The Hidden Agenda Behind the Paleo Diet

Google defines the Paleo Diet as “a diet based on the types of foods presumed to have been eaten by early humans, consisting chiefly of meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit, and excluding dairy or grain products and processed food.” Proponents of this diet typically eat some combination of eggs or meat with vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with a little fruit, nuts and seeds. These are undeniably healthy foods and I think we can all agree that cutting out processed foods is beneficial to everyone, but I am concerned that there may be an ulterior motive behind this new dietary trend. And it may be hazardous to our health.

“The Paleo Diet” is a term coined by Loren Cordain, who used it to title his 2002 book. The diet has gained popularity since then, which I find worrisome. Although it does involve the consumption of healthy food groups like vegetables and fruit, and nuts and seeds, it essentially revolves around meat and fat. Paleo-dieters feel like they are given license to make red meat the primary item on their plates. There is nothing wrong with meat in moderation – I’m not anti-meat – but my fear is that if meat is taking up a significant portion of our plates, there won’t be much room left for the vegetables.

The popularity of the Paleo Diet is pure marketing genius. Who is doing this marketing, you ask? Well, who would stand to benefit from the country eating more meat and dairy products? The meat and dairy industries! And these industries have taken a significant hit in the recent past when saturated fat was declared to be bad for us by the media and we saw a huge rise in veganism. What better way for them to gain their market share back than by promoting a diet based primarily around their products? All they needed to do was cherry-pick some studies that say that saturated fat isn’t bad after all and there would be some very happy converts.

Proponents of the Paleo Diet say that it is OK to eat more meat as long as that meat is high quality – conventional meat from Confined Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) is shunned in favor of grass-fed or pastured meat because that’s what our ancestors ate. There is no regard for portion size. We can’t be exactly sure what types of meat our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, but I think we can safely assume it was wild game, not grass-fed cattle. And odds are very good that they didn’t eat that wild game every day, because a hunt (and subsequent kill) was an incredibly strenuous event and likely more of a rarity than a daily activity. “Year-round observations confirm that hunter-gatherers often have dismal success as hunters. This suggests it was even harder for our ancestors who didn’t have…weapons.” (1)

What is most often overlooked by Paleo-dieters is the fact that our hunter-gatherer ancestors are known to have eaten over 100 different plant foods (including herbs) each day. “…Although advocates of the modern Paleolithic diet urge us to stay away from unhealthy processed foods, the diet’s heavy focus on meat doesn’t replicate the diversity of foods that our ancestors ate—or take into account the active lifestyles that protected them from heart disease and diabetes,” says Leslie Aiello, president of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York City (2).

And these 100 different plant foods included very bitter plants, which were rich in nutrients and antioxidants (the more bitter the plant, the more rich in antioxidants it is), not just a few baby spinach leaves. They ate starchy tubers – raw! All of their plants were higher in protein and fiber – and lower in sugar (3) – than all of the modern varieties. We wouldn’t even recognize almost everything they ate.

Perhaps more important than diet in the overall health of our ancestors was their lifestyle. They slept about twice as much as we do now. They began to rest as soon as the sun went down and rose when the sun came up. And when they weren’t sleeping, they were moving. They were hunting for and gathering those amazingly nutrient-dense plant foods that comprised most of their diet. They were outdoors all day in the fresh air and sunshine. Their food wasn’t sprayed with chemicals. They weren’t breathing in polluted air or drinking fluoridated water. They had relatively low stress. They raised their children in tight-knit communities with generations of family nearby to offer love, help and support.

You cannot separate diet from lifestyle when it comes to health. Unless you are going to live the life of a Paleolithic human – including nonstop movement, no chemicals, no pollution, no WiFi, tons of sleep and pretty much no stress, you shouldn’t eat like one. And even if you did eat like they did in the Paleolithic era, you would be eating 99% plants – not a grass-fed burger topped with pastured bacon.

The meat and dairy industries have done an incredible job at making the Paleo diet sound healthy and appealing. But if you think about it, it just doesn’t make sense. Humans have no claws or fangs – how could we have eaten mostly meat? And while a little bit of meat, poultry or fish once in a while is totally fine, organically-grown plant foods – including some raw — should make up the majority of our plates at every meal. Just as they made up the majority of the plates of our ancestors.