The paleo diet is a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet that is supposed to be excellent for weight reduction. Its claimed health benefits derive from the belief that our bodies are still genetically designed to eat the foods that our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, and do not function well on the highly processed SAD (Standard American Diet). The paleo diet avoids or severely restricts grains, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, potatoes, processed foods, refined vegetable oils, and salt.
I agree completely that restricting sugar and processed foods will make you healthier – and slimmer. And for many people, salt restriction is a good idea. A low salt regime like the DASH diet can prevent the age-related increase in blood pressure that is increasingly common in the US.
But I will go further, and say that paleo is neither necessary nor safe: Why? First, because the basic claim is not true: Our ancestors ate all the carbs they could lay hands on, and so do the few remaining modern-day hunter-gatherers. “Over half the of the energy in the diet of hunter-gatherers and peasant agriculturalists came from high fibre starch foods; these diets even when consumed ad lib accompanied lifelong low body weight.”* High fiber, minimally processed carbs are essential and should make up 40-60% of your caloric intake. These carbs keep you full, promote regularity, and are kidney-friendly. And, as Trowell’s data show, they do not promote obesity – on the contrary, they promote lifelong healthy weight.
Second, the paleo diet as most people would consume it is deficient in vitamin D and calcium (because dairy is forbidden). Vitamin D is particularly important for older people, and calcium is essential to preserve bones and muscles. While many plants contain D and calcium, you would need to eat quite a lot of them to meet your recommended intake. For this reason, vitamin D is one of the few supplements that I recommend to my clients. Low fat dairy actually reduces inflammation markers in the body, contrary to the claims of paleo proponents.
Lastly, the paleo diet is potentially full of saturated fat, which has been found, over and over again, to be associated with heart disease and some cancers. It’s not called “the bacon and steak diet” for nothing.
For optimum health, stick with one of the diets that have been proven to work – DASH, Mediterranean, MIND, or flexitarian.
*Source: Trowell, Hugh (1981). Western diseases: Their emergence and prevention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. See pp.3-33. Quotation is from p. 21.