Is Paleo Bad For Your Body?

Adherants of the latest fad diet say it can ward off a host of modern diseases—but think twice about buying that next paleo product.


I laughed the first time I saw the block letters on a glossy package: PALEO Protein Bar (Glazed Donut flavored). I’ve since run across paleo breakfast cereals, paleo pizza crusts, paleo waffles, and most recently, paleo “bone broth” K-cups for your Keurig Machine.

You read that right. Paleo bone broth K-cups.

This is getting silly.

The underlying notion behind the paleo diet and lifestyle is that the human body evolved in an environment very different than the one we navigate today. Our modern lives are characterized by sedentary jobs, automated transportation, and an unprecedented availability of cheap, nutritionally empty calories. These conditions have led to a whole bunch of chronic health problems. In response, the paleo lifestyle tries to recreate our pre-modern conditions wherever possible. At face value, this seems like a good idea, especially if we try more to move more like our ancestors, which I’ve written about before.

But when it comes to eating like our ancestors, things get tricky.

A move from the Standard American Diet towards the more popular paleo eating patterns probably means fewer processed, high-sugar foods and more whole foods, fruits, and vegetables. That’s a good thing. But under further scrutiny, evidence for the paleo lifestyle gets shaky, especially the paleo dieters’ embrace of meat. In 2013 Ferris Jabr wrote a piece for Scientific American questioning some of the tenets of the paleo phenomenon, and concluded that it’s really hard to actually eat the way our ancestors ate (for example, many of those foods are no longer available in their original form). And even if it was, not a lot of evidence shows that eating like them would reap the benefits that many paleo adherents claim.

So, no, just because we didn’t drink milk 10,000 years ago, doesn’t mean that dairy is behind our high rates of chronic disease in the developed world. Nor are grains the culprit. Nor are beans.

Wait—no beans? Really?

That’s right, under a strict paleo diet, the musical fruit gets no play. Paleo rejects all things cultivated and developed by modern humans, including beans and peanuts. But some say we don’t need to go back millennia to determine which foods will help us thrive, or make us die.

Dan Buettner, founder of the organization Blue Zones and author of the eponymous book, has identified pockets of wellness and longevity across the world, where common staples include grains, and lo and behold, the humble (and apparently still virtuous) bean.

Buettner went to “Blue Zones” like Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece and even Loma Linda, California—places where people reach the age of 100 at ten times the average rate in the rest of the developed world. Buettner and his team looked at shared characteristics of these distinct regions and identified a number of factors that they say help contribute to relatively long and disease-free lives. These commonalities include a strong sense of community, daily physical activity, and notably, a mostly plant-based diet.

So what do we need to eat to help us live longer, better lives? More meat? Less meat? No beans? More beans?

Is there any consensus?

In his forthcoming book If Our Bodies Could Talk, James Hamblin, M.D. and senior editor at The Atlantic, describes attending a meeting last year that brought together some of the top nutrition experts in the country to try to answer that question. The goal of the meeting, he wrote, was “to undo the perception that nutrition science is chaos, and unite around some common principals about food and health that can be useful to the world.”…



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