Sydney Morning Herald: Paleo Diet Criticism

Paleo Diet Criticism

The Paleo Diet has been rising in popularity recently. So too has Paleo Diet criticism.

This post is a bit longer than usual – and hopefully not too ranty!

Paleo Diet Criticism

On the 5th August 2014, this article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper:

http://www.smh.com.au/lifestyle/diet-and-fitness/nutritionists-warn-of-dangers-in-paleo-dieting-20140805-100iup.html

This article is both interesting and error filled. Here are some points with which I took exception. (Some important, some trivial). My critique of the Paleo Diet Criticism will make most sense if you open that article in a new window, read it, and then read it in parallel to the points I’m making. I also wish to clarify certain misconceptions this newspaper article propagates about Paleo. Please don’t misunderstand me. My article is not a knee-jerk reaction to criticism of a lifestyle modification I think works for many people. It’s a reaction to a mischaracterization of Paleo. At the bottom of this article I have linked to a well written piece that is a legitimate Paleo diet criticism. Anyway, here we go!

“The Paleo diet might be heading for extinction, like the cavemen who inspired it…”

Cavemen are not extinct, they are our ancestors. If they were extinct we wouldn’t be here!

“…modern Paleo eating mimics the hunter-gatherer diet of our Paleolithic ancestors…”

Let’s be clear from the outset. Modern Paleo seeks to emulate rather than replicate hunter-gatherer diets. What do I mean by that is? Get ideas of officeworkers carrying clubs while wearing leopard skins out of your head. Forget starting fires with two sticks. This is not modern Paleo. Modern Paleo is eating unprocessed foods. Simple. If you can eat grains and legumes unprocessed, be my guest. Meat, you can. Vegetables, you can. Fruit, you can. Get the idea? That’s all Paleo is – unprocessed foods.

Stanton says we should applaud the low content of processed foods, sugar and salt advocated in Paleo diets but asks, “why exclude plant-based foods such as wholegrains and legumes when a wealth of evidence confirms their health value?

There is an argument to eating minimally processed grains and legumes, if you can tolerate them. (No abdominal bloating / gas / discomfort.) A lot of people (myself included) have ‘gastro-intestinal issues’ with beans. :/
I’m not convinced that grains and legumes do anything for you that a variety of vegetables don’t. Grains and legumes often displace vegetables on the plate. I think vegetables offer more nutritional value.

The article then says

…the chief executive of the Dietitians Association of Australia, Claire Hewat, says there is no scientific evidence to support eating the Paleo way.

yet then quotes her as saying

“A recent search of the published studies looking at Paleolithic diets revealed no more than 10 studies, all with very few participants over very short time frames – most less than three months. And many people dropped out of the studies, claiming the diet was difficult to follow,” Hewat says.

“No more than 10 studies” is not the same as “no scientific evidence”. So either the article mischaracterises or oversimplifies Hewat’s position, or, less likely, she conflates scant evidence as non-existent. It is the case that there have been few scientific studies of the Paleo Diet. These studies tend to be positive (like this one) but also tend to have small sample sizes. These are red flags. For what it’s worth, there is a study about Paleo being healthier than the Mediterranean diet. All nutrition studies have drop out rates.

“Any diet excluding whole food groups should raise suspicions”

yet the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) has no problem with vegetarianism…

“…eating more meat than is needed by the body certainly has risks”.

Yes. So does drinking too much water. Not limited to red meat, the only risk of consuming too much protein I know is for people with existing kidney disease.

“Claims that our ancestors did not experience heart disease, cancer and diabetes ignore the fact that few people lived past their reproductive age and physical activity ensured people were lean.”

I don’t know about historical disease rates, so won’t speak to that. Staffan Lindberg’s Food and Western Disease talks in depth about Papua New Guinean hunter-gatherers, nutrition and disease. Follow that rabbit hole if you dare! In any case, few people living past reproductive age is a great example of not understanding ‘life expectancy from birth’. (A population without sanitation, for example, will have higher infant mortality – which will bring down the life expectancy figure. Fewer people making it out of childhood doesn’t necessarily mean adults died before they got old…

“Two major hazards associated with the Paleo diet are the high content of red meat and the lack of wholegrains”

Covered the wholegrains thing above.
Red meat. Ahhh!. I sigh for two reasons.

  1. Red meat is delicious!
  2. The (too much) red meat is bad for you trope. Or tripe. :p

Let’s address number two, as number one is self evident to most people. 🙂
Most ‘meat’ studies don’t discriminate between red and processed meats. D The ‘red meat increases your risk of obesity / diabetes / cancer boat is turning. Slowly, but surely.

This review and meta-analysis from 2010 found:

Consumption of processed meats, but not red meats, is associated with higher incidence of CHD and diabetes mellitus. These results highlight the need for better understanding of potential mechanisms of effects and for particular focus on processed meats for dietary and policy recommendations.

Then there’s this study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, September 2014 studied approximately 75,000 people over 15 years, looking specifically at the difference in survival between red and processed meat eaters. This is what that study said:

High red meat consumption is associated with an increased mortality risk. This association is partly explained by the negative effect of processed meat consumption, which is widely established. The role of nonprocessed meat is unclear.

Not too controversial so far… let’s see the conclusion!

We found that high total red meat consumption was associated with progressively shorter survival, largely because of the consumption of processed red meat. Consumption of nonprocessed red meat alone was not associated with shorter survival.

So sausages and porterhouse steak don’t have the same effects on health? Wow!

The Paleo diet can be expensive. So is medical care in later life. If you’d like to see how you can manage the Paleo Diet on a budget then please check this out

Paleo is often characterised as ‘low-carb’. It can be, but often it’s just ‘lower carb’ than eating cereal for breakfast, a roast potato for lunch and pasta for dinner. Pretty much any version of Paleo you see will have the proponent suggest you match carb intake to activity level.

Paleo (done right) isn’t a fad. It’s a healthy way of eating that works for many people.
Effort = results. If you aren’t committed to making lasting change then no lifestyle change will last.
That’s not Paleo’s fault or a controversial statement. That’s reality.

That being said, if Paleo doesn’t work for you – do something else!

If you’re really keen – you could have a look at the Dietitians Association of Australia website. Specifically the sponsors – major partners and associate partners. I believe the DAA has a conflict of interest in their position. Feel free to draw your own conclusions as to why this criticism of the growing Paleo movement may have come about…

Please don’t settle for half-baked criticisms and straw men.

If you’d like to read an excellent article that makes legitimate criticisms of Paleo then check out 4 valid criticisms of the Paleo Diet by Jaime Hartman at GutsyByNature.

As always, please share your thoughts in the comments.