Debunking diets: Paleo pros and cons

The Breakdown

What you can eat:
Animal proteins (quality meats — preferably grass-fed — eggs, and fish). Fruits. Vegetables (except for starchy varieties). Nuts and seeds. Healthy fats (olive oil, fish oil, avocado). Herbs and spices.

What you can’t eat:
Dairy. Grains. Legumes. Starches. Alcohol. Processed foods, sugars, and sugar substitutes.

Paleo dieters who engage in endurance events lasting 90 minutes or more can consume sweet potatoes and yams to up glycogen stores as part of training.

The Theory:
Per Paleo thinking, modern human digestive systems weren’t designed to handle the refined sugars, starchy carbs, grains, legumes, and dairy products that have snuck into our diets over the past 10,000 years. The consequence? A steady expansion of our waistlines and an uptick in disease rates.

Around 1975, one gastroenterologist suggested a solution: Go retro — to an era before we learned how to farm, homogenize, can, sugar, refine, fry, re-fry, and all those other techniques that make foods convenient, tasty, and bacteria-free. Since our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t seem to suffer from modern dietary-induced woes, the thinking went, we too might rid ourselves of our post-agricultural era illnesses by sticking to Stone Age meal plans.

Time to Go Paleo? — What The Science Says

It’s clear that a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, omega-3, and other polyunsaturated fats improve our body’s ability to make use of food rather than store it as fat or keep it lingering in the blood stream as excess sugar[1][2]. The rationale behind eliminating starchy carbs is supported by studies finding that they spike blood sugar more severely than fructose (the sugar molecule found in fruits and veggies). And the low-carb profile Paleo adheres to does indeed dial down inflammation in tissues by altering the composition of the fatty acids they contain[3].

Numerous studies show diets mimicking what we think our ancestors ate can shrink waistlines and lower bad cholesterol levels[4][5]. Oh, and when we drop legumes and grains, dairy, andrefined sugars, blood pressure tends to follow suit[6]. So let’s take a closer look at those three problem spots.

On Legumes and Whole Grains

But (and there’s a big “but”): Lgumes and whole grains have also been shown to reduce risk of disease and improve insulin sensitivity and blood glucose levels — not to mention decrease BMI[7][8][9][10]. So what justifies keeping them out of our bellies? Paleo proponents argue that legumes, grains, and other starches (i.e. potatoes) contain high levels of antinutrients (lectinprolaminphytateand saponins, for starters). These compounds, the Paleo philosophy holds, block key digestive enzymes, promote inflammation and, in some cases, lie at the root of autoimmune diseases and cancer[11].

Research does show that excess consumption of some antinutrients offsets our belly’s bacteria levels and puts us at risk for inflammatory diseases like asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, and inflammatory bowel syndrome[12][13]. But there isn’t as much science to support cutting them out completely. Some studies suggest dietary lectins from legumes and grains may bolster good bacteria inside our tummies and aid digestion[14].

Dairy Deficit?

As for concerns that the Paleo diet doesn’t provide enough calcium, worriers take note: Dairy isn’t the only place you’ll find this mineral. Leafy greens like kale and spinach, for instance, trump milk, cheese, and yogurt when it comes to absorption of the bone-saving stuff. One cup of milk may contain 25 percent of our recommended daily calcium, but dairy’s acidity can actually cause our bodies to leach calcium from bones as a buffer to keep blood alkaline levels, says Nell Stephenson, a nutrition and fitness coach and self-professed Paleoista. “You’re better off going with the 24 percent daily value of calcium a [one cup] serving of [cooked] spinach delivers,” since the natural alkalinity of veggies won’t necessitate stealing as many antacids from your skeleton.


Contrary to many misperceptions, “Going Paleo doesn’t mean eating all meat, all the time,”Stephenson says. (Remember: fish and poultry are fair game.) “Only eating meat puts the body inketosis — an unnatural reliance on fat, rather than carbohydrates, for fuel. We need carbs to function, just not in the form of bread, pasta, and bagels.” That’s why Paleo endurance athletes chow down onyams pre-race, and why Stephenson emphasizes the need to eat more vegetables and moderate amounts of fruit for adequate energy.

Should you go Stone Age in your diet? To read this author's recommendation and see the list of sources used in this article, go to

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