The Bad Science Behind the Paleo Diet

in health •  last year 

There are three key bits of bad science behind the Paleo Diet- misconceptions about what foods we ate in the Paleolithic, misconceptions about the foods we eat now, and misconceptions about the human body actually works.

A paleolithic carving of a mammoth done on mammoth ivory. [Image source]

First off, the misconceptions about what we ate during pre-agricultural times. Paleo diets avoid dairy products, grains, legumes, and alcohol, among other things, under the premise that paleolithic humans didn't eat them. The big problem with that is, well, that we absolutely consumed almost all of those things. (Coffee is often forbidden by Paleo diets as well, and that one, at least, actually wasn't consumed by ancient humans. Dairy was also not consumed by adults in the paleolithic.) We ate grains constantly. We ate legumes all the time. We even invented and consumed alcohol millennia before we had agriculture. There were plenty of individual tribes that left some items on the list out of their diet, as there are today- but those items are, more often than not, left off the list for their absence in the local ecosystem. (Not a lot of legumes past the Arctic Circle, but people still live there.)

Next we've got a misunderstanding of what the foods we eat now actually are. Lets take a look at almonds, for example. They're a big part of many Paleo diets, but, surprisingly, wild almonds really weren't a part of paleolithic diets- they contained potentially lethal levels of cyanide. We bred that out of them. In paleolithic times, the edible plant Brassica oleracea made up a big part of diets. Today, we've bred it into broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, and more. Through domestication and selective breeding, we've transformed a great number of the plants and animals we eat into completely different varieties with completely different nutrient profiles than what our paleolithic ancestors ate. It's close to impossible to actually reproduce the paleolithic variety because of this.

Brassica oleracea. [Image source]

The most important misconception, however, is the one about our own bodies. Namely, that they still function today the way they did in paleolithic times. The problem with that is that they don't. We've evolved, most notably our digestive systems. Our paleolithic ancestors didn't drink milk, for example, because they lacked the ability to process it upon reaching adulthood. Several different mutations have arisen since then allowing humans to digest milk, and they've spread throughout many global populations, rendering a great number of adults able to digest milk as adults. (Though by no means all- many people do have lactose intolerance, or even just slightly lowered tolerance. This is especially common among East Asians.) Other changes have made us better able to process sugars and larger amounts of carbs in our diet. Ten thousand years is more than enough time to have evolved significantly. (This quite shocked the founder of the Paleo movement when he learned it, notably.)

There's a secondary misconception about the human body and its evolution here as well: Even before we evolved to better tolerate many of the foods we eat today, we'd already been extremely versatile omnivores. We have incredibly flexible, powerful digestive systems. We can be healthy and happy on a huge range of different diets, which is how we managed to spread into so many different ecosystems.

One interesting question is how our digestive systems and diets were affected by interbreeding with Neanderthals, which scientists have confirmed likely occurred. I have no idea what the answers to that might be, however. [Image source]

So... yeah, the Paleo diet is founded on scientifically nonsensical claims. But- and this is a very important but- it's not actually a bad diet. It's pretty similar to a ketogenic diet, and is actually really good for certain athletes and such. The Paleo insistence on lots of vegetables and fresh fruit? That's obviously a good thing. The only really noted problem with the diet is that some people develop calcium deficiencies, which is pretty easily correctable. It's not necessarily for everyone- there is no one size fits all diet. I can't be vegetarian, for instance- I tried for a decade, and kept developing B12 deficiencies and other weird dietary issues- I can't digest B12 from supplements, which is a thing, apparently. I do try to keep my meat consumption minimal and ethical, however. (Though I know some of you would argue with me about if meat consumption can ever be ethical.) The Paleo diet can be pretty good for some people. Just don't try to justify it using bad science.


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I'm actually following a keto diet at the moment. (Here's a quick convo with @soulesque so I won't have to repeat that here. ) I'd ask you to do one on that, but they don't actually make any claims as to what we naturally evolved to eat. They just say 'this works'.

I'm interested in the topic of what we used to eat. But, even if we find out, what you say seems to imply that we won't be able to reproduce the wild varieties anyway. I mean, we bred and changed everything! Even fruits and vegetables. I bet fruits never were as sweet as today. (Even a kid can wonder, "Bananas have no seeds: that makes no sense, why do they exist? What's in it for the plant?")

I recently added this to my wishlist. Hopefully that'll answer a few questions.

Oooh, that looks excellent, adding it to my wishlist as well!

Also, bananas have a crazy history, it's really fascinating.

Maybe you could write about it!

Might do!

That obsession with "healthy", historical way of living and "unhealthy", modern way is an interesting phenomenon.

We have never lived longer, records in sports are constantly improving *(not counting those boy-like girls from Eastern Germany) and... Just remember how 60-years old people used to look like 30 years ago. I remember them is almost dead. Today, 60 years old people are just fine, active, full of life. They have 25+ years!

Well we're all lifehackers now, trying to find that small thing that might give us an edge. There's wisdom, I think, in how people used to eat. Traditional recipes unwittingly combining ingredients to yield a complete protein (like rice + lentils in Moutzentra) is one example.

A lot more research these days is being done on how foods combine with one another, rather than just on their individual nutrients. Fun stuff!

Sometimes man creates insightful products based upon all the wrong assumptions. It is as Nietzche quipped, as you stare at the abyss, it also stares at you. As man changed his environment, so too has he been changed by the environment. Man needs to approach his environment in relation to himself and not as if he exists outside it. It seems like the Paleo people consider man to be an immutable being in a constantly changing environment; is it hubris or ignorance?

Being right for all the wrong reasons is still being right- it's just not likely to help you be right in other ways.

If I had to point to anything and call it the worst part of our civilization, it would have to be our conviction that we're separate from nature, even some sort of platonic form rather than a messy animal that mucks up its home. Paleo is just a well outlined example of it.

Indeed we are all different myself I am veggie trying to go vegan. I'm not rushing into it but slowly. However my ex when she did not eat meat became lethargic and lacking motivation. We need to just listen to what are bodies need, I eat what my bodies desires and feel so much better for it 💯 🐒

Excellent advice!

Simple yet so many people ignore their bodies. We have a amazing instrument that know exactly what we need, what best to listen to. We need to stop this conformist society 💯🐒

Nice analysis. It really bothers me that (some) people think that eating like someone from the Neolithic period is the healthiest way to eat--we have obviously changed since then, as you said. Honestly it's cool to look at different ways of eating and what not, but the obsession with perfecting our diet, yknow "don't eat this it turns out it's really bad for you" or "eat only this it's the only way to get X result" is really starting to wear me down.
No one diet is perfect for anyone and a lot of the articles on these topics are just advertising for particular diet sites/books/pills whatever and not actually meant to help people be healthy. Many times they actually result in bad health.

Not to mention that being bombarded by that kind of content can make some people (myself included) feel paranoid about eating at all, as if no matter what you try you'll always be doing the "unhealthy" thing.

We recently had the paläo diet covered from two perspectives in the german steemstem subgroup. I must say I'm rather siding with your arguments. The whole theory of eating like back in stone age and this being actually healther than a "regular" balanced diet is not very convincing.
Thanks for you great post on it, gave it a resteem.

Thanks, I'm glad you liked it!

Michael Pollan has a rule I really like: Eat food, mostly vegetables, not too much.

Yes agriculture has became the main source of life especially in the Neolithic period. Irrigation, wheels and pd tunnel were developed to further make the life of the labor forces a lot more easier

Coffee is often forbidden by Paleo diets as well, and that one, at least, actually wasn't consumed by ancient humans.

Well, that'a hard no for me, then. As if 'high meat' wasn't already enough.

Our paleolithic ancestors didn't drink milk, for example, because they lacked the ability to process it upon reaching adulthood. Several different mutations have arisen since then allowing humans to digest milk, and they've spread throughout many global populations, rendering a great number of adults able to digest milk as adults.


I've never heard about Paleo diet until last year when I was researching for Ketogenic diet. Even though I knew the concept of Paleo diet, I've never used them as I didn't fully understand it.

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The main thing is not to eat each other!

Excellent research! Clear thinking.

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