You’re doing it wrong: The Paleo diet

Youre doing it wrong: The Paleo diet

Go ahead, eat more meat, butter and cheese. Let me know how it turns out for you. I certainly won’t be joining you, despite the current popularity of the proposition.

For one thing, there is no case — none — that eating more meat, butter and cheese would be good for us. Rather, the case is advanced these days – as it has been before, but we’ve forgotten so it’s new again – that arguments for eating less meat, butter and cheese (or, if you like, “saturated fat”) didn’t make us healthier. Therefore, the advice must have been wrong, and therefore the opposite advice must be right. So, bring on the meat, butter and cheese.

There are so many things wrong with this combination of tortured logic, revisionist history, and wishful thinking that it’s hard to know where to begin. So let’s begin at the beginning, in the Stone Age.

The case for a Paleo diet is, in fact, strong — both on the basis of available evidence and the fundamental relevance of evolutionary biology and adaptation to the health of any species. Most creatures thrive on the sustenance to which they are adapted: koalas on eucalyptus leaves, giant pandas on bamboo, and blue whales on krill. Though prone to forget it, we are creatures, too — not apart from Nature, but part of it.

But a Paleo diet has nothing to do with arguments for eating more meat, butter and cheese. First, a Paleo diet argues directly against the butter and cheese — since dairy is a recent, post-agricultural addition to the human diet. I am not addressing the case for or against including dairy in your diet here – I’ve done that before. I am simply pointing out that a Paleolithic perspective is not a rationale for butter, let alone bread, nor for the cheese on your cheeseburger.

But more importantly, it lends no support to the burger, either. Yes, our Stone Age ancestors ate meat — but they ate Stone Age meat. Those most qualified to say — the paleoanthropologists who devote entire careers to the endeavor — tell us how different that meat was from the grain-fed beef making up that burger. Leaving aside the difficulty in finding mammoth these days, we might approximate it with the flesh of animals like antelope. The flesh of antelope has a fraction of the total fat content of comparable cuts of grain-fed cattle. More importantly, the nature of the fat is entirely different. Antelope meat contains mostly unsaturated fatty acids, and is a rich source of the omega-3 polyunsaturates we now tend to call “fish oil.” We call them fish oil because we have domesticated them out of other, traditional sources.

So however ardent you may be about the Paleo diet, it lends little support to the meats on the plates of most modern eaters, and none to an accompaniment of butter and cheese. So much for that Reuben sandwich; there was, alas, no Stone Age corned beef, nor Paleolithic pastrami.

Let’s move on, and out of the Stone Age. Studies keep coming in an endless parade associating various plant foods – vegetablesfruitsnuts – with the prevention of specific diseases, the promotion of overall health, and the propagation of longevity. The longest-lived, healthiest populations on the planet eat food, not too much, mostly plants. This is not the now eagerly maligned assertion of Ancel Keys; it is the product of diverse, current sources of investigation and observation – the closest we ever get to epidemiologic “fact.”

But it’s clearly not acceptable information, since (a) it would mean we actually know what to do and are left with the unpleasant task of doing something with what we know; and (b) it would mean we really should eat more veggies, just as our mothers told us. Say it ain’t so!

So that’s what we do: say it ain’t so. Again and again.

And we say it by torqueing the relevant evidence into pretzels (which, by the way, we also know we shouldn’t be eating). A recent meta-analysis about fatty acid intake was embraced as evidence in support of more meat, butter and cheese. But all it showed was that unacceptably high rates of heart disease in the United States remained unchanged and unacceptably high after we cut our intake of saturated fat. The study did not address what we replaced the saturated fat with, but we all know: Snackwell cookies, and copious quantities of high-fructose corn syrup, among other things.

So, one important historical tidbit is that heart disease rates were already unacceptably high before we attempted to cut our saturated fat intake. The very reason we were shopping for a “fix” was because something was already broken. It’s convenient these days to forget that, but ill advised to revise history in that manner.

For another, when we cut our intake of saturated-fat sources (to the limited extent we ever actually did so), we replaced them with even more dubious items. As I’ve noted before, that’s as if — in an attempt to avoid burns — we swapped out playing with fire for playing with sulfuric acid, and then ongoing burns led to the conclusion that playing with fire was a “good” idea.

And so it is that lack of benefit from the silly things we have done in place of eating meat, butter and cheese — like eating low-fat cookies and running on donuts; snacking on glow-in-the-dark cheese puffs; calling multi-colored marshmallows part of a complete breakfast and marketing them to our kids accordingly; and downing gallons of soda — has been used in what is really just literary legerdemain to make the case that eating more meat, butter and cheese is actually “good” for us. The obvious question is: “good” compared to what?

That a diet rich in modern meat, butter and cheese is not “good” compared to any variant on the theme of evidence-based, optimal eating is abundantly clear. But what’s more interesting is that it may not even be good compared to the junk most Americans eat these days.

Consider again that recent, famous (or infamous) meta-analysis of saturated fat, and what it showed: No difference in heart disease rates at the high and low end of saturated-fat intake. The proponents of meat, butter and cheese have seized that to say: “See, no more heart disease with higher intake of saturated fat!” But it lends exactly the same support to the opposing conclusion: “See, no more heart disease with lower intake of saturated fat and correspondingly higher intake of starch and sugar!” The study provides no indication that our prevailing excess of sugar, bad as it is, is any worse than what came before. So if sugar is “poison,” whatever it has been replacing appears to be comparably toxic.

All this really indicates is that there is more than one way to eat badly, and we would rather explore them all than get serious about eating well. It also suggests that we have somehow come to view lack of additional harm as the new standard of dietary virtue. That borders on tragic, since we have long known that fully 80 percent of the current burden of chronic disease and premature death is preventable by applying lifestyle – including an optimized dietary pattern – as medicine. Since we know how to prevent 80 percent of the aggregate burden of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, dementia, etc., how did we ever talk ourselves into thinking that other ways of getting to the same crummy outcomes we have now qualify as “good”?

We might also constructively consider the dire implications of more meat, butter and cheese consumption by over 7 billion Homo sapiens for the environment and the climate, and most particularly, for the availability of water. But that, too, might obligate us to do something with what we know rather than revisit it every day — so it’s clearly unappetizing.

So, too, presumably, is acknowledgement of the callous, and even brutal cruelty perpetrated on feed animals raised in their crowded multitudes required to feed us in ours. So, too, the hormones and antibiotics included in the mix, and the propagation of such externalities of how we choose to feed ourselves as widespread and increasingly ominous antibiotic resistance.

Inconvenient truths, all, but truths just the same. But if ever we admit it, we are stuck doing something — both as individuals, and as a culture — with what we already, actually know. That sounds awfully tedious — and potentially costly to the next round of fad diet-book authors, publishers, conspiracy theorists, food engineers, morning show segment producers, documentarians and advertising executives waiting in the queue. Clearly, we can’t have that.

So let’s keep procrastinating — and pass the pastrami. The Neanderthals loved it.

David L. Katz is the founding director, Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center. He is the author of Disease-Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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  • Molecular Geneticist

    The biggest fallacy about the Paleo diet, and much of human biology studies today, is that humans haven’t changed much since the pleistocene. There’s no reason to think that we’d be better off following the habits and diets of ancient ancestors. Human have evolved a lot since the first Homo sapiens left Africa 50,000 years ago. Nicholas Wade’s books “Before the Dawn” and “A Troublesome Inheritance” convincingly show that human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional.” In “Troublesome” Wade is mostly concerned about the impact of recent evolution on social cooperation and behavioral characteristics, but it likely applies to metabolic traits as well. An excellent example would be the recent development of lactose tolerance in Northwest Europeans. Since agriculture began, humans have probably evolved to tolerate a diet containing grains and the meat of livestock. Perhaps populations which underwent this transition relatively recently haven’t had enough time to evolve these adaptations, which one can see by the very high prevalance of obesity among Middle Easterners, blacks, and Latinos eating a high fat high starch western diet.

  • SteveCaley

    Bugs. They’re terribly out of fashion, but bugs. Very little saturated fat, and no starches.
    One can infer that we were rather rotten in the hunter-gatherer world, and didn’t do so swell until we got the principles of trade down.
    Sodium – eat all you can wherever you get it. Here, high in the Rockies, there is hardly any sodium – it’s been washed down into the ocean over eons. If you camp out in the woods with your modern American rig and lifestyle, your sweat represents a huge source of sodium for the environment, all things consider. Like bighorn sheep will break into your laundry bag just to lick your laundry for the salt. Eww. Hike fragrance-free, or we will have majestic Bighorns with Drakkar Noir breath.
    Sugar. The only thing that resembles concentrated glucose in the wild is the bee’s honey store. If you can get it, eat it. It won’t be that often, and you will pay for your adventure.
    What else?
    Hardly any diet leads to that much disease from obesity among people who burn of tremendous amounts of calories. Our problem is not the hearty ranch diet, but the fact that we turn to wrangling the keyboard after a fillin’ breakfast at the Cracker Barrel.

  • HJ

    For the record, I am a vegetarian.

    I have many friends who follow the Paleo diet with great results. They enjoy the food they eat, have been able to lose weight and keep it off, and have excelled in athletic pursuits.

    I enjoy vegetables…most likely they are paired with butter or cheese. I love a good Syrah with a nice sharp cheese.

    It’s nice that you consider the ethics of eating of animals in our industrial food system. Using the same arguments, you could criticize the soy industry.

  • RenegadeRN

    Wow! Where to even begin commenting on this post?

    First off, Paleo doesn’t endorse dairy OR high fat meats OR tons of it!
    It advocates a MODERATE amount of eggs , grass fed beef, fish, poultry- as sustainably raised as possible- NO CAFO (concentrated animal feeding organization) , no hormone, antibiotic laden science experiments!

    Second, Paleo and Primal diets advocate plenty of fresh veggies, fruits, seeds and a smaller amount of nuts. Sounds terribly unhealthy, eh? Yes, I am rolling my eyes! Meats and fats are not necessarily center stage as you seem to think they are.

    Coconut meat/ oil and milk with their high medium chain triglyceride content, also are promoted for satiation and fat burning, liver sparing properties. Every cell and hormone in our body is composed of /from FAT.

    Both Paleo and Primal endorse the use of molecularly stable saturated fats, when fats are eaten, over polyunsaturated fats (PUFA). We have proven over that last few decades of corn oil and other PUFA promotion, that they are to be used with extreme moderation, if at all. Monounsaturated oils are fine.

    I do agree that the low fat debacle of the past 30 years was exacerbated by Big Food’s push of higher sugar content in EVERYTHING. Proponents of low fat, high carb diets never made a lot of distinction between carbs from bread , broccoli , or straight up sugar! Thus the bowl of frosted wheats and skim milk- replaced eggs, scrambled with some grassfed butter, spinach and salsa , and a few berries- as the breakfast of champions! NOT!

    • RenegadeRN

      I couldn’t edit, for some odd reason, so let me add-

      Grains are NOT a food group per se- they are a component of a carbohydrate macronutrient group and any requirements for them is perfectly fulfilled by fiber and nutrient dense veggies, and fruits.

      • HJ

        There is nothing in grains that you can’t get somewhere else. The same can’t be said of animal products.

        • RenegadeRN

          Yes, I totally agree. There is no such thing as grain deficiency.

  • Katyb

    The “Paleo Diet’ is stupid. <=== Ok, that was to get your attention, but what reason is there to follow a diet eaten by humans who didn't live long lives? We have no idea whether they would have been healthy, active, dementia-free seniors. We don't know how well or poorly they felt from day to day, nor exactly how each individual died.

    In the here and now, we have a growing number of people living past 100. We know of clusters of long-lived men and women who live long lives and have a high quality of life until the end. Studies point to a high prevalence of healthy centenarians in parts of Japan, for example. Though there are a multitude of variables aside from what healthy seniors do and do not put in their mouths, at least intuitively it makes far more sense to emulate their diets than the diets of our ancestors who may have lived to 40 or so and lived in an environment so different from ours.

    As pointed out in the article, we need to eat our veggies. We need to get up and move. And, of course, we need to choose our parents wisely.

    I come from a family where longevity is the norm. All of my grandparents lived into their 90's. My maternal grandmother and her siblings, born between 1900 & 1909 lived into the 2000's. In that especially hearty group – no dementia & all were active & involved with family and friends (whoever was left) to the end. Not one followed a fad diet, ate chia seeds, quinoa…all things I keep stocked in my pantry. They didn't do yoga or formal workouts. But I can't recall one of them sitting in front of a tv, except maybe to watch the evening news…and even that wasn't a regular habit; They read the newspaper. They all walked a lot. In their lingo, they went out "for some fresh air". They ranged in weight from thin to moderately overweight; Their weights were stable. They ate desert but never sat down with a bag of cheetos. They all loved fresh fruits and veggies, some of which they grew themselves.They all enjoyed swimming in the summers, but spent far more time at the beach chatting than swimming. None were smokers. The last of my great aunts died in 2010 at 103.

    We're all so obsessed with FOOD now… food & workouts. I'm going to start a movement based on "having a little snack", taking a "little rest", "going for a dip", "getting some fresh air"…..and choosing your metabolic gene-pool well.

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