Steak and kale smoothies with a side of fossils

Palaeolithic (US Paleolithic)

adjective

Archaeology

  • relating to or denoting the early phase of the Stone Age, lasting about 2.5 million years, when primitive stone implements were used.
Vegan, 5:2, Paleo… they’re all getting chucked around together these days. The problem is, following a vegan diet is an ethical choice or a long-term health choice; the 5:2 diet (previously known as intermittent fasting before it got commercialised) is usually used as a shorter-term weight-loss choice; and the Paleo diet is a fashionable trend choice either for its own sake, or for the sake of losing a lot of body fat (the term “shredded” is often found associated with the diet). Basically, as far as I can tell, the Paleo diet is for people who recognise that being vegan or eating less processed food has significant health benefits, “but man, I just love my meat too much” (and also may not be intrinsically motivated by ethical choices, but need to be steered by trendy guidelines).

I’m not going to pretend this isn’t going to be a biased post. It is. I made up my mind long ago about what I thought of the Paleo diet, based on its premises, its promises, the nature of its cult-like following, and its fairly consistent evaluation as one of the worst diets of the year in 2013. But I think I do owe people an explanation as to why I feel so strongly about all this – and it’s not just about the meat.

The Common Sense

The founder of the diet, Loren Cordain, may indeed have devoted a lot of his time at Colorado State University to his studies on the relevance of paleolithic diets to modern-day humans, but then he published a book – and later a series of books. Of course he wants to sell his book. He also has a website, to which you have to pay a membership fee for exclusive advice and support. I know this is an obvious point to make but always question anyone who is trying to sell you anything – that’s not to say their might not have a good product that you may benefit from, but never take their word for it. Especially not if they are encouraging you to take their word for it.

The Romanticisation

The founding principle of the paleo diet is that Stone Age hunter gatherers were not burdened by the chronic illnesses and diseases that Western populations currently battle with. But I would counter than a large part of the differences in health status could be accounted for by the fact that we are living longer. Older populations are often sicker populations – and of course I know that we are talking about an era in which our life expectancy may actually start to decrease for the first time in history, but we are talking about lives that are almost three times as long now as they were when we were just figuring out that fire was hot. (I was going to make a flippant statement about how our health statistics would look if we all started dying in our thirties, but I won’t.)

The Logic

Of course I couldn’t agree more that we have adopted far too lazy a lifestyle, and we rely far too much on unnatural processed foods, and we desperately need to reconnect with our food sources and our body’s signals. But to say that we need to go back to the Stone Age to find health is to write off all the evolution that has happened in the last 20,000 or so years. We did not invent Special-K and start snacking on Danish pastries 20,000 years ago. So why are we shooting back past 20,000 years of evolution to find our ideal diet? Have we been going downhill all that time? What about Japan topping life expectancy and long-term health evaluation lists, with their rice-heavy diet? I’m pretty sure it’s not just because they drink green tea – which, incidentally, is allowed on the paleo diet. No comment (I’m dying to make several, actually, but I’m going to be dignified about this).

The Tunnel Vision

So assuming that aiming to whizz back through several tens of thousands of years of evolution is the only way to save our ailing populations, how do we know that diet is the key? How can we rule out the fact that our sedentary lifestyles are responsible for our demise? That perhaps pollution and other changes in the atmosphere may account for some chronic illness?

And if diet is the key to all this, then what about the early days of agriculture and domestication? I cannot find any evidence that pre-agriculture hunter-gatherers were significantly healthier than our later ancestors of several thousand years ago, who were out sowing and harvesting and thrashing wheat and other grains. I’m not saying the evidence doesn’t exist, but I would have thought it would feature quite highly on the list of things to mention when promoting the diet.

The Double Standards

My understanding is that the paleo diet is built on items that can be eaten in their natural state – which is why legumes and starchy vegetables like potatoes are out, but I don’t quite see why green beans, string beans, broad beans and peas are vetoed as they all grow above ground, with distinctive fruits or pods that can easily be removed from the plant, and can be eaten raw (broad beans are the least pleasant, but I have done it and lived to tell the tale).

You might be thinking that it has something to do with the availability of these plants, but having seen the remaining list of tolerated foods and recipes, I think you will agree that geography and climate were not factors in these decisions.

While apparently primitive humans did indeed eat eggs of various species from very early on, I would be highly surprised if Neanderthals were cracking open half a dozen eggs and grinding salt and pepper into their omelette muffins. I’d also be interested to know where they were getting hold of apple cider vinegar and anything from zucchini and onions to cayenne pepper and avocado in the same part of the world at the same time. While the Paleo Diet website lists several recipes containing various types of wine, most Paleo sites agree that alcohol of any kind is out, so I will turn a blind eye.

The Non Nonsense

Obviously, a high-five from me for recognising that dairy is totally unnatural and superfluous to our human needs.

And I even appreciate that all cuts of meat are encouraged – one of my big problems with the meat industry and modern animal consumption is how wasteful and hypocritical it is. If Paleo dieters are indeed eating tripe and brain and other organs, then great. Unfortunately most of what I see on the internet revolves around steak, lean turkey, and chicken breast, so I don’t think they’re part of the cure.

And of course, I can’t argue with the encouragement to eat a wide variety of fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. I just feel bad for the grains and starchy vegetables, who are really having a hard time of it with all these glossy paperback diets.

Most importantly, Mr. Paleo didn’t order his nutrition plan from Amazon, nor did he have a wealth of inventive recipes at his fingertips. So my main point (besides being not to trust anyone who wants to sell you anything), and one that I have made before, is that the healthiest diets are the ones that don’t tell you what to eat or what not to eat. They’re the ones which focus on quality of life, on fresh minimally processed produce, on seasonal and local foods, on listening to your body and eating what you feel you need, on moving your body regularly and vigorously, on spending time outdoors in the sun and sleeping enough.

I just can’t wait for the Medieval diet to come out. Although, with the press raving lately about how Western populations were healthier in wartime than they are today, maybe the World War II diet will be next…

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4 thoughts on “Steak and kale smoothies with a side of fossils

  1. amberlyterry says:

    Considering that human beings evolved to eat meat, and have been doing so since …who knows how long, wouldn’t the vegan diet be considered more of a silly trend diet? I think the vegan diet is one of the most ridiculous diets around, but to each his own. Live and let live, eat and let eat!

    • greatveganexpectations says:

      Ah but the key word here is “evolved” – who or what’s to say we can’t evolve away from eating meat? Regardless, I do agree that humans have been eating meat for millions of years, I can’t and won’t dispute that. What I will say is that I don’t support any diet that cuts out entire foods (like grains in the paleo diet) on a health basis, and the only reason I make allowances for a vegan diet is because I am opposed to the industry that has grown around animal products. Many vegans would have a problem with me saying this, but I do believe that consuming a limited amount of meat is “natural” (though I find that word to be close to meaningless) – unfortunately, I think if we are using the evolutionary argument, we would probably have found that the species we evolved from would have lived very differently, eaten very different types of meat in very different amounts and in very different patterns. We have become so far removed from our food sources that I think it is irrelevant to argue what we “evolved” to eat. I am vegan for ethical reasons, and refer to it more as a lifestyle than a diet, which has health connotations. For what it’s worth, although I welcome anyone’s effort to cut down on animal produce for any reasons, it does always make me inwardly cringe a little when people are vegan solely for so-called health reasons (and the movement of people going “vegan” for health reasons could be likened to a fad – but one I turn a blind eye to). As you said though, live and let live, eat and let eat – and thank you for replying respectfully. When I posted this I expected a torrent of abuse so although your feedback was obviously against what I was writing, I really appreciate you keeping it respectful.

  2. Don says:

    The paleo diet is not about eating exactly like a caveman. That’s just how somebody picked the name. It’s about getting to know what our bodies need and are able to process. It’s also about educating oneself and not accepting conventional wisdom. The Standard American Diet is based on shoddy research and political motivations. Healthy fats, for instance, are essential to good health, but have been vilified based on research done back in the 60’s and 70’s that cherry-picked data to manufacture a connection between saturated fat and heart disease. Following that was even worse research saying that whole grains were the solution. We have since gotten fatter and sicker as a population. Those grains and legumes that you feel bad for contain lectins, antinutrients which do a number on your digestive and immune system. This is why people on the paleo diet avoid grains, not because Fred Flintstone didn’t eat them. Meat is part of the diet, yes, but the focus is on healthy vegetables and low glycemic fruits first, then protein. When meat is consumed, it should be grass-fed or pastured meat (eating animals that ate grains is counterproductive).

    Get beyond the name and the caveman thing and learn what the foundation of the diet is before critiquing it. I recommend “Practical Paleo” by Diane Sanfilippo.

    • greatveganexpectations says:

      Hi Don – I apologise if I have gone down the wrong route in taking the name too literally, though in my defence I have never (not once) seen any resource which points out that the aim is not to actually eat like a human supposedly would have done hundreds of thousands of years ago. In fact, almost every resource I have found opens or prefaces with some sort of statement about how humans were healthier in those days, which I think you’ll agree is a pretty silly statement.

      Of course, I don’t dispute the fact that the standard modern Western diet is appalling, and that modern perceptions of what is “healthy” are worryingly skewed. You are quite correct that the emphasis on “whole grains” is misleading and the result of powerful lobbying, as exemplified by certain sugary highly-processed breakfast cereals claiming to provide “a serving of whole grains” but I don’t think that makes grains unhealthy. In a limited amount, of varied sources, and correctly prepared, I think they can play a part in a healthy diet. For example, I don’t really think that any bread of any kind is a particularly healthy food (though not as evil as some make it out to be), but the odd serving of oats (preferably steel-cut) or amaranth or millet or other minimally-processed grain is a healthy inclusion to a varied and balanced diet. Not a necessary inclusion, I do concede, but the sort of thing I see no reason to avoid or cut out on a health basis.

      As for legumes, they are indeed hard to digest because of the lectins (and of course difficulty digesting means difficulty absorbing nutrients) and often lead to bloating, as well as being high in calories and starches. Most people find the effects of lectins (and the extra fibre) to be diminished through soaking, lengthy periods of boiling, and sometimes the addition of sodium bicarb. But then, meat is also hard to digest and the body will struggle to distribute nutrients whilst digesting meat – in small quantities it’s probably OK, but I don’t know of anyone who actually sticks to the recommended servings of meat of 3oz.

      So as you said, it’s about listening to your body. I feel good on about 1-2 small servings of grains and 1 serving of legumes a day and no more, but then I have more trouble digesting broccoli than I do any of those. I welcome anything that forces people to take a look at what and how they eat, to question authority, and to rethink what is “healthy”. The problem is that by making “the paleo diet” a movement with a name and a book and merchandise and what-not, the message to think for oneself and eat what one feels comfortable eating has been totally sidestepped. Now people follow “the paleo diet” because it’s “the healthiest way to eat”. And that’s what I have a problem with.

      (again, thanks for the respectful and informed comment – I really do appreciate it – and please do let me know what you think of my response)

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