Is Paleo Bad For Your Body?
Adherants of the latest fad diet say it can ward off a host of modern diseases—but think twice about buying that next paleo product.
I laughed the first time I saw the block letters on a glossy package: PALEO Protein Bar (Glazed Donut flavored). I’ve since run across paleo breakfast cereals, paleo pizza crusts, paleo waffles, and most recently, paleo “bone broth” K-cups for your Keurig Machine.
You read that right. Paleo bone broth K-cups.
This is getting silly.
The underlying notion behind the paleo diet and lifestyle is that the human body evolved in an environment very different than the one we navigate today. Our modern lives are characterized by sedentary jobs, automated transportation, and an unprecedented availability of cheap, nutritionally empty calories. These conditions have led to a whole bunch of chronic health problems. In response, the paleo lifestyle tries to recreate our pre-modern conditions wherever possible. At face value, this seems like a good idea, especially if we try more to move more like our ancestors, which I’ve written about before.
But when it comes to eating like our ancestors, things get tricky.
A move from the Standard American Diet towards the more popular paleo eating patterns probably means fewer processed, high-sugar foods and more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. That’s a good thing. But under further scrutiny, evidence for the paleo lifestyle gets shaky, especially the paleo dieters’ embrace of meat. In 2013 Ferris Jabr wrote a piece for Scientific American questioning some of the tenets of the paleo phenomenon, and concluded that it’s really hard to actually eat the way our ancestors ate (for example, many of those foods are no longer available in their original form). And even if it was, not a lot of evidence shows that eating like them would reap the benefits that many paleo adherents claim.
So, no, just because we didn’t drink milk 10,000 years ago, doesn’t mean that dairy is behind our high rates of chronic disease in the developed world. Nor are grains the culprit. Nor are beans.
Wait—no beans? Really?
That’s right, under a strict paleo diet, the musical fruit gets no play. Paleo rejects all things cultivated and developed by modern humans, including beans and peanuts. But some say we don’t need to go back millennia to determine which foods will help us thrive, or make us die.
Dan Buettner, founder of the organization Blue Zones and author of the eponymous book, has identified pockets of wellness and longevity across the world, where common staples include grains, and lo and behold, the humble (and apparently still virtuous) bean.
Buettner went to “Blue Zones” like Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece and even Loma Linda, California—places where people reach the age of 100 at ten times the average rate in the rest of the developed world. Buettner and his team looked at shared characteristics of these distinct regions and identified a number of factors that they say help contribute to relatively long and disease-free lives. These commonalities include a strong sense of community, daily physical activity, and notably, a mostly plant-based diet.
So what do we need to eat to help us live longer, better lives? More meat? Less meat? No beans? More beans?
Is there any consensus?
In his forthcoming book If Our Bodies Could Talk, James Hamblin, M.D. and senior editor at The Atlantic, describes attending a meeting last year that brought together some of the top nutrition experts in the country to try to answer that question. The goal of the meeting, he wrote, was “to undo the perception that nutrition science is chaos, and unite around some common principals about food and health that can be useful to the world.”
And despite not agreeing on everything, some points of consensus were indeed met: like, eat more vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains, and seafood; and reduce red and processed meats, refined grains, and sugar (they specifically called out sugar-sweetened drinks).
If you think this sounds suspiciously like advice you might get from a grandparent, a teacher, or from the government, or just that it’s not that groundbreaking, you’d be right. Because not a whole lot has changed in our understanding of what makes us healthy. But, just because we know what’s good for folks, doesn’t mean folks are doing what’s good for ‘em.
Dr. Hamblin described this problem in his own work as a health communicator: “How do you make rules for those who don’t think about nutrition—people who are going to remember one or maybe three things about what they should or should not eat? It’s similar to what I know about investing—I know nothing. I just want someone to tell me what to invest in, and that’s how a lot of people are about nutrition. You need to simplify,” he told me.
The problem for Hamblin, and other health communicators, is that while they need to keep it simple, they also need to stay true to the science. And that’s where they are disadvantaged compared to the mainstream diet and fitness industry. Empirical evidence is no hindrance to those who sell factory-produced, packaged “paleo” products, or for people who sell books promising that drinking bone broth will erase your wrinkles and make you lose 15 pounds in less than a month (it won’t).
I talked to Dan Buettner about this, and he broke it down quite well:
“Here’s the arc of those products: We saw the same thing with Atkins, and South Beach and the like—they often start with a pretty good idea, and questionable as it may be, there’s a little bit of science behind them. Then they start to get traction, they have their day in the sun. When they get popular, they get the attention of these food processors—the General Mills, the Krafts, and the Unilevers of the world. They call themselves food companies but they’re basically marketing organizations… so they snap up one of these emerging brands and infuse it with a ton of advertising and it becomes big for a second…and then they deflate under their own empty promises.”
So how long will paleo be the diet de jour? Bone broth K-cups may mark the beginning of the end.
Despite its flaws, paleo was a well-meaning rejection of the modern convenience that is causing us health problems. Yet in these K-cups it’s almost as if the food industry is laughing at that notion, saying: “you can’t beat us.” On the packaging, LonoLife’s marketers ask: “What’s more paleo than bone broth?” I would turn that question around and ask: What is less paleo than K-cups?
As paleo joins its cousins Atkins and South Beach on the list of things about which we say “remember when that was a thing?”, we should take one more important lessons from this: Eating a bunch of meat is not going to solve our health problems, but perhaps more importantly, if everyone ate like that, our planet would be in a lot of trouble.
“Sustainability, to me, is the most dire and important part of this puzzle of how we eat right now,” Hamblin told me.
Eating meat is a huge drain on natural resources, like arable land and fresh water, and also one of the most significant contributors to climate change. Hamblin pointed out that the more-versus-less-meat for nutrition argument is moot due to our growing global population:
“We need to think about 7 billion (soon to be 10 billion) humans collectively keeping ourselves from going extinct, or having massive catastrophic events as a result of climate change. That to me is so much more important than figuring out how we extend our lives from 79 to 82 years old,” he said.
He continued: “If you told people if they should be eating diamonds to improve their skin, they would say, ‘ok, well that’s interesting, but I’m not going to be eating diamonds because that’s not practical.’”
Climate change is THE looming threat to the entire species, so for some of us to be quibbling over whether eating some meat might be somewhat good for human health, it’s insane when we know that a plant-based diet has again and again been proven to be optimal, wonderful, for human health,” he said.
The paleo phenomenon is just another chapter in the ongoing saga of the public being jerked around by companies trying to make a quick buck. They do this by playing on people’s lack of understanding of basic health and nutrition, exploiting our need for novelty, and tapping into our inevitable embrace of the newest, sexiest way to eat.
But maybe—just maybe—when people see the word “paleo” pasted across a processed, packaged, factory-produced product, they’ll think, “huh—that doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe they’ll realize that food and health and diet marketers might not be the best source of nutrition information.
And at that point, all you have left is the same old boring, unsexy advice, which was so perfectly distilled by Michael Pollan, so I’ll just defer to his words and leave them here:
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”