While the Internet and the popular media are not always my first choice for quality nutrition advice, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I agreed with a 2015 report on popular diets. Maybe it was because the US News and World Reports “Best Diets” list was compiled by a team of recognized nutrition experts, specifically registered dietitians and medical doctors. The Paleo diet was ranked dead last on a long list. “Experts took issue with the diet on every measure. Regardless of the goal – weight loss, heart health or finding a diet that’s easy to follow ”1. Here are just a few reasons why.
False Claim #1 – You will feel and look better by changing to a Paleo diet.
People are looking for answers and good health. The Paleo movement has stepped onto the stage as the latest fad diet to replace the aging Atkins anti-carb act. Certainly it’s great to eat less processed food, less dairy, fried food, sugar, candy, high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, colors, genetically modified organisms, and certain highly refined grains. The problem with some of these fad diets is that they make big claims (and big money) in spite of significant evidence to the contrary. Paleo taps into the cultural fear of carbohydrates and the belief that a high protein/meat based diet is somehow scientifically better for the human body. It’s not, and there is a mountain of science to back that up.
Naturally one feels better when cutting out processed junk foods, sugar, and are doing more food prep at home and attention to one’s food choices is likely to result in improved weight management. High protein diets do work in the short term, but often the weight is gained back overtime and a high meat diet takes a big toll on the body. Grains get unfairly blamed for weight gain and feeling tired, but not all grains are alike. Anti-grain and anti-legume rhetoric does not stand up to good science.
Carbohydrates are grossly misunderstood. Fruits, vegetables, lentils, peas, quinoa, oats, and rice are all examples of carbohydrates. Beans and peas are good sources of protein that are packed with nutrients, fibre, and yes even carbohydrates. Sports nutritionists will tell you that well-chosen carbohydrates are the best, most efficient sources of energy for athletic performance. The body needs protein for rebuilding and many other biological processes. It doesn’t like to burn it up for energy. Protein loading at the expense of carbohydrates is an inefficient way to get energy for exercise and has been shown to decrease performance in athletes. It’s recommend that 50-60% of all the calories you eat should come from carbs and only 12-15% should come from protein2.
False Claim #2: Paleo diets reduce risk for disease and contribute to longer life.
The Paleo diet is based on meat and eggs as the main dish and vegetables as a side. Butter and animal fats in any amount are allowed on a Paleo plan in spite of a strong consensus in the legitimate scientific community on the damage that fats from butter, bacon, lard, and other animal products can do to the cardiovascular system and brain. Plant based fats affect the body differently. Claiming that grains and legumes are the root of “diseases of civilization” such as type 2 diabetes and some cancers, is inaccurate. The Harvard School of Public Health cites numerous studies that show that actually eating red meat and processed meat is linked with greater risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased weight2. Non- meat eaters actually have very low risk for heart disease2,3. One of the largest recent studies on diet and disease tracked 96,000 participants and found that the more meat, eggs and dairy that were in a person’s diet, the greater their weight and BMI. That same study found that vegans and vegetarians have reduced risk for cancers, type 2 diabetes, and measures of inflammation3. The amount of meat in a typical Paleo diet as has been linked to an increase in colon and rectal cancer risk4,5.
It is important to actually read the studies that are cited on some of these web sites and in the media and know who authoured and funded them. A 2015 study stated that research on meat intake and breast cancer was “inconsistent”. But this study was published in the Journal of the American Meat Science Association. Interestingly this study still found that daily processed meat intake increased breast cancer risk by almost 3 fold6.
False Claim #3 Paleo is the healthiest way to eat because it is the way we were evolutionarily adapted to eat, because it is the way hunter-gatherers ate.
Many anthropologists and biologists have discredited the basic premise that the Paleo diet represents what Paleolithic or pre-agricultural man actually consumed on a regular basis and that this is aligned with what today’s Paleo followers are currently eating; nevermind that actual cavemen probably got more exercise than even top professional dancers, and had a life expectancy of about 25 years. A quick look at the Paleo cook book makes this idea laughable unless you believe that our ancient ancestors ate “Cashew Orange Chicken Lettuce Wraps”. Surely even the most fervent Paleo follower knows that the meat of today bears very little resemblance to animals eaten 1-2 million years ago. In her book Paleofantasy, evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk, “debunks what she identifies as myths central to the Paleo lifestyle movement.”8. “We used to think that evolution meant millions of years, but evolution can be fast or slow or in-between. Rapid evolution is actually quite common in the biological world.” (Dr. Marlene Zuk). We can’t assume that Paleolithic man ate meat in the portion sizes we eat today.
Ancient man only had to live long enough to pass along their genes. Personally, I want to thrive at age 100. Reports from the “Blue Zones” show us that eating more plants and less meat is the way to 100. Just because we omnivores can eat meat, eggs, and even the milk of other species doesn’t mean we should.
Maybe we city dwellers feel disconnected from the Earth and animals that our ancestors felt? A healthy life includes a more natural way of living and a less processed way of eating. But it’s fallacy to believe that following the latest version of the low carb-high protein diet is the best way to bring ourselves back into right relationship to our bodies and with the natural world. In fact, the science is clear that following a Paleo lifestyle takes a bigger toll on the natural world, limited water, and clean air than following one of the top rated diets like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, the TLC diet or a Plant Based diet9.
By Emily C. Harrison MS, RD, LD of Nutrition for Great Performances.
Emily Cook Harrison MS, RD, LD
Emily is a registered dietitian and holds both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nutrition from Georgia State University, USA. Her master’s thesis research was on elite level ballet dancers and nutrition and she has experience providing nutrition services for weight management, sports nutrition, disordered eating, disease prevention, and food allergies. Emily was a professional dancer for eleven years with the Atlanta Ballet and several other companies. She is a dance educator and the mother of two young children. She now runs the Centre for Dance Nutrition and Healthy Lifestyles. She can be reached at email@example.com
1. Source: US News and World Reports http://health.usnews.com/best-diet
2. American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Nutrition and athletic performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2009 Mar;41(3):709-31
3. Harvard School of Public Health: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/protein/
4. Adventist Health Study-2 (AHS-2). 2013
5. Orlich MJ, et al. Vegetarian Dietary Patterns and Risk of Colorectal Cancer. Journal of the American Medical Assn. JAMA Intern Med. 2015 Mar 9.
6. Hammerling U, et al. Consumption of Red/processed Meat and Colorectal Carcinoma: Possible Mechanisms underlying the Significant Association. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2015 Apr 7:0.
7. Mourouti N et al. Meat consumption and breast cancer: a case-control study in women. Meat Sci. 2015 Feb;100:195-201
9. Changing Global Diets is Vital to Reducing Climate Change. Cambrige University. http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/changing-global-diets-is-vital-to-reducing-climate-change