One of the most popular health fads these days is the paleolithic diet, typically referred to as the caveman diet or paleo diet.
Understanding the paleo diet
The nutritional framework – popularized by the work of best-selling author Loren Cordain, PhD – is intended to emulate the dietary habits of humans who lived more than 10,000 years ago, prior to the development of agriculture and the concept of livestock.
The basic philosophy behind this eating and drinking regimen is that common diseases of the modern era (cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, etc.) stem from the mass production of food.
Rather than simply arguing that denatured foods laced with preservatives are the problem, paleo adherents argue that we need to throw out what we think we know about food and eat as our distant hunter/gatherer ancestors did. That means we should solely consume meat, seeds, nuts (except peanuts), vegetables, and fruit. In other words, the following dietary elements are off-limits:
- Dairy products
- Legumes (beans, lentils, peas, and peanuts)
Many nutrition experts critical of the paleo approach
At first glance, this diet seems sound. After all, nutritionists agree that today’s Western diet contains way too much salt and sugar – there is no “potato chips and cotton candy” diet for good reason. However, the removal of the other three items is controversial.
“[The diet] has eliminated several food groups like dairy and grains, which provide essential nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium and phosphorus in dairy and B vitamins, fiber and antioxidants in grains,” argues Joy Dubost, a dietitian with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She also notes that legumes have an incredible nutritional profile and high fiber content, with little fat or calories.
New York University nutrition professor Lisa Sassoon concurs with Dubost’s perspective, pointing out that the diet does not have a strong scientific basis. Instead, there is substantial scientific evidence that whole grains, legumes, and dairy provide:
- Reduced likelihood of developing osteoporosis
- Diminished risk of heart disease
- Lower blood pressure readings
- Less chance of obesity.
Is Paleo Too Extreme for Today’s Society?
Perhaps a modified version of the Paleo diet should be considered to provide a balance of legumes, and minimally processed grains for a diet that can be sustained and easily adopted.
Sassoon comments that the extreme nature of the diet, removing entire food groups, is problematic for another reason: participants can’t eat the way those around them are eating. Although a special, drastically limited diet may sound fine at first, “that means we’re less likely to stick with it, more likely to binge. It’s not just about losing weight, it’s also about learning how to enjoy food in a healthy way.”
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