The Truth about the Paleo diet

Hugely popular, the Paleo diet has exploded onto the nutrition scene. Touted by followers as ‘the way our body was designed to eat’ it has become an industry of its own.

What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is based upon eating the way our ancestors did in paleolithic times, between 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago. Generally, it is low in carbohydrates and high in protein and fats and omits the modern foods which were not available in the Paleolithic era. Paleo enthusiasts claim the diet will extend our lifespan and reduce our risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and obesity because Paleolithic populations experienced low rates of such diseases by eating this way. Numerous claims have been made by many that it is the answer to weight loss.

So is this true?

In this article I break down the pros and cons of the diet as well as the marketing and environmental concerns of Paleo.

The Diet

Allowed
Grass-produced meats
Fish/seafood
Fresh fruits and veggies
Eggs
Nuts and seeds
Healthful oils (Olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)

Not Allowed
Cereal grains
Legumes (including peanuts)
Dairy
Refined sugar
Potatoes
Processed foods
Salt
Refined vegetable oils

*A general overview of the Paleo diet (variations of this diet exist)

Nutrition Analysis

High in fruit and vegetables: The promotion of fresh fruit and vegetables and high fibre intake is an element we can draw on from the Paleo diet. It is now well established that diets rich in fresh fruit, vegetables and fibre play a major role in the prevention of chronic disease and obesity. However, the diet does not allow starchy carbohydrate such as potato, sweet potato which is a shame because these foods in the right quantities are cheap, accessible and highly nutritious.

Heart Healthy Nuts and Seeds: Highly nutritious, high in fibre and rich in heart healthy monounsaturated fats proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Excess Meat Consumption: The Paleo diet is often (but not always) based heavily on meat. It’s typically consumed for breakfast, lunch and dinner and even snacks. There are major health and environmental concerns surrounding this. Based on solid scientific research on humans, it is recommended that we limit our intake of red meat to a maximum of 100 grams per day (the size of a deck of cards) as intakes above this level have proven links to colon cancer, kidney and heart disease. Such high levels of protein places extra stress on the kidneys, as the kidneys work over-time to filter such large levels of protein molecules. (Remember that the Paleo diet is also rich in nuts and seeds which are also rich sources of protein). It’s all well and good to say that the science shows that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed large amounts of meat and therefore we should too, although there are no studies which document the kidney health of people during this era. How do we know that there were not high levels of kidney disease?

The point is, we don’t.

As well as this, the fat profile of our meat has changed significantly. Now livestock are bred to be larger, feed more people, and to contain higher levels of fat and marbling for flavour and mouth feel. Studies show the wild beasts caught in Paleo times were much leaner and contained lower levels of saturated fats and much higher levels of heart healthy omega 3 fats. People following the diet in 2015 are consuming higher levels of fat than the Paleolithic people.

In contrast to today, our cave-man ancestors were hunting their meat with a spear which is darn hard work physically. They would have been burning energy (kilojoules) for their dinner, not purchasing it from the supermarket after sitting at their desk all day.

From witnessing the dietary intake of people on the Paleo diet, it can often be heavy on bacon. Bacon is high in fat, and contains nitrates which have been linked in studies to some cancers. If you are going Paleo, try and track down nitrate free bacon.

The Environmental Impact: Meat production is now one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The livestock require large amounts of grain and water to feed,  and produce environmentally damaging methane gas. We do need to ask the question: Can our planet support the high levels of meat intake required by people on this diet long term?

The Paleo diet does encourage sourcing meat from pasture fed animals which is great, but this is not always adhered to, understandably due to difficulty sourcing pasture fed products and the price tag.

No Dairy: Dairy was not available during the Paleolithic era. Paleo advocates associate dairy with a range of health problems including inflammation, but dairy has proven in strong studies to in fact, reduce inflammation, prevent obesity and help prevent osteoporosis.

Paleo fans argue that their dairy free diet contains calcium via green leafy vegetables, and whilst it is possible to obtain adequate calcium without dairy, in my experience the majority of people who cut out dairy once going Paleo are not always aware of the importance of maintaining an adequate calcium intake, nor the quantities of certain foods to eat in order to do so, and this is a major concern. To consume adequate levels of calcium to prevent osteoporosis, one needs to consume 7 cups of broccoli or 10 cups of chopped kale or 5 and a half cups of cooked wilted spinach.

How do we know that our Paleolithic ancestors did not have extremely high rates of osteoporosis due to the lack of calcium and vitamin D?  We don’t. So why am I making a fuss about Osteoporosis? This bone disease is a silent killer, with approx 20% of osteoporosis suffers passing away within 12 months of suffering a fracture, due to the simple fact that they are immobile and unable to care for themselves. And with over 1 million Australians currently suffering from Osteoporosis, it is a major health concern.

Now I’m not saying that you can’t get your calcium without dairy but if you are starting this diet, maintaining an adequate calcium and vitamin intake needs to be consciously factored into your diet. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as just ‘removing dairy and you will be healthier.’ You need to substitute wisely.

It Was a Lifestyle: In the Paleolithic era, they were wanderers and hunters. Their entire day was spent being heavily physically chasing their food, as their life was dependant upon it. A factor which would have contributed significantly to their health profile, not JUST their diet. They did not sit at a computer for 8 hours a day, then do a 1.5 hour cross fit session at the local gym then drive home. They did not work in a retail store then drive home and watch TV for the remainder of the night. Many Paleo fans undertake exercise programs to compliment their Paleo diet, which is a healthful aspect of the diet as physical activity plays a major role in preventing obesity and preventing chronic disease. A point to remember though, is that 1 hour at the gym 5 nights of the week is still only considered a moderate level of physical activity and not comparable to the activity levels of the Paleolithic cave-men.

No Legumes or Grains: There is no doubt that the western diet is heavily reliant on grains and the dose in which we consume them is above which our body needs. Processed cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner. However, it is the high levels of grains and type of grains which is the issue, not the grains themselves. To banish grains is making a simple problem more complex. Whole grains are rich in Vitamin B and carbohydrates for energy, fibre, protein, zinc anti oxidants and phyto nutrients. Grains such as whole meal pasta, millet, quinoa, barley and brown rice are nutritious foods and are low cost ingredients. They also have less environmental impact than meat production. Interestingly, new research is revealing that grains were in fact consumed in the Paleolithic era. Oooooh ahhhhh, controversial!

Legumes are a rich source of plant based protein, essential amino acids, zinc, iron, fibre, anti oxidants and phytonutrients. Low in fat, they can prevent cancer and protect our heart, making them a highly nutritious ingredient. Just because the cave-men didn’t eat them, doesn’t mean we can’t!

Low Carbohydrates: Carbohydrates are extremely important for brain and immune function. he only fuel our brain uses to function is carbohydrates (not fat or protein). Our Paleolithic ancestors did not have the added stress of working two jobs, mortgages, phones constantly ringing and getting the kids to soccer practice on time. There were no jobs in which focusing and high levels of attention was required for 8 hours a day. The Palaeolithic cave-man and woman roamed and foraged, requiring much less brain activity than the pressures of society today.

As well as this, carbohydrates play a major role in protecting us against germs and illness. Global travel has increased the rates of colds, flu and other communicable diseases in which we need to protect ourselves and build a healthy immune system, making carbohydrates essential for overall health.

No Sugar or Processed Foods: This is one aspect of the diet we can certainly draw from. It is well known that processed sugar and processed foods are linked to chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity and some cancers.

Paleo as a Disguise: Paleo cakes, cookies, bliss balls would not have existed in Palaeolithic times especially the likes of ‘Raw paleo coconut chocolate mousse tarts’. These types of recipes found online and in swanky Paleo cafes are laden with calories, though the Paleo diet as a label carries the assumption that it is healthy. Many Paleo recipes contain more calories per serve than a Big Mac hamburger which many people are not aware of. The recipes often contain much greater nutrition (vitamins, minerals and good fats) though regardless of whether a food is Paleo or not, if it tips us over the number of calories our body requires, it will lead to weight gain. Don’t get me wrong, I cook paleo recipes, but keep in mind that because the recipe has Paleo in it doesn’t necessarily mean it is healthy.

Paleo is Now a Business: Paleo has become a brand of its own and there is no doubt that there are people making very large amounts of money from the hype of this latest diet. Books, food products, diet plans, and restaurant chains.

Stigmatism: Paleo has a list of ‘allowed’ and ‘not allowed’ foods which for some people can give rise to eating disorders, unhealthy relationships with food and eating, and difficulties in social situations

The Verdict

  • It is important to remember that every time we remove a food group or ingredient from our diet, we are restricting the intake of healthy nutrients and opening ourselves up to deficiencies and possible disease. The health effects associated with the elimination of dairy, grains and the limitation of carbohydrates should be considered before embarking on the diet
  • There are certain aspects of the diet which we can certainly implement today such as getting back to whole natural foods, limiting sugar and processed foods, consuming more fruit and vegetables, choosing grass fed meats over grain fed and using healthful oils that are free from trans fats. This I do love about the Paleo diet.
  • Consideration of the effects of such high levels of meat and protein intake on our long-term health, and the cost to our environment needs to be taken
  • The lack of dairy is also of concern unless the dieter actively maintains their calcium intake via adequate levels of green leafy vegetables, sesame seeds and fish with edible bones
  • It’s like anything, moderation is the key and finding out what suits your body best
  • More peer-reviewed scientific research is needed into the effects of the Palaeolithic diet on our body TODAY, in our current society using our current food systems before we can apply the results of a diet many years in the past to that of our current changing world. I look forward to the new emerging research
  • Be cautious of packaged foods labelled as paleo. Clever marketing to entice you to buy, not necessarily healthy.
  • One last thing I will leave you with – our Paleo ancestors only lived to an average of 30 years of age. So, it is really the life-extending, life-changing diet that it’s supposed to be? 🙂

The Nutrition Guru

The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and all round myth buster. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible and up to date nutrition information in order for people to make their own educated decision about nutrition.

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17 thoughts on “The Truth About the Paleo Diet

  1. Misty Willits says:

    Wow, I am dismayed at the gross over-generalizations you have included in this post. It appears that you have not thoroughly researched the Paleo lifestyle at all, and your research on the healthfulness of “whole grains” is outdated at best. I would recommend you read “Wheat Belly” and “Grain Brain” before recommending wheat as even remotely healthy, and do a little research on Paleo before you condemn it. For your information, the serving size for animal protein is about the size of a deck of cards (in line with your government’s recommendations), and bacon is certainly NOT a dietary staple. If people are going to trust your advice as a health guru, it would be responsible of you to do your research first.

    • thenutritionguruandthechef says:

      Thanks for your feedback Misty.

      I would like to start by saying that I have not condemned the diet at all, nor did I state that bacon is a ‘staple’. I have pointed out several healthful aspects of the diet, and have not in any way told readers to NOT go Paleo. Instead, I have presented some information that is often neglected.

      The article was an analysis of the general paleo diet based upon a thorough review of the scientific literature, current books on the paleo diet, websites and social media sites based upon paleo. My view on the Paleo diet not only is based upon this, but also first hand what patients tell me they are consuming on the diet.

      I am also aware that there are many variations to the diet, however it is impossible to give an analysis of every single version of the paleo diet. Like most articles that are not a scientific review published in journals, it is an ‘overview’.
      I have also clearly stated that it is the type and dose of grains that are the issue, and recognise that for some people the elimination of grains can assist in reducing the symptoms of gastro intestinal and other disorders, although that discussion is for another article and could not be covered in this article, the focus being the paleo diet.

      You have suggested I read two books of which I have read, and whilst there are elements of the books which promote good health there are also some flaws and I do not use these books solely as my source of scientific nutrition information.

      Thank you for alerting me to the fact that the paleo diet recommends a serving size of a deck of cards (100 grams). Could you tell me, is this per serve eaten several times a day? If so, this would equate to 200-300 grams of meat per day which is over the recommended 100 grams per day.

      I have not claimed that bacon is a staple of the Paleo diet, merely that it can be ‘heavy on bacon.’

      As a nutritionist, I consider it irresponsible of me NOT to present the facts about the paleo diet which are often not discussed. That way, people can be armed with all of the information needed to make their own decision, not just that of which a diet book has provided. My knowledge is based on a strong education in the area of nutrition and my views on topics are extremely open. I must do this for ethical reasons, in order to provide the most accurate information possible to the general public in order to promote good health. It is because of this standard and scientific knowledge that I am open to ALL of the evidence and not swayed by marketing or hyoe.

      If you take a look at the article again, you will see that I have in no way stated that people should NOT consume a Paleo diet and have outlined several aspects of the diet which we can all draw from to increase out health.

  2. Rosa Bryant Whitby says:

    Firstly I want to say I think you did a fairly good job giving an overview of paleo, however I have some issues with this article. I know I posted on the fb wall, but where are the references/sources? I’d genuinely like to know where you got some of this information. For example, I have never heard anyone who was fully against sweet potatoes (Lorain Cordain’s book, which is often seen as the paleo bible by non-paleo people, says they should be eaten in moderation). And I know that the vast majority of current paleo leaders are very pro sweet potatoes.

    Another issue with this is that you failed to recognise that paleo is just one part of a greater paleo/primal/Weston A. Price Foundation/Ancestral eating lifestyle. As you pointed out, paleo is not one perfectly defined diet. Paleo can be seen as the strictest in a whole serious of whole foods/ancestral eating style paradigms. For example, primal is paleo + dairy, and WAPF is paleo + dairy + soaked, sprouted or fermented grains. The vast majority of people I have seen on the internet and books I have read about paleo/ancestral eating (which is a lot) take the opinion that with the exception of gluten, most foods are not off limits. They believe it is important to remove foods from your diet to test your tolerance, but if you can tolerate them well then they can have a place in your diet. I consider myself to “eat paleo” despite the fact that I regularly eat white potatoes, rice and goats cheese.

    My main problem with this is that you fail to actually offer any of the justifications behind the paleo diet. People don’t eat paleo because it is what our ancestors ate, people choose to eat paleo because they believe it is the best for them nutritionally and they feel better eating that way. Like many people who get involved in ancestral eating/whole foods I have spent a lot of time reading articles, including many from scientific journals on food and diet. I have gained a fair knowledge of the scientific studies supporting (and opposing) a paleo diet and my food choices are informed by this science.

  3. Lisa @ The Meaning of Me says:

    Thank you once again for sound and sage advice on healthy living and eating. The more I read, the more I am glad to know what I already think is the best way – any “diet” that eliminates a particular food is simply not the way to go. What people need is not a quick fix guaranteed-to-make-you-thin “diet,” but rather a commitment to really think carefully about what we put into our bodies and why. Moderation and good sense are the key, and focusing on healthy living not on a jeans size.

  4. thenutritionguruandthechef says:

    Thank you everyone for reading and for all the feedback on social media, email and on the blog!

    I would like to give a little background on why I wrote the article.
    – I care deeply about people’s health and wellbeing. I studies 80 hours a week at uni to be able to help people to live a healthy and happy life. Any advice that I give is based upon this premise, that I am genuinely wanting to help people. I am not wanting to get rich or take money from people, I am not wanting to become famous by making ridiculous claims. I just wish to provide people with ALL of the information so that they can make their own informed decision.

    In the Paleo article, I did not state anywhere that people should not follow the diet, that is was a sham, that it was terrible, that people who followed it were silly.

    If you have a read of the article again, you will hopefully see that I have actually presented good aspects of the diet, and advised that ‘consideration’ of certain aspects of the diet need to be taken if undertaking the diet.

    The reason that there are generalisations of the diet in the article is due to the simple fact that it is a broad topic, with many variations to the diet. I clearly stated this in the article and I would have hoped that people would recognise the difficulty in writing succinctly about such a broad topic, in a way that the general public can understand. Similarly, there are variations in the Mediterranean diet, though you will find articles on this diet for the general public do not delve into every single differing aspect in order to show that some people do things a different way.

    A few people have commented that I clearly do not know what people are doing on the Paleo diet, that I am just assuming what they do. But you are also assuming that I don’t know, you do not see the emails from readers on the Paleo diet, the patients I have seen. I can give you many examples.

    It would be unethical of me not to inform the public of certain elements of the diet which need to be considered (you will note that in the article that I do not say ‘should not be followed’ I am much more open and simply inform ‘think about these things and then make a decision’. I knew that this article would cause some discussion, and that some would not agree but I can not withhold the information simply so that I don’t offend anyone. It would be similar to a doctor having knowledge about a certain topic that could assist a patient to make the correct medical decision for them, but withholding it from them in case it offended or upset them.

    I have not provided references to the article, as this is more so done in research papers. Please consider the time and effort that it takes for such an article to be written. This blog and social media presence is something that I do outside of full time work. You will find many articles written by credible professionals online without references, it all depends upon the medium it is published.

    In contrast to many articles published about nutrition online, I hold a degree in Nutrition. I have been taught not just where to find evidence, but also how to critically analyse evidence for bias, poor design etc. When forming an opinion on a topic, I research the topic extensively using peer reviewed journal articles and not just one or two that tell me what I want to hear, nor books written by unqualified people.

    I apologise deeply if offence was taken over the article, or if any reader was made to feel as though their choices were incorrect. The article came from good intent. To help the GENERAL person understand to look at things deeply before delving into a diet. To question things that are presented to you. You can choose to take it or you can choose not to, after all it’s free.

  5. meganleane says:

    Again such a well balanced article on a highly controversial topic!

    I appreciate the different perspectives you have bought to the table and the reality of achieving an adequate calcium intake without dairy. I certainly acknowledge people have the right to chose the way in which they eat, but here’s my professional opinion…

    As an Accredited Practising Dietitian I am treating people on a daily basis who have chosen to follow the paleo diet only to become unstuck. Not only am I seeing the deficiencies and resulting illnesses, I’m also finding it is such an impossibly unrealistic diet to follow that those who do fall of the wagon have a tendency to “fall off” to a larger effect than those who may stray from a different dietary path allowing foods from every food group.

    I have never recommended the paleo diet to any of my patients, it is simply unnecessary dietary restriction.

    • Larissa Wills says:

      I whole-heartedly disagree. I am speaking for myself as well as a huge number of paleo supporters who have found health from no other intervention than paleo. I can’t attest to the rest of the population who have varying degrees of ailments, but for myself and others suffering from “incurable” diseases, my life has literally been changed for the better. If it is “impossibly unrealistic” to follow an eating regimen based on vegetables, fruits, healthy fats and some animal meat, then there is a serious problem with how our society handles food.

  6. Julain Molnar says:

    I agree that this diet is unhealthy due to the high level of meat intake but you lost your credibility as soon as you went on about the benefits of dairy. It is 2014- time to give it up. Please do your research and go to updated sources that are not paid for by the dairy industry. No product is more harmful on so many levels. All countries that consume higher levels of dairy also have higher levels of osteoporosis. Milk is factory farmed and causes horrendous suffering to cows and their offspring. The waste from these farms damages the environment and ironically, despite all the misinformation the dairy industry has rammed down our throats for decades, a huge proportion of the world cannot digest it. Please stop promoting it. It should never have been on the food guide.

    • thenutritionguruandthechef says:

      I myself am actually dairy intolerant and understand that many people have issues, however my mind and professional opinion stays very open. I am influenced by science and evidence and certainly not the diary industry, or anti-dairy campaigners.

    • Larissa Wills says:

      I literally eat ONE more serving a meat per day than those who follow Canada’s food guide and sometimes only two servings when I have a purely plant based meal. There is no conclusive evidence that says high protein consumption is damaging to the kidneys. I’m also dairy intolerant and allergic to many nuts. How else would you recommend I consume enough protein for my athletic performance?

      • thenutritionguruandthechef says:

        Hi Larissa,

        Keep in mind that this article wasn’t directed at you personally. It is a general overview of the basics of the diet. For someone like yourself where dairy and nuts are not possible, then meat would certainly be your main fuel source. Your circumstances and activity levels are different to the general population which is different to the audience the article was aimed at 🙂 There is certainly a large body of evidence to show that high levels of meat intake (not normal levels, but HIGH levels) increase the risk of certain cancers and can lead to kidney damage, and have seen it first hand whilst working in the hospital system.

        Thanks for reading 🙂

  7. Larissa Wills says:

    I just get defensive when sweeping generalizations are made about certain diet protocols. I understand that you can’t overview a diet without being general, but I found that you presented it fairly one-sided. I haven’t eaten bacon since I was 7. My meals compose primarily of vegetables with a “deck of cards” sized portion of meat (sometimes less), some healthy fats and a portion of fruit. I think we can both agree that there are healthful ways of conducting this diet, just as I can agree that there are healthful ways to eat grains and dairy. It just bothers me when healthcare professionals discourage a dietary change from processed, high carb, high sugar diets to a whole foods diet on the basis that some people do not eat a paleo lifestyle healthfully. There are also many “paleo” people who tolerate dairy who are able to incorporate small amounts into their diets and some eat gluten free grains in small amounts as well as legumes. I think instead of working against each other – paleo vs standard north american diet – we should be trying to find a balance between the two diet styles to find optimal health.

  8. marniejn says:

    Great article.

    As a dietitian who works with food intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome, I often see clients who are thoroughly confused about the correct diet for them. And who could blame them?!

    Articles such as this help the general public to understand what specific alternative diets entail – including the good and not-so-good aspects of them. I think your assessment was pretty spot on.

    One of the biggest issues I have with many alternative diets is the demonisation of gluten. YES there are some people who need to strictly avoid gluten (those with coeliac disease, which may be as high as 1/80 of the population). There are also people (particularly those with IBS) who find that wheat breads, pasta etc cause them to feel bloated or creative havoc with their bowel habit or cause fatigue. This latter group generally feel better when they cut down on their intake of wheat/rye/barley breads, cereals and pastas, but need not avoid all wheat / gluten in any strict sense.

    I’m all for helping people feel less guilt about their food choices, and enjoying a varied and nutritious diet. Encouraging clients to feel okay about the idea of moderation (as opposed to any stringent dietary plan) is often an uphill battle!!

  9. Nina says:

    FAIL: he only fuel our brain uses to function is carbohydrates (not fat or protein).

    The brain and the body can also run on fat – it’s called ketosis.

    • The Nutrition Guru and The Chef says:

      The statement isn’t a FAIL Nina. Are you aware of how damaging ketosis is on body systems?

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