraordinary range of things that we put in our mouths.
Does that mean it’s all equally efficient and all metabolically equal? No, of course not. We have a bunch of different mechanisms to digest and break down different energy sources, not the least of which is hosting a veritable boatload of symbiotic bacteria to do our digesting for us (one of the other ways the process is rendered extremely malleable… and if you see a slightly gross pun in there, it was unintentional, but I can’t take it out now, dammit).
I actually think that the words we use matter, and that evidence matters, and I don’t like the idea of perpetuating misinformation when it comes to a mechanism as basic and essential as evolution. I don’t like the idea of people building castles in the air that overwrite the hard work of anthropologists and archaeologists, and I don’t like the logical flaw that somehow picks the Paleolithic over any other period and says “There! That’s when it was perfect!”
It’s true that there are some other rather pedantic issues I could point out: none of the meat you eat today likely bears much resemblance to the prey of a paleolithic hunting party; very few – if any – of the vegetables you might happily chop up for a salad or a stir fry have been unmodified by agriculture; the macronutrient ratios and micronutrient content of these things will be very different. I’m sorry, but we’ve changed the world, and we’ve changed what we eat, and we are ourselves different as well. That is simply how it is, and we can’t go back.
Having said that, many people simply refer to the “paleo diet” as a shorthand for the way they eat. They’re not necessarily invested in the (seriously inaccurate) underlying philosophy, but in the fact that they feel healthier and better when they eat according to that framework. I don’t think there’s any value in trolling such people, or in asking if they take antibiotics or use computers because those aren’t paleo, etc., etc. I think that’s a waste of time, misses the point, and causes meaningless hurt and difficulty for people without providing any benefit to the community at large.
When people find a “game-changer” for their health or some other aspect of their life – in the way that keto and gym have been for me – they get emotionally invested in it, and some people get really attached to the labels. I’m no exception to that (I could write a whole blog post about labels and why I like them, as tricky as they can be, and I probably will).
People get to decide how they label and define themselves, and I’m certainly not going to tell anyone they “can’t” say they “eat paleo”. If they are open to a discussion on the flaws in some of the underlying assumptions, I might have that conversation; but otherwise, it’s really none of my business how people define their diet. It’s only if they start to make harmful recommendations that it would be an issue, and only if the harm of those recommendations is related to the misuse of the term “paleo” or a similarly fallacious appeal to nature.
So in the end, my step-by-step response to the paleo diet is as follows:
- It seems to be pretty healthy and it makes people feel better.
- The underlying assumptions are rubbish.
- It therefore makes people feel better for reasons that are not likely to be related to the underlying assumptions and,
- People can call themselves and their diets whatever they like. If keto didn’t already have a name, I might call it George.