by Marion Nestle
Mar 25 2015

The Paleo diet, sigh

The Wall Street Journal, hoping to generate some controversy, got me involved in a point/counterpoint about the Paleo Diet: “Is a Paleo diet healthy?”

It can be, but this is a point/counterpoint.  Hence, I took the position “NO: You Lose Too Much Pleasure for Dubious Benefits.”  

Here’s what I said:

Nutritionist that I am, the first questions I have about any diet are: What is it? Is the rationale behind it logical? And does it promote health?

A paleo diet is based on the premise that our genes govern what’s best for us to eat. We evolved to eat whatever could be hunted or gathered. This makes it OK to eat leaves, shoots, roots, seeds, eggs, animals, birds and fish, but not OK to eat grains, legumes, dairy or processed foods.

Why do paleo proponents think the ills of modern society stem from a mismatch between our genetics and today’s typical diets? The cave men, some argue, didn’t suffer from diseases such as obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

The problem with that theory is that we really don’t know what our Paleolithic ancestors ate. As I often argue, determining what people eat is the single most intellectually challenging question in nutrition science. It is extraordinarily difficult to get an accurate idea of what people ate yesterday, let alone 10,000 to a million or more years ago.

In reality, scientists are nowhere near being able to match genes to specific kinds of diets. The reason cave men didn’t have chronic diseases like diabetes is more likely because they didn’t live long enough and lacked antibiotics, rather than because they didn’t eat carbohydrates.

Variety is key

What we know for sure is that the fundamental tenets of nutrition are variety, balance and moderation. The fewer kinds of foods consumed, the greater the chance of nutrient deficiencies. So while it is certainly possible to eat healthfully on a paleo diet, restricting whole groups of relatively unprocessed foods can make this more challenging. It also can take some of the joy out of eating by forcing people to give up foods that they love or that are part of their cultural heritage.

While there is no doubt that highly processed “junk” foods are unhealthy and should be kept to a minimum, grains and legumes are hardly the enemy. Diets that vary enormously—from the traditional high carbohydrate, rice-based cuisines of Asia to those of the Mediterranean rich in grains and olive oil—have been shown to promote health and longevity.

Yes, grains contain glutens, and bread and pasta are caloric, but such foods are also delicious and part of traditional diets in nearly every culture. Yes, legumes contain unpleasant phytochemicals, but these are mostly destroyed by cooking, and beans and peas are excellent sources of vegetable protein. If you eat foods from animal sources, why restrict dairy? Cheese and yogurt are lovely foods, and I, for one, cannot imagine life without an occasional serving of ice cream.

Eating less works

Any restrictive diet helps to reduce calorie intake, so it isn’t surprising that there are studies linking paleo to weight loss, lower blood sugar and a reduced risk of cancers for which obesity is a risk factor. Eating less works every time.

So does eating a largely plant-based diet. Research suggests that we can reduce risks for today’s diseases of affluence by eating more foods from plant sources and balancing calorie intake with expenditure. To the extent the paleo diet achieves these goals, it is a reasonable choice.

But food is so much more than bundles of nutrients. What we eat also nourishes us psychologically and culturally. So while a paleo diet isn’t necessarily bad, why bother? I’d be sad to miss all those delicious forbidden foods.

  • Paleo Huntress

    Well of course you are. Don’t let the door hit you in the a** on the way out. 😉

  • Paleo Huntress

    What is the risk?

    I hear this particular claim a lot and I can’t help wondering what this big risk can possibly be?

    I mean, it’s not a tattoo, or marriage or pregnancy, you’re not being asked to donate a kidney… it’s FOOD. Where’s the risky commitment? If it doesn’t work you simply stop doing it. How is that risky?

    So eating junk-food “in moderation” is perfectly safe but eating healthy food is risky? Where do people get these ideas?

  • Is the piece of cake bad for you if u eat it from time to time? Probably not. Well, it’s all about balance in life.

  • steven282

    Yes, I did try to find evidence and I came up quite deficient. You just dumping a google scholar search as a link does not make a convincing case. Take the very first study that pops up as an example–how big was it? 9 participants. I could not find a well designed study of sufficient size to convince me. And don’t give me the whole “I can’t do your work for you” spiel–you are making an extraordinary claim here, the burden of evidence is on you.

  • Paleo Huntress

    I didn’t make any claims, you’re confusing me with another poster.

    There is no doubt that the evidence is limited as it’s a relatively new area of interest, but you also cannot claim that there is no evidence… (Though there is certainly no evidence of harm coming from eating a Paleo diet.)

    Studies show benefit for heart disease risk, diabetes risk, kidney disease risk… that certainly amounts to something, even if the growing body of evidence is still small.

  • Melissa

    Paleo is a plant based diet. Hence #morevegitablesthanavegitarian Also, I don’t feel deprived eating paleo at all. The less sugar you eat, the less you want it.

  • Vikram

    Why haven’t you applied the same logic to veganism? After all, you just posted a glowing review of a vegan diet. We can only conclude that you endorse the premise that all meat and animal products (including honey/dairy and eggs) must be avoided is sound scientific thinking.

  • Vikram

    Marion is correct to point out the logical flaws in some Paleo assumptions. Even Paleo diet promoters like Robb Wolf and Chris Kresser agree that some of these assumptions were wrong.

    But why can’t she do the same with the logical flaws of vegan diets?

    No honey? No eggs? Dubious science that condemns all meat? These are key aspects of vegan diets and she’s happy to review vegan cookbooks.

    People conveniently wear the hat of skeptical thinking when it suits them.

  • ranjitha

    Especially need to reduce foods because now days easily attacked all kinds of sick.

  • Paleo Huntress

    This link leads to a malicious website. Don’t click it.

  • Sports Fan

    Wow. These comments run like an argument over religion(s). Let’s put paleos in with vegans and leave them alone. I think it’s a fad bordering on cult My main argument is against the base theory that people are eating and should eat what our ancestors ate. I’ve got news: our ancestors of those deep, dark days probably ate whatever they could get their hands on. If it fell in the fire and cooked, all the better.

  • Sports Fan

    P.S. If paleos would stop wearing their diets like a crown, they’d be easier to tolerate

  • Dirk Wethington

    I’ve experienced all these benefits, and more, on a vegan diet. And it includes plenty of delicious beans, wheat, and gluten, hell yes.

  • Paleo Huntress

    lol Good for you. It seems that restriction is the way to go, regardless of what you restrict.

    I recommend you stick with what works for you and let others do what works for them.

  • Isabel Marissa

    There is no doubt that paleo diets are extremely effective as i’ve lost around 65 lbs in about a year and half. However, I really can’t emphasise the importance on getting a sustainable long term paleo diet plan that is not gonna have bad effects on your health. The best paleo diet cookbook (with planned diet regimes) I found is newsciencediet*com/paleo (obviously change the * to a dot as it wont let me post links here) and would highly recommend it to anyone looking to paleo diet!


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