Problems With Paleo

2014-07-09 13.38.57I’ve just started to read The Paleo Approach: Reverse Autoimmune Disease, Heal Your Body. It’s an impressive well researched book with with a massive ‘science based’ restricted food list. This focus on restricting natural foods seems to increasing characterise paleo books and it’s in stark contrast to similar whole food diets which really just promote the avoidance of processed foods.  Whilst I like the concept of paleo eating, I find myself having more sympathy with moderates like Michael Pollan who  promotes a much simpler message “Eat whole food, not too much, mostly plants”.  The Paleo fans though are on a mission to eliminate huge swathes of whole-foods from our diets, even more for auto-immune sufferers.  It worries me, even though I am a big believer in the basic paleo hypothesis, I worry about the reductionist “this scientific study shows that this micro nutrient is bad” approach can lead us in the wrong direction.

This is where the problem lies though for me. We know that prior to the introduction of agriculture humans seemed to be healthier, but we also know that different groups ate a hugely varied diet and to a large extent they all thrived.  They thrived even when some mix of grains, nightshades, beans, honey and starchy tubers were part of their diet. 

I know from my own personal history that I can thrive on many different diets, for example when I was at school, and quite an athlete, that I ate mostly bread, biscuits, fruit and cheese, in my late twenties and very healthy I ate mostly bread, ham, granola, cheese, milk, apples and pears.  Not exactly a paleo diet, but then there are much more extreme modern examples like picky kids that grow up mostly eating custard cream biscuits or students who do great on toast, baked beans, pasta and alcohol.  My 70 year old mum who is healthier than most 20 year olds eats a mostly vegetarian diet.

The lesson seems to be that we can do ok on an incredible variety of diets, but that MOST OF US thrive on whole foods of all types.

The Paleo fans though are on a science inspired mission.  They have trawled through every scientific paper they can find that identifies a negative food effect and added the offending foods to the ‘don’t eat it’ pile.  Eggs and dairy cause allergies, beans contain anti-nutrients, grains damage the lining of the gut and on and on and on.  This wouldn’t be a problem if all this science applied to real life diets and to most real people, but looking at the world around me tells a different story.  I’ve no argument with the improvements that a paleo diet brings over a processed food diet, my concern is just that a very appealing dietary ‘approach’ is being made too restrictive by cherry picking science to support almost a religious point of view. 

In particular it’s the obsession with scientific papers investigating single anti-nutrients in foods that worries me.  On the one hand paleo fans seem content with widely varied macro nutrient ratios being acceptable, but unable to accept that in real diets a mixture of mostly nutrients and a few anti-nutrients might be just fine too.  Similarly I think when I’m exercising a lot a small amount of low nutrient dense food like sugar or oats seem to be exactly what my body is craving, not yet more vegetables or fat!  Strongly promoting Ketogenic Diets is a worry as well, I think we have much more evidence of whole food diets (including whole grains) being healthy for large populations of people in the long term (think vegetarians) than we do Ketogenic Diets.

Several of my relatives lived well into their 80’s and 90’s eating many of these banned foods, many of my peers are much healthier than I am but eat a much worse diet.  I’ve tried the strict paleo approach and eliminated these banned foods for 30 days and felt no benefit at all.  For example I’ve never felt better in my life than when I ate a small bowl of toasted oats every day, eggs seem to be the most nutrient rich and versatile foods on the planet, a stick of Red Leister cheese is more desirable to me than chocolate and completes my day.

Personally I find Chris Kresser and his Paleo Template approach to be a good interpretation of the paleo concept.  It takes paleo as a starting point and then adds additional modern foods into that diet if they are tolerated well.  This seems a much better approach than rejecting any food that wasn’t available or convenient 10,000 years ago or that contains a substance that some scientific study found issue with, , but even Chris isn’t happy with 50g of oats every few days, I am.  If I worried about every science study that found a risk factor in life I would never eat anything, I’d never go out in the sun, get on my bike, or go hiking either.

But I do still like the paleo approach.  I think it makes sense to eat the most nutrient dense whole foods as the basis of our diet, but I don’t see these other foods as poisons to be avoided at all costs.  For me that makes Paleo, a fad diet no better than a vegan diet.  I cringe when Paleo diet books say it might be acceptable at a family party to have a few BITES of cake,  for me this is insane, just eat a full slice and be done with it, actually have two slices.  I don’t think a glass of skimmed milk a couple of times a week is going to cause me any problems nor are a couple of tea spoons of sugar a day, the human body just isn’t that fragile.

So given this rant, how do I personally eat?  I follow what I consider a simple strategy:  The core of my diet is 6 cups of vegetables, a table spoon each of coconut and olive oil, 3 cups of berries, half a banana, a couple of servings of meat, a couple of free range eggs and some full fat cream.  On days when I don’t exercise I won’t need to eat anything else, but if I do exercise then I might add some mix of 85% dark chocolate, a protein shake, some wheat free cake, a small bowl of oats, some nuts an apple, or some cheese.  Every few weeks I will eat a couple of slices or toast, a home made sausage roll, a custard tart or a bar of MILK chocolate and not worry about it one bit.

I believe in animal welfare, nutrient dense whole foods comprising mostly vegetables, but I also believe just as strongly in the resilience and adaptability of the human body.  I believe in ‘everything in moderation including moderation’.  I freely admit that I feel better following this type of diet than one based on grains, but I’ve found have no room for fanaticism of any kind in my life so far.

Photo was taken in Kendal after a long day’s hiking.  I was on my way to Caffe Nero to enjoy a lovely guilt free Chocolate Torte:

This deliciously rich cake is made using premium Belgian chocolate, eggs, sugar and butter. We have incorporated a two stage bake process to achieve the perfect texture. Important: This cake is made without flour. However it is not a gluten free product, because it has not been kept segregated in the bakery, and because of the risk of cross contamination.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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