Popular Paleo Diet still stirring controversy
Canadian imports of cold water shrimp to Maine alone more than doubled, to nearly 100 metric tons since 2013. (Handout: Robert Rose Inc.)
The Paleo Diet first came to the fore in the 1970s and in recent years has become one of the most popular new nutrition plans. With great popularity, however, comes increased attention. And the Paleo Diet continues to attract heated debate and criticism among nutritionists and anthropologists alike.
Fans of the Paleo movement, otherwise known as the “caveman diet” or “hunter-gatherer diet,” advocate for its apparent health and weight-loss benefits. The diet is grounded in the belief that humans are genetically predisposed to eating foods consumed by cave people in the Paleolithic period.
Grass-fed, pasture-raised animals, organic fruits and vegetables, healthy, natural fats, and nuts and seeds all have the green light. And some say it’s hard to feel deprived of food when sticking to this nutrition plan.
Alternatively, dairy, grains, legumes, and refined sugars and salt are the foods to avoid, as it is believed today’s farmed and modified foods cause lethargy, discomfort, and chronic illness.
This is where the debate gets heated, as critics are quick to write off the diet as nothing more than a fad, and go onto question how anyone in this day and age is expected to eat the exact food consumed by our ancestors.
In an interview that aired last week in a Inquiring Minds podcast, diet and food expert Michael Pollan, author of Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, criticizes the Paleo lifestyle for its impossible expectations.
“People on the Paleo Diet assume the options available to our cavemen ancestors are still there,” he asserts
“Unless you’re willing to hunt your food, they’re not.”
In last year’s highly controversial TedX lecture, which continues to draw anger from the Paleo community, Dr. Christina Warinner, an archeological scientist who examines the dietary histories of ancient people, flat out says the Paleo Diet “has no basis in archeological reality.”
What follows in the talk is a breakdown of what Paleolithic people ate. Research shows “there is evidence” fruits, grains, barley, and legumes were consumed, she says. Paleolithic people ate whatever “locally available resources” they had, she says, and would migrate “depending on the season” to where food was more abundant.
And while large quantities of meat are generally identified as a major component of the Paleo Diet, Warinner argues, “humans have no known anatomical, physiological, or genetic adaptations to meat consumption.”
The Harvard PhD graduate echoes other critics when she says it is simply not possible to eat the food Paleolithic people consumed, as the food available to us now is largely genetically altered. Produce, she contends, has been “bred out and expanded” to make it “bigger, sweeter, and full of more vitamins.”
Pollan also highlights it is impossible to understand the food proportions of the ancient diet.
“Most people who tell you with great confidence that this is what our ancestors ate, I think they’re kind of blowing smoke."
Those who champion the Paleo Diet take issue with these criticisms that are so often presented in opposition to the controversial lifestyle.
If humans are not adapted to eat meat, and Paleolithic people ate whatever was locally available, and our modern-day food has been cultivated into something radically different, what does it mean to model a diet on that of a hunter-gatherer?
Simply put, the Paleo lifestyle is more of a guideline than a firm code on “what to eat.”
Dr. Mark J. Smith, a proponent to the diet, points out that those who follow it “are simply following a template that best mimics what our ancestors ate using the foods available to use today.”
So while modern-day, farmed, genetically altered produce may not at all resemble the produce of the Paleolithic era, eating fruits and vegetables is still the optimal, healthier pick over a bowl of processed sugary breakfast cereal.
Aside from the apparent health benefits, such as stable blood sugar, balanced energy, and improved sleep to name a few, one appeal of this lifestyle is that it does not endorse a limited menu as other diets do.
Still, there is no one, right Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, stresses in his writings. So long as a person stays within the confines of which food groups to eat, the possibilities for meals and snacks can be limitless.
Some who live the Paleo lifestyle argue Warinner actually ends up indirectly supporting the pillars on which the lifestyle is based, as Paleo eating is simply “clean eating.”
There is no correct diet, she states. Rather, “diversity is key.”
“Eat fresh foods when possible,” she says, while also adding in the TedX lecture, “we need to eat whole foods.”
And perhaps this is where the two opposing sides may come to a consensus. Perhaps the distracting term “Paleo” is actually doing a disservice to the crux of the diet, which ultimately encourages the consumption of fresh, unprocessed foods.
Both sides acknowledge it is impossible to eat exactly as our ancestors ate, but, as Warinner concludes in her lecture, there are important lessons to be learned from the Paleolithic people.