I’ve written previously about how when I first heard about the Paleo Diet, I thought it was fairly extreme. No beans? Crazy! No dairy! Stupid! No grains? Actually, this one was already starting to make sense to me, but I was a bit surprised that for a strict Paleolithic approach, this wasn’t even allowed in moderation. Extreme!
The notion that the Paleo Diet is a fad is nothing new, and when a good friend of mine who is blogging about his own journey into weight-loss and healthy living wrote a piece called What Hasn’t Worked, I decided I’d write up a piece on why Paleo is not a fad. He’s had some great success, so even if his experience is anecdotal, he does have a firm leg to stand on when he shares what’s not working. One paragraph, though, caught my attention:
Fad diets. By the time I started sniffing around fad diets I'd already educated myself enough to just come up with something on my own. Fad dieting is, again, not something you can keep up forever so I wasn't too interested.
Now, he doesn’t specifically call out the Paleo Diet, but I had recommended it to him a while back and I know he tried it, but he later moved on to other dietary regimens. That’s fine. However, whether or not Paleo was meant to be included in the mix of fad diets, I wanted to cook up a response that hopefully explains why Paleo is certainly not a fad.
Most of the people who balk at Paleo do so because of the exclusion of certain foods. In fact, the elimination of entire groups of food because they are considered harmful is, according to a questionably-written Wikipedia entry on fad diets, one of the qualifications of being a fad diet. It’s true that a strict Paleo Diet excludes all dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), legumes (beans, peas, peanuts), grains (bread, pasta), and – this should go without saying – processed foods.
I’m not going to go in to why these foods are excluded. If you want to read more, start with this article, and then consider reading Robb Wolf’s excellent The Paleo Solution or Loren Cordain’s The Paleo Diet.
After you remove a few food groups, what’s left?
We’re left with many varieties of beast, foul, fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Oh Noes! What about my Twinkies! There are no processed foods here; you’re only going to find what our bodies were designed to eat. Let’s take a closer look.
Hands-down, animal meat is the best source of dietary protein for your body. Yes, quality does matter, which is why the protein that comes from meat is orders of magnitude superior to that found in, say, a candy bar or a head of broccoli. The nutrition label for your favorite bran muffin might indicate that it contains protein, but it doesn’t say what kind of protein it is, nor does it say how useful (or destructive) that protein will be once it enters your body.
Are some forms of meat better than others? Absolutely. For example, grass-fed beef is better than grain-fed (i.e. corn-fed) beef, both in that it is leaner and has a much better ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids. This should come as no surprise. Cows were made to eat grass, not grain, so when we eat animals that are living out the fullness of their genetic potential, we also benefit from a dietary perspective. The same holds for wild-caught vs. farmed (i.e. corn-fed) fish and pastured chickens vs. confined (and exclusively grain-fed) chickens.
When it comes to meat on the Paleo Diet, we want to have variety and quality to get the best sources of protein and unprocessed fat in our diet.
Fruits & Vegetables
Let’s go ahead and throw vegetables and fruits into the same category and look at them together. If you’re doing Paleo to lose weight (which works, by the way), you’re going to want to stick with mostly vegetables and minimal fruit, but from a dietary perspective, both categories offer an excellent source of carbohydrates.
I cringe every time I hear, “Oh, you’re doing a caveman diet? So that means you’re cutting out carbs,” as if pasta were the only source of dietary carbohydrates. “Yeah, but if you want to get carbs from vegetables, you have to eat a lot!” Uh-huh. You can also get your carbs from a Butterfinger and a gallon of sweet tea, but are you really getting quality carbohydrates? Not a chance.
Even at the purely nutritional level, food is a lot more than just a source of calories. Of course, you’re going to get plenty of calories from eating your fruits and veggies, but you’re also going to get lots of fiber and a wealth of micro-nutrients (e.g. vitamins & minerals). When compared to grains, even whole grains, vegetables win when it comes to nutrient content.
Nuts, Seeds, & Oils
We round out the Paleo Diet with nuts, seeds, and an wonderful assortment of oils. These provide an excellent source of fat to compliment the meat and vegetables in our diet. Dietary fat also helps trigger our sense of satiety during a meal so that we know we’re full and should stop eating.
But What About Everything Else?
What do you mean “what else”? In addition to the food choices mentioned above, what other foods do you need in your diet to get the macro-nutrients (protein, fat, & carbs) and micro-nutrients (vitamins & minerals) for healthy living? Nothing. Everything you need for a full, balanced, healthy diet is there. Dairy, grains, and legumes aren’t offering you any nutritional benefits that don’t already exist by sticking to plants and animals.
You could eat like this for the rest of your life.
Not a Diet, But a Lifestyle
The thing is, not only is the Paleo Diet not a fad diet, it’s hardly even a diet. You can eat this way for your entire life, enjoying what you eat and staying healthy. If you’re trying to lose weight, you’ll probably want to be strict with Paleo until you reach a satisfactory maintenance weight, but most folks eat Paleo 80% of the time and get 95% of the benefits. Thus, even though you probably don’t have any ice cream in the fridge while you’re eating Paleo, you don’t really have a problem with going out for an occasional frozen treat.
But, But, But …
I gave some excellent resources above to point to why certain foods are excluded in a Paleo Diet, but the truth is, if you spend all of five minutes on the internet, you can find plenty of conflicting arguments for why Paleo is wrong in one area or another. One article will talk about how a caveman ate a taco one time and so grains are really OK while another article will talk about how beans are just fine. When you don’t have a PhD in molecular biology, you can get overwhelmed pretty quickly, but you know what? Nothing you read can contradict the fact that eating Paleo foods is healthy and sustainable for your entire life.
The objections people have to Paleo have nothing to do with whether or not you can actually be healthy just eating meat, vegetables, fruit, seeds, and nuts. When people balk at Paleo, it almost always has to do with not wanting to give up certain foods. “I can’t give up my cereal” or “there’s nothing wrong with dairy” of “that diet is just a fad.” Instead of explaining the billion reasons why you’re not doing Paleo, why not just try it for 30 days and see what’s different? Start with the quick-start guide found on Robb Wolf’s website.
At the end of the day, the objections don’t really matter because the foods you’re eating with a Paleo lifestyle will make you a healthier human person. You can eat this way, with great success, for the rest of your life, and that’s why Paleo is not a fad diet.