Debunking Paleo Myths

Awesome infographic explaining the evolution of our diets. For larger graphic, click here

If you eat a Paleo diet, chances are that you deal with a lot of questions. You try to be sly when you’re going out to eat with friends, quietly whispering to the waitress “Can I get the burger without a bun and extra side veggies instead of fries?” and try to play it off like it’s no big deal, but most likely you are going to get some weird looks from your friends, and have to repeat your order twice to the waitress since she’s used to customers asking for extra fries and onion rings. I legit had a cashier at a grocery store attack me with what I was buying..

Cashier-“Are you on a diet or something?”
Me- “No, why?”
Cashier- “Well.. it’s just everything you’re buying is really healthy…”

At the time, I was just doing my weekly run- lots of fruits and veggies, coconut milk, nuts, and meat. Looking around at all the other customers checking out, I realized that I did look like some kind of a freak- I was the only one without bags of potato chips, soda or 100-calorie packs of whatever cardboard bits they’re trying to sell.  I don’t think I could ever be a grocery store cashier, I would sit and lecture every person walking through, and probably cause the store to go bankrupt.. “Um, excuse me, sir, you REALLLYYYY shouldn’t be buying that…”

ANyhoo! I definitely had my doubts when first starting off eating Paleo, but now find myself eager to dismiss any doubts that friends and family might have about it. The more I learn about it, and the better I feel after continuing to eat this way, the more I’m excited to share about it. A few of my friends have jumped on the Paleo bandwagon too (maybe just so they would just get me to shut up?) and are loving it. Still, it’s not uncommon to have to answer questions about my lifestyle change (totally understandable, since I did this to Erica when she started and I thought she was cray cray).

Fitbomb has an awesome blog entry called “Why I Eat Paleo” where he goes into crazy depth about the benefits and history of the Paleo diet. It’s definitely worth a read. The part that struck truest to me was the Mythbusting section, where he provides answers for common doubts about the Paleo diet.

Q: Didn’t cavemen die by the age of 30 or something? Doesn’t this suggest that their diets were crap?

A: Prehistoric humans certainly had shorter lifespans on average. (But only by about 10 years, actually.) What drove down their average number of years on earth? Hmm. Let’s see: High rates of infant mortality, zero medical care, a perilous existence in the wild, predators, accidents, trauma — the list goes on and on, though it probably doesn’t include Type II diabetes. (I wonder how long we’d last if we were dumped in the middle of the woods without our cell phones and pants. I’d give myself a day and a half. And that’s only if I had a good book and a Snuggie with me.)

Look: If 40 out of 100 cave-babies died before reaching the age of 10, even if every one of the survivors lived past the age of 60, the average age expectancy of the group will fall under 40 years.

The thing is, plenty of studies have been done about the longevity of modern day hunter-gatherer societies. As Loren Cordain has written:

In most hunter-gatherer populations today, approximately 10-20% of the population is 60 years of age or older. These elderly people have been shown to be generally free of the signs and symptoms of chronic disease (obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels) that universally afflict the elderly in western societies. When these people adopt western diets, their health declines and they begin to exhibit signs and symptoms of “diseases of civilization.”

Q: But cavemen ate meat! And eating meat is evil and immoral! It’s not environmentally sustainable! And it’s totally unhealthy!
A: Sheesh. A whole book could be written in rebuttal to those three points. Luckily, pepper-pie victim and ex-vegan Lierre Keith has done just the thing. You can preview it (i.e., read the whole thing) on Google Books here. Pay special attention to Chapter 4, which is a response to “nutritional vegetarians” — i.e., vegetarians who claim that eschewing meat puts you on the road to better health.

Keith also counters the moral/ethical arguments that are often raised against meat-eating — a topic that other authors have also addressed. We can all agree that factory farming is evil and unsustainable, but even prominent pro-vegans like George Monbiot have finally come around to concede that meat-eating contributes to a healthy ecosystem. (Check out Monbiot’s Guardian column here.)

Look: I love vegetables. I think everyone should eat ’em ’cause they’re tasty and awesome. But eating good quality meats is important, too.
Q: But humans can’t digest meat! It just sits in your gut and rots ’til you poop it out!
Q: But humans need carbs to live! How can you work out without loading up on carbs?
A: First of all, I do, in fact, eat carbs. I just get ’em in the form of vegetables and fruit rather than grains, legumes and added sugar. Yes, Paleo eating tends to be relatively low-carb because it eschews grains and sugar, but at its core, this approach to nutrition is actually carb-agnostic. I don’t count carbs, nor have I put myself (consciously) on a super low-carb ketogenic diet.

But just so you know, humans don’t actually need dietary carbs at all to function and thrive.

In the early part of the 20th century, Arctic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson — after living among the Inuit — found that he and his fellow explorers suffered zero health problems from eating a hunter-gatherer diet consisting almost exclusively of high-fat meat and fish, and no carbs whatsoever. From Wikipedia:

When medical authorities questioned him on this, he and a fellow explorer agreed to undertake a study under the auspices of the Journal of the American Medical Association to demonstrate that they could eat a 100% meat diet in a closely-observed laboratory setting for the first several weeks, with paid observers for the rest of an entire year. The results were published in the Journal, and both men were perfectly healthy on such a diet, without vitamin supplementation or anything else in their diet except meat.

Stefansson published his thoughts on no-carb eating in Harper’s in 1935. You can read his first-person account of carnivorous life among the Inuit here.

So what happens when you take in no carbs? Your body still requires a bit of glucose, but it can manufacture its own out of lactate, pyruvate, glycerol and amino acids (from protein) via a process calledgluconeogenesis. As Lyle McDonald — a proponent of ketogenic diets — has said: “[A]s long as protein intake is sufficiently high (e.g. the diet is covering the increased breakdown of protein in the liver and elsewhere), the amount of carbohydrates which are truly required is still zero.”

Kurt Harris sums it up nicely:

There are no essential carbohydrates, even for athletes.

Despite current nutritional dogma dating from the 1970’s, carbohydrate consumption is completely unnecessary for your energy (or any other) needs. Fat is the primary way we store energy in our bodies, and eating fat is the evolutionarily preferred food source in a food-abundant environment. During aerobic exercise, the predominant fuel source is fatty acids, supplemented by glycogen stores.It is possible to eat no carbohydrates at all and still do plenty of physical work. Any carbohydrates needed not provided from glycogen or food can be produced in abundance via gluconeogenesis. Glucose provided this way makes you literally burn fat, and keeps your insulin levels low.You have about about an hour or more of exercise in your liver and muscle glycogen.If you are a lean runner, you have enough energy in your body fat to walk about 800 miles.

You simply don’t need to eat carbohydrates to exercise.

Of course, low- or no-carb diets necessitate eating more protein and fat. But again, contrary to conventional wisdom, that’s not a bad thing. In fact, low-carb/high-fat diets — even the much-maligned Atkins Diet — have been shown to reduce saturated fat in your blood and markers of inflammation. Plus, they reduce “heart disease risk factors, including lower triglycerides and lower LDL, or ‘bad’ cholesterol.” Plus, compared with low-fat dieters, “[l]ow-carb dieters had greater increases in HDL, the good cholesterol.”
There are many more myths and facts in the Fitbomb entry, but I just pulled these few as they are the questions I am most frequently faced with. Sorry, I know this is a really long post but it’s all really informative and helpful and sometimes, just sometimes, I just have to throw a little substance on here instead of countless spaghetti squash recipes and awesome rollerblading stock photos…Knowwhaddamsayin’?
-ES
PS- More cheesy stock photography and spaghetti squash to come, don’t you worry.
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