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Healthiest Diet Series – Is Paleo Really Good for Us?

By Jiří Kaloč

Are we really supposed to eat like cavemen? What are the benefits of that? Are people mad for trying it or is there actually something to this style of eating? It has a catchy title, but one that can be interpreted in too many ways. Let’s look at what paleo means in the context of healthy eating. Then we will be able to see more clearly the actual benefits and risks of going for it.

Why is it called paleo?

The basic idea is that human genetics haven’t changed a lot since the introduction of agriculture, and even less so since mass food processing became the norm. That is why paleo-style diets emphasize foods that were available to us for the largest part of our evolution, meaning the Paleolithic era. Those would be:

1. Wild land and sea animals (including their eggs)

2. Wild plants (local and seasonal vegetables and fruits of various kinds)

3. Tubers

4. Nuts and seeds

5. Insects

Variations of this ancestral template allow for reasonable amounts of high-quality full-fat dairy, dark chocolate, red wine or white rice as safe options from the Neolithic foods category, but for the most part the emphasis is on pasture-raised meats and organic, locally grown plant foods. Completely banned are all highly processed Neolithic foods like refined seed oils, flour, sugar and also all grains and legumes.

Why should you choose paleo?

Most studies focusing on the paleo diet are short-term and quite small in number of participants, but overall the research is very promising. It shows good results in improving glucose control, insulin levels, blood pressure, triglycerides and HDL cholesterol, weight, and satiety. On top of that, you can find an ever-growing number of blogs and personal experiences from people all over the world who are quite enthusiastically attributing the aforementioned benefits and much more to living a paleo lifestyle. While this has to be looked at with a healthy dose of skepticism, it is very interesting.

What is wrong with paleo?

As is often the case, there is a big difference between the ideal as described by the gurus of the diet and what their followers are actually doing. Paleo pizza, cakes and bars are hardly the things we were meant to eat on a regular basis, even when made from quality ingredients. Also, in clinical studies they often use lean meats and not many fats in general, while the real-world paleo doesn’t shy away from fatty cuts of meat, an abundance of avocados, lard, tallow, and coconut oil. On top of that, you could easily challenge the avoidance of legumes as not really backed by clinical evidence. Additionally, there is a definite problem with over-consumption of muscle meats in relation to other parts of the animal that can cause imbalances in amino acid intake.

You can also find evidence suggesting that people have, to various degrees, adapted to newer foods through changes in gut microbiome. All of this convinces me that paleo is really promising, but should be considered more of a template then a fixed rulebook. Now, let’s compare it with the other two contenders.