Paleo Diet Pros and Cons

paleo diet bad

Paleo diets are based on the idea that for optimal health, we should eat what cavemen ate.  Sounds a little farfetched when you remember that most cavemen didn’t live beyond 30, but a closer look reveals that some (I repeat: some) of the diet’s recommendations make a lot of sense, and mirror the advice of most nutritionists and researchers.

Here’s a look at The Paleo Diet and it’s potential benefits and concerns.

What foods do people eat on The Paleo Diet?

Meat, fish, poultry, (some) fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds, and coconut.  Emphasis is on pasture-fed animals who were raised in a humane environment under sustainable conditions.

What foods are forbidden on The Paleo Diet?

All refined sugars, dairy products like milk, yogurt, butter and cheese; cereal grains like barley, wheat, corn, oats and rice; legumes, including all beans, lentils, peas, peanuts and peanut products and soybeans and soy products; starchy vegetables like potatoes and all potato products, sweet potatoes, and yams; salty or cured meats such as deli meats, and bacon; pickled foods, many condiments, and really all packaged or processed foods.

What are the pros and cons of adopting this type of lifestyle?

PROS CONS
Eliminates reliance on white refined carbohydrates Very little science backing up some of the Paleo Diet claims
Encourages lots of vegetables No large studies assessing Paleo Diet for long-term weight loss and maintenance
No more processed snack foods, which are high in calories and low in nutrients Ultra-restrictive diets like Paleo don’t last
Paleo diets are naturally low in sugar Too hard to maintain over a long period of time, which leads to yo-yo dieting and can mean poorer health
Encourages careful selection of meats, poultry, eggs, and fish which have been humanely raised and/or pasture-fed Beans & whole grains, which are not allowed, are an important source of nutrients and fiber, plus an eco-friendly source of protein
Weight loss may occur because fewer calories are being eaten, and “empty calories” have been eliminated If weight is lost due to healthier eating, it would be hard to maintain this weight loss over a lifetime
Large reliance on meat, which has repeatedly been shown to increase risk of disease and is very taxing on the environment
Most Paleo eaters rely heavily on coconut products, which are imported from far away and thus carry a huge carbon footprint
Time consuming & expensive (which could be considered a pro, too

 

Would I recommend the Paleo Diet?

No.  I would not suggest anyone embark on such a restrictive diet because virtually no one maintains restrictive eating over a long period of time, and healthy eating over a long period of time is what leads to improved health.  However, I would suggest that everyone will benefit from eating more vegetables, fewer carbohydrates (especially refined carbs), less sugar, and buying only sustainably raised meats and poultry.  Those parts of The Paleo Diet are consistent with widely accepted nutrition research, and would help all of us – me included – achieve better health.

image above taken from asweetlife.org

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  1. It seems like you’ve done a good amount of reading on this, but as someone who’s been eating Paleo for two years, I’d like to add a few comments. First, Paleo isn’t centered around meat, it’s centered around vegetables and seasonal fruits, and then meat.

    The Paleo lifestyle is low in sugar, but surprisingly not hard at all to maintain long term. Once the body stops craving sugar, insulin levels in the body begin to respond and react differently, thus decreasing sugar cravings. It actually is a “cure” to issues such as hypoglycemia. The body no longer has sugar highs and lows. But it’s mostly easy to maintain becuase once you stop eating crappy processed foods, it’s hard to go back to eating crappy proccessed foods. (That Smart Ones frozen dinner and twinkie just don’t look so good anymore). Keep in mind that Paleo folks satisfy their dessert cravings and potluck dishes just like anyone else does- we just make our chocolate chip cookies with almond flour and sweeten with local honey.

    Dairy is actually not banned by the Paleo community. Instead, they encourage people to consume raw milk (but know your local farmer and how they treat their cow!) and make your own yogurt or kefir. We love butter and cream from grass-fed cows.

    Paleo folks like their coconut, but do not rely heavily on it. I actually don’t use it at all. Instead I cook with grass-fed ghee or EVOO.

    I think the most important thing about Paleo is that it is a belief, not a fad diet. It’s very similar to vegetarianism in this way… people don’t eat Paleo to lose weight, we eat Paleo because we believe in it’s fundamentals:
    1. Processed foods, including commercial meat and veggies, with all their added chemicals and hormones, are harmful to the people that consume it.
    2. It’s unethical to force the animals to live in cages and eat grain-heavy diets that are not natural to them. Choose local meat sources where the animal is allowed to eat what is natural to them (ie, cows grazing on grass in their pastures, and chickens roaming about eating bugs, etc…)
    3. The process is ultimately harmful to the environment that produces it. Likewise for commerically grown (and chemically-laden) fruit and vegetable “farming.”
    4. Processed grains cuase more harm to the gut and any nutrient found in grains can be found in more abundance in a vegetable or fruit. (William Davis says it much better in his book Wheat Belly).

    So hopefully that sheds some light on Paleo. It really is more about knowing where your food came from and eating real, whole foods. It probably shouldn’t be called the Paleo diet — more like “Pre 1929 Depression” Diet. Before America became a nation of convience foods,. franken-foods, and fast-food chains.

    • Thanks for your comment, Kate – this was really enlightening for me! I like how you compare your eating lifestyle with something we’re all familiar with: vegetarianism. And I agree with much of what you’ve suggested here, especially that processed junk doesn’t taste that good after you’ve been eating REAL food for awhile, and that we can reverse sugar cravings by reducing sugar intake. However, I would still maintain that eliminating whole food groups – groups that have continually been proven to have health benefits – is not necessarily wise and not usually sustainable for many years. Also, it seems the Paleo community is split on the dairy issue – while some people eat raw milk products (something I would discourage due to unnecessary risk), others suggest avoiding all dairy. Seems like the same is true for oils, which some Paleo folks avoid, thus increasing reliance on coconut products as I mentioned in the chart above. Anyway, thanks for the conversation and for your insight!

      • Hi Amelia,

        Just to add a bit more to what was stated earlier:

        1. It is not a very restrictive diet, you can eat almost anything that isn’t a grain or a bean. Given, this might be restrictive for some, but it’s something that is great for health. The nutrition of grains and beans is vastly overstated, as they have anti-nutrient factors that actually bind to the nutrients they provide, and even bind to nutrients of other foods that you are eating. They also have inflammatory factors that irritate the guts of most people. Whatever nutrient is in these items can easily be gotten from fruits, vegetables, and meat, without all the bad stuff.

        Grains and beans are agricultural products which were intended to feed the masses, not to provide good health. If you look at the inherent purpose of these items, which is to be a seed to grow other plants, it is understandable why these plants would try to develop mechanisms to discourage animals eating them (which explains the anti-nutrients, inflammatory factors, etc.)

        2. Dairy is on the fence. People just say if you can tolerate it, then go for it. If you are having weight issues or can’t tolerate it, then hold back. They say that many people might actually feel better if they cut out the dairy, they just never test it to find out.

        3. Processed meats are “allowed-ish.” They are far from optimal, as many come from unhealthy animals, etc. along with the chemicals used in processing. But there are many a paleo-eater who would swoon for some ethically-raised minimally-processed bacon. :)

        4. Fats are the best, paleo people do not avoid oils, they just choose them wisely. Monounsaturated (olive, avocado, macadamia) and saturated fats (butter, ghee, lard, tallow, coconut, palm) are allowed in abundance. Given, one may choose these items as they ethically see fit, like you say with coconut and even palm oils. Polyunsaturated oils (canola, corn, soybean, peanut any seed oil including almond, etc.) are likely the cause of the epidemic of heart disease and arteriosclerosis as we know it due to their abundant quantitites of Omega 6, which are even difficult to overcompensate with enough Omega 3 supplements. (Even the benefits of Omega 3 supplements might be overstated as they are so easily oxidized) The only obvious solution would be to eliminate these polyunsaturated seed oils all together for better health.

        5. Meat isn’t actually the focus of paleo, most should be thriving on vegetables and fat actually. Unless somebody is active, or body building, they shouldn’t be eating incredible amounts of meat. Just a few ounce portion, and throw some eggs and nuts in for good measure. Furthermore, pastured meat from a local farm is very sustainable, mass-produced meat is not, this is a critical point.

        6. Furthermore, Paleo doesn’t eliminate whole food groups, it’s just about changing your macronutrients according to what you require. If you are trying to lose weight, you shouldn’t be eating too carb-heavy things, which includes potatoes, and sweet potatoes, etc, However, if you are very active, you must eat starch-heavy vegetables in order to fuel all your activity.

        7. There are reams of documentation and scientific evidence that support a “paleo” diet. It is well established that sugar is toxic for most, as most of us do not exercise enough to justify eating so much carbs. This includes starchy veg, rice, potatoes, bread, etc. Rice and potatoes are more innocent, while bread is the most unhealthy of them all, this also is well-documented.

        Finally, none of these recommendations are all or nothing. All it is about is trying to get as close to the “ideal” as possible. Many adhere to the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time follow the diet, and 20% of the time you can diverge according to how you see fit. For some (like me) this might mean the occasional cookie, for others it might be some yogurt. Everything depends on the individual and their goals.

        I hope this helped shed even more light on the issue, I apologize for being so verbose. I’ve been doing paleo for the past 2 years, and lost 30 pounds in 1 year by following this diet alone, without exercise, and have maintained that weight loss until now (as many many other people have also on the diet).

        I thank you for your time.

        Armel

    • @ Kate; From my point of view you just proved the author’s point about how hard to get/expensive the foods would be. I’m gluten free and I don’t eat processed foods or meats but to be that extreme with little evidence to back up your reasoning doesn’t make much sense.

      • @JT, I don’t understand how much more evidence people need. It’s not very extreme to follow the Paleo method, to be honest (I have health-food conscious friends who have been unknowingly eating this way for years without realizing it was termed “Paleo”).
        A diet that includes vegetables, fruit, lean meat and no processed foods is a darn good method to follow.
        Not everything is about scientific studies and what they “prove” or don’t prove. People need to use plain old common sense, too.

        • I am one of those people who has been thriving off the paleo diet without knowing I was following a, “diet”. I thought I was just making healthy eating choices. I feel fantastic eating this way and I cannot imagine going back to how I was eating in the past. I lost 10 inches in my waist, a full shirt size and my energy level is through the roof.

          I still eat beans and brown rice to replace meat from time to time. It works for me…and I found that through trial and error. But getting off of other grains stopped all of my sinus issues…(I actually had to get sinus surgery.)

          Today I am extremely active, weights, P90x, mountain climbing…..all unthinkable prior to my diet change.

  2. Kate, you are spot on target.

  3. You are not following a paleo diet unless you eat insects.