I am fascinated by the idea of living like a caveman. I mean look at me. I have a beard and long hair. I look like a caveman. But I like milk. I like my daal (Indian lentil soup), especially with some white rice, the traditional way it’s consumed. I’m not a huge bean guy but I won’t avoid them, especially with a high-carb enchilada. When I realized this, I started to question whether or not the paleo diet was really able to meet my needs.
Milk, grains, beans, and legumes are not paleo according to the paleo diet. People didn’t eat them in the paleolithic era (ehh, debatable). Therefore, we shouldn’t eat them. We didn’t evolve eating them. Wait…we? WE? As if you and me have the same epigenetic alterations based on the diets of our ancestors?
Yes, you guessed what I was going to say next: the paleo diet is a one-size-fits-all dietary ideology that has no basis in reality, which essentially is the summation of all the 10 problems with the paleo diet I will list below. Without conducting the appropriate genetic tests or food sensitivity and allergen testing, to suggest that all grains or dairy should be avoided is not practical dietary advice.
In the video below I discuss 10 problems with the Paleo diet. It’s an attempt at bad humor too in a way but I’m being serious about these myths. They are causing people harm and massively confusing people out there. Let’s end the confusion! Below the video I summarize what those 10 problems are so feel free to read along.
The first problem with the Paleo diet is the carbophobia. If you truly feel better limiting your carb intake, and it lasts forever, good for you. I don’t. When I eat brown rice, I don’t feel as good as when I eat white rice. I can work out harder and therefore make more of those gains.
I’m speaking from experience here that I know is shared by many other people who have restricted carbs for a long period of time. Restricting carbohydrates affects my mood negatively. I’m not as jovial or energized. I have less charisma. I’m just not operating at peak performance, or anywhere close when I decide to skip carbs.
Another problem with prolonged carbohydrate restriction is hypothyroidism. I experienced this in 2013 when I noticed that the outer third of my eyebrows disappeared. This was after a period of three years where I restricted salt, sugar, and processed foods from my diet while exercising passionately. I deadlifted 425lbs at 160lbs bodyweight, and squatted over twice my body weight. But I was depriving myself and suffered. Without matching your carbohydrate intake to your body’s needs, you will fail to perform optimally. This will affect the quality of your life.
Next, the fear of carbohydrates came largely from theories that carbohydrates were inherently fattening in the late 2000s. The Paleo community rolled with this belief and promoted “fat burning” to become leaner while restricting carbohydrate intake. On some levels, I agree with the idea of eating more fat instead of carbohydrates. Certainly, the U.S. dietary guidelines have been influenced by big agriculture, and I do not support the corporate influence on food and nutrition science (as well as medical research).
But I have to follow my body and eat carbs for breakfast, otherwise my energy simply isn’t the same. I’m sure my mitochondria are really happy too, despite the latest fad of mitochondrial health making waves in the ancestral health community. I highly recommend reading “The Low Carb Myth” by Ari Whitten if you’re research minded and want to examine the science behind the low-carb fallacy.
Here’s a video (I don’t recommend watching it) of Rich Froning, a crossfitter, eating sausage wrapped in bacon as “dessert.” Crossfitters love the Paleo diet, but their adrenals most likely do not. Bacon isn’t inherently unhealthy, but it is high in omega-6 fatty acids, and thus it’s something to eat in moderation and balance with appropriate omega-3 intake.
Bacon is also a processed meat, and it isn’t likely that people ate it in the Paleolithic era. Does that matter? No not really, but eating tons of bacon and pretending to be Paleo shows me that people are really confused. And trust me, I’ll eat bacon here and there.
Many crossfitters love the Paleo diet, and the two cultures are intertwined, which is why it’s listed as a problem with the diet. What I mean more literally is that the dietary approach Crossfitters choose highlights a problem with the whole paleo community. As far as health is concerned, pairing high intensity anaerobic exercising training with carbophobia is a recipe for disaster in my opinion, especially for the thyroid. Mitochondrial health is a growing trend right now in that community, but it’s obvious to me that if the thyroid isn’t working well from carbohydrate restriction with Crossfit, the mitochondria aren’t performing optimally either.
What’s interesting about the marriage between Crossfit and paleo is the desire to be ‘functional;’ it gave birth to the whole Crossfit thing. I admire that. It’s wonderful that people want to emphasize ancestral health. It’s just not achieved however in a gym, climbing ropes, and doing olympic weight lifting. None of that is functional. It’s fucking 2017 that’s what it is and it’s a fad. Yes, it gets you fit and strengthens the heart, but it’s not functional, and it’s not paleo.
4. Vegetables ≠ carbs
The fear of dietary carbohydrate has led to its replacement with fibrous vegetables. But alas, we are not gorillas, equipped to handle massive amounts of plants as food. Cooked vegetables may taste great. So great in fact that you could trick yourself into thinking you’re becoming healthier by eating zucchini bread instead of evil wheat bread.
But in the long run, you are going to deprive yourself. You may crave more junk food, and this is simply because you are not meeting your body’s needs for carbohydrates. Just think about the premise of eating more vegetables as carbohydrates. The reasoning goes like this:
- Carbs cause insulin resistance (wrong).
- Carbs cause obesity (wrong)
- Avoid carbs (stupid)
- But I still need some (correct)
- So get them from vegetables to minimize how many I eat (bad idea)
That’s flawed. Sorry. It was painful writing that out even but that’s essentially the viewpoint. If you need carbohydrates, maybe there it means there was an evolutionary advantage to having them. Hmm, I wonder. Maybe it was to provide short term bursts of energy to hunt a large animal, you know, the main food group in the Paleo diet.
Eating starchy carbohydrates may not make you leaner (depends on the rest of the lifestyle and many other dietary factors actually), but it may make you healthier, more productive, and feeling better overall. I love my white rice.
5. Being a “fat burner”
There’s an idea in the Paleo community that we evolved burning fat. It’s true. We evolved to burn fat. But we also evolved to burn glucose. We also have a pathway to convert protein into glucose as fuel. Ridiculous ideas like this propagate the ideology within Paleo. They are half-truths (a third of a truth here or less actually) and aren’t accurate. All I have to say here is look at this beautiful picture of the glycolytic cycle in our bodies. We ALL have this, save for the few with extremely rare genetic mutations.
Our brains love glucose. So does our heart, our muscles, and every cell in our body. There are precise homeostatic controls set to maintain glucose at a certain level in the blood so that you don’t die. THAT’s evolution. Not being a fat burner.
As you can see, when one is infected by a dietary ideology, they only see that which confirms their own beliefs. It’s a dangerous thing.
6. Strict food rules
Having too many food rules creates a control-based strategy for eating food. Avoid this. Avoid that. If it’s based on good reasoning, I think having some food rules is great. Why ingest something that’s going to harm you, like lead? The difficulty lies in discerning what rules actually have merit and which are complete bogus.
The rules in Paleo are for the most part half-truths. Avoiding grains isn’t going to make most people healthier. Avoiding highly processed junk food however will. The latter rule has much more merit than the first one.
The first rule is is like a commandment. And that’s where it becomes dangerous to follow; being strict is the opposite of listening to what your body needs. If you decide to avoid grains for example completely because the Paleo community said so, you may miss out on its potential benefits. Maybe it’s good for you specifically which brings me to my next point.
7. Separation of good vs. bad foods
This problem builds off the previous one, but it deserves it’s own category. A food isn’t inherently bad for EVERYONE. You can eat junk food, loaded with toxins, chemicals, artificial flavorings, MSG, and glyphosate, and still become healthier. You don’t believe me? That’s because you are rigid.
Plenty of people have lost weight eating junk food to attempt proving that weight loss is simply about a negative caloric balance. It’s pretty much true, but not all calories are created equal. Although I do not recommend eating those foods to lose weight, in the big picture, losing 100 lbs eating McDonalds does confer health advantages to the guy who accomplished that. Less inflammation and better insulin signaling are two possible benefits he was likely to experience from reducing the size of his fat cells.
Now, those foods are best avoided in my opinion. But to understand what foods your body can handle, you cannot go off of a rule that isn’t meant to apply to everyone. Personalize your diet as best you can. Follow your body. Eat intuitively. And add to this some kind of food testing if desired. You’re shooting in the dark if you’re assuming that grains, dairy, legumes, and beans are bad for you if you just rely solely on the myth that these foods weren’t consumed in the Paleolithic era.
8. Grains aren’t all bad
Another problem with the paleo diet is the universal exclusion of grains from the diet. Grains contain lectins and inflammatory compounds which aren’t good for us. Ok, great. So don’t eat grains raw. This is common sense. You don’t see grains and immediately want chomp into them.
What has been done successfully to reduce the digestive problems associated with grains is fermenting and soaking. Across every continent, traditional cultures prepare grains and legumes this way because they used common sense, unlike paleo dieters.
When I cook daal, I soak the lentils for at least an hour. This fluffs them up a bit, and reduces the lectins. Avoiding all grains because some cavemen did doesn’t mean that those caveman wouldn’t have if they prepared it right and benefited from it.
The benefits of a food weren’t just for the individual back then. The benefit was for everyone, as the better the health of the tribe, the better it can defend itself, and the better its longevity. These days, we think about how food benefits us, which is great, but that’s not actually paleo is it. Just an aside there.
9. MCT oil is useless
MCT oil is a dangerous product that can cause you to literally shit your pants while having heart palpitations. Dave Asprey, an expert on promoting various fads, is a huge proponent of MCT oil. I do not recommend it, based on my intuition, telling me that it won’t provide any benefits. This is the same intuition I used as a child to avoid taking Claritin for my allergies. Something just told me that I didn’t want to take that white pill.
I’m highlighting MCT oil as a problem with the paleo diet because its use is supported by paleo ideology. Burn more fat. Ketones. Lose weight. Avoid carbs. MCT oil fits that bill perfectly. Since it’s metabolized faster than long-chain triglycerides, it’s a quicker fuel source than most fat. It’s basically trying to be like glucose except it isn’t. So that begs the question, if you want quicker burning energy why not just consume some glucose?
MCT oil does seem to increase metabolism, but perhaps not in a good way for a lot of people. In this sense, reducing a food to its parts and selling it is no different from recommending a drug. MCT oil isn’t paleo and it’s not food. It may have some benefits when used in small doses, but the side effects of MCT oil have clearly demonstrated once again that reductionist thinking leads to imbalance, every time. Fuck MCT oil.
10. The paleo diet ain’t even paleo
I think you saw this one coming. The biggest problem with the 2017 version of the Paleo diet is that it isn’t even what we ate in the paleolithic era. Bacon, zucchini noodles, collagen supplements, crossfitting, right… As an example, the Hadza tribe eat like vegetarians much of the time and they live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. They don’t CARE about being paleo, and their microbiome is diverse and they are healthier than Westerners on many fronts (but I’m not suggesting their health is perfect). They’re not obsessing over carbohydrates, grains, or how they’re going to force feed themselves MCT oil later to mimic the blurry evolutionary past. In this blurry past, during the Paleolithic era, we actually ate grains too. Busted.
11. Bonus problem: fat loss
The paleo diet is attractive to people who want to lose weight. But I just want to emphasize briefly here that weight loss can be taken too far. It can result in a low-functioning thyroid, as well as impairing the hypothalamic-gonadal axis, which just means reproduction is put on hold. It’s a problem of excessive weight loss achieved through any means, but many paleo dieters may not be aware of it until it happens to them…until they start to see a dip in their metabolism and general sense of well being as a result of excessive deprivation.
Focusing on fat loss is why I’m writing all this today. I was obsessed with it and was attracted to the paleo diet myself for that reason. I lost fat and at my leanest was between 10-11% bodyfat measured via hydrostatic weighing (the most accurate method; the omron BIA method told me I was at 7%). Then, I gained 20lbs when I realized I needed to restore my metabolism to health. I feel much better now and that’s what I currently value the most. I achieve this by eating breakfast, eating regularly, eating intuitively, not avoiding carbohydrates, and certainly, by emphasizing nutrient dense foods, one indisputable benefit of emphasizing nutrition no matter which dietary ideology you come from.
Alright, those are the 10–wait–11 problems with the paleo diet. I think that’s enough. I’m sick of this topic for now but much more discussion is needed. Let’s end the confusion, and stuff ourselves with bread now (as long as you’re not intolerant to gluten of course!). If this post resonates with you, and you don’t want to diet anymore, I have a free guide on intuitive eating which you can obtain by subscribing to my newsletter. Check the box below this post and I’ll send it over.