Is the paleo diet good for you?

I am surprised at the fascination that Americans have with food and the number of my friends and acquaintances who avidly watch cooking shows. Food is one of the great pleasures in life and I like it as much as the next person but watching it get made carries with it as much interest as watching a carpenter make a cabinet. Once you have admired the skill of the expert, interest wanes, at least for me. I would never have guessed that one day there would be entire TV channels devoted to just food.

This absorption with food also extends to the many specialized diets that keep getting invented for health and weight reasons. A colleague of mine (along with her family) has adopted what is a new one to me that is known as the paleolithic diet. Like the Atkins diet, this one is supposedly based on evolutionary ideas. In this case, the argument goes that our modern diet consists mostly of cultivated food that arose after the widespread adoption of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, whereas for most of human evolutionary history, humans were hunter-gatherers and existed on a pre-agricultural diet. The advocates of the paleo diet argue that our bodies are better adapted to that earlier diet and seek to reproduce that pre-agricultural menu of foods.

Here is one proponent’s guide to what you should and should not eat on this diet.

Eat unlimited amounts of fresh fruits, vegetables, meats (preferably grass produced), fish, seafood, nuts and certain healthful oils. Dont worry about portions, let your appetite be your guide. Severely reduce or eliminate all cereal grains, dairy, legumes and processed foods. If it contains salt or comes in a package, can or box avoid it. Potatoes and corn are not part of contemporary Paleo diets as well.

But does the paleo diet as practiced now really correspond to what humans ate more than 10,000 years ago? After all, many of the fruits and vegetables we now eat have been carefully bred to be tasty and edible and did not exist in their present form in those days. And more importantly, is the paleo diet good for you? This article takes a skeptical look at the claims made by advocates of the paleo diet.

I myself do not follow any particular diet, except what might be called ‘the lazy person’s diet’ which does not require much thought or effort. My practice is to eat balanced, home-cooked meals in reasonable portions and avoid as much as possible highly processed foods.


  1. 'Tis Himself says

    I follow the see food diet. I see food, I eat it.

    My wife is a dietician. She recommends the diet given in elementary school health books: eat more fruits and vegetables than meat, don’t eat a lot of fried or sugary foods, have snacks in moderation, and drink plenty of liquids.

  2. Doug Little says

    I have based my diet around the research in the book by Bailor – The smarter science of slim. It is basically a paleodiet although I have not heard that term used before. I must admit it has worked for me and it has been extremely easy keeping up with it. I don’t really miss the things you shouldn’t eat. I have never tried a diet where you cut processed starch before, my body fat level is definitely lower than it has been in possibly 15 years. Whilst I do exercise it has been at a reduced rate due to a shoulder injury I sustained in January. This indecently was the reason I started modifying my diet in the first place.

    The big thing to remember is diet is one facet of losing weight/body fat. You have to exercise correctly as well.

  3. says

    Good morning Mano,

    I surpassed my goal weight of 187.9 (a Body Mass Index of 25.5) on Friday, seven months to the day that I began my weight-loss and health-gain quest at a weight of 265 pounds and a BMI of 35.9. I accomplished this principally by taking three actions:

    First, and I believe most importantly, I stopped eating all foods from national chains — McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, Taco Bell, &c.

    Second, the only grains that I ate were steel-cut oats, brown rice and qiunoa and only 1.5 cups (cooked) together of those, each day.

    Third, I stopped eating white foods — white potatoes, white bread, white sugar, white rice, white salt, &c.

    There are lots of smaller actions I took, but these are the big three.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,


  4. Doug Little says

    I just went and read the link about the paleodiet and it seems to be way more wooish than what is discussed in the book I mentioned. Things like only eating grass fed meat would suggest a fad diet. The site seems to think that the mechanism of weight loss for the diet is reduced calories which cannot be further from the truth. The book goes into great detail how a reduction in caloric intake actually hurts the weight loss process in the long term and backs it up with scientific studies.

  5. ischemgeek says

    I forget where I read it, but I saw someone say something along the lines of “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

    I try to follow that ideal.

  6. freebird says

    As someone who avidly crossfits, this is a widely hyped diet in my sport that draws out fierce defenders. There is a fanatical aversion to anything processed, such as white bread, actually bread in general, since is contains gluten. Actually, all grains are “forbidden” under the strict plan. So few realize that they don’t need to quit grains. There’s a lot of woo coming out of sites like Whole9, Robb Wolf, etc. I do acknowledge that they promote way healthier eating than a standard “American diet”, but they often go way over the top with woo.

    I absolutely hate how much the fanatics complain about how they “cheated” and ate a cookie. Seriously, STFU.

    I like Micheal Pollan’s mantra: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

  7. Doug Little says

    The book I recommended backs all its claims up with evidence and science, I can’t attest to these other sites recommending pretty much the same thing but if they are promoting stuff like only grain fed meat then I can see that the nugget of truth has been garnished with a bunch of woo. It’s OK to eat crappy food once in a while just so long as you are eating prominently lean protein and non starchy vegetables you are pretty mush following a “paleo type” diet.

  8. San Ban says

    Um, didn’t Stone Age humans have a very active lifestyle and very short life expectancy? Why would their diets suit modern humans?

  9. outeast says

    The ‘article’ link just goes to the rationalwiki page – is that what was intended?

  10. David M says

    I have a friend who is off on this kick, and I can’t help but think of it as such (forgive me if you should chance to read this my dear). She fed me chicken hearts the other night (she’s an incredible cook), which were quite good but it was gross to think of what I was eating. Yet I find it a bit premature if not fanatic to advocate this diet. Even her pets are being Shanghaied into this diet, with her cats now eating only grain free cat food.

    I love the products of agriculture and I try to stick with whole grains for all the bread I eat. I love olive oil and I also try to keep my omega 3 high relative to my omega 6 intake. I think that this is part of the philosophy behind eating grass fed animals, i.e., that their fatty acid profile is changed by what they are fed. As far as I can tell there seems to be some evidence for this.

    The only problem with my current diet, as far as I’m concerned, is that I drink too much.

  11. says

    I don’t know if I can really weigh in on this, as I’m on a low-or-no-fat, low-carb diet. I do know that eating mostly fruit and veg, supplementing with lean meats, and occasional whole-grains (e.g. brown rice) has helped my digestion enormously.

  12. says

    That’s not really such a big tell in itself. Grass-fed meat is ecologically less wasteful, generally lower in fat than grain-fed, and has a different kind of fat (omega3/omega6 balance) that’s supposed to be healthier by actual science.

    The main tells are the orthorexia and the anthropological ignorance. (Hunter gatherers do NOT avoid grains! eg )

    Even so, it’s one of the less faddy and stupid of the many many stupid fad diets in the world. This one probably won’t actually hurt you.

  13. Otrame says

    Prehistoric people did eat grains and various starchy roots and tubers whenever they could get them. They ate pretty much anything. Our biggest problem is not so much what we eat but how much, compared to how much physical labor we have in our lives. Our craving for fat and sweet is based on the fact that those food resources provide a great deal of calories for relatively little effort, which was an advantage in the old days. Today, not so much. At least not in the first world countries.

    One dietitian (Harvard medical school) noted that Americans eat a much lower fat diet than they did 30 years ago yet are getting fatter and fatter. He noted that when you lower your fat content too much you crave fat, and carbohydrates, and end up eating too much of the latter. By eating reasonable amounts of the right kind of fat (that is, largely vegetable fats) you will reduce your craving for starches. He recommended eating two or three handfuls of nuts a day. Good fat, reduces appetite.

    The problem with any fad diet is the absolutes. Yes, if you cut starches from your diet you will lose weight, but trust me, friends, IT WILL NOT STAY OFF. Losing weight that way will make you fat. I promise. The trouble is it is so much easier to cut out a food entirely than to eat reasonable portions. Yet it is eating reasonable portions that, with a small increase in exercise, will eventually lead to less weight. We just all want it off tomorrow. Losing ten pounds in a year will actually stay off. Losing fifty pounds in six months will result in gaining it all back and more to boot.

    Pollan’s advice is good, and is relatively easy to follow because he essues

  14. Otrame says

    Damn it. Hit the wrong button. Pollan’s advice does not rule out any food, which is good.

    <Note to self: long comments on iPads might lead to embarrassing premature posting.

  15. Doug Little says

    Yeah thanks for that I wasn’t aware of the omega3/omega6 balance. Grass fed meat is probably healthier but the main idea as far as I can tell with the diet is to eat food that is, High in Satiety, High in nutritional value per calorie, Low in glycemic index, and low in efficiency (in terms of consumed vs available calories for fat storage, it takes a lot more energy to break down a calorie of protein vs a calorie of starch). It just turns out that food high in starch and processed sugar are not rated very high using these criteria.

  16. Doug Little says

    Yes, if you cut starches from your diet you will lose weight, but trust me, friends, IT WILL NOT STAY OFF.

    Not necessarily. If you don’t consume enough calories to stop your body from going into starvation mode then yes you are in the same situation as any other reduced calorie diet. If you are replacing starch calories with better calories (ie fresh vegetables, lean protein) then it can and will stay off.


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