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The paleo diet may have gained a lot of buzz and some solid momentum, but that doesn’t mean it’s anything more than another dietary fad, let alone that it’s based around solid science. Many people interested in healthy eating and exercise accept the principles of the paleo diet as pure dogma. By this I mean, people are blindly accepting the notion that we must “eat like our ancestors did”, without doing any research themselves or figuring out if there is truly any scientific merit to the paleo diet. They dive right in, avoiding grains and beans in addition to other foods, just because someone else told them to do so.
“Dogmatism is the gateway drug to a blissful state of ignorance.” —- Amir Siddiqui
If you’re going to base your entire diet around a theory, at least make sure you know why you’re doing what you’re doing. Do your homework, look past the nonsense that is commonly splattered all over the internet, and then decide for yourself if following the paleo diet really makes sense, or if you’ve perhaps been misled.
At Symmetry, we feel that the paleo diet is nonsense. In this blog, we explain why in more detail. But first, just so you see we have a nuanced view of life, we want to touch upon a couple POSITIVE things about the paleo diet. (Please don’t misconstrue this as a license to become Paleo!)
How the paleo diet has contributed some useful elements to modern-day dietary debates:
Now on to the reasons why we DON’T agree with the paleo diet….
Many of the websites, books, blogs, and magazine articles dedicated to the paleo diet rely on faulty science and incomplete information. To make things very clear, I am going to give you key points explain why the paleo diet is misconstrued and based on information that has been taken out of context.
Here are 5 points where the paleo diet has got things (completely) wrong:
1. The paleo diet ignores much of the actual evidence that we have about our ancestors’ health –
It might be nice to think that every “caveman” was ripped, free from disease, and lived a long and satisfying life due to their healthy lifestyle. But when we look at the evidence, we know this isn’t exactly true.
Paleolithic people actually had on average a pretty brief life span, with the minority dying before they reached their 40’s, and many babies and children never making it to their teenage years. Now of course we cannot blame this on what they ate alone- we know that they dealt with infection, predators, harsh climates, droughts, and so on. But the point is that we can’t assume cavemen were people we want to model our own lifestyles after either, considering the average lifespan today is more than double that of Paleolithic people.
2. The human species was not designed to thrive on one “optimal” diet –
Everyone is a bit different in terms of how much, and which type, of foods they do best with. Of course humans have many things in common when it comes to nutrition, and we can draw conclusions about what generally works best in terms of the ideal diet, but we can’t pretend that there is only ONE singular way to eat that will result in health and longevity for everyone. If we look at various populations living around the world- thousands of years ago and also today- we see huge discrepancies in their diets. Humans have always eaten a flexible and varied diet, so why change that now?
There are healthy people who eat a lot of meat, healthy people who eat a lot of grains, healthy people who eat a lot of fat, and so on. Obviously if different populations can thrive on a variety of very different diets, it’s safe to assume that humans are capable of eating many types of foods without becoming ill or fat.
“The only way to maximize your nature is to nurture you with individualized programs. Programs that take into account your physical history, your current ability, your genetic potentialities (to the degree my experience can recognize them) and your psychology/mind-set. We’re all the same, but we’re also all different at the same time. And this means the program that gave your friend optimal results will not necessarily give you optimal results. You are your own set of potentials and possibilities…”— Amir Siddiqui
This leads us to believe that it’s not just about the individual foods that people do or do not eat that matters, but about how all of these foods work together to create someone’s overall diet. The amount of food that a person eats matters, the synergy of how the foods work together matters, and the person’s physical activity level matters too. There is more to the story than “you can eat this food” and “you cannot eat that food”.
Paleolithic people were extremely active, much more than the average person today is. So maybe they thrived on the “paleo diet” because of their specific needs given their lifestyle? The point is that you can’t take things out of context. Diet is only one part of the equation.
3. The paleo diet relies on the assumption that humans haven’t been able to evolve when it comes to food digestion, but this is simply false –
The human diet has been an important part of our evolution. Researchers know that we have inherited many adaptations from our Paleo ancestors and are now able to digest and use nutrients from foods that we previously could not. For example, some people can now fully digest lactose from dairy products into adulthood, where this ability did not exist several hundred years ago. We’ve evolved in many ways over the past several thousands of years, and our digestive tract is no exception to that, despite what the paleo diet preaches.
We are not biologically identical to Stone Age humans, although we might like to believe we are. We move less than they did, we usually require less calories overall, we prepare our meals differently, we live in controlled climates, and so on. It seems strange to accept the convenience of living in protected, heated homes where we use stoves, microwaves, and refrigerators, and yet to ban the convenience of modern healthy foods at the same time. We have evolved as a species, figuring out ways to make life more tolerable, healthier, and easier.
Even the “paleo approved” foods of today are different than the foods that cavemen truly ate in Paleolithic times.
Scientists who study plant cultures know that almost every single species of plants commonly eaten today, including fruits and vegetables, are different than the kinds that thrived in the wild thousands of years ago. Paleo followers take full advantage of modern day bananas, avocadoes, and factory farm-raised meat being sold in supermarkets, and don’t seem to mind that these were not the types of foods that Paleolithic people actually ate; far from it, in fact.
4. The paleo diet is another form of a “fad diet”, labeling certain foods as “good” and certain foods as “bad” –
Demanding that people give up entire food groups is never a good idea, usually leading to cravings, binges, resentment, guilt, and yo-yo dieting. When you take something away and deem it “off limits”, it usually just becomes more desirable. Fad diets usually work by banning certain foods all together (like carbs, fat, or meat for example), and making other foods seem like superstars. The bad news is that this approach usually backfires. Fad diets ruin your metabolism, in addition to killing your motivation and willpower
“The more times you diet per year, the more times you need to diet per year….” — Amir Siddiqui
Once you know that you are not allowed to eat any forms of grains for example, you develop an innate fear of any grain-containing foods. Your whole mindset shifts; where you used to have control around carbs, you no longer do.
What does this lead to? You start craving “bad foods” more and more. It’s a natural human instinct to usually want what we are told we can’t have.
“Mood can influence food intake can influence mood can influence food intake can influence mood can influence food intake can… “— Amir Siddiqui
It’s a much smarter idea to not make any food, or entire food group, the “enemy”, something you must “avoid” long term. This way you can keep your sanity around ALL types of foods and avoid the inevitable yo-yoing that will come when you finally give into your cravings.
5. Paleo dieters are missing out on the health benefits of “modern foods” –
Starches, grains, beans, legumes, dairy, and most forms of sugar are banned on the paleo diet. The problem with this is that these foods contain many, many benefits, in the form of various nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Paleo dieters claim to get all of their nutrients from other food groups, and why this may be manageable short-term, it’s unlikely that it’s sustainable.
For example, planning to get all of your fiber from vegetables alone means you need to eat A TON of vegetables every single day in order to maintain a healthy digestive system. If you start getting sick of having 7 servings of vegetables every day, then what’s the back-up plan? And do you even realistically have time to prepare all of these vegetables to get you through your day, not to mention your whole busy week?
6. Paleo diets ignore the importance of caloric deficits when it comes to seeing results –
Most people following the paleo diet are under the assumption that as long as they eat foods that are “allowed”, they can eat until their heart’s content, with little need to track portions of calories. Without taking into consideration how many calories are in the meals you’re eating, you are unlikely to experience results long-term. We know from studies that most people do not accurately estimate how many calories they eat, and this is especially true when they are led into believing that the foods they are eating can be consumed in “unlimited” quantities because they are “healthy”.
At Symmetry, we believe that focusing on some arbitrary and vague term, such as “healthy”, in order to dictate your food choices is a bad idea. The problem with following any particular diet just because it promotes itself as being healthy is twofold: there is no clear-cut definition of what healthy really means that accurately applies to all different types of people, and secondly that “eating healthy” does not automatically equate to being in a caloric deficit even though many people suspect it does.
Aside from focusing on the quality of the individual foods you eat, you also much understand the caloric value of your meals, or else simply replacing certain types of deemed “unhealthy” foods (like grains for example on a paleo diet) with other more favorite foods (this could be meat for example in this case) will mean little in achieving your body-composition goals. In order to get the results that you’re after, you must understand that you need a specified eating plan that does not promote eating anything in unlimited quantities.
Your eating plan should assign you an appropriate caloric intake that commensurates with your unique body, goals, training program, and food preferences. Once you have an eating plan in place and daily caloric intake to aim for, you will not need to listen to what other people tell you is healthy and unhealthy because you will know what’s going to work best for you as an individual.
The bottom line: Paleo diets make healthy eating harder than it really needs to be.
The whole point is to make things simple for yourself. To take the guess work and mental energy out of eating well as much as you possibly can.
Most people are busy and don’t have time to prepare tons of meat and vegetables to sustain them. They rely on healthy foods like oats, whole grain breads, and so on and eat them as part of an otherwise overall healthy diet.
It’s only worth learning new habits if you can actually stick with them for more than a couple months. The paleo diet may sound nice in theory, but ask yourself if you will truly be able to eat this way forever.
“There is no such thing as junk food. So why all the obesity and diabetes? Junk EATING. Eating is like riding a bicycle. If you never learn to balance, you lay on the pavement with your left elbow and left shoulder on the asphalt…but learn to balance and a bike is a marvelous machine. Same with food. We have to teach people how to set up an infrastructure of habit in which balance is as automatic as riding a bike. Balance between vegetables, protein, and fruits. In the right balance, big macs and fries are nutrition.” – Howard Bloom
Are you willing to give up bread, cereal, pasta, and the occasional cookie or piece of cake for good? What’s the point of learning new habits if you know they aren’t sustainable or a part of a truly balanced eating plan? Doesn’t it make more sense to put your energy towards learning about a way of eating that is maintainable for life?