Another week, another host of misinformation that I’ve stumbled across. I’ve tried to ignore it and be measured and relaxed.
And I’m not even talking about the American Heart Association’s decision to rank Coconut Oil as “unhealthy”… (along with ‘beef fat and butter’… um…?!)
Instead, it began with The Angry Chef (I know, sorry to bring him up again) commenting in his profile in The Guardian newspaper (linked) that the Paleo diet (or ‘caveman’ as he referred to it) is “just a low-carb diet given pseudo-scientific justification. They have this idea from The Flintstones, but anyone who works in anthropology will say, ‘No they’re obviously wrong.’ ”
Gosh, where do I even start…
I was almost good, I almost let this slide as one man’s misinterpretation until Mr Warner (The Angry Chef) then put a link to a Nourishment Network article on his twitter feed with the literal anthropological rebuttal of the Paleo diet from which he must have drawn his conclusions.
Well, actually, the article was swimming along nicely – fairly representing the evolutionary mismatch argument with balance and reason – until this:
“There are aspects of Paleo that are okay. For example the higher protein intake, while of course keeping it in balance with the increased risk of cancers that come with too much red or processed meat.
But others are complete BS. Saying that grains, legumes or potatoes need to be avoided at all cost, because we NEVER saw these pre-agriculture. Of course we saw them! Just not to the amounts we see now. The paleo-bots are simply pasting an ‘idealized’ flintstone world of 100,000 years gone by, and as with many fad diets, they make wild and exuberant claims about health and weight loss.”
So it becomes clear where our Angry Chef got his flintstone “anthropological nonsense” retort from…
I still was going to leave it… (OK I put a snarky reply to one tweet from said chef and was about to leave it) until…
There I was on my Twitter feed and someone within the Paleo world, with the word “Paleo” in their twitter handle, promoting a recipe book with Paleo recipes said:
“The Paleo Diet prohibits dairy, processed oils, refined sugar, salt.”
“Neither alcohol nor coffee is considered Paleo”
“The Paleo diet recommends the consumption of non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables to provide 35-45% daily calories.”
“Fat intake should consist of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and omega-3 fats, but avoiding trans fats, and omega-6 fats.”
Now for a phrase I never use.
What the actual F**k?
No wonder the world at large (from anthropologist and geneticists to angry chefs and many in between) has completely the wrong idea about all of this. Normally I ignore those who insist that Paleo is a weight loss regimen because, well, it’s not. But when I see people selling it as such and people criticising Paleo members for that it does sadden me.
I can accept that half my consultation time with clients is spent correcting misinformation they have gleaned from Dr Google. I can almost accept that some well regarded critics take the reported versions of Paleo (and any other diet for that matter) and, due to the dilution and misinformation from bloggers, have the wrong end of the stick and jump to conclusions. But what I hate? I mean, what I really, really, really hate?
The people within the Paleo-sphere willingly and blatantly misrepresenting the legitimate, science-backed information around nutrition upon which the modern Paleo diet is founded (NOT an oxymoron – the Paleo diet has its roots in ancestral health but is really founded on analysing the speed with which the modernisation of food production and refinement is out of step with modern humans. No one is trying to recreate prehistoric times.). Misrepresentation from those supposedly promoting Paleo literally hands those who seek to disagree with its tenets a licence to dismiss the dietary approach as hokum simply because the trappings around it (and the marketing machine around it) have taken an original concept and, quite frankly, bastardised it.
Breaking Down the Anthropological Argument
There is absolutely no doubt that the original contemplations behind Paleo are what gave it its name. Looking to more ancestral communities and hunter-gatherer diets was a step taken by early thinkers in this field in an attempt to understand the mismatch between modern life (and modern foodstuffs) and our genetics, digestion and health/wellbeing. How quickly have our bodies evolved to handle a world that has evolved rapidly?
From a time when man would die of infectious diseases and viruses (or, to be frank, brutal accidents), modern medicine now has to tackle epidemics of chronic, debilitating and deteriorating illnesses which are slow, degenerative and often metabolic in nature. Looking to historical man to understand the evolution of illness is a natural first step to comprehending the exponential rise in chronic, preventable diseases. This is why we look to modern practices – everything from food to environment to psychosocial factors – to ascertain whether there is a mismatch between how we are built and what we must deal with.
It isn’t really in question that modern life is at odds with how we are built. We all know that. We’re not built for internet ages and modern stresses – our biological systems don’t accommodate slow-drip anxieties and social media pressures. We can flee from predators but are proving time and again how everyday woes are damaging to our nervous systems, mental health and energy levels. We also know that human, in person interaction is much preferred biologically but that modern life makes that harder to do (and more fraught with expectations and social context when we do).
So too with our food supply. We know that even the fresh, whole foods we eat now have much less nutrients in them than more ancient species of the same foods. Agricultural evolutions were about a plentiful supply of calories for burgeoning populations, not nutrient-dense supplies of rich, diverse foods. This is why grains were adopted as staples in the first place. Cheap, easy to mass produce and light to transport. Since the time that agricultural practices began, however, soils have been depleted, grains have been homogenised and bred for hardiness, stability and uniformity. Animals have been moved from fields to feedlots and factory farms – and the list of biological differences in the food we eat today vs. the food of our ancestors is a lengthy one.
The Paleo ideology began from this start point. Understanding how slowly our biology has changed compared to the rapid commercialisation of the world around us (from information overload to nutritional manipulations), it is clear that there are some mis-matches. It is hypothesised that diverse nutritional availability is one of the factors in many modern illnesses.
And yet, Paleo did not stop there – claim that we should all act like cavemen and be done with it.
Anyone proclaiming that the Paleo diet is just a Caveman diet is, basically, wrong. Those truly invested in Paleo-based nutritional styles completely understand that modern man has, in some cases, evolved along with the food evolution – retaining enzymes for milk digestion in some populations, producing higher levels of amylase to break down starches in others. Believe me, those within Paleo completely get that we as a human race have evolved somewhat.
However, adaptation to food availability in terms of digestion (those enzymes mentioned above) does not always equal a metabolic adaptation and advantage. High consumption of refined grains and starches is metabolically ENTIRELY DIFFERENT to the bioavailability of the nutrition in ancient grains and starches. These foods used to be tough to break down, and in some cases – without developing cooking methods – they were poisonous. Just because we CAN now eat these foods, this raises a really legitimate question:
Are these foods entirely and wholly healthy – and are they metabolically advantageous and good for us?
Yes, we have rendered things like legumes (beans, pulses), grains (wheat, rice, corn, oats) and dairy more digestible by our modern processing methods. BUT we have not fully removed some of the poisons, otherwise known as anti-nutrients.
We also haven’t changed in the way that we metabolise these products. An insulin spike occurs when glucogenic foods are ingested which has a metabolic impact (too biochemistry-heavy to go into here) which can, in excess, begin the process of insulin resistance and Type II Diabetes.
So just because we have found a way to prepare them – are these modern foods really doing zero damage to us and are they adding nutritious, beneficial ingredients into our life?
Stuck in the Dark Ages?
The issue is that because Paleo started from an ancestral standpoint – and an attempt to understand from an evolutionary perspective whether the inclusion of certain things on our plate is metabolically, biochemically, physically and hormonally advantageous – those who seek to criticise Paleo do so by ridiculing ancestral contemplations as nonsense (quoting Darwinian evolution normally). Critics also assume that Paleo advocates have stayed in this place of examining ancient diets and attempting to recreate them.
And yet Paleo hasn’t, for a long time, insisted that the “Grok” or “Caveman” diet was correct because it was ‘ancestral’ and therefore ‘the only food we were evolved to eat’.
Instead, those who are at the forefront in this space have sought modern, verifiable, research-based, scientific explanations for the interaction of modern foods with our modern biology.
In short – whilst they start from understanding history, ultimately they couldn’t entirely give a fig about it. Paleo nutrition begins in the past, perhaps, but deeply cares about where humans have evolved TO, biologically. They then assess how compatible that is with our modern food supply.
In some cases, and for some people, the answer is “not compatible at all”.
What Paleo People Aren’t Saying
To come back to our Paleo friend on Twitter who was making statements about the Paleo diet that I did not recognise, let’s break some of the myths right down.
FIRSTLY – Paleo advocates are ABSOLUTELY, CATEGORICALLY, DEFINITELY NOT saying that Paleo is or should be a Low Carb Diet.
If we simply look anthropologically you will recognise that Paleo advocates completely understand the vast differences between different hunter-gatherer tribes in different locations (on different continents, even). The macronutrient composition of ancestral diets fluctuates widely: from extremely high (almost all) fat to extremely high (almost all) carbohydrate – most from starchy vegetables (with a lot of macro breakdowns in between). There is absolutely no macronutrient specification in anything Paleo.
And let’s just talk about this for a minute. The word “Low” implies a comparison to something else – i.e. ‘lower than’ an alternative. If you’re comparing the eventual carbohydrate consumption of most people following a Paleo template, the removal of grains and refined sugars does render the resultant diet to be far low-er in carbohydrate than the Standard American Diet. But the SAD is hardly a healthy alternative, now is it?
It should also be noted that inadvertent low-carb-ing is a legitimate concern and real conversation within the Paleo community, particularly among the women. For the majority, Paleo doesn’t recommend macronutrient ratios at any extreme of the spectrum, with macronutrient tweaking falling under the ‘personalisation’ banner and entered into typically with help from professionals for specific health concerns. Which neatly brings me on to…
SECOND – Paleo advocates are ABSOLUTELY, CATEGORICALLY, DEFINITELY NOT saying that you should ‘eat all the fats, all the time’.
This isn’t ketosis. It’s not even trying to be. And it certainly isn’t Atkins. One of the hashtags in the Paleo community is #morevegetablesthanavegetarian (think about it – and thanks @paleoparents ).
Hardwired into a Paleo diet is a literal INSISTENCE on good quality, grass fed (AND finished), organic (preferably) meat, which basically equals expensive. If Paleo people were eating the Atkins diet, they’d all be broke. Also… Paleo is also built upon VARIETY and, most importantly, NUTRIENT DENSITY – so this means “eating the rainbow”, eating all cuts of meat including fatty AND muscle meats (and ORGAN meats), fermenting tons of vegetables and … basically mixing it up.
With all of this variety, it rarely needs to be high fat. Though again we compact to the notion of ‘higher than…’ and, yes, it will have more fat than the DASH diet (thank God) because, you know, we like our hormones and our brains and without the fat they’d be a little messed up (trust me, I’ve tried it).
But Mr Paleo Twitter’s comment above about Omega-3, no Omega-6 and polyunsaturated and monounsaturated … oh goodness me, NOOOOO… Clearly representing a complete misunderstanding not only of Paleo but also of the science of fats, and what each of the words he was using meant. To avoid getting into the nitty-gritty of what Omega 3, 6, 9 etc. are and why any minor Google of Paleo will bring up nuts in abundance (hello Omega-6…) much like the response from the Paleo community to coconut-oil-gate … No Paleo advocate wants you to mainline coconut oil, even if it is mostly medium chain triglycerides which are metabolised slightly differently than regular old saturated fats. Because coconut oil is saturated fat – which Mr Paleo Twitter seems to omit from his comment??
In any case – no-one wants you to exclude coconut oil OR butter, again mostly saturated fat, and yes, I know, DAIRY… but here’s an interesting point to highlight. Paleo advocates do the science and are more bothered about dairy proteins, not about dairy fats which means that for some the relatively casein-free butter is a good choice, choc full of nutrients and CLA and, you know, healthy stuff. Precisely why this is OK is deeper science than I want to get into … but the point is that this has been thought about, evaluated and included/excluded based on an examination of how dairy fats and proteins interact with modern digestive and immune systems.
Back to the fat topic – Paleo fans also like olive oil and avocados, and those nuts and seeds. All of which means, basically, there’s a decent mix of all kinds of fat, without dependence on any single source.
You won’t EVER find processed, trans-fats or hydrogenated oils there, however. Why? Read Cate Shanahan’s epic “Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food” (linked here) but basically, rancid and processed fats are toxic to so much of your system that they are most certainly damaging you on many levels. Definitely not Paleo.
FURTHERMORE – Paleo advocates are ABSOLUTELY, CATEGORICALLY, DEFINITELY NOT saying avoid salt.
Oh for heaven’s sake Mr Paleo Twitter – it’s salt! Yes, they may recommend mineralised salt (not the refined, processed stuff you get in shakers) but seriously… you think Paleo people don’t love salt??? Have you even read a bone broth recipe? The science on salt and heart disease has long been thoroughly debunked and the studies of ancient man also show that whilst they probably didn’t salt their food they ate so much food that was naturally salted – like, straight from the sea, perhaps?! – that their salt consumption would have been higher than we get in our normal food supply. Adding salt to cooking and eating is, most definitely, OK.
ADDITIONALLY – Paleo advocates aren’t all about the red meat, either…
Oh this one makes me utterly mad. Paleo-people aren’t stupid. (And again… NOT ATKINS). Those within the Paleo community KNOW there are studies saying red meat can be linked to cancer and all sorts of other issues. We’ve read the science, we aren’t rebuffing it with nonsense excuses like “oh, they didn’t factor out the variables of otherwise healthy diets” and “oh, they didn’t make sure meat quality was factored in”…
Read the Paleo principles carefully and you will realise that the Paleo advocates DON’T seek to rebuff the science – because it’s there in plain sight, all variables and factors accounted for. BUT, what the fear mongers often don’t choose to include in their sensationalising of how every food known to man is linked to cancer, is that whilst there are inflammatory issues with the haem (heme) proteins in red muscle meats which create carcinogens when metabolised by the intestinal cells… this process is actually offset by another paleo staple, regularly eaten ALONGSIDE the meat itself… the chlorophyll in green leafy vegetables which, as we’ve already established, the Paleo community are mainlining.
LASTLY – Paleo has nothing to do with weight loss…
And I wish everyone who is saying it is would shut the hell up. It’s not about manipulating your body into skinnier jeans. It’s not even about ace-ing your CrossFit workout. It’s sure as hell not about #bodygoals or #fitspo . For so many, Paleo arrives in their life because of serious health compromises. THAT is why there is confusion about what is and isn’t included and what it does and doesn’t mean. Paleo is a template of nourishing foods, but some individuals may have digestive or hormonal concerns which limit or further restrict which Paleo foods are actually OK for them specifically.
Let me explain…
What Paleo Is About – For Those Within The Community Who Are Being Misleading and For Those Outside It Who Are Misunderstanding
Paleo isn’t just about what it excludes, it’s about what it includes. This is perhaps a personal opinion but it’s shared by those that I most respect within the Paleo community.
This “inclusion NOT exclusion” is also a healthier mindset. Lord knows we’ve enough people with challenged and distorted relationships with food. Making enemies of any one food group, foodstuff, macronutrient, micronutrient and/or ingredient is both nonsense and unhelpful. All that this does is give those who are eliminating certain foods a bad name, and a bad headache. When food = fear and threats, you automatically have a problem no matter what diet you’re following.
And yet, to me and to most of those who are strong voices in the Paleo community (i.e. not the bulls**t nonsense from that Mr Paleo Twitter quoted above), Paleo is all about nutrient density, including loads of whole foods and variety and – and here is the real key –
avoid and eliminate the foods which are really challenging to you whilst focusing on foods which contain more nutrients than they do anti-nutrients.
Because you’re human and your digestive system is evolved just as much as mine is, the anti nutrients that cause you trouble will be in grains, legumes, dairy (mostly the processed, homogenised type though raw, unpasteurised may work for you) and sugar. These all contain inflammatory things which are notably difficult for digestion. How badly they affect you will be utterly individual, but they will affect you in some small way. Your digestion may be robust and not even blink. But then again, you might.
You may actually be one of the people for whom properly sprouted grains cooked in a homemade, wholesome bread loaf is totally fine. Or you may be someone who needs to eliminate further and remove nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, aubergines, peppers) from your diet. Neither of these are Paleo, though – just to be clear – they’re Paleo plus personalisation. And that’s not a problem in the slightest.
Because – guess what – Paleo isn’t about perfectionism and rules, either. It’s guidelines and knowledge to empower people to make digestive, metabolically and immunologically informed decisions with their own bodies.
What is universal, with the exception of those with allergies to these foods, is that the Paleo diet INCLUDES: organ meats, bone broth, oily fish, bone-in fish like mackerel and sardines, shellfish like oysters and mussels, heaps of vegetables, fruit and less-refined sugar sources on occasion. It INCLUDES fats from every source (plant and animal) and specifies the need to use high quality examples of all of these foods – not because we’re fussy but because the better the raising of the animal or growing of the food the more nutrient rich and dense its profile. Simple.
Paleo Grey Areas
But then there’s the potentially confusing part: some Paleo foods are grey areas. Sometimes there are the old proponents of the community who insisted that e.g. pototoes are not Paleo – but if you really look at old Paleo articles you’ll find that refined, processed canola oil was recommended. That’s the problem with the internet. Science moves on, communities move on – old articles remain and still get cited as proof of a supposedly negligent belief of a modern community. The recommendations on both of these topics have, quite appropriately, changed.
It’s the dairy, white rice, sprouted grains, alcohol and potato issues which are hotly debated. Why? Because these really are so individual.
There’s too much science to go into here – but there is real reason why these ingredients are debated. It isn’t because we don’t know whether palaeolithic man ate them. It’s because we haven’t quite clarified all of the modern science regarding how they interact with modern biology. It seems that some people are fine with well-sourced and unprocessed dairy proteins. Some do fine with the starches and anti-nutrients in white rice and properly prepared grains. Quite a lot of people are totally fine with the glycoalkaloids in potatoes.
And even within the Paleo community (though less so, outside it) most accept that it’s OK not to know. Those who claim they do are lying, or holding onto some strength of argument that isn’t backed up by scientific evidence. And it’s these kinds of people that give the Paleo community a bad name.
Just to close, I want to give a little clarity on the sugar debate too.
The Paleo community are not the ones who insisted sugar was toxic. Just Google “Paleo treats” and you’ll see honey, blackstrap molasses (literally a nutritional powerhouse) and maple syrup used liberally. No, refined sugar is not used (which admittedly may dent the Mr Kipling business) and, again, this is based in the high glycemic index of it which, in table sugar unlike honey/molasses, is accompanied by no nutrients whatsoever. Back to the ‘nutrients minus anti-nutrients’ tenet – this means refined sugar is eliminated where honey is included.
But, like most sensible people, Paleo bakers do use unrefined sugars as a treat food and for special occasions. AND, if you are more metabolically challenged or have gastrointestinal issues this may be something that is avoided for a while until you’re a little healthier.
And here we come up against the main truth of everything nutritional. IT’S INDIVIDUAL AND PERSONALISED BECAUSE WE’RE ALL DIFFERENT AND WE’RE ALL AT DIFFERENT STAGES OF HEALTH AND WELLNESS.
So the Paleo diet is a template based on whole foods, nutrient density, and how individual foods interact with our bodies on all levels. It includes micronutrient rich foods like organ meats and bone broth whilst eliminating those foods which are scientifically demonstrated to be tougher to digest or that create metabolic, gastrointestinal or inflammatory reactions within the modern human physiology (no caveman references required).
What you choose to bolt on to Paleo (by which I mean further eliminate from the basic Paleo template) is, make no mistake, personalisation. That’s FINE… and it’s actually the whole point of a ‘template’, but it doesn’t make anyone’s Paleo “better” than anyone else’s Paleo – or anyone’s ‘grey area Paleo choices’ more correct than someone else’s.
And interestingly… just to return to our friend The Angry Chef and his Guardian article. This recommendation was given at the close of the piece by Mr Warner himself:
“Warner’s advice, boiled down, amounts to: eat a sensible and varied diet, not too much nor too little. If you have junk food every so often, don’t feel guilty; if you’re going full Morgan Spurlock, you’re probably overdoing it. Eat fish, especially oily ones such as salmon and mackerel, when you can. Don’t consume too much sugar, but equally don’t believe people who tell you it’s “toxic” and has “no nutritional value”.”
To be honest, that sounds pretty Paleo to me. Mr Warner, it might not be a club that you want to belong to, but I actually suspect that you’re a little bit more Paleo than you might think…