How "Paleo" Has Gotten Off Track (and Isn't Necessarily Healthy)
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How “Paleo” Has Gotten Off Track (and Isn’t Necessarily Healthy)

admin May 22, 2014

A lot of people have tried to get healthier by going Paleo.

I get it.  Paleo, now, is about like vegetarian was in the early 90s (at least if my dad’s health kick at that time is anything to go by).  It’s a diet that’s purported to fix your health concerns because grains and dairy are basically the devil and no one should eat them.  There are people who say that they have more energy, their allergies have disappeared, they sleep better, their autoimmune conditions are better managed and more — all because they’ve gone Paleo.

If it works for you, great.  I’m not going to tell you to change.

However, I don’t think Paleo is a cure-all.  And I don’t think it’s right for everyone.  It will be a good fit for some people, just like any other diet.  But all people are individuals with different needs.  I don’t believe that any food group is so terrible that nobody should ever eat it again.  If we listened to everyone who found out which food(s) didn’t work for them, we could eat no meat, no dairy, no grains, no nightshades, no high-salicylate foods…  Basically, we’d have nothing left to eat at all.  So I say, figure out what makes you feel strong and healthy and eat that.

That is not what this post is about, however.  It just needed to be said first, so my perspective on “proper diet” is crystal clear: choose what works for you.

The bigger problem is what Paleo has become, as it’s become more popular.

What Paleo Is

The original Paleo diet is basically this:

  • Lots of meat
  • Minimal, seasonal fruits and vegetables
  • Nuts in season
  • No dairy
  • No grains

It’s basically anything that a hunter-gatherer would have eaten.  They didn’t cultivate or domesticate, so they would not have had eggs, dairy, or grains.  Also they would not have necessarily had specific types of meat (it would be whatever they hunted).  They would have had access to whatever fruits or vegetables were growing, as well as nuts.  The general focus, in modern times, is meat, nuts, (some) fruits, and vegetables.

It’s an admirable goal.  Although it’s not right for everyone.

This is not what Paleo actually looks like for most people, though.  It typically looks more like this:

  • Lots of meat
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables (even offseason)
  • Lots and lots of nuts, including nut butter and nut flours
  • Dairy?
  • Eggs
  • No grains
  • Coconut sugar, honey

A modern Paleo diet includes basically everything a non-Paleo diet does, just with different ingredients.  That is, they bake with nut and coconut flours, use coconut sugar and honey liberally, and may include raw dairy.  (This is usually called “primal,” which indicates that it’s loosely based on Paleo, but it’s not as strict.)

Why is this a problem?

Over Consumption of Nuts

Since grains aren’t allowed, a lot of people on a Paleo diet tend to go overboard on the nuts.  But really, would a Paleolithic man, who had to use a rock to smash open a nut’s hard shell, have bothered to do that enough to get a couple hundred at once?  No…he would have done only a small handful.  There are about 50 almonds per cup of almond flour, which is far more than a handful.

This is a problem not only because it’s not true to Paleo historically, but also because many nuts are very high in omega-6 fatty acids.  Those are the ones we get too much of.  So if you’re swapping out your vegetable oils for lots of nuts, you’re not necessarily doing (much) better.  (Yes, nuts are also high in good fats, and yes, we need omega-6s.  But too much of anything is not so good.)

Over Consumption of Sugar

I’ll just say it: Paleo desserts and baked goods are not actually Paleo.

There’s no way that a Paleolithic family would have figured out how to combine ingredients to make the complicated cakes, muffins, tarts, and other treats that we now make and call “Paleo.”  We call it Paleo because it involves Paleo-legal ingredients.  But really…this follows the letter of the law, but entirely ignores the spirit!

A big reason why people go Paleo is to improve their health.  Whether you’re eating cupcakes made from white flour and sugar, or coconut sugar and almond flour, you’re still eating cupcakes.  It’s still too much sugar (if consumed often).  And I get it — sometimes you need a little treat.  Just be honest that treats in any form (except for, say, fresh berries) are really not Paleo at all.

Non-Seasonal Foods

We’re lucky these days in that we have an abundance of food available to us all the time.  It’s shipped in from areas of the country where it is seasonal, or it’s frozen or canned, so it’s available year around.  There’s nothing natural about peaches in January.

The biggest issue here is, again, the overconsumption that is possible.  Someone could get too much sugary fruit (and I know, a lot of people — especially kids — prefer the sweet taste of fruit to vegetables or meat).  There’s a reason why seasonal eating is good.  We can gorge on what’s available for a short time, and then we don’t have it again for awhile.  That’s really how it should be (mostly).

How Paleo Has Gotten Off Track (and Isn't Necessarily Healthy)

Why Do I Care?

Well, honestly, I don’t care what you eat.  That’s your business, not mine.  And if you feel great on a Paleo-like diet (even if that includes the occasional paleo-friendly baked good), that’s cool.  Enjoy.

I’m writing this for the people who have newly run across Paleo and think that they can jump on the bandwagon and still eat all their old favorites, just made with new ingredients.  For people who haven’t done a whole lot of research into what foods are really healthy and in what quantities.  For people who are more interested in “the answer” than figuring out what individually makes them feel the best.

If you eat “Paleo” but rely heavily on nut flours, baked goods made with them (especially ones that are high in honey, coconut sugar, etc.), or other “modern” foods made with Paleo ingredients, you are not going to improve your health a whole lot.

The reason Paleo improves many peoples’ health is that they cut out most sugar and eat a whole lot more fruits, vegetables, and real meat.  You can do the same thing and still eat grains and dairy unless you personally have an issue with those (physically or ethically).  Paleo is not a magic bullet, and especially not if you include a lot of “cheat” foods.

Do not kid yourselves.  There’s nothing “healthy” about lots of fruit or sugar or vegetable or nut oils (any that are high in omega-6s) no matter what you call the diet.

So I say, figure out what foods make you feel good and strong, and eat those.  Figure out what foods make you feel poorly and avoid those.  Whatever that looks like, that’s your diet.

Include a few treats now and then.  Use the ingredients that make the most sense to you.  (Yes, I occasionally bake with nut flours and use nut butters.  Yes, I also use wheat.  And dairy.  And basically every other food, sometimes.  I like to mix it up and not rely too heavily on any one food.)

Just don’t get caught up in labels.  Don’t try to find ways to cheat and still stick to the “right” diet.  If you don’t have a gluten intolerance, then the occasional “normal” cupcake is not going to hurt you.  Ignore any diet with a name and just eat the food that works for you!

Okay, end rant.

What do you think about the current Paleo diet?

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11 Comments

  1. Totally agree!!

    I hate calling things “paleo desserts” because I agree, there is no such thing. Once you combine nut butter, maple syrup, honey, and coconut, it is definitely not something I would consider “healthy.”

    I was listening to a podcast recently on BodyIO and they were talking about PaleoFX and how many vendors were there dispensing convenience foods, such as bars and meal replacement drinks. Arhhhh.. Then people wonder why they aren’t feeling great or losing weight or having optimal performance.

    I am far from a paleo perfectionist, nor do I even claim to eat paleo anymore since I’ve added back oats and rice, but definitely strikes a nerve when people say they eat paleo and are far from it!

    Reply

  2. Hi Kate!
    Thank you for being brave enough to speak out about this. It is has bothered me for some time. Honestly, I felt maybe I was just not “getting it.” How to do Paleo “right.” I love the concept but I just don’t believe it is sustainable. It is expensive. Hard to know or remember what is in season. Unless you are doing a Crossfit workout, it is hard to burn off those calories, good calories or not. Take out the foods that cause you digestive issues, keep the ones that don’t, eat in moderation and do the exercise that you will actually do. Be happy to be you. 🙂

    Reply

  3. YES!! Thank you for this. I’ve been so frustrated lately that so many healthy/nourished people are ‘going paleo’. It’s such a fad! It’s not right for everyone, it’s not THE solution. Well, I won’t repeat everything you said 😉 I’m just so encouraged to see everything I was feeling/thinking about paleo in one place. Thank you!

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  4. Great post! I got caught up in Paleo dogma early on myself and refused to eat beans, rice, white potatoes…needless to say, my health started to nosedive as I had unintentionally lowered calories and carbs. I’m still in the process of figuring out what works for me but it did uncover a strong gluten intolerance which was backed up by medical testing.

    Figure out what works for YOU. That’s the way to go. 🙂

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  5. I’ve often thought the same thing when I see the abundance of “paleo” baked goods and such on Pinterest.

    And like you, my armchair theory is that people feel so much better on paleo because it just cuts out the crap. I mean, try and think of a junk food that doesn’t involve grains or sugar…they pretty much all do! So I think it’s not so much that there’s magic in not eating a bowl of steel cut oats, but the magic is rather in the cutting out of processed foods.

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  6. I don’t understand how paleo eben allows most vegetables. Fruit I can understand, as trees grow on their own. But if they didn’t cultivate grains, then how would they have planted and harvested a vegetable garden each year? As far as I know, vegetables do not grow wild.

    Reply

    • I would think that the vegetables we plant and eat today had their roots, so to speak, in some ancestor that grew wild. How would we have carrots, etc… now if they (or a related plant) did not grow “wild” at some point in the past? All the non-factory/laboratory produced foods we eat, be they fruit, vegetable, grain, or meat, had to have come originally from a wild ancestor. Grains and dairy producing animals existed at the time of our earliest ancestors (and probably much earlier), there are a variety of reasons why these foods weren’t eaten by early humans but it’s not because they didn’t exist.

      Reply

  7. Kate, I applaud you! The kinds of recipes I see labeled “paleo” is crazy. Nuts were in short supply, and seasonal. Fruits were also in short supply and seasonal. Sweeteners (like honey) were a rare treat. What I don’t see anyone talking about is that pre-agricultural societies ate a ton of “greens.” I am a botanist and have been working on a book about plants in the Intermountain West. As part of my research I looked at old monographs done when native cultures were still eating many of their native foods. So many plants were generally used as a “potherb” basically like spinach or salad. The species included many genera and families of plants from many different habitats and soil types. We eat our modern “greens” from just a few major plant families. I should mention as an aside that our family raises grass fed organic beef, and so in many ways the Paleo movement benefits us, but I don’t think diets that ignore or contain limited plant-based foods (not grains, but greens) are healthy. We started out in a garden after all 🙂 What works well for our family of 9 is lots of veggies, greens, some fruit, high quality meat, and occasional gluten-free honey based treats. As the mom of 7, it is pretty clear that dietary needs vary even within the same family, and that they change as we age. I would suggest anyone who thinks their health issues are related to food to do an elimination diet with gradual and careful reintroduction, rather than a wholesale jump on the bandwagon of the latest diet.

    Reply

  8. Great blog post! You just summed up everything I had concluded about the Paleo diet.

    Reply

  9. Oh I am so glad you wrote this!! I’ve often thought the same and thought maybe I just didn’t ‘get it’. The thing that I find oddest is that so many Paleo enthusiasts have a Thermomix or other high powered blender to prepare or grind nuts, flours etc. I’m sure the cavemen didn’t have access to such things lol! Even if consideration is given to whether ingredients are Paleo, almost no one seems to consider whether methods of preparation are an issue also. It can’t be authentic if it needs a blender because cavemen didn’t have them.

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  10. This sounds so similar to people who go gluten free in an attempt to be healthier just to load up on store bought tapioca, rice and corn based alternatives that are worse for you. If you want to eat healthier, make your own food from scratch so you know what is going into it. Unless you have a legitimate food issue, there is no reason to cut entire food groups out of your diet, just make things yourself so you really know what you’re eating.

    Reply

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Hi, I’m Kate.  I love medical freedom, sharing natural remedies, developing real food recipes, and gentle parenting. My goal is to teach you how to live your life free from Big Pharma, Big Food, and Big Government by learning about herbs, cooking, and sustainable practices.

I’m the author of Natural Remedies for Kids and the owner and lead herbalist at EarthleyI hope you’ll join me on the journey to a free and healthy life!

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