Until a couple of weeks ago I’ve kind of missed the paleo diet hype, but lately everywhere I look this ‘caveman diet’ shows up, even in articles about running. I’m perfectly happy with my diet, so I’m not planning to switch to the (incompatible) paleo. But since I found a couple of false claims so support the paleo diet I couldn’t resist doing a little research. It seems like most paleo supporters really try to convince everyone that it’s the only healthy option. It turns out they’re probably wrong.
For those of you who don’t know (like myself until recently): the paleolithic or paleo diet is based on the premise that our paleolithic ancestors from around 10,000 years ago were a lot healthier, so we should eat the way they did. In particular you should avoid eating grains and dairy. This diet was introduced around 1975 as the ‘stone age diet’, but suddenly it seems to get popular.
As with any diet you have to make sure you get all the important stuff you need. If you do, I guess there’s not that much wrong with the paleo diet. However, I don’t think it will do you much good either. Most of the scientific evidence quoted by paleo supporters turns out to be articles about related but completely different things, like the bad effects of gluten (whole wheat) for people suffering from gluten sensitivity. Ok, if you’re allergic for peanuts you shouldn’t eat them. But for most of us there’s not much evidence that gluten are bad for you, and you’ll also miss all kinds of the good stuff from e.g. whole wheat bread.
What annoys me is the stack of unproven assumptions on which the paleo diet is based. The idea is that the cavemen were healthy, that this health was due to their diet, that after 10,000 years we didn’t adapt to another diet, and finally that the modern paleo diet is a good approximation of what these cavemen ate. Let’s have a look at these assumptions.
True, there is evidence that cavemen lacked some of the diseases we get. But then again, their live expectancy was around 30 years. They probably died before they could get ill. Modern hunter-gatherers grow older, but still most don’t make it to their 60th birthday. In terms of health, not really the best example to follow perhaps.
Even if the paleolithic people were healthier, we don’t know whether this was due to their diet. Hunters had the ability to run down wild game until the animals dropped down by exhaustion. If you’re able to run for hours you’re probably in better shape than most modern day people. And don’t tell me they could run that far due to their diet. World’s best ultrarunner is a vegan.
Although we share a lot of our genes with our paleolithic ancestors, this doesn’t automatically imply we didn’t adapt to other food. Perhaps even the cavemen would have done perfect on grains. Actually there is scientific evidence for adaptation in the last couple of thousands of years, for example in increased lactose tolerance. And there also seems to be evidence that people consumed grains around 200,000 years ago, so 20 times longer than the paleo diet wants us to believe.
Even if you’d like to eat like a cavemen, you can’t. First of all, we don’t know for sure what our ancestors ate. According to most paleo proponents you should get at least half of your food (or even two-thirds) from animal sources. With modern day hunter-gatherers this ratio depends on location, but it’s much lower. For our genetically close chimp friends it’s around 3%. According to some research our paleolithic ancestors were mostly vegetarian. (BTW: there’s plenty of scientific evidence in favour of a vegetarian diet for your health.) Even if you do assume that half of the paleolithic diet came from animal sources, it would have been mostly wild game. Paleo diet cookbooks don’t have that many wild game recipes. Instead, it has been substituted by beef, bacon, steak, pork fillet and chicken drumsticks. Not really the same as an antelope, especially if you think of all the growth hormones in meat and toxins like mercury and pcb’s in fish.
If you believe in a paleo diet and take care of getting everything you need, please continue. But don’t try to convince the rest of the world that it’s the only healthy option. Unless you’re trying to sell your paleo cookbook of course.