A Look at the Positive Side of Paleo

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I try to look at both sides.  Really I do.

When it comes to the Paleo Diet, I recognize that it’s not the worst way to eat.  Yet, I still have trouble with the approach — and can’t get behind a diet that bans so many healthy foods, like dairy, beans and grains (some of my favorite things to eat!).


Even so, there are some positive things to come out of the current Paleo craze.  That was the topic of my latest column for U.S. News:  8 Positive Outcomes of the Paleo Trend.  Take a read…

Let me get this out of the way right now: I’m not a fan of the paleo diet. I don’t support this restrictive, meat-heavy diet that bans so many nutritious foods, such as dairy, grains and beans. It’s a diet plan that landed at the bottom of the list in U.S. News Best Diets rankings, scoring only 2 out of 5 stars.

Even so, it was at the top of the list of most-searched diets of 2013, according to the annual Google Zeitgeist trend report. So that means a lot of people are curious about adopting the diet – or are already fully entrenched in the paleo lifestyle. This growing interest is what’s behind the burgeoning paleo industry that’s popped up – with paleolithic-inspired cookbooks, magazines and blogs, along with paleo-friendly foods, snacks and restaurant menu items.

While health professionals may scoff at this primal eating plan (also known as the caveman diet), paleo followers are so passionate about this lifestyle that they can’t help but proselytize. I’ve never seen such devotion to a diet. For nonbelievers (like myself), there’s often a concerted effort to attack the doubters. When did eating turn into a religion?

While I may not recommend a paleo diet, I must admit there are some positive outcomes of this trend – which is showing no signs of going away anytime soon. Here are eight positive things we have to thank for the growing popularity of the paleolithic approach, along with a few concluding thoughts:

1. Back to basics. 

The paleo diet shuns processed foods, so the emphasis is on eating closer to nature. Even though I believe not all processing is bad, I agree with the need to eat more whole, fresh, nutrient-rich foods that don’t come in a package.

2. Return of homemade. 

Since so many foods are off-limits, and you can’t always get paleo-approved items when eating out, paleo followers are cooking more at home. That’s great. Although, I don’t see how a gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free cookie is any healthier than its non-paleo counterpart – and it’s still a cookie (which really wasn’t eaten by cavemen).

3. Abolishing a fear of fat.

Paleo is not a low-fat diet. In fact, it celebrates certain fats. For too long, people thought all fat was bad, so I’m glad to see the emphasis on olive oil, nuts and avocado. The avocado has especially enjoyed a boost from the paleo trend – served up in smoothies, baked with an egg nestled inside a half, smashed in puddings and chopped in salads. However, I’m less enthusiastic about coconut oil, which I don’t think deserves the cult status.

4. Permission to eat the yolks.

Goodbye, egg white omelets. Now it’s in vogue to eat the whole egg. The paleo diet relies heavily on eggs, which are hard to beat as a versatile and affordable source of high-quality protein and other nutrients.

5. Surge in nut butters.

While peanuts are off-limits (since they’re a legume), tree nuts are fully embraced in the paleo plan. That’s got to be one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many new nut butters on the market – creamy and crunchy spreads made with almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts, pecans and other nuts. You can also find lots of recipes for making your own nut butters – which are terrific as a topper on toast, spread on sandwiches or used in baking.

6. Creative vegetable hacks. 

Since pasta and rice are forbidden, paleo followers have turned to vegetables to replace these mealtime staples. You don’t need to be paleo to enjoy spiralized veggie noodles or faux rice made from cauliflower. I recently wrote about these new vegetable creations, which are quickly gaining mainstream status.

7. Increase in protein snacks.

I can’t help but think it’s easier to find grab-and-go protein-rich snacks due to the paleo trend. Most snack foods tend to be high in carbs and sugar. But now convenience stores, airports, malls and other places are stocking individual bags of nuts and seeds, proportioned nut butters, refrigerated hard-boiled eggs and gourmet jerky.

8. Combination of diet and exercise.

The paleo lifestyle emphasizes exercise (especially CrossFit) – after all, hunter-gatherers were always on the move. So I like that nutrition and physical activity are getting equal billing. You do need both – so that’s good.

Even though there may be some positive outcomes of the paleo trend, the diet has several flaws that I can’t get over. If people feel better following this lifestyle, then it’s hard to argue with that. I’m all for people doing what feels right. But could the reason behind the newfound euphoria be that they got rid of the junk? Of course you’ll feel better – and likely lose weight – if you curtail refined carbs, salty processed meals and sugar-laden treats.

Yes, we should be eating more whole, fresh foods. But the rationale to completely eliminate dairy, grains and beans just doesn’t hold up for me. Why miss out on a Greek yogurt parfait in the morning or a wedge of brie with a warm, crunchy baguette in the evening? Oh yeah, no baguette either.

Maybe it’s good to cut down on white, refined grains, but why miss out on oatmeal and the vast array of tasty, nutritious whole grains, such as farro, quinoa, bulgur, millet and spelt. These are all amazing ancient grains – are they just not ancient enough?

Beans and legumes are wonderful fiber-rich plant proteins. I can’t imagine banning these nutritional powerhouses. That means no hummus or falafel, no chili with beans, no black bean veggie burgers, no lentil curries and no bean salads. Oh, and I love beans and whole grains together – why eliminate these nutritious plant-based foods that have tons of research demonstrating their health protective properties? We should be eating more of them – not following a plan that forbids them.

Sure, some paleo followers interpret the restrictions differently and allow for some of these foods, but why have so many arbitrary rules? Why spend time trying to determine if a food is truly paleo or not?

My biggest problem is the idea of putting a label on the way we eat. Nutrition shouldn’t be an exclusive club. It shouldn’t be about what we delete – but what we eat. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ascribing foods as good and evil. Paleo has some things right, but I think the diet gets a lot wrong, too. I’d rather have people pick the best of paleo and skip the rest – then just say they’re enjoying a healthy diet.

Images courtesy of flickr users:  threelayercake, i believe i can fry, tina negus, joanne cheung

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7 Comments

  • Another good thing to come out of paleo is to open up and normalize some of the choices for those who are Celiac or allergic to grains. I can’t eat any seeds from the grass family (rice and corn as well as the gluten grains). So those creative vegetable ideas from paleo are great, especially as they become more mainstream so people don’t think that you’re crazy when you mention or eat them.

    A lot of the paleo foods are out for me, being vegan, and I eat plenty of foods that are non-paleo (legumes, potatoes, quinoa and buckwheat, etc.) But it’s nice to see a whole-foods diet that challenges people’s thinking about basing so much of what we eat on grains.

    • Exactly. I don’t believe Paleo/Primal works for everyone but it does work for a majority of people and it’s not just about elimination, which is why it’s frustrating to read judgements that are not on the mark, at all. These judgements do a huge disservice to those who might really benefit substantially from a Paleo/Primal lifestyle health-wise. My health was substantially enhanced by incorporating Paleo in my life. I suffered from IBS, CFS, Fibromyalgia and was diagnosed with early onset RA. I have suffered from migraines since I was 17, all symptoms of all of these issues were literally gone after 3 weeks of eating a Paleo diet. My migraines have been reduced from a monthly or bi-weekly occurrence to having control over them for the first time in my life and now I might have one in a year. This is HUGE for someone losing a week or 2 of their life at a time, each month in bed, being debilitated from pain. Turns out it was all of the chronic inflammation from grains, soy and sugar. And the thing is I am not alone, there are thousands out there with these issues, that could be helped by modifying their own personal Paleo/Primal lifestyle.
      I recently heard Dr. Mark Hyman say he was Paleo-Vegan which kind of made me go Aha! Interesting! Clearly, that shows, it’s not one size fits all! This is a customized, individualized way to determine what is best for your body!

  • Mary

    Paleo is fine, I used to eat caveman food a while ago. Now I’m on the Loaded Gun Diet and it’s fine. I’m losing weight and eating the same stuff as usual, just a bit less and with some rules.

  • Hello Janet, the problem is that the Paleo Diet is usually promoted as a low-carb, meat-heavy diet when, according to recent Oxford University research, our Paleo ancestors actually ate a mostly plant-based diet to sustain themselves.
    See http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/science/nutcracker-mans-secret-he-didnt-crack-nuts.html?_r=1
    and
    http://www.foxnews.com/science/2014/01/10/real-caveman-diet-research-shows-ancient-man-feasted-mainly-on-tiger-nuts/for more information on what our Paleo ancestors really ate.

    Have you ever heard of Tiger Nuts?
    They’re actually not nuts but a hypoallergenic tuber (our Tiger Nuts are Snack Safely-approved and listed at http://www.snacksafely.com).

    Tiger Nuts are Paleo, vegan, non-GMO, certified organic, free of all top allergens, high in fiber, low glycemic, and full of micronutrients that are lacking in the standard American diet. They’re also free of oil, sugar, salt, and food additives.

    We would love to send you a sample bag to try, so please let us know if you’re
    interested.(nuts@tigernutsusa.com)

    Kind regards, The Nuts at Tiger Nuts (http://www.tigernutsusa.com)

  • Great write-up Janet. It’s easy for dietitians to bash the Paleo diet and those that follow it, but like you I would rather focus on the positive changes that someone following a Paleo pattern has already made, make a few tweaks and run with it.

  • No offense, you have only ONE view of the Paleo diet, that is completely incorrect, it is not ONE particular diet. It is very simply a template, a jumping off point to determine the foods that may be inflammatory to you. I’m borderline celiac, so grains are not an option for me and legumes are also an issue because of cross-reactivity. My husband can handle them but he finds they make him feel sluggish, hazy and give him a food coma feeling, so he doesn’t eat them. But It’s up to you, the individual, to determine what type of Paleo diet works for you and your body. In reality Paleo is not just a diet, it’s a lifestyle, that encompasses, mind, body and spirit. I highly recommend you actually learn about the lifestyle and the diet(s) involved in the Paleo lifestyle before you judge them because your judgement is not accurate. Paleo is NOT meat heavy and does not preach or promote that. The majority of the leaders in the movement eat far more vegetables than most vegetarians. My husband and I eat potatoes while some don’t because they are problematic for those who have issues with nightshades. We are considered Primal, since we consume raw grass-fed dairy because dairy is not inflammatory for us and many of the leaders in the movement consume dairy, as well. Only those that find dairy inflammatory to their system do not consume it. This is not a one size fits all diet. We don’t ALL eliminate the most inflammatory foods, we eliminate the foods that are inflammatory and problematic for us, individually. We, as a collective help each other understand which foods can hold these inflammatory properties so it’s easier to narrow things down and get to a nutrient dense diet that optimizes your lifestyle and quality of life instead of constantly having GI issues when you eat, like has happened for thousands, including myself until I began eating MY modified Paleo/Primal diet.

    If you want to learn what Paleo/Primal is really about and what the lifestyle encompasses, I highly recommend you attend Paleo f(x). I will even offer you a free ticket and an opportunity to sit on a Mastermind Panel.

    Sincerely,

    Michelle Norris

    CEO & Founder

    • I imagine that, like with many diets or lifestyles, the ‘message’ gets diluted as people develop their own versions of the diet or express different reasons for the diet. I know that not all paleos are ‘meat centric’, and even know some vegetarians (rarely vegans) who follow a version of paleo diet. In fact, I participate in a couple of paleo discussion groups or recipe boards because they don’t include grains (which I can’t do) and focus more on whole, unprocessed foods than some of my other groups.

      Of course, you will find those who ‘follow’ paleo principles only because they want an excuse to gorge on animal products, just like you will find others following gluten-free or vegetarian diets because they want to lose weight. And like those other groups, they haven’t really bought in, and they tend to give the group a bad name.

      I find it interesting that you focus on anti-inflammatory properties as being the one reason to follow a paleo diet. As with vegetarianism, I think that there are probably a whole series of reasons to follow a vegetarian diet. With vegetarians it may be because of ethics/animal rights, cardiovascular health or anti-cancer protocols, environmental concerns, weight loss/calorie density, or even anti-inflammatory properties. Or those who are just plain intolerant/allergic to animal products. Some will be staunch advocates, while others will jump from one diet to another (giving each one a bad name in turn). With paleo, there are those who will do it for specific health properties (such as anti-inflammatory), general health or an evolutionary standpoint, or just for weight loss. I’m sure there are other reasons, but I am not well-versed.

      I am big on finding what works for your own body, and not assuming that it works for everyone else, which I think is the same or a similar standpoint as you are coming from. As long as the person doesn’t get in my face about it or push their own meat or anti-bean agenda, I’m good. Like Janet and you, I think we can all learn something from each other, be respectful to those who make other choices, and eat delicious food that makes us feel good.

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