The Paleo Diet instructs its followers to eat lots of animal-derived food while completely avoiding all grains and legumes. It is an equally harmful derivative of its meat-heavy predecessor, the Atkin’s diet. The intention of this article is to expose some of the many fallacies behind this fad, while also providing some insight on how to properly fact check health information. Let’s begin by addressing 6 of the core presumptions that form the basis of the Paleo Diet.
1. Myth: Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, but mainly hunters, eating lots of meat during the Paleolithic era- a period of time from 10,000 to 2.5 million years ago.
As human beings we sometimes allow our personal bias to overshadow our common sense. We romanticize about the macho caveman, hunting, dominating, capturing and killing wild animals, while the woman stays at home gathering berries and, of course, dusting and cleaning the cave. And we hold on to this sexist image even when logic and scientific evidence prove otherwise. Highly respected anthropologists and evolutionary biologists, such as professor Nathanial J. Dominy, have outed this myth, explaining that the majority of calories that our Paleolithic ancestors consumed came from plant foods.1 Meat was simply too unpredictable. When scientists analyze the remains of skeletons that date back 2 million years, they report that close to 100% of the diet our ancestors ate consisted of forest food.2 Dr. Benjamin H. Passey, a geochemist who conducted tests on the teeth of skeletons dating back to the Paleolithic era, remarked that “one thing people probably don’t realize is that humans are basically grass eaters.”2 Cavemen surely feasted on meat whenever the opportunity arose, but these opportunities were far and few in between. In comparison, modern people following the Paleo Diet have eggs and bacon for breakfast, steak for lunch, and chicken for dinner. The idea that this resembles the diet of our ancestors is a Homo Sapien fantasy. If you want to create a fad diet that consists of eating animal-derived foods three or more times a day, every day, you should NOT associate it with the Paleolithic era- it’s insulting to archeologists, anthropologists and biologists.3
2. Myth: We’ve evolved, through millions of years, to require a meat-centered diet in order to be healthy.
First, that’s not how evolution works. Evolution does not care about optimizing our personal health. Evolution only cares about one thing, and that’s our ability to procreate. After we have children, as far as evolution is concerned, we are essentially living on borrowed time. Evolutionary biologists have grown increasingly annoyed at the false presumptions being made by followers of the Paleo Diet.3 Roddy Collins, a scientist who has studied evolutionary physiology for thirty years, was once lectured about evolution at his gym by a 17 year old Paleo Diet follower.3 “Leave evolution out of it” has been the plea of scientists that actually understand what they’re talking about. While we are a product of evolution, it is not evolution that can tell us how to improve our health in today’s world. For that we need to turn to modern scientific evidence.
Second, we have definitely not evolved to consume meat. In her lecture debunking the Paleo Diet, Christina Warinner, an archaeological geneticist, reminded her audience that “humans have no known anatomical, physiological, or genetic adaptations to meat consumption. Quite the opposite, we have many adaptations to plant consumption.”4
3. Myth: Our Paleolithic ancestors did not eat grains and legumes.
This is false. We have evidence from at least 100,000 years ago that our ancestors used stone tools to grind up grains and seeds, and starches have been found on the teeth of their skeletons.4,5 An archeologist from the University of Calgary found the oldest example of extensive reliance on cereal grains in the diet of Homo Sapiens dating back at least 105,000 years.5 But, more importantly, why do we hold in such high regard what our ancestors ate, or didn’t eat, thousands and millions of years ago? This brings us to yet another Paleo Diet fantasy …
4. Myth: We should eat like our ancient ancestors because we are genetically the same.
There is virtually nothing in our world today that resembles the prehistoric world- we wouldn’t even recognize a prehistoric banana- and we have certainly evolved over time along with our environment. But that’s not what proponents of the Paleo Diet want you to believe. According to the diet, which claims to take an evolutionary approach to life, our genes are identical to those of our Paleolithic ancestors, and that’s why we should eat the way they did (whatever that means). The rationale behind the Paleo Diet completely ignores the field of epigenetics which shows how genes are quickly switched on and off depending on our environment, especially our diet, resulting in an astonishing level of differentiation within our bodies. The Genetic Science Learning Center, at the University of Utah Health Sciences, states that “epigenetic inheritance may allow an organism to continually adjust its gene expression to fit its environment – without changing its DNA code.”6 Different food sources create pressure for genetic changes, and these changes can happen quickly. The lesson, once again, is that we need to stop fantasizing about what occurred millions of years ago, and look at today’s environment and today’s people to understand how to maximize our health potential.
For example, the Human Microbiome Project has shown that much about our health is the result of a symbiotic relationship with 100 trillion bacteria that colonize our digestive systems. These microbes provide more genes for human survival than our own human cells. In fact, the human microbiome contributes eight million unique protein-coding genes, versus the human genome’s 22,000.7 What this means, essentially, is that not only are we affected by our immediate environment, but we are also, in large part, composed of it – the average person having 10 times more bacteria than human cells. It goes without question that when our environment changes, so do we. Still, the biggest factor that alters the balance of our gut bacteria is the food we choose to eat. Science has clearly shown us that a plant-based diet promotes a healthy microbiome, while just one piece of meat can upset this balance.8,9
5. Myth: Grains and legumes are unhealthy. They contain harmful anti-nutrients, and that’s why we should never consume them.
We have close to 100 years of consistent scientific evidence showing that a plant-based diet, rich in whole grains and legumes, is the healthiest diet on the planet. Such a diet has been shown to prevent and reverse chronic disease such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.9,10,11 Perhaps Paleo Diet promoters are too trapped in their caves to have heard about the Blue Zones? These are 5 places around the world where people experience a level of superior health and longevity unseen anywhere else on the planet.12 The populations reach the age of one hundred at rates 10 times greater than in the United States, and they all share a very similar diet: almost 100% plant-based, with whole grains and legumes forming the cornerstone of most centenarians’ diets. There is no Paleo Diet in any of the Blue Zones around the world.
And what about those pesky anti-nutrients? It’s true, seeds rely on anti-nutrients to protect them from their environment. Throughout our history, all grains, beans, nuts and seeds, in their natural form, were not consumed without first being soaked, fermented, or sprouted. That’s how you get rid of the anti-nutrients, magnify the nutritional content, and improve your digestion and absorption of these foods.13 Sprouting also substantially decreases wheat gluten proteins.14 Even the author of the Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain, has written that sprouted grains and legumes are a much better option, and that we can consume grain sprouts without any fear of anti-nutrients.15 Furthermore, some of these so-called anti-nutrients, such as phytic acid, are proving to have anti-oxidant and anti-cancer properties.16 So consuming some amount of “anti-nutrients” may not be such a bad idea.
For more information, my video Exposing The Whole Grain Myth explains the difference between sprouted whole grains versus the harmful so-called whole grain products that we purchase from the grocery store.17
6. Myth: We only get vitamin B12 from eating animals, and this proves that meat is essential for good health.
Vitamin B12 is not produced by animals nor is it produced by plants. Biologically active vitamin B12 is produced by soil-based microorganisms- more evidence that the right mixture of microbes is essential for our good health. The B12 producing bacteria in the soil find their way into the intestines of animals, including humans. However, in humans and other animals, B12 is manufactured a little too far down the intestinal track to be absorbed, and is instead excreted in our feces. Infected animals contain B12 due to the fact that they have their noses and beaks in dirt all day long, and they also eat their own feces – that’s a good way to get your B12 although I would not recommend it. A 1959 study in Iran found that a community of vegans were not vitamin B12 deficient even though none of them took a B12 supplement.18 Researchers discovered that the villagers grew their vegetables in what they called “night soil”- soil heavily composted with human manure.
In our modern, industrialized, germaphobic world, where we over-sanitize our food and are no longer connected to high quality organic soils, vitamin B12 deficiency is indeed a problem for both meat-eaters as well as vegans. The Framingham Offspring study found that 39% of the general population is low in vitamin B12, regardless of animal-protein consumption.19,20 In fact, researchers found no association between plasma B12 levels and meat, poultry, and fish intake. They noted that B12 from animals isn’t well absorbed, and that this may be because human beings do not have sufficient stomach acid to separate the vitamin from animal protein.20 The fact that humans have less stomach acid than carnivores is often used to support the argument that we are biologically plant-eaters.
One of the consequences of being B12 deficient is irreversible nerve damage. It is therefore important to take a proper B12 supplement. For anyone still thinking that this is evidence that we need to consume animals, I should point out that modern farmed animals receive supplemental B12 in their feed21,22– so you can either take your supplement directly, or you can let it pass through the intestines of an animal first and then struggle to absorb it. The vitamin B12 issue is one more example of our symbiotic relationship with our environment, in this case our soil, that we depend on for good health. Instead of discussing the fantasies of the Paleo Diet, we should be more concerned about the depletion of our soil with unnatural pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers.
Finally, once you remove all of the false presumptions, there are a few positive aspects of the Paleo Diet, such as the elimination of dairy and processed foods. I guarantee that if you simply eliminate processed foods from your diet you will experience some health benefits. However, animal-based diets have been shown to promote disease, whereas nearly a century’s worth of consistent scientific evidence shows us that a proper plant-based diet is, by far, the most natural, healthy and protective option for all people on earth. It’s also the most ethical and sustainable diet for our planet. Everything else is a fantasy. There will be other fads once the Paleo Diet joins the Atkin’s diet in extinction. The problem, however, is not that people make a living promoting these harmful diets and speaking beyond their limitations, but that the general public is so quick to accept information without digging a little deeper. Education, common sense, and an increased level of consciousness always lead to better choices. Thank you.
Naturopath, Health Educator
Nutrition & Exercise Specialist
- Mcdougall, J. “The Paleo Diet Is Uncivilized (And Unhealthy and Untrue).” The Mcdougall Newsletter. June 2012. Web. Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Wilford, J. “Some Prehumans Feasted on Bark Instead of Grasses.” New York Times. New York Times. June 27, 2012. Web. Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Zimmer, Paul. “Archaeologists officially declare collective sigh over Paleo Diet.” Hell’s Ditch. August 6, 2012. Web. Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Warinner, C. (2013, February 12). Christina Warinner: Debunking the Paleo Diet. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/Debunking-the-Paleo-Diet-Christ
- Julio Mercader et al. Mozambican grass seed consumption during the Middle Stone Age. Science, December 18, 2009
- “Epigenetics and Inheritance” Genetic Science Learning Center. University of Utah Health Sciences. Web. http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/epigenetics/inheritance/Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- “NIH Human Microbiome Project defines normal bacterial makeup of the body” National Institutes of Health. June 13, 2012. Web. Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Jaoude, Marc. “Meat & Dairy Harms Your Gut, Quickly” Markito Nutrition. December 13, 2013. Web. http://markitonutrition.com/meat-dairy-harms-your-gut-quickly/ Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Jaoude, Marc. “The Truth About Cholesterol” Markito Nutrition. November 7, 2014. Web. http://markitonutrition.com/the-truth-about-cholesterol/Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Jaoude, Marc. “Type 2 Diabetes is Reversible” Markito Nutrition. March 8, 2015. Web. http://markitonutrition.com/type-2-diabetes-is-reversible/Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Campbell, T. Colin, and Thomas Campbell. (2006). The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Conducted And the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, And Long-term Health. Dallas, TX: Benbella Books, 2006.
- Buettner, Dan (2010). The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Washington: National Geographic Society, 2010.
- Jaoude, Marc. “Sprouts & Microgreens” Markito Nutrition. Web. http://markitonutrition.com/sprouts-microgreens/Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Koehler P1, Hartmann G, Wieser H, Rychlik M. “Changes of folates, dietary fiber, and proteins in wheat as affected by germination.” Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry. June 13, 2007; 55(12):4678-83. Epub 2007 May 12
- Cordain, Loren. “The Sprouted Grain Conundrum” The Paleo Diet. Web. http://thepaleodiet.com/paleo-diet-q-a-11-10-09/ Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Nawrocka-Musiał D1, Latocha M. [Phytic acid-anticancer nutriceutic] Pol Merkur Lekarski. 2012 Jul;33(193):43-7.
- Jaoude, M. (2013, February 24). Marc Jaoude: The Whole Grain Myth. [Video file]. Retrieved from http://markitonutrition.com/videos/whole-grain-video/
- Capps, Ashley. “B12: A Magic Pill, or Veganism’s Achilles Heel?” Free From Harm. Web. Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Rooke, Jennifer. “Do Carnivores Need Vitamin B12 Supplements.” Baltimore Post Examiner. Web. http://baltimorepostexaminer.com/carnivores-need-vitamin-b12-supplements/2013/10/30 Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- McBride, Judy. “B12 Deficiency May be More Widespread Than Thought.” United States Department of Agriculture. Web. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/pr/2000/000802.htm Last accessed: August 26, 2015.
- Stewart, Lawton. “Mineral Supplements for Beef Cattle.” http://www.caes.uga.edu/publications/pubDetail.cfm?pk_id=7650
- “Vitamin B12 Properties and Metabolism.” DSM in Animal Nutrition & Health. Web. https://www.dsm.com/markets/anh/en_US/Compendium/poultry/vitamin_B12.htm Last accessed: August 26, 2015.