Fitness Myths that NEED to Die: The Paleo Diet Edition
I support the paleo diet.
Emphasizing lot’s of veggies, fruit, and high quality protein…the paleo diet offers a great framework for people to live a healthy(er) lifestyle.
It also helps that research has found paleo-esque diets to be more satiating (filling) than other popular diets. This speaks volumes considering people often fail with certain diets, not because they aren’t motivated, but because they’re constantly hungry.
That being the case, finding a diet that helps to increase satiety on a per calorie basis is extraordinarily important and something I appreciate and recognize within the paleo diet guidelines.
Having said that…
I don’t agree with all of it.
Like most things in the fitness industry, many key tenets of the paleo diet lack context.
Not only that, much of the paleo diet is based on false assumptions and unrealistic expectations.
In order to help you create the best diet for your individual needs, in this piece I’ll examine several tenants of the paleo diet with which I most adamantly disagree.
Through reading this piece you’ll not only learn why certain paleo diet principles are incomplete, but also how you can incorporate the best nutrition practices into your lifestyle regardless of whether or not they’re “paleo.”
No Dairy Allowed
The paleo diet doesn’t allow dairy.
- Dairy was not available during the paleolithic era and, consequently, we as humans are not meant to consume it.
- Dairy, for a variety of reasons, is dangerous for human consumption.
- Dairy produces a large insulinemic response which promotes the storage of fat.
But do they stand up to the research?
Let’s find out:
Claim #1: Humans aren’t meant to consume dairy because it wasn’t available during the paleolithic era
Claiming humans aren’t meant to consume dairy simply because it wasn’t available in the paleolithic era is asinine.
Without supporting evidence, that’s akin to saying humans aren’t meant to wash their hands after taking a dump because our ancestors didn’t have access to hand soap.
Assuming something is “healthy” or “unhealthy” solely based on whether or not it was available to our primal ancestors is a logical fallacy in and of itself.
Your Takeaway: just because a certain food may or may not have been available during the paleolithic era doesn’t make it “good” or “bad.”
Claim #2: Dairy is dangerous for human consumption
Well performed research showing a direct cause and effect relationship between dairy and negative health outcomes in lactose-tolerant individuals is tremendously underwhelming.
In contrast, the vast majority of up-to-date research consistently finds dairy consumption leading to improved markers of health including decreased risk of type 2 diabetes (T2DM), stroke, cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease (CVD), and improved body composition.
See what I’m getting at?
Milk and other dairy products aren’t the menace some make them out to be.
In fact, for those who can tolerate it, dairy is probably one of the best things to regularly incorporate within your diet.
Claim #3: Dairy spikes insulin which stores more fat
Insulin is a hormone that, among other things, regulates your blood sugar.
Despite insulin’s essential role in numerous life processes, it’s often denounced by various professionals (especially low-carb fanatics) who believe insulin is the driving force behind fat gain.
But don’t freak out.
Insulin alone will NOT make you fat.
Q: Then what makes me fat?
A: Consistently eating more calories than you burn.
In other words…
Regardless of what you eat (be it dairy, carbohydrates, or straight up twinkies) you will lose fat so long as you eat less calories than you burn on a consistent basis.
Take, for example, this study which found that, in the presence of a caloric deficit, a high-carbohydrate (and high insulin producing) diet resulted in significant weight loss.
And, oh wait, this happens too…
For the final nail in the insulin makes you fat coffin, it’s important to realize that protein causes large insulin spikes as well.
So…if their claims regarding insulin were correct, meat should actually be banned from the paleo diet.
In fact, research is finding that dairy is likely beneficial in maintaining a healthy body weight.
Plus, it helps to know that dairy likely reduces hunger, improves weight loss, and prevents weight re-gain.
Your Takeaway: If you like dairy and aren’t lactose intolerant…it’d probably be smart to include it within your diet. It’s not essential and it’s definitely not a magic pill but, if you enjoy it, by all means have it guilt-free.
Important Note: If you’re interested in learning more about insulin and truly understanding how it works within your body, you need to read this spectacular series by James Krieger: Insulin: An Undeserved Bad Reputation
No Processed Foods Allowed
The paleo diet stands proudly against any and all processed foods.
Well, except for paleo bread…
And paleo diet bars…
And paleo protein powder…
And paleo granola clusters…
In other words, the paleo diet stands proudly against any and all processed foods…….except for when they don’t.
I know, I know…
I understand what proponents of the paleo diet mean.
When referring to “processed foods” they’re speaking about calorie-dense (empty calorie) foods that provide little-to-no nutritional value.
I get it and, by and large, I agree with those recommendations.
However, I disagree with the sentiment that processed foods (or any foods in isolation) are inherently bad.
Especially in a society where, unless you’re growing all of your food yourself, everything you eat is processed in some way, shape, or form.
Not to mention, plenty of processed foods provide numerous health benefits.
Greek yogurt, for example, is low in calories, high in protein, and extraordinarily nutrient-dense.
It’s also processed.
Your Takeaway: No food is inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. Rather, the sum and substance of your diet as a whole – not one food in isolation – largely dictates your nutritional health.
The Paleo Diet History
According to ThePaleoDiet.com, the paleo diet is based off of “foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors.“
While this sounds like a wonderful idea, the concept itself is flawed in nature.
See, what proponents of the paleo diet fail to recognize is that the diet of our ancestors was almost entirely dependent on where they actually lived.
Considering people thrived all across the globe in extraordinarily diverse conditions, it’s not all that difficult to understand paleolithic diets varied by geographical location.
Take, for example, the chart below taken from this fantastic article.
Clearly there wasn’t a single, definitive “paleo diet.”
Rather, our ancestors ate whatever was readily available to them based on season, yield, and region in which they lived.
Of particular importance, it’s essential to understand that we, as humans, are extraordinarily adaptable beings and can survive on a variety of diets.
To quote anthropologist, William Leonard, “Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet. What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat. We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the Earth, consuming diets ranging from almost all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes.”
Your Takeaway: There is no such thing as the one and only paleo diet. Rather, the diets of our ancestors varied widely based on where they lived and what was made available to them. Furthermore, we as humans are extraordinarily good at adapting to our environment and, to date, there is no research providing compelling evidence that any single diet is innately superior to the human species.
The Greatest Flaw of All
There isn’t a single mention of habit formation or behavior change.
Granted, this flaw isn’t limited to the paleo diet.
Arguably the greatest flaw of all conventional diet and health-related interventions is a complete and utter lack of emphasis on behavior change.
What’s behavior change got to do with this?
We all know, generally speaking, what foods should make up the sum and substance of our diet.
We tend to understand that a diet mainly consisting of whole, minimally processed foods such as fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and high quality fats is probably ideal for our overall health and function.
Despite this knowledge, few people actually follow these guidelines.
A number of factors (sociological, economical, environmental, etc) contribute to our nutritional choices but the fact of the matter remains: We need support!
And the support we need extends far beyond arbitrary nutritional guidelines like “eat this, not that.“
Plain and simple, successful diets don’t begin with food; they begin with targeted behavior change and habit formation.
Your Takeaway: You can provide the greatest, most up-to-date, nutritional information the world has to offer but if you don’t first target habits and behavior…well…even the best diet won’t last for very long.
If you’re interested in behavior change, Motivational Interviewing is, in my opinion, the best place to start.
The Paleo Diet: The Final Verdict
By and large I agree with the sentiments of including lot’s of vegetables, fruits, and high quality proteins within your diet. I whole heartedly agree with the concept of minimizing calorically dense, empty calorie foods and focusing on minimally processed, nutrient rich options.
That being said, I don’t support the way in which the paleo diet demonizes certain food groups. I’m a firm believer that no food in isolation is inherently good or bad, healthy or unhealthy.
I also think it’s important for proponents of the paleo diet to recognize there isn’t a single, “best” diet for the human species. Continuing to propagate this myth is only going to create further confusion and misunderstanding amidst a topic that is already clouded by media-based propaganda and misinformation.
Finally, and prevalent for for all diets – not just paleo – we must start emphasizing habit formation and behavior change. Until we as a health community, regardless of our specific nutritional choices, understand and appreciate that improved nutrition starts with habits – not food – we will fail to see the changes our society so desperately needs.
Never Minimal. Never Maximal. Always Optimal.