4 Things You Should Know About the Paleo Diet | Civil Eats

4 Things You Should Know About the Paleo Diet

The Paleo diet has been promoted as the optimal diet, offering the eater a plethora of benefits including weight loss, disease prevention, and improved health. It is designed to mimic what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate and includes grass-fed meats, nuts, seeds, eggs, fruits, vegetables, and some oils. Foods to avoid on the diet include all grains, cereals, dairy, beans, and potatoes, as well as processed foods, sugar, salt, and refined oils.

It is well known that cutting out refined foods, sugar, and added salt will benefit your health. But the benefits of the other aspects of the Paleo Diet, in particular the large percentage of animal products consumed, are less cut-and-dry. And they have the potential to impact much more than your health. Here are four things to consider before going Paleo.

1. There is No Research on The Long-Term Health Effects of the Paleo Diet.

Despite the hype, there’s no evidence that the Paleo Diet lowers mortality or the risk of heart disease and cancer. Here’s some of what researchers have found so far:

  • A three-month study published in 2009 found lower blood sugars, triglycerides, and blood pressure and higher HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) in 13 participants eating a Paleo Diet.
  • Another study from the same year found lower blood sugars and other risk factors for heart disease for 13 people on the Paleo Diet with type 2 diabetes over a three-month period compared to the standard diabetic diet.
  • A 2007 12-week trial found a decrease in blood sugar without weight loss for 14 participants with heart disease on the Paleo Diet as compared to 15 on the Mediterranean Diet.
  • Finally, a 2013 two-year trial, found that obese, post-menopausal women lost a considerable amount of weight on the Paleo Diet after an initial six months, but didn’t maintain it two years later, because they were not able to stick with the higher protein recommendations.

These four studies are among the best we have to date. And three out of the four were short-term and looked at a very small number of participants. All of them look at short-term risk factors and not disease or death rate. And none address the elephant in the room: What happens to your risk of heart disease, cancer, and overall mortality if you follow this diet for years?

We can say that the Paleo Diet may positively affect some of the risk factors for heart disease, but what does it do to others such as sticky platelets, the stability of the heartbeat, inflammation, or the state of the endothelial cells that line our arteries? We just don’t know.

 2. There is Long-Term Research on Meat Consumption.

A 2012 Harvard study followed thousands of health professionals and nurses for 20 to 26 years and found a 12-percent higher death rate among those eating a low-carb diet that was also high in animal protein, such as beef and dairy. Those eating large percentages of animal protein were 14 percent more likely to die of heart disease and 28 percent more likely to die of cancer.

Another 2012 study, using the same nurses and health professionals, found consuming red meat was also associated with an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, and mortality. The World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research also point to a “convincing” link between red meat, processed meats, and colorectal cancer.

Due to the plethora of research, the American Cancer Society also emphasizes the value of plant-based foods and recommends limiting consumption of processed meat and red meat. Animal products can also have an impact on emerging risk factors for heart disease, such as the creation of trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO) by the bacteria in our gastrointestinal tracts, which helps cholesterol to stick to the wall of the artery. And while there is some suggestion that grass-fed beef might be healthier, we still just don’t know the health impact of eating a lot of it over the long-term.

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3. Most Meat Production Takes an Enormous Toll on the Environment.

Greenhouse gas (GHG) production is considerably higher for most animal products than plant-based foods. Not only is raising (i.e., feeding) animals very resource intensive, but some livestock also release methane–a potent GHG.

A 2014 study found that grain-finished beef requires more land and water and produces more GHGs and reactive nitrogen compared to poultry, pork, eggs or dairy. Reactive nitrogen, a by-product of fertilizer use, contributes to acid rain and creates dead zones in lakes and oceans. While pasture-based operations do appear to offer some environmental benefits, they make up less than 5 percent of all meat production.

And, the most important point: We’ve heavily industrialized our animal production to support the current American diet, which is nowhere near as meat-focused as the Paleo diet. Can you imagine how much meat we’d have to produce—and how much pollution and potential climate impact it would have—if everyone went Paleo? In countries like India and China, where meat and dairy consumption has been on the rise along with the growing middle class, such a shift could have devastating global consequences.

4. The Paleo Diet is Not What Paleolithic People Actually Ate.

Unless you’re eating a varied, seasonal diet including tubers, sedges, fruits, animals, insects, worms, leaves, and bark, you’re not eating Paleo, say anthropologists Ken Sayers and C. Owen Lovejoy.

Archeological scientist Christina Warinner discussed the dietary habits of the Paleo man in her TEDTalk, “Debunking the Paleo Diet.” In a nutshell, she says the Paleo diet “has no basis in archeological reality.” Her team’s research found that the diet of our ancestors was extremely varied and depended on where they lived and the time of year. People who lived in the Arctic ate more meat. Those who lived in warmer climates ate more plants.

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In Mexico, for example, they ate prickly pear, legumes, fruits, agave, nuts, beans, gourds, and flowers. They also ate some wild game, but mostly rabbits when they could catch them. It’s also worth considering that most of the food people eat today–on the Paleo diet or otherwise–has been altered through plant breeding and other modern agricultural principles. In other words it’s not even remotely similar to the wild foods our ancestors ate.

If really you want to eat like early humans, keep your diet local, plant-heavy, seasonal, and go for variety.

Carole Bartolotto, MA, RD, is a registered dietitian based in the Los Angeles area. She likes to stay on top of the latest research and translate it into actionable steps that can transform your health. She believes that what you eat each day can have a profound effect on your health, and is the key for both prevention and treatment of most chronic health conditions. She blogs at healthyeatingrocks.com or you can find her on FacebookM and Twitter. Read more >

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  1. Michael Mc Morrow
    Great info...thoughtfully presented. Thank-you!
  2. Colin Murphy
    Chris Kresser has written an elegant defense of the paleo diet. I recommend reading it now that you've finished the above:

  3. Mike
    Who says the paleo diet necessarily needs to contain a large % of animal-based products? I follow a "paleo diet" that is primarily vegetables with eggs, and fish every other day or so. For fat sources, I rely mainly upon avocado and coconut.

    Eggs and fish are not a huge % of my diet, and other animal-based products are an even lower %.

    It would be useful to clarify how these studies are defining "paleo diet." Not everyone who follows it is using it as an excuse to eat tons of bacon and other meat.

    I would say that my diet actually fits "eat food, not too much, mostly plants" quite well.
  4. Susan Diamond
    The Daily Beast article contain research that is short term and looks at risk factors, not outcomes. His take on the archeological evidence misses the points made in the Civil Eats article. I suggest rereading the article above.
  5. If you live in the high Plains of Colorado, your last statement "keep your diet local, plant-heavy,seasonal..." is a fantasy. For a substantial part of the year, there would not be a whole lot to eat that isn't an animal, a grain, or maybe a rutabaga. Around here, if it weren't for long-haul trucking, we would have a very unvaried diet indeed. I think the food movement would do itself a favor by cleaning up its messaging and stop assuming we all live in the paradise of agriculture, California.
  6. Peter Spendelow, PhD
    A fine article, except the statement implying environmental benefits for pasture-raised beef is not backed up by scientific data. The UN Food and Agriculture report "Livestock's Long Shadow" clearly shows that pasture-raised cows produce far more greenhouse gas than grain-fed, because 1) methane is produced mainly from the cellulose in grass, not grain, and 2) the grass fed animals grow slower, meaning more time producing GHG than for grain-fed. Dr. Nathan Pelletier's study also shows this: http://econ2.econ.iastate.edu/classes/crp274/swenson/CRP566/Readings/Leopold_2010-04-comparative-life-cycle-environmental-impacts-three-beef-production-strategies-upper-midwestern-unite.pdf. See also http://www.publiclandsranching.org/book.htm
  7. 1. There is No Research...

    There is (in the 40 or so hunter-gatherer tribes left on planet earth) plenty of research of the long-term health effects. Also Weston A. Price did plenty of research as well. The studies of sub-20 people that they reference in the article are laughable.

    3. Most Meat Production Takes an Enormous Toll on the Environment

    Factory farming, yes. Joel Salatin has a sustainable way to do this but the alternative involves destruction of the topsoil, which Lierre Keith has talked about extensively.

    4. ...Not What Paleolithic People Actually Ate

    Yes, this! The Paleo Diet is really a modern hunter-gatherer diet. So, the term Paleo is just used to semantically represent that and make it sound "cool".
  8. Scott
    The author might read up a little more on Paleo before writing such articles. Meat is only a small part of the Paleo eating regime and many of the factors described in the article are discussed in by knowledgeable Paleo authors.
  9. I think the best thing you can do with regards to dieting, well with to regards to anything actually, is to do your own thinking. No one fad diet is the answer. With Paleo I like the fact that it makes the point no other animal in nature drinks milk beyond infancy. I'm an observer of nature. I noticed this and quit drinking milk 40 years ago.

    Years ago the "experts" said eggs were bad for you. this made no sense to me whatsoever. I never stopped eating eggs. Now eggs are good for you again.

    A high protein low carb diet works best for me. My advice: Observe nature, listen to your body and do your own thinking. And added benefit, if follow this advice you will also save yourself a small fortune.
  10. Belle
    Before publishing something.. Get your facts straight!
    Do some better research into what "paleo" really is.. Because eating a bucket load of meat isn't paleo..

    This is what it is: Copious amounts of vegetables, fats from avocado, nuts, seeds, coconut products, good quality meat (NOT a lot!), eggs, fermented foods, and seasonal fruits..
    And I personally do not need studies to tell me that eating this way is good or bad for me.. I only go on the disappearance of unwanted and unneeded body fat, lowered blood pressure and the disappearance of 3 autoimmune diseases..
    The proof is in the pudding..
  11. Steve
    Is the author an MD or an RD?

    I ask because I have seen nutrition misinformation on this site before, also with the situation of no credentials being listed for the author.
  12. Alison
    Number 4 is a valid point--the foods we have available today (due to hybridization and long distance shipping) isn't what our Paleo ancestors had available. But the rest is based on the outdated assumption that eating "paleo" means an 8-oz steak with a side of bacon for every meal. Couldn't be further from the truth. As another commenter said: it's heavily plant based with an emphasis on good fats and limited/moderate amounts of grass fed/wild caught animal products. The vast majority of paleo followers are very aware of the environmental impact their food choices make and so make a conscious effort to eat locally and stay away from CAFOs.
  13. this is an excellent article...I just completed a book about modifying the PALEO diet to include an Epigenetic slant on the original idea which means less high set fat meats, more veggies and fish...

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