The biggest trend I’ve seen in nutritional blogs in the past year is the growing anti-Paleo movement. Unlike the 2008-2010 period, the attacks aren’t coming from the conventional “whole grains are good and cholesterol is bad” crowd. The attacks today are coming from those that tried a Paleo diet and have abandoned the label. Many even had great success with the diet. The reasons for leaving Paleo vary and I am going to go through some of them in this post.
Personally, I am torn. There are things I like and things I’ve grown to dislike about what it means to be Paleo. In this post, I am going to go through what I dislike and like about Paleo.
Photo by Pascal
Some background. I am not a health professional or PubMed Warrior. I come to health from a finance and programming background. I look for patterns of failure and try to figure out the motivations behind what is often conflicting nutritional advice. Enough disclaimer, here are a few of the problems I see in Paleo.
- Fear of Carbs – I will say that things are slowly improving thanks to Paul Jaminet of The Perfect Health Diet and the attention he brought to safe starches. Safe starches are the glucose sources of carbohydrates that include white rice, potatoes and sweet potatoes. A year ago I wrote my thoughts in the post Dances With Carbohydrates. Other variations of Fear of Carbs include fear of fructose (fruit) or fear of sugar (glucose + fructose). Even though I am neutral on sugar, I think this fear is likely over stated. Regarding insulin, I suspect Krieger is right, not Taubes.
- CrossFit – I think CrossFit is both dangerous and unnecessary to achieve a high level of fitness. The fact it is so associated with Paleo troubles me. See my posts Help Me Understand CrossFit and Responding to a CrossFit Enthusiast for my thoughts. Also check out Anthony Dream Johnson’s post The Cross Fit “Attitude” : A Disease.
- Stricter is Better Mentality – This is a problem with every diet. We make changes and get amazing results at first, but then the results stall or even reverse a little. Instead of recognizing that we have changed, we decide to follow a stricter version of what has stalled. We shake our heads at the vegetarian that goes vegan and then becomes a raw food vegan, yet Paleo followers fail to see the same patterns in themselves. In the Paleo community there are no shortage of blogs that promote a stricter is better message. They work real well for 25 year old mesomorphic males, but then again so does everything else. I prefer a less strict approach. See Loosening the Paleo Collar.
- Male Biased – As a dude, this isn’t my battle, but I can clearly see that a lot of the advice given in the Paleo community that could benefit men might actually make the health worse for women. I was likely guilty of this in some of my older posts. When it comes to intermittent fasting, cold thermogenesis, extended low carb dieting and extreme exercise, I would advise women to do their own research and not take the word of some guy with visible abs, especially if you have thyroid issues, are pregnant or trying to conceive.
- Whole Paycheck Paleo – I love my grass fed, free range, organic heirloom stuff as much as the next health conscious person, but the people in society with the worst health tend to be poor. They can’t afford to spend their entire paycheck on high quality food and (gag) CrossFit gym memberships. I think a lot of people are turned off from Paleo because they see it as a diet for people with a lot of disposable income. Yes, you can try and make the debate that the person will save money on health care in the long run, but the reality is Paleo has an elitism problem. And the truth is the big gains in health come from removing the big toxins (wheat, veggie oils, unfermented soy) and cooking your own meals, not from paying twice as much for groceries,
- Complicate to Profit – I love Matt Metzgar‘s comment on my post Primal Certification? Are You Kidding? He said complicate to profit. There a lot of people in Paleo that have decided to take Paleo in a complicated neurotic direction to make money. I get that people need to pay the rent, but the core message of Paleo is one based on simplicity and empowerment. I’m thankful these hucksters weren’t around when I was first introduced to the diet.
- The Obsession With “Optimal” Health – I believe the quest for optimal health at certain point makes one less resilient and less healthy. I cover that in the post Healthy vs Resilient.
What I Like About Paleo
To me Paleo is more about a mindset. Unlike every other diet that I had been exposed to, this one said I didn’t need to be an expert. Imagine a world 10,000 years ago and what foods would have been available. There is your starting point. Those foods are nutrient dense and you’ll greatly reduce your risk of major chronic illnesses. Paleo taught me to question conventional wisdom. Its root message of simplicity and resiliency appealed to me. It still does.
Paleo taught me to question all nutritional dogma, including Paleo dogma itself. This led me to the opinion that Paleo is a good place to start, but rejecting the last 10,000 years of ancestral knowledge of food would be a mistake. This is why I say The Endgame for Paleo is WAPF. Rejecting the last 100 years of industrial food is still probably a wise idea for most.
Since being exposed to Paleo, I’ve taken control and responsibility for my health. I run my own health experiments and I’ve learned a ton about cooking and food in the last few years.
Am I Paleo?
I’ve drifted so far away from Paleo in the last few years, I don’t know if one could call my diet Paleo. If someone asks me today if I am Paleo, I’ll respond with, I like Paleo only as a starting point. It is a good first step. But I also believe Paleo is unnecessarily restrictive. We have evolved since the Paleolithic era. Melissa of Hunt Gather Love just rejected the Paleo label in the post Breaking Up With Paleo. I’m linking to her post, because her nutritional journey looks similar to mine.
Vegetarian -> Paleo -> WAPF + some Ray Peat, Matt Stone and Danny Roddy.
Unlike her, I didn’t experience any health issues on Paleo. I’ll explain why in a future post. So am I Paleo? Is rejecting wheat, veggie oils and unfermented soy enough to keep me in the tribe?
Apr 9, 2013 — 1:37 pm
i have a neighbor i “converted” to paleo. he is orthodox and i am not sure that is a good thing after a while. hye never did any experimenting to see how he reacted to new food. i am on my 7th year of this journey. i didn’t do milk before so that was easy, tried raw milk and it still bothered me although cheese and ice cream seem fine. beans don’t agree with me. gluten containing grains mess me up. i use the best fats i can to cook with.
BUT rice, potatoes, and some dairy has found it’s way back into my diet. i would not be considered orthodox….neither would robb wolf if you’ve ever heard him talk on his podcasts. he advocates sanity verse obsessive compulsion.
i have learned a lot in the last 7 years they i can credit paleo for. i stand much more than i used to and i believe that helps me in many ways. i’ve done a lot to reduce stress in my life. i have learned to get higher quality (in many ways) foods without breaking the bank. there have been many changes i am very pleased about and wouldn’t trade. i am not orthodox but i’d still say i eat paleo.
Apr 9, 2013 — 1:46 pm
on a side note….the most popular crossfit gym in my town recently opened a chiropractic clinic inside the gym and no one thinks that is weird.
Apr 9, 2013 — 1:47 pm
I think a lot of the problems is due to the fact that a lot of people going on Paleo have an eating disorder and for them this is just another stop on the road they/re travelling.
Exactly what is Paleo?? How many years back do we have to go to find what is optimal to eat? When did paleo as described by Cordain and Eaton (which was moderate in it’s fat consumption) morph into the incredibly high fat ketogenic diets a lot of people ar eusing today?
Paleo man ate WHATEVER was available to eat.
For me – I eat a lot of fruit – my ratios are probably 40-40-20. I haven’t eaten red meat in almost 2 months (I’m not going vegan I just lost the taste for it) and my % of calories as saturated fat is probably 10-15% as I eat raw sprouted nuts and seed (in addition to pastured eggs, butter, 100% dark chocolate, potatoes mashed with butter and 1/2 avocado, canned tuna, full fat yogurt, etc.) AND I eat ice cream
I think one problem is the use of the word paleo – I think most people would be better off eliminating ALL of the processed crap for their diet and then seeing if any problems remain – try a 30 day elimination with 1 food group at a time and go from there.
Apr 9, 2013 — 1:48 pm
One more thing – IF and training fasted – works for me.
Apr 9, 2013 — 2:19 pm
Paleo strikes me as over-hyped, dogmatic nonsense. I agree with most of your reasons in the against list.
But I find your labeling Wheat/veggie oil/Soy as “toxins”, to be still steeped in the Paleo Dogma.
There is no “optimal” historic diet, that creates “optimal” health. Humans ate whatever they could get their hands on, that didn’t kill them. Which would have been different depending on location, and health would have varied with the available food.
Identifying foods as “toxins” looks like an offshoot of demonizing some ingredient. Just like Fat was demonized, then carbs were demonized. Do you have serious evidence that wheat is a toxin?
No one food is the problem, over-consumption is the main problem.
You can have a reasonable food direction in a sentence:
Don’t over-consume, eat more whole food and less process food.
Simple. No worries about toxins, the evils of carbs/fat/wheat/soy/etc… Fad, after fad, after fad..
Apr 9, 2013 — 2:24 pm
“Is rejecting wheat, veggie oils and unfermented soy enough to keep me in the tribe?”
i hope so, because that’s all i have left! i eat nixtamalized corn, rice, plenty of fruit, and don’t make it a point to eat high fat. i question whether legumes are even a problem for most people, i just avoid them because i never digested them well. “paleo?” i have no clue.
Apr 9, 2013 — 2:32 pm
@Chuck – CrossFit Chiro = brilliant business move.
@Charles – A while back you sent me 3 links to a protein cycling diet. Have you experimented with it? Seems like it would be very hard to keep protein under 25 grams without being very hungry. Maybe a diet of veggies and coconut milk? Veggie Thai curry.
@Peter S – There is something wrong with modern food. You wisely said to eat less processed food. I would consider veggie oils and unfermented soy to be highly processed foods. As for wheat, my self experimentation discovered that was bad for me.
Apr 9, 2013 — 2:34 pm
@Jake – I have no clue on legumes. I rarely eat them. When I do, I sprout them.
Apr 9, 2013 — 4:08 pm
Diets rich in Olive oil have had good outcomes. Toxin?
Eliminating wheat from your diet and having some benefit (assuming it isn’t just the placebo effect) only means that applies to you, not that wheat is a general human toxin.
Research shows the Victorian English in the mid-19th century were robustly healthy (much more than we are today), living longer than today with much less incidence of degenerative disease. They ate plenty of Paleo-toxin wheat in their diet, along with Paleo-Toxic legumes. Any evidence that Paleo humans were any healthier than Victorians. What next, will we have a Victorian eating fad?
I think the emphasis on seeking the “toxic foods” to eliminate, is just as bad as looking for the magic bullet supplement/food that will make you healthy.
For most people eating wheat/soy/veggie oils won’t hurt them as part of a varied whole food diet.
As far as something wrong with modern food:
#1: Again: Over-consumption (vs activity) is the first problem.
#2: Process food stripped of nutrients. It isn’t there are bad/toxic natural foods (Grain/Legumes) , it is taking any food and processing away all the nutrients.
#3: Much more contaminated environment. Real toxins are Pesticides/Mercury/PCBs that are everywhere in our environment. They would have been practically non-existent in the Victorian era.
Paleo might be handy if is the only way to convince people that diet of cupcakes/donuts is a bad idea, but IMO it is a dogmatic fad, base on specious reasoning.
Apr 9, 2013 — 4:37 pm
@Peter S – I thought olives were a fruit. Anyway, I was speaking specifically of industrially processed seed oils. Corn, Soybean, Canola, etc.
If you think soy / veggie oils are fine, more power to you. At this time, I more swayed by the arguments from Paleo, WAPF, Perfect Health Diet and Dr. Peat that are unified in their opinion that they are to be avoided. I’m going to err on their expertise. If this turns out to be a fad, oh well.
Apr 9, 2013 — 5:11 pm
MAS: from what I know about paleo, the core idea is that evolution has been too slow to keep up with the availability of new food sources (e.g., those that were not available at all or those that have been modified.) This seems to be a logical assertion.
I would expect that the paleo concepts could be tested. It is my understanding that the one diet that has been studied is the Mediterranean diet, which seems to be a healthy regimen, and which is also somewhat the opposite of paleo.
I do tend agree with your point #5.
Apr 9, 2013 — 5:29 pm
Somehow I don’t find the overlap between fads argument highly convincing. 😉
Isn’t Peat the guy that eats a few hundred grams of sucrose, a day to keep his heart at a nice healthy 85 bpm resting rate?
I am glad I am not trying to navigate an intersection, between Paleo, and Peat fads and just aim to eat a lot of whole food and moderate amounts of anything I want.
This “toxic foods” fad in any of it’s forms strikes me as downright silly.
Thankfully I don’t fear any food, so I can have Beer and Pizza with friends.
Apr 9, 2013 — 6:17 pm
A couple of thoughts. I don’t think of myself AS Paleo, as in I am Paleo … I tend to say I EAT a Paleo style diet. I recall hearing Dr. McGuff and Ido Portal saying exactly this type of thing – eat a Paleo style diet. They purposely didn’t go deeper than that. Paleo, by it’s very nature, cannot be pigeon holed into a list of absolute do’s or don’ts.
An analogy would be like someone saying they are Christian, or live a Christian lifestyle. To me, I would assume this person believes in God, that Jesus was his son and that there is a Heaven. Beyond that, in my mind at least, there is a lot of variation on what it means ‘to be Christian’.
Similarly, if you eat Paleo, you likely think wheat, industrial seed oils and highly processed foods are bad stuff, but past that, there’s a lot of variation.
Like you said, it’s a good template, a good starting point. But I don’t shy away from saying I eat Paleo, I got over the semantics of it a long time ago.
Apr 9, 2013 — 6:19 pm
@Aaron – Nice. Your comment was better written than my entire post.
Apr 10, 2013 — 12:11 am
Tim Ferris SlowCarb – Sisson’s Paleo – Finney/Volek VLC – Brad Pilons IF(ESE) – Matt Stone’s Diet Recovery 2.
I see a patern that we all go through. Paleo is ok, I had more problems with family and obtaining the “good” food which added a lot of stress. And I actually didn’t see positive or negative changes. But it’s easy to convince yourself the fault is yours.
Thankfully, HIT is still HIT:-)
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:16 am
My early readings on Paleo were closely tied up with my own allergies/food intolerance, and the idea of eliminating certain foods on a trial basis, eating a cleaner diet, to see how my body reacted was a good starting point. It also helped me experiment and I could log improvements, and then later noticed improved tolerance to the same foods i had problems with. I think its also about exposure, if you are over exposed to certain foods or drinks, maybe at some point you reach a tipping point. I think I read somewhere that its as though we have an allowance for some foods but when you go beyond that point your body reacts and treats it as though its a poison. I have had dairy intolerance and wheat intolerance, i can have these foods as long as I don’t have too much too often. When you do an elimination diet you usually remove the food you are questioning for 4 days and then re introduce on the fifth day. I have problems with caffeine, but only at the tipping point, if I stay within a small daily does its fine. The same with alcohol, one night with a glass of wine or two is fine, 2 nights in a row and I notice I feel noticeably depressed. So alcohol has a depressive aspect to it for me. Too much caffeine makes me hyperactive and irritable. So paleo has really helped me understand how the body/mood interacts with food. I also read up on the GAP Diet which helped introducing some probiotics and fermented food. All the writers/bloggers out there have added to my understanding. What hasn’t worked I put aside. Ray Peat’s orange juice has calmed me. So I feel there is a rich resource of information and advice and personally I never wanted to belong to any group, I just wanted to learn and there has been so much to learn through the internet. Paleo and all its offshoots has been a great journey of discovery and information. And its an evolutionary journey you evolve and that openness to experience and experiment is what makes its so fascinating.
Apr 10, 2013 — 4:33 am
Nice post. Glad to see you are back to blogging. Have your headaches improved?
“Paleo” (the movement) started to lose me when it became a relentless echo-chamber of cross-promotion. So your “Complicate to Profit” point and the “Primal Certification? Are you kidding me?” post really resonated with me. Do most people really need dozens of books? Expensive supplements? Certifications? Seminars and conventions? Wasn’t “Paleo” supposed to be “So easy that a caveman can do it?” (Sorry, GEICO.)
That said, I also agree with you that “Paleo” (the way of eating) is a good starting point for most. It’s hard for me to find much fault with Mark Sisson’s “Primal Laws” as a basis for healthy and resilient living. There’s probably a bit of individual variation in how we practice “Avoid Poisonous Things”, but, taken on their face, they are a simple set of comprehensive guidelines. However, a lot of the dogma that has grown up around the “Primal Laws” (the “carbohydrate curve” for instance) seems to have been less helpful. I’m not sure Sisson really needed two full length books (“Primal Blueprint” and “Primal Connection”) to explain it all.
So ultimately, I’m inclined to agree with Robb Wolf that the best service “Paleo” (the movement) can provide is getting the sick people who desperately need help to the starting point but it can do much better being clear that the “Paleo” way of eating is only a starting point.
Apr 10, 2013 — 1:48 pm
I like that people wrote that I can’t break up with paleo because at this point it’s so diluted and vague that I really could still call myself “paleo.”
I mean what do I have to do to not be paleo? Drink an entire bottle of soybean oil? But what if that’s part of my 20% or on my cheat day?
that keto bitch
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:04 pm
The issue with paleo is that for the most part, it’s educated, affluent people with vanity/middle-aged weight to lose and made up health issues who found out that having a restrictive diet for no reason isn’t fun. Many people view weight loss/thinness as the only measure of success so they eat paleo with no calories, so they are miserable. Carbs add calories and voi-la, you feel better again.
Personally, I see Taubes theory in my own life every day, and whenever I try to add in “safe starch” or whatever else, I am quickly reminded of the truth about my metabolism.
Am I “orthorexic”? Nope. Being restrictive in my diet brings me more benefits than just eating whatever. Some of us don’t have a choice.
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:12 pm
I’ve been “paleo” for almost 3 years. Quite simply, it has worked for me. I’ve experimented a lot & seem to be in long-term groove. I supplement, but only with products in which I experience tangible benefits. I don’t shy away from starches, but I do greatly limit sugar. At home, it’s only grass-fed beef, pastured eggs, pastured chicken & fish. Away from home, the grass-fed/pastured labels are out of sight/out of mind, & I don’t stress about it. As for dairy, I cannot stand milk, but if I did drink the stuff, it would be raw. I definitely don’t shy away from homemade vanilla ice cream or cheese! I also make a conscious effort to eat plenty of pastured butter, & I include 5 tblsp of coconut oil in my morning smoothie each & every day. I do not count carbs, but I get them almost exclusively from fruits & veggies. One last thing… I’m 6′ 142 lbs & I consume 3200-4000 calories/day. I’m in the best shape of my life at 54, & for me, “paleo” works. I suppose what makes it work for me is avoiding all the N-6 crap & grain products. I’ve had no peaks or valleys… just smooth sailing.
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:23 pm
Given that 4000+ people paid $39 for the latest paleo “please buy all these e-docs” pitch, I’m encouraged to see that there are others skeptical … “complicate to profit” … hmmmm!
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:43 pm
@Geoff: Your GEICO/“So easy that a caveman can do it” comment makes me think another lucrative “complicate to profit” opportunity is just around the corner… Paleo insurance! If you don’t see results in 30 days, we’ve got you covered! Low premiums, plus special discounts on Primal Pacs and Crossfit Chiro.
Apr 10, 2013 — 2:55 pm
“Unlike her, I didn’t experience any health issues on Paleo. I’ll explain why in a future post. ”
Don’t you have headaches? Or did you always have these and they didn’t go away on paleo?
Apr 10, 2013 — 5:25 pm
Glad to see you posting again so soon. I hope it means you are feeling better.
Most of the population is omnivorous and has been browbeaten into shame by militant vegetarians for years. Paleo makes a good argument for unapologetic meat eating and for many people this is a way to “make a stand”. As I see it, the action-reaction, the back-and-forth between vocal members in each community is the only fashion at play.
And fashions are hollow by virtue of their nature (any thought carried around by many is bound to amount to the lowest common denominator). For instance, of the zillion diets out there, why is it that Paleo alone must “feed the entire world”? There is an evident interest in frivolous discredit rather than honest criticism. The accusation that “Paleo is for men” is but one example (only a few decades ago the same cretins would have used blacks/Jews/Muslims/Irish instead of men). The list of vacuous attacks is as long as inconsequential.
External criticism is, thus, of null informational value and the fashion/drama bits are a waste of time (move on Melissa, you are far better than the caricature you’ve made of yourself – friendly advice).
Internal criticism is another matter.
Paleo is not low-carb per-se while many other diets actually are. Still, so what? Go with your bliss.
Most diets are commercial in nature and the folk that trade in this business have seen an opportunity in Paleo. Again, so what?
Cults with bizarre restrictions abound (e.g. 30 bananas a day) and often seed their beliefs by perverting legitimate sources. I say that one should stay from extreme interpretations but, again, to each his/her/its own.
Pursuing “optimal” health is the cornerstone of many diets (e.g. modern vegetarians). Nothing weird here.
“Organic” produce is more desirable than the “industrial” counterpart but you are not any less vegetarian if you can’t afford the top-shelf stuff. Grass-fed also is more desirable (and wild game even more so) but again… so what?
Eliminating processed foods (from markets, restaurants, etc) reduces expenses. That has been my experience. Of course, if you increase the quality, you increase the price. Interestingly, I can now increase the quality of my purchases because of the money I save.
There is more but I’ll stop here.
Paleo allowed me to learn about nutrition, exercise, and how my own, specific body works. It was my 101 on the subject. It is natural to move on to other, more complex and interesting subjects, once one graduates.
Apr 10, 2013 — 6:16 pm
@Melissa – The headaches were around long before Paleo. Paleo helped me remove 2 triggers (wheat and alcohol). The tools I used with Paleo did help me find a 3rd driver, which is caffeine.
Love your comment about drinking soybean oil on your cheat day.
@Geoff – I made a very important step to curb my headaches. I sold my beloved espresso machine. This is an important first step on my way to a long coffee detox.
@Ron – I too have found the “secret sauce” of Paleo is avoiding N-6 crap & grain products. No other ideas come close.
@that keto bitch – I don’t know if Taubes is right or wrong. Since I have strong doubts about his insulin theory, I’m not going to avoid carbs. I still love GCBC.
@Beth – 4000! I need to put out an e-book. 😉 Complicate to profit indeed.
@Txomin – Love your thoughts, especially the last paragraph. Paleo is Nutrition 101.
Apr 11, 2013 — 12:18 am
I think paleo/primal is first and foremost about avoiding stuff that isn’t good for you, like gluten, HFCS, too much omega 6 fats, too much sugar, soy, specific food intolerances, trans fats, most grains, some kinds of dairy, BPA, etc.
Then it’s about eating foods that are nutrient dense to fuel your body.
While I don’t think it’s bad to eat fruit and white rice, I wouldn’t make them take up the majority of my plate everyday. Maybe once or twice a week. I’m sure I would get more from ground beef/lamb and butter. But if you’re poor you can always go lower on the meat and higher on the potatoes.
I also think things like grass fed and organic are overstated a lot. Chances are non-organic, grain fed paleo is still better then most diets out there and better then going organic vegan.
Apr 11, 2013 — 8:03 am
Apr 14, 2013 — 8:11 am
I really enjoyed this thoughtful article, and agree with you on most points. Thanks for taking the time to blog – i read your stuff regularly and find it all very helpful.
Keep ‘m coming,