Criticisms of the paleo diet; do the critics review the science or just the media hype?

Criticisms of the paleo diet; do the critics review the science or just the media hype

Criticisms of the paleo diet; do the critics review the science or just the media hype?- A fad will inevitably breed another fad. The ‘Paleo Diet’ has gained popularity over the past couple of years and is viewed by some as another fad diet. Another more recent fad is the quasi-intellectual attempt to debunk the diet. I refer to the criticism as ‘quasi-intellectual’ as the academics, bloggers, and nutritionists who want you to believe that all of us ‘paleo dieters’ are crazy carnivores, don’t seem to either want to take the time to understand the underlying theories behind paleolithic nutrition or directly address the doctors and academics who have put forward paleolithic nutrition as a powerful alternative diet for human health. Instead, the would be debunkers would rather take aim at non-academics like Mark Sisson (author of the ‘Paleo Blueprint’) and those in the Crossfit crowd who have successfully turned the paleo diet into a marketable product with books, DVD’s, and other modern devices which ironically are supposed to help you live more ‘prehistoric’ lives. Mostly ignored in the media by critics are people like Dr. Loren Cordain, who is primarily responsible for bringing attention to paleolithic nutrition, and Dr. Terry Wahls, who is a medical doctor who has recovered from secondary progressive multiple sclerosis using strategies partly based on the work of Dr. Cordain and other researchers.

Released this week were another two articles critical of the paleo diet. Discover Magazine posted a blog by Carrie Arnold titled, “Even Our Ancestors Never Really Ate the ‘Paleo Diet.‘” Scientific American also released a piece by Ferris Jabr called, “How to Really Eat Like a Hunter-Gatherer: Why the Paleo Diet Is Half-Baked.” It should be noted from the outset that neither the work or research done by Dr. Cordain or Dr. Wahls are directly mentioned in these articles. What is really insulting is that the author of the Scientific American article revolves his entire critique around the character ‘Grok’ whom Mark Sisson uses in his book to guide the reader through his interpretation of the paleo diet. The arguments against the paleo diet by both authors can be summarized:

  • The paleo diet is a new food trend/fad based on unfounded assumptions about the stone age diet
  • We do not know what our ancestors ate and identifying a particular paleo diet is impossible
  • Meat is consumed in large quantities
  • People have evolved to tolerate modern foods, like dairy

These arguments clearly demonstrate that the authors do not have a great depth of understanding of the underlying principles or nutritional recommendations which resulted from studying ancestral diets and modern hunter gatherer societies. Moreover, the arguments are structured around debunking the interpretations and common myths associated with fitness personalities and trends who have promoted the paleo diet, like Mark Sisson and Crossfit, and not on the scientists and doctors who have performed the actual research.

First off, I resent the labels of ‘paleo’ and ‘paleo diet.’ The term ‘paleo’ is very misleading. While there may be a few who are actually trying to mimic the diets of the and practices of ancestral peoples, most who follow paleolithic nutritional principles are actually trying to maximize the nutritional content of the food we consume to derive the most benefit. To suggest otherwise is to attack a stereotype and not the actual practice itself. I don’t generally fall into trends or fads and the truth is that paleolithic nutrition was first introduced to me as an eating/recovery plan for people with MS. It wasn’t until about 2009, when people started recommending the paleo diet to me, that I said, “wait a minute, I’ve already been doing this paleo thing for years. I thought that was the MS diet.” When I was diagnosed in 2007, I began studying MS. I wasn’t a scientist (and I’m still not), but I did have a university degree and I was very comfortable with research. In early 2007 I was browsing through the research available on the Direct-MS website and I came across the paper, “Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century,” by Dr. Loren Cordain et al. I had already been following the dietary recommendations outlined on the Direct-MS website for weeks, but until reading the paper I had no idea that many of the recommendations were based on paleolithic nutrition. The paper was originally published in 2005, so the notion that eating in a style based on ancestral diets is a new ‘fad diet’ shows a complete lack of knowledge of the diet’s origins as the paper which brought this information to light is already seven years old. This oversight by critics gives a good indication as to why many of their other criticisms are misinformed and misguided.

Another of the popular myths offered by critics is that people who follow the principles of paleolithic nutrition claim to know what our remote ancestors ate. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you watch the presentation given by Dr. Cordain on his paper (which is on the diet page and readily available on Youtube), he agrees that there was no universal paleolithic diet. At about the 2 minute mark of the talk, he clearly states:

When we talk about the old stone age diet, there wasn’t one diet and the diet varied by geographical locale, season, and other factors

Despite one of the initial contemporary proponents and researchers into paleolithic nutrition stating we can’t possibly know exactly what our remote ancestors ate, Carrie Arnold, in the Discover Magazine article, states as a criticism of the paleo diet:

What researchers haven’t been able to answer, however, is exactly what our ancestors ate……A quartet of papers published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have instead turned to stable isotope analysis, which analyzes the specific chemical signature of molecules, to determine the diets of a variety of ancient hominin species by looking at their fossilized teeth. The findings show that human ancestors started moving away from the traditional ape diet of fruit and leaves about 2.5 million years ago—much earlier than previously thought. Thus, even our “paleo” ancestors may never have eaten a paleo diet.

What is sad about the above statement is that if you watch the presentation given by Dr. Cordain, he touches on all the points brought up by Arnold in her attempt to debunk the paleo diet and he doesn’t actually state anything to the contrary. It would appear that Arnold was either completely ignorant or unaware (or doesn’t have a computer capable of navigating to YouTube) of Dr. Cordain’s work. Not to be outdone, Scientific American’s Ferris Jabr makes a similar argument to Carrie Arnold when he writes:

…deducing dietary guidelines from modern foraging societies is difficult because they vary so much by geography, season, and opportunity.

Sound familiar? I’m sure it would to Dr. Cordain- he may have even thought he said it. Jabr goes on to insert a chart into his article to prove the above statement. The funny thing about his chart is that it shows a smaller sample of information which was also displayed in a chart Dr. Cordain uses in his talk! (see roughly 19:30 into video) Dr. Cordain even speaks about the wide variety displayed in the diets of modern hunter gatherers. His chart shows that on the high end, the Inuit of Greenland have a diet which is almost 96% animal based and on the low end the Gwi people of Africa have a diet that is almost 76% plant based. This is completely inline with Mr. Jabr’s statement, so how can it be used as a criticism of the paleo diet? The guy who has done more to further the research into paleolithic nutrition in the last decade agrees with you! So it would appear that critics have decided the way to debate the paleo diet is by attacking media friendly proponents like Mark Sisson by using information and statements already given by paleolithic nutrition researchers like Dr. Cordain. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Another common misconception about paleolithic nutrition is that meat comprises most of the food consumed and everything else is secondary. Again, nothing could be further from the truth. Jabr makes the statement in his Scientific American article, “meat is consumed in large quantities.” My question for Mr. Jabr would be , “to whose paleo diet are you referring?” However to be fair to Mr. Jabr, some in the paleo community who are only well versed in the mass marketed and Cross-Fit version of the diet may unintentionally give this impression. The image of paleo people in the common lexicon is more likely to be one of a modern muscled-up caveman holding a drumstick after doing aggressive box jumps than a lean person eating a bowl of kale and berries after doing yoga. This is an unfortunate side affect of marketing and not a true reflection of paleolithic nutrition principles. However, there are those in the medical community that are using paleolithic nutrition to heal who would strongly disagree that the diet is primarily animal food based. Dr. Terry Wahls treats her own and the multiple sclerosis of others using a variant of the paleo diet. It is not surprising you don’t see her name or story cited by any of the critics. How could they argue against a medical doctor who has reversed her severe secondary progressive MS using paleolithic nutrition? If you watch Dr. Wahls’ Ted Talk (available on YouTube and on the Diet page), Dr. Wahls prescribes:

  • 3 cups of green leafy vegetables (daily)
  • 3 cups of sulphur rich vegetables (daily)
  • 3 cups of bright colour (peppers, berries, fruit) (daily)
  • Grass fed meat (several times per week)
  • Wild seafood (several times per week)
  • Seaweed (at least once a week)

Does the above seem like ‘large quantities’ of meat to you? Dr. Wahls interest in paleolithic nutrition is increasing the vitamin and mineral content of the food consumed and not in exactly emulating people who lived in the past. Again, by attacking the marketing/media arm of the paleo community and not the actual scientists and researchers studying the benefits of paleolithic nutrition, a large segment of important information is completely missed by the critics.

Criticisms of the paleo diet; do the critics review the science or just the media hype
This may be the common view of paleolithic nutrition, but it doesn’t represent the diet of many in the community

Another argument made by critics is that humans have evolved to eat the modern diet. Jabr states that modern humans have “adapted to eating dairy.” Really? that is interesting as Genetics Home Reference reports:

Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy. Lactose intolerance in adulthood is most prevalent in people of East Asian descent, affecting more than 90 percent of adults in some of these communities. Lactose intolerance is also very common in people of West African, Arab, Jewish, Greek, and Italian descent.

While it is true that only about 5% of people with Northern European ancestry are lactose intolerant, the rest of us have a fairly high rate of problems with dairy. So the argument that people have quickly adapted (in evolutionary terms) seems very optimistic and not at all reflective of the current reality within the majority of humans walking the planet.

The arguments against the paleolithic nutrition, like the ones mentioned from Discover Magazine and Scientific American, have erroneously focused on attacking the popular mass-marketed ‘paleo diet’ rather than the science and research done by people like Dr. Loren Cordain and Dr. Wahls. These critics appear to be completely ignorant of much of the foundation which gave rise to the ‘fad’. It is extremely evident that many of the points the critics offer are actually points that Dr. Cordain admits and even writes or speaks about. The critics also do a good job of either ignoring or omitting the work of Dr. Terry Wahls whose research and amazing recovery from secondary progressive multiple sclerosis show the value of the proper nutrition offered by traditional hunter gatherer diets. The critics would rather focus on the stereotypes surrounding paleolithic nutrition, primarily cultivated by media figures like Mark Sisson and the association with fitness trends like Crossfit. This is unfortunate as it gives the impression of a ‘fad diet’ which can be easily dismissed. Rather than having open and productive discourse about the role paleolithic nutrition can have on degenerative diseases like MS, we are stuck debating whether or not proponents of the paleo diet want everyone to act like cavemen. This is a ridiculous argument regardless of which side of the debate you fall on. I follow paleolithic nutrition guidelines and have never wanted, or felt the need to, give up my indoor bed for a cave. The point of the diet for me and others is to ensure that I am not harming myself with the wrong foods and ensuring that I get a steady supply of the vitamins and nutrients required by my brain and body to give myself the best chance of fighting off disease. I’m not attacking Mark Sisson or his book, “The Primal Blueprint” or anyone who has chosen to market products around paleolithic nutrition guidelines. I’m not a communist and I have no problem with someone who is making a living by promoting, God forbid, a healthier lifestyle. I’ve actually read Mr. Sisson’s book and I quite enjoyed it, but the book has to be put into context. His book, and his character Grok, are devices used to simply and quickly impart a number of concepts to the average person in a accessible way. The book is not intended as an in-depth look into all the information and research into paleolithic nutrition. To attack it as such and to make sweeping generalizations from the book, as some have chosen to do, shows a exasperating degree of ignorance. If you are going to take down a massive tree you have to attack the base and not cherry pick some of the higher and more visible branches.

Until next time,

2 thoughts on “Criticisms of the paleo diet; do the critics review the science or just the media hype?”

  1. Avatar

    So my boss is trying to sell me on this whole paleo diet ( which he doesn’t strictly adhere to anyway) and my problem with it isn’t the the food it recommends eating, my problem is the statements made by its advocates, and the experts that aren’t experts, that are ignorant of known science. While far from being something as ridiculous as homoeopathy, what bothers me is the way they try to communicate the message for this diet that aren’t true. Eating like a caveman, for instance. We can’t because one, we can’t be certain what they ate and two, the food they ate doesn’t exist in the same form any more. There has been significant changes in not just the genome of what they ate as well as the beings themselves. My boss, for instance, expresses this by saying he is trying to get as close as possible. I don’t think he realizes the enormous gap we have created as a species between what was available 10,000 years ago and what we have now. My problem boils down to how it is actually described. I understand the point it is trying to make. Eating natural, non-processed food as opposed to ones put through a ringer of artificial chemicals. My problem stems from how it tries to make its point with ideas or claims that are factually untrue. If something is true, it shouldn’t have to do this.

    At its core, I don’t disagree with main philosophy of eating naturally, non-processed foods. We can have the debate as to weather this is a good idea to fully adopt on a planet we are fundamentally changing ourselves as a species in noticeable ways that makes certain ‘natural’ foodstuffs more and more difficult to obtain without our intervention or modification to said foodstuffs But the argument goes both ways. Our tolerance to lactose developed 7500 years ago. Was that not natural by being exposed to something we introduced? Couldn’t we develop a tolerance to some of the things described as unhealthy (wheat for instance) over the same period? In evolution, there is no good or bad, and the way it is very often misconstrued as such is problematic for me.

    1. Sean

      @Todd Sampson

      There is nothing in your comment that I would disagree with. That is why I differentiate between the mass marketed ‘paleo diet’ and point out that not even Dr, Cordain would claim we know exactly what our ancestors ate. For me the idea is to provide your body with natural food.

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