The Truth About the Paleo Diet: Expelling the Myths – Part 1
It is an unfortunate and longstanding truth within the scientific world that many new and novel ideas that are brought to light (especially within nutritional science) are initially scrutinized and damn near burned at the stake. To that end, the Paleo diet is no different. If you’re reading this blog, then chances are you’ve heard of the Paleo diet either in passing by some ‘health nut’ or worse yet, you’ve read some negative article about it. Within my own practice, I have shied away from using the word Paleo due to the negative connotation this has received, and now use the term Ancestral Health. However, I want to clear the air about what the Paleo diet is and isn’t in the hopes to show people that this way of eating, and of life, is an extremely powerful tool that has brought many people happiness and even saved lives. Thankfully, the other common truth within the scientific community is that eventually, the science will prevail and the theories will be adjusted accordingly. It appears that finally, this is starting to happen for nutritional science. To that end, let’s begin with myth #1.
Myth #1: The Paleo Diet is Unscientific
I don’t know how this ever became a myth… Before I begin talking about the recent literature on the Paleo diet, let me first remark that the Paleo movement is based around the theory of evolution, one of the single most accepted theories in the entirety of science. The early work by Charles Darwin in On the Origins of Species  and Gregor Mendel’s Experiments Concerning Plant Hybrids  opened the world to an entirely new area of research, evolutionary biology (among others). This has since been applied to study how evolution has played a role in the development of our species across everything from psychology to anatomy. There is a movement (albeit a slow one) now within medicine called Darwinian or Evolutionary Medicine , which looks at how our evolution has shaped, and continues to shape, our health. So why is it then, that when we apply these concepts to nutrition, it is met with such antagonism?
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution
– Theodosius Dobzhansky
The entire premise of the Paleo diet is that it is based on scientific observations and evidence. In the early days, it was mostly observational research from following and recording the health and diet of indigenous peoples around the world, such as the fantastic work completed by Weston A Price . Through these observations, it was noted that indigenous peoples who still followed their traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle were mostly free of modern degenerative disease – heart disease, diabetes, autoimmunity, neurodegeneration, etc. Then, a few papers started popping up in the literature which was the advent of the “Paleolithic Diet”. Papers such as, Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications , which laid the groundwork of compiling the research to allow for the develop of scrutiny under the scientific method via more robust clinical trials. Some of the early clinical trials were performed by Loren Cordain, often considered to be the creator of the Paleo diet and author of the 2003 book The Paleo Diet . By the mid to late 2000’s, more and more research was coming out in support of this “new” diet. One of the seminal papers was A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease by Lindeberg et al , which showed marked improvements in both weight and metabolic markers of diabetes and cardiovascular disease versus the Mediterranean diet – often tooted as the healthiest diet. Since that time, a growing amount of research continues to be published throughout the scientific community showing the nearly unimaginable benefits of following the Paleo diet (Image 1 – retrieved 28 May 2017)
The entire basis of the Paleo diet was founded on science. Contrast this to other such diets which are created by guru’s or medical (or worse, non-medical) practitioners that have put their opinions and biases into a dietary approach. Even worse are that some of the diets ranked on the US News & World Report ‘Best and Worst Diets’  actually have a total of 0 research studies conducted on them, yet these rank higher than the Paleo diet?? Interestingly, USNWR is an active beneficiary of marketing products for such diets….
Hopefully I’ve managed to allay this initial myth of the Paleo diet quite clearly. However, if you are not yet convinced, here are some resources for further investigation and history (if you are of the type to actually use logic and reason to make decisions and not emotional biases).
Keep an eye out for more upcoming pieces breaking the dietary myths of the Paleo diet.
- Darwin, Charles. The Origin Of Species By Means Of Natural Selection. 1st ed. New York: Modern Library, 1872. Print.
- Mendel, Gregor Johann. “Versuche über Pflanzen-Hybriden” [Experiments Concerning Plant Hybrids]” . In Verhandlungen des naturforschenden Vereines in Brünn [Proceedings of the Natural History Society of Brünn] IV (1865): 3–47.
- Williams GC, Nesse RM. The dawn of Darwinian medicine. Q Rev Biol. 1991 Mar;66(1):1-22.
- Price, Weston A. Nutrition and physical degeneration: a comparison of primitive and modern diets and their effects. Milton Keynes, U.K.: Lightning Source, 2010. Print.
- Eaton S, Konner M. Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of Its Nature and Current Implications. New England Journal of Medicine. 1985;312(5):283-289.
- Cordain L. The paleo diet. 1st ed. New York: Wiley; 2003.
- Lindeberg S, Jonsson T, Granfeldt Y, Borgstrand E, Soffman J, Sjostrom K, Ahren B: A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia 2007, 50(9):1795-1807.