Sometimes referred to as "The Cave Man Diet," the Paleolithic diet focuses on real, pre-agricultural whole foods such as wild-caught seafood, pastured meat and eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds, and eschews dairy, legumes, grains and all processed, industrialized foods such as wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup and soy bean oil, which form the majority of calories consumed in a Standard American Diet.
The Paleo diet remains a marginal and controversial movement greatly at odds with conventional health wisdom. As such, it's prone to misrepresentation, and often ridicule. Here are seven common misconceptions about the Paleo diet, and my efforts to dispel them:
1. The Paleo diet is a fad.
Fad diets are shortsighted, extreme and often unhealthy regimens that promise rapid weight loss to profit from desperate dieters. The Paleo diet is not so much a diet as it is a lifestyle that focuses on optimal human nutrition — favoring food sources that we evolved to thrive on more than 2.5 million years. Many people have found Paleo as a means to treat or heal serious health issues where traditional medicine failed them. It's a grassroots movement, not a marketing ploy. If anything, it is an anti-fad diet.
2. The Paleo diet is a largely carnivorous diet.
The caricature of the Paleo dieter is a Flintstone-esque cave man in loincloth gnawing on a giant, raw woolly mammoth femur bone. Fun? Yes. Accurate? No. While grass-fed meat from ruminant animals is certainly a healthy "Paleo food," it by no means constitutes the majority of a typical Paleo diet. I personally eat far more seafood than red meat, and actually derive more calories from coconut products — a true Paleo staple — than animal products.
3. The Paleo diet is elitist, expensive and unsustainable.
Yes, it's currently more expensive to buy organic kale and grass-fed beef at Whole Foods than Twinkies and frozen pizza at Food 4 Less. But you know what else is expensive? An escalating obesity and diabetes epidemic.
While the Paleo diet may not be a viable option for the entire human population in our current agricultural system, and is indeed most popular among relatively affluent Westerners, this is not so much a fault of the diet itself but of our current economic paradigm.
Our economy fosters an industrialized, monopolized agribusiness, which subsidizes junk food and makes healthy produce unaffordable to the average American. This has created a false economy with a gross misallocation of resources, which ultimately leads to an increasingly diseased population and spiraling health costs. This is the true cost of the Standard American Diet, and is why wellness-focused nutrition is the way forward.
I believe the answer is to remove these market inefficiencies that make processed junk food — with scores of artificial ingredients manufactured in massive factories and then trucked across the country — more expensive than organic carrots grown by a local farmer with nothing more than some manure and sunlight. You tell me which is more sustainable in the long run ...
4. Cutting out entire food groups is restrictive and unhealthy.
Generally speaking, dairy, legumes and grains aren't "Paleo foods." Some people suggest that cutting out entire food groups may lead to an unbalanced diet or certain deficiencies. However, grains and dairy only entered the human diet relatively recently — at the advent of agriculture roughly 10,000 years ago.
There are certainly no essential micronutrients, amino acids or fatty acids that can only be found in dairy, legumes or grains; otherwise we wouldn't have survived without them for 99.5% of our evolutionary history.
5. The Paleo diet is a low-carb diet.
When you cut out legumes, grains and their derivative products and instead focus on nutrient-dense whole foods, such as wild seafood, meat, non-starchy vegetables and some fruit, you end up by default eating a lower amount of carbohydrate when compared to a grain-centric Standard American Diet. However, Paleo doesn’t have to be low-carb. If you're highly active, most credible proponents of the Paleo diet would suggest you consume carbohydrates commensurate to your activity levels.
6. The Paleo diet is more suited to men than women.
Popularized as the Cave MAN diet and associated with images of Neanderthals hunting wild game, it’s no wonder the Paleo diet can seem macho to outsiders. But I assure you that this way of eating is equally beneficial to men and women, and many of the most influential champions of Paleo are in fact women.
7. The Paleo diet is a one-size-fits-all approach.
Beware the Paleo dogma! There is no one single prescription for the Paleo diet. Paleo should be seen as more of a template for a healthier lifestyle, guided by some basic nutritional principals but flexible in it’s approach.
We are all unique snowflakes who need to find our own true path to optimal health. Personally, I now include some white rice, grass-fed butter, alcohol and coffee in my version of Paleo, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
So please, Paleo puritans and skeptics alike, let us be civilized cave men and see Paleo for what it is — one of many potential paths to follow in our quest for health and wellness.