What do you think of the Paleo Diet?

A reader has asked what I think of the Paleo diet.

In case you haven’t heard of it, the Paleo diet is an eating plan based on the idea that human bodies are adapted/evolved/designed to eat a hunter-gatherer diet. According to its proponents, our bodies were not (and are not) adapted to handle the Agricultural Revolution (~10,000 years ago, generally regarded as marking the beginning of human civilations and culture building). Foods produced by agriculture–plant and animal–are, therefore, considered biologically inappropriate for human consumption. So the Paleo diet excludes all grains and dairy, not to mention all sweeteners except honey, all fermented and/or preserved foods (no alcohol, no pickles), salt, and all legumes (including peanuts). Seafood and meats (especially wild meats, and including organ meats) are encouraged, as are fresh fruits and vegetables.

I should say first that I’m not exactly prepared to mount either a defense or a counter-argument on scientific grounds, except to say that, to me, it appears that there may be a fallacy going on in the claims in favor of the Paleo diet. It goes something like this:

*Diets with a lot of processed foods are unhealthy/Diets without a lot of processed foods are healthy
*The Paleo diet is a diet without processed food. People on it are healthier than people who eat a lot of processed food.

Therefore, the Paleo diet is the best, most healthy diet.

See the logical problem here? I have no problem with statements 1 and 2. But you can’t logically conclude that the Paleo diet is the best, most healthy diet based on this syllogism. And to compare Paleo dieters with those eating a standard processed food diet is just unfair. It’s faulty. To me, the defense of the Paleo diet is littered with fallacies. Is the Paleo diet better than the Standard American Diet? Sure! But that doesn’t automatically make it better than, say, a Mediterranean diet or a good whole-foods American diet.

The thing that strikes me as oddest about the Paleo diet is how willing it is to overthrow thousands and thousands of years of human culture in favor of an imagined hunter-gatherer diet. (I say ‘imagined’ because some of the recipes and menu suggestions are simply preposterous as plausible reproductions of anything late Stone-Age people ate (or eat).(Peach Salsa Cruda over Shrimp, with blackberries and pecans for dessert? Come on.) For one thing, we eat almost nothing that is truly “wild.” Everyday foods “allowed” on a Paleo diet–apples, chicken, broccoli–are not “wild.” They have been bred and cultivated BY PEOPLE for the properties they possess.

{Not to mention that this diet is elitist, as it’s quite expensive, and, if widely adopted, would wreak ecological havoc.}

Another thing that is odd to me is that agriculture is so intimately tied to human culture, and is a logical outgrowth of hunting and gathering. You find some wild blueberry plants. Yum! So you figure out how to transplant them and encourage them to reproduce and how to breed them so that they will be bigger and tastier and produce a reliable harvest…and you do the same with a wild grass that turns out to be delicious pounded and made into a flatbread, and so forth. In the meantime, you find that this allows you to stay more or less in one place instead of constantly following your food’s migration patterns. And you can build a home, a place of worship, a community, etc. Agriculture and culture are intimately connected, as their very names suggest. Domesticating animals for their dairy, eggs, and flesh serves a good purpose, too, allowing you to make use of land not suited for crops and providing you with a means to replenish your soil (their poop.) And since you don’t need to spend as much time hunting and gathering youhave more time to pursue other things–music, sculpture, and (surprise!) culinary arts.

{what the Paleo diet assumes about the world?}I guess I’m not willing to give up all the delights of thousands of years of human food culture and agriculture for the sake of a quite possibly fallacious ‘health’ argument. I’m not willing to give up my role as a creator in the image of the Creator when it comes to food–and the creational wonder of apple tarts (or bread and butter!) or any of the other limitless pleasures of the field, farm, and kitchen.

That’s what I think. What do you think?

3 thoughts on “What do you think of the Paleo Diet?

  1. I had completely poo-pooed the Paleo Diet until a friend sent me a blog post by a woman who was equally suspicious of it, until she tried it and found that she felt great, lost weight, and all of that.

    I’ve been doing lots of reading on various diets recently, and I guess I’m with you: Any diet that stresses unprocessed, whole foods is better than a diet focused on processed foods. But beyond that, the particular and precise combination of certain foods doesn’t seem central. So if the Paleo Diet works for someone, great, but I’m not convinced it’s better than any other whole-foods based, unprocessed diet. In the blog post I read, the writer said that she no longer even liked yogurt–something she had eaten regularly before. That kind of bummed me out. I don’t understand why you would ban something from your diet that you previously enjoyed, especially something that has health benefits, like yogurt–calcium, protein, probiotics, etc.

    Speaking as a Christian and someone interested in history, I also think the Paleo diet, as you said, ridiculously writes off 10,000 years of human history as misguided. I think agriculture is a gift from God, a way that we can harness earthly resources in a life-giving way (when it’s not corrupted into industrial agriculture).

    Bottom line: I’m suspicious of any diet that bans entire groups of foods. When a friend of mine did the South Beach diet a few years ago, my interest was piqued…until she told me that watermelon was a no-no. Watermelon is, to me, one of the prime examples of God’s bounty. So delicious, sweet, and full of vitamins. I can’t trust any diet that makes watermelon—or yogurt, cheese, bread, or homemade oatmeal cookies—into forbidden fruit.

    1. The paleo diet doesn’t “ban” anything, it encourages you to think and experiment for yourself and find what works and provides a template within which to do that based on knowledge/guesses of what we ate historically. If you love yoghurt and watermelon knock yourself out, just be open to the fact that many people don’t tolerate these foods well. If these foods are affecting your health would you rather remain ignorant or make an informed descision where your priorities lie? Every paleo author I’ve read has made some allowances for “cheating”, just know when you are doing it and what the consequences will be.

      For the record I eat heaps of watermelon and yoghurt, I seem to tolerate them well. Though I did cut back in the initial weeks when I had some weight to lose.

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