You’ve probably heard of the Paleo diet by now. Unfortunately, if your only exposure to it has been through the popular media, it’s likely that much of what you’ve heard is wrong. In this article, I’m going to set the record straight by debunking five of the most common myths about Paleo.
1. Our Paleolithic ancestors all died before they were 30.
Critics of Paleo often proclaim: “Why should we emulate the diet of our ancestors when they all died before they were 30?” While it’s true that the lifespans of our Paleolithic forebears were shorter on average than our lifespans today, those averages don’t consider significant challenges those ancestors faced that are largely absent from our modern lives. These include high rates of infant mortality, tribal warfare and violence, exposure to the elements, and lack of emergency medical care.
Studies show that when these challenges are taken into account, our ancestors (as well as contemporary hunter-gatherers) lived lifespans roughly equivalent to our own. But more important, they reached these ages without developing any of the chronic, inflammatory diseases like obesity, diabetes, heart disease or autoimmune disease that plague us today.
2. Paleo is dangerous because of its high protein content.
This criticism is based on the idea that high protein diets increase the risk of kidney problems, but you might be surprised to learn that the scientific evidence doesn’t support it. A study published in 2005 found no evidence that high protein diets (defined as greater than 0.7 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight each day) increase the risk of kidney disease in people without pre-existing kidney problems.
What’s more, the Paleo diet is not necessarily “high-protein.” It can range from low protein (about 10% of calories) to high protein (25% of calories) depending on individual needs. (As a reference, the average protein intake in the U.S. is 15% of calories.)
3. Whole grains are “superfoods” and required for health.
You’ll often hear nutritionists dismiss the Paleo diet because it eschews healthy whole grains, as if grains are magical superfoods that are somehow required for human health. Setting aside the fact that we got along just fine without grains for the two million years humans existed on the planet prior to agriculture (when widespread grain consumption began), modern studies indicate that grains are one of the least nutrient-dense food groups available.
In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2007, researchers looked at seven major food groups and 25 subgroups, characterizing the nutrient density of these foods based on the presence of 23 qualifying nutrients (including vitamins, minerals and protein). They found that all forms of meat, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fresh fruits, dairy products, and legumes were more nutrient-dense than whole grains.
4. Paleo is an all-meat diet.
The mainstream media loves to portray the Paleo diet as a cartoon version of itself, complete with cavemen in loincloths eating huge hunks of meat. But if you look at the plate of a typical Paleo meal, you’ll see mostly (two-thirds or more) plants: a large serving of non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, winter greens, salad, etc.), a serving of a starchy tuber like a sweet potato, perhaps some fruit or nuts/seeds, and then a serving of meat, fish or poultry. (Despite claims to the contrary, red meat won’t give you cancer or heart disease. In fact, it’s one of the healthiest foods you can eat.)
It’s even possible to follow a Paleo approach without eating meat at all. I have some patients who eat only fish, shellfish and eggs as their protein sources.
5. Paleo is a “fad diet.”
This one cracks me up, frankly. If Paleo is a fad, it has to be the longest-running fad in history. The fact is, humans ate a Paleo diet for the vast majority of our evolutionary history. If we imagine this history as a football field, and you started walking from one end of the field to the other, you could walk for a full 99.5 yards and that would represent the period of time that humans lived as hunter-gatherers and consumed a Paleo diet.
It’s only in the last half-yard of that 100-yard field that humans developed agriculture and started eating grains, legumes, dairy and alcohol in significant quantities. And it’s only in the last few inches of that last half-yard that the industrial revolution occurred, and consumption of highly processed and refined foods like sugar, flour and industrial seed oils became commonplace. Yet today, over 70% of calories consumed by the average American come from these agricultural and industrial foods. If anything is a fad, it’s our modern diet!
In truth, Paleo is a nutrient-dense, plant-based, scientifically valid, time-tested, and safe approach to nutrition. Perhaps most important, it delivers fantastic results to those looking to lose weight, feel better, prevent and even reverse disease. This may explain why it was the most Googled diet in 2013, despite persistent—but misinformed—criticisms by the media and medical establishment. The results speak for themselves.