Arguments Against the Paleo Diet? Not What You’d Hope For

The paleo diet, as it’s often called, is becoming increasingly popular throughout the world. In the past few decades, it has gained a notorious following, known for the mantra how we should eat like our ancestors have eaten in the past. At the same time, a steady flow of people has argued that the paleo is unfeasible, mostly because we don’t know what exactly even was on their food plate. In this article I explore some of these notions.

I’d like to start by writing that the paleo diet has been shown to work for a short time-frame, improving various health bio-markers which are commonly studied in these types of studies. You can check out my paleo article for an extensive overview. At the same time, it is true that the paleo diet has not been scientifically studied longitudinally; across a very long time-frame. The longest study so far was two years long and it did, in fact, find positive benefits for people who ate in a paleo fashion, when they were compared to people who consumed a Standard American Diet. However, this doesn’t really tell us much, considering how bad the SAD is.

From a scientific perspective, the above paragraph captures all the current information, with a huge emphasis on scientific. Personal anecdotes and hearsay are not particularly informative for the general population or science for that matter.

The current idea of the paleo involves eating large amounts of vegetables, accompanied by different types of meat, fruits, nuts, and healthy fats. Furthermore, it »prohibits« eating processed food, legumes, and similar foods which were an acquisition of our agricultural ancestors in contrast to the hunter-gatherer societies which have existed thousands of years before the dawn of farming.

The main arguments against paleo concern themselves with two things. One is that we don’t exactly know what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate and that their ‘cuisine’ was very diverse, mostly depending on where a particular community had lived. The second is that the average life span of people was much shorter.
Both of these arguments are true and valid. However, both of them miss the point by a mile.

The notion of a paleo diet itself is not to mimic the exact foods which people ate back then, as we can only give probabilistic estimates about that, estimates which we base on archaeological findings, their natural habitat, even their cultural traditions. With that said, the probability of these estimates being true obviously varies with the amount of information we have about a particular region.

But, again, that is not the main point of the paleolithic diet (which may be somewhat of an oxymoron).The notion to eat what they were eating in the sense of mimicking their food groups and the ratios between them is of bigger importance, and more vital in this case. Yet, even the food group ratios are probably not as important as one might think, at least when we consider that there were a multitude of ethnic groups scattered throughout the world where each of them ate in a different way. Despite eating quite differently; talking in food group ratio terms, there was an absence of of chronic, food-related illnesses that are present in Western society and societies which have adopted a Westernized style of eating.

This leads us to the conclusion that only the type of food that was eaten, together with regular physical activity, and a relatively stress free* environment, can/could produce similar effects.
*The question whether today’s environment is more stressful than it was a few centuries ago is an interesting one, however, it’s impossible to measure it in a methodologically sound way.

For a good deal of us who live on this planet, surviving the day and living until an old age with our families seems to be the norm. Daily survival and the struggle that accompanies it doesn’t even come to mind. But it wasn’t always like that. Only a few centuries ago people often had to worry about how they will survive the next season, either due to disease, starvation, or an invading force.

I’m getting slightly off topic by now. The main idea is that living a few centuries/thousands years ago was very stressful, with the lingering threat of death. Today, we still live in a stressful environment, however, the nature of this stress has changed. Nowadays, it can mostly be attributed to the sheer complexity of our environment.
The reason the paleo diet has been so popular and successful in the studies which I’ve covered in my other post is simply because a diet mimicking a paleolithic one is very nutrient dense. A paleolithic style lunch will bring you more nutrients as would a lunch from a Western diet. This is mostly because eating large amounts of vegetables, meat, nuts, and fruits leaves us with food groups which are very nutrient dense. With that said, (occasional) consumption of grains, rice, potatoes, legumes, and so on will not kill you, far from it. Many of these items can be a good addition to a healthy diet if you want to gain, maintain, or even lose some weight.

Moreover, these food groups are more nutrient dense and probably have less calories than do modern prepackaged and extensively processed foods. Staying away from these is the best nutritional decision one can make.

It would be interesting to see what would happen to people who consume all the before mentioned food groups where the only thing they would stop eating would be extensively processed and prepackaged foods.
The other argument about the average lifespan cannot be entirely dismissed. Yes, they did not have modern medicine, which drastically reduced mortality rate and prolonged the average lifespan, they did not have the modern pharmaceutical treatments available, which further prolonged the average lifespan, and they lived a much more dangerous life on average, which reduced their lifespan at the time. These three factors have had drastic impacts on the average lifespan. However, the question whether they can account for all the differences in the average lifespan that have occurred since does remain a question.

So in conclusion, the real arguments against paleo are catching straws and missing the main point of the paleo. The slogan “eating like our ancestors ate” can be interpreted in many ways, and even if this slogan would mean eating the same foods (think raw animal carcasses and raw roots etc.), it could be argued that people would be better off than with the consumption of a typical Western diet.

About Author

Sebastijan Veselic

BSc in Psychology, currently doing a MSc in Cognitive science. Pursuing and interested in many academic and scientific disciplines and topics, as well as some less so. These include, but are not limited to, cute cats on the internet.

  • Monica Quintero Skyline Flower

    Interesting perspective! :)

  • Monica Quintero Skyline Flower

    Intersting perspective! :)

  • Karen Edscorn Board

    I like the way you point out that it’s really difficult to know exactly what our ancestors ate, and what their health and life spans were. I can guarantee that most veggies were not part of a hunter/gatherer diet (if you look at the diet of current or fairly recent hunter/gatherers). For instance, when Caucasians first arrived in North and South America, some of the native “Indian” tribes were hunter/gatherers and others were farmers (along w/ being hunter/gatherers) and I don’t think the life span or health of the non-agricultural Native Americans exceeded those who raised corn. If you look at the past from a Biblical perspective (pre-flood), when people really did live for centuries, it’s interesting to note that their diet was vegetarian and did include agriculture (thus grains). Post-flood, when humans began consuming meat, the life-span (according to Genesis) reduced to about where it is now. Of course, there was the probable protection from UV rays prior to the flood due to the “canopy.”

  • steve

    I think as well as nutrient rich foods a key part of Paleo is very low carbohydrate iintake and high fat. This suggests some societies, like the Inuit for instance, would be in ketosis, using ketones for fuel rather than glucose. High Fat, Low Carb and ketogenic diets are said to prevent a number of diseases by keeping insulin levels low along with insulin like growth hormone. High levels of the latter are correlated with all the typical western diseases like cancer, heat disease and many more. Ketogenic diets also prevent or reverse Type 2 diabetes, obesity and are used to prevent seizures in children.

    From what I’ve read the research suggests that many people are carbohydrate intolerant to varying degrees, just like some people are lactose or gluten intolerant. For those people Paleo diets apparently work wonders.