There is no question that the Paleo way of eating has spread, and I want to take a moment to discuss my views on it, and perhaps answer some questions that might be out there.
The idea behind the Paleo way of eating is to eat the way our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, before there was agriculture to provide grains, etc. It’s a meat (grass-fed, of course, since there was no agriculture), vegetable, fruit, nut, and seafood based diet, and processed foods, grains, refined sugars, and dairy products are avoided. While I had previously heard of this eating plan, I wasn’t really exposed to it until I got a paleo roommate (he’s also in my school), and saw the food he eats, and heard about the journal articles he reads, explaining why sugar and grain products are the reason that everyone except Paleo-ers is going to die a slow and painful early death in a fiery pit full of sharks and monsters and zombies, etc. I have worked hard not to let my wonderful roommate brainwash me Paleo, as he hopes to do to everyone (every time he hears of someone else on Paleo, he squeals, “it’s spreading!”), but I have to admit that I am starting to believe in its benefits. That said, I don’t think it’s something that we should all take on, for a number of reasons.
I have never “done” Paleo, and won’t. Back when I was vegan I realized that following any sort of eating plan like that made me think about food even more than I already do, which is not good. But it is still worth discussing. Is Paleo healthy? Is it sustainable? Worth trying? It’s list time.
1. The Body CAN sustain itself without grain and carbohydrate-heavy foods.
While glucose, which comes from carbohydrates, is quickest source of energy for the body, the body is able to get energy from another source. Ketones are metabolic by-products of fatty acid breakdown, and can enter the energy metabolism pathway and create energy, too. It just takes a bit longer. The body burns fat for energy as a default when glucose is not present. I bet that this fact was appealing to Mr Atkins and dieters everywhere when that all was popular.
2. Energy is harder to come by on a Paleo diet
Glucose is the quickest form of energy. A Paleo diet is not really a sound way of eating for endurance athletes.
3. When done correctly, Paleo is healthy for an individual.
My roommate would be happy to show you his recent blood work, and it’s impossible to argue that he’s not healthy. There was a study done where they put subjects who had recently lost weight and were trying to maintain their new weight on three different diets (low fat, low carb, and “regular”) to see which diet was the best for weight maintenance. While the low carb folks had the best blood markers, they said that the diet was hard to follow and that they were sluggish (or something similar), so the researchers dismissed the low-carb diet as a recommendation, saying that it was not a way that people were happy to eat, and was therefore not a reasonable diet.
A big concern with meat consumption, and Paleo is very meat-heavy, is saturated fats. But Paleo is pre-agriculture, so all meat and animal by products (butter) come from grass-fed animals. Saturated fat from grass fed meats don’t have the same harm as saturated fats from grain-fed meats.
4. Paleo is not an option for the whole population.
If people are eating grass fed animal products and vegetables, exclusively, everyone’s going to starve. It would be impossible to feed the planet this diet, no matter what benefits it might have. We do not have the land required to produce that much grass fed meat. I haven’t seen this officially studied, but I also haven’t looked, but I’m pretty confident that there aren’t enough Paleo calories on this planet to feed this planet sufficiently. Is it morally sound to push a dietary pattern that would quickly wipe out the supply of food if everybody switched to it?
5. We know that avoiding sugar is good for us.
I was going to do more research on this one and get some solid facts, etc, but I just don’t have time to. But we all know that blood sugar levels spiking, etc, can lead to insulin resistance and all the diseases, and that a relatively low glycemic load diet is positive for our health. Paleo does this. There’s not really any possibility for blood glucose levels to spike when there’s hardly any glucose consumed.
6. It’s pretty expensive, comparatively.
Inexpensive foods are often things that are easily and highly produced through agriculture, such as beans and rice, etc. Grass fed meat is not as easily or highly produced, and is thus significantly more expensive than many other whole foods. But spending money on a healthy eating plan is just fine, in my opinion. What’s more important to this point, once again, that this is not a diet that is accessible to a whole bunch of people.
All in all, for some people this can be a great way to eat. In addition to requiring discipline, it does have a significant adjustment time, as the body must get used to fueling itself with ketones instead of with glucose. Before considering switching to this way of eating, please do the research and ensure that your diet meets all of your body’s needs. I don’t want to do this way of eating, because it just seems like a pain.
(I started writing this post before classes started up and was planning on getting a bit more sciency and detailed, but if I keep on waiting until I have time to do that, this post won’t get up until spring break. So apologies for not having more sciencey details and linking to articles explaining everything more thoroughly… whoops! I figure it’s still a pretty good overview!)