I guess I should first define what I consider a strict Paleo diet. It would not include things like dairy, grains, legumes, lentils, potatoes, and of course all the processed foods and sugar. It would also be reasonably low-carb, somewhere around 50-100g of carbohydrates a day. I guess most traditional Paleo followers would fall within this category, and I used to as well apart from the fact that I consumed some full-fat dairy.
This is Part 4 of the Primally Simple Diet series, where I explore everything I have learned in the last 5 months since ditching and coming back to the Paleo diet twice. I will explain why I think the strict Paleo diet is flawed. We will also talk about the Wheat Belly, all the reasons why I failed on the Paleo diet twice, and what my diet is going to be like from now on. I hate labels, so there will be no more Paleo. Nobody really knows what Paleolithic people ate anyway, and there were so many diverse diets all over the world. The world isn’t the same anymore. I have no wish to be a fanatic. So I have created my own version of primal: The Primally Simple Diet.
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When I followed the conventional strict Paleo diet (or rather the Primal variation that allows raw full-fat dairy), I felt great for the first few months, but I quickly reached a plateau. It seemed like I repeatedly hit a wall and I was slowly starting to feel worse. I felt so disappointed that the diet I believed in with all my heart turned its back on me.
My research took me months, but I finally realized what I was doing wrong. I also realized how mistaken I was about many aspects of the Paleo diet. This blog post is the culmination of everything I’ve learned since the first surfacing of my doubts about the strict Paleo diet.
Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not totally against the Paleo diet. I just think it can be unnecessarily strict and I see lots of room for improvement.
So let’s talk about the 10 things that I think are wrong with the conventional strict Paleo diet:
1. Science doesn’t really support the strict Paleo diet.
The theory behind the ancestral diet sounds impressive and very, very convincing if you read “The Primal Blueprint” or “The Paleo Solution”, but so did the science behind “The 80/10/10 Diet” when I read it. Authors know how to manipulate facts, and there is no need to lie – all you need is just to cherry-pick the facts that suit you.
The Paleo diet is far away from the real ancestral diet because all of the species today – including animals, fruits, and vegetables – are totally different from the ones our predecessors ate. They hunted wild animals, while we domesticated them and cross-bred them to get as much milk or as many eggs out of them as possible. The modern fruits are much sweeter and give much more yield than the fruits from the Paleolithic times.
How can we try to recreate the diet that simply doesn’t exist anymore?
Scientific American published a long article about the Paleo diet, where they called the Paleo diet “half-baked”:
“We are not biologically identical to our Paleolithic predecessors, nor do we have access to the foods they ate. And deducing dietary guidelines from modern foraging societies is difficult because they vary so much by geography, season, and opportunity. “
Watch this amazing TED talk by Christina Warinner of the University of Zurich where she debunks a lot of the Paleo myths:
And isn’t it hypocritical to shun legumes, dairy or grains just because they weren’t consumed before agriculture (they actually were, but we’ll talk about it a bit further down), but then go and make a cake with almond flour or gorge on nut butter by the jar? Did they exist in the Paleolithic times? Absolutely not. I guess my main problem with the strict Paleo diet is that there are contradictions like this everywhere.
A lot of the Paleo diet theory is based on the argument that Paleolithic humans didn’t suffer from any of the illnesses that we suffer from today. As if they were perfectly adapted to their diet and the environment. However, scientists found atherosclerosis in 47 of 137 mummies from different hunter-gatherer mummies. Another misguided argument it seems!
2. I don’t agree with all the processed Paleo products, which seem just like a money-making machine for some.
Just look at all those nut flours, nut butters, Paleo bakeries, and, even worse, protein powders. If one of the main principles in the Paleo diet is that you shouldn’t eat anything that our ancestors wouldn’t have eaten, why the hell would you spend money on the protein powder? Shouldn’t you get protein from the meat, fish and seeds like your ancestors would have done?
I’m sorry, it’s turning into a bit of a rant, but it blows my mind seeing what kind of empires have been built selling “Paleo” products, which shouldn’t really even have a place in the real ancestral diet.
3. Paleolithic hunter-gatherers didn’t really eat low-carb (apart from Inuits).
William Leonard, an anthropologist from the Northwestern University, wrote this in Scientific American in 2002:
“We now know that humans have evolved not to subsist on a single Paleolithic diet, but to be flexible eaters, an insight that has important implications for the current debate over what people today should eat in order to be healthy.”
Then, he also adds:
“Our species was not designed to subsist on a single, optimal diet What is remarkable about human beings is the extraordinary variety of what we eat. We have been able to thrive in almost every ecosystem on the Earth, consuming diets ranging from all animal foods among populations of the Arctic to primarily tubers and cereal grains among populations in the high Andes.”
Marlene Zuk, an evolutionary biologist from the University of California wrote a book that really shook the Paleo world: “Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us About Sex, Diet, and How We Live”. In an interview with Washington Post, she said, “We don’t really know what they were eating. It’s turning out that they may have eaten more starch and more carbs than we had realized”.
4. Our ancestors burned much more fuel moving and keeping warm.
They spent a considerable amount of time running and chasing prey until exhaustion. They also had to rummage around looking for edible seeds, herbs, fruit or tubers. Finally, they didn’t have central heating or super insulating clothes, so they needed much more fuel to keep themselves warm.
Nowadays, most of us spend most of the day sitting. Our brains work much more than the rest of the body (in most cases). Can we still say that the kind of nutrition that worked for the highly active Paleolithic humans would still work for the sedentary modern humans? That’s a bit naive, if you ask me.
5. I don’t agree with the strict Paleo diet because it writes off entire food groups without any real reasons.
The strict Paleo writes off complete food categories, such as dairy, legumes, lentils or whole grains as unhealthy, but what reason do they give? The phytic acid and other anti-nutrients. Hmmmm, but isn’t it the same thing that both nuts and seeds have, too? That’s exactly what has been my biggest gripe with the Paleo diet right from the start. If nuts are allowed, why aren’t beans allowed? The Paleo leaders say it’s because nuts are only consumed in small quantities, but what if you consume beans in the same quantities? Would that be safe? It just doesn’t make sense.
Proper preparation of grains, beans, and lentils (soaking, sprouting, or fermenting) gets rid of most of the anti-nutrients. They are incredibly nutritious, and eliminating them totally doesn’t make sense.
6. Being super strict naturally leads to being fanatical and narrow-minded.
This one is from my own experience. I am guilty of feeling self-righteous because I eat so healthy and of trying to convert everyone around me in quite a pushy manner. Oh, how I cringe today! Thank god my family and friends had more common sense than me and none of them went strictly Paleo.
Being fanatical leads to judging people for their choices of food. Attacking them because they eat dairy or beans. Or even worse, if they allow themselves to indulge in a sugary dessert very occasionally. What’s wrong with that anyway? We all need to relax and stop taking ourselves so seriously. Stress is even more dangerous than unhealthy foo, after all.
Another common thing that I see on blogs is all the hate bloggers get if they broaden what the term ancestral or primal means to them. Every diet can be like that: vegans, vegetarians, raw foodists, Paleo. Everyone seems to think that they’re right and bicker endlessly, but who cares? We’re all different, and there are so many different ways to eat to be healthy. The way I eat is no better than how you eat (unless you dine at McDonald’s each day).
7. Converting fat to glucose requires a lot of energy.
The strict Paleo diet is all about converting yourself from the sugar-burning beast to the fat-burning beast. Sure, people succeed. The body is pretty flexible and will survive many things. But is it really worth it when converting fat to sugar is a much more laborious and tiring task for our bodies? If you’re struggling with energy levels, low-carb Paleo diet will just makes things worse. Or if you exercise a lot and need a lot of energy.
That certainly happened to me no matter how hard I tried to feast on fat. I just felt worse and worse each day, as my skin and eyes dried up, and my last drops of energy were drained from my body to process all that fat.
8. A strict Paleo diet is dangerous for women.
Going low-carb might work very well for men (at least for some therapeutic period), but it’s dangerous for women. Be really, really careful if you’re low-carbing yourself. I experienced a lot of issues, but I didn’t understand them until I discovered this article from Paleo For Women. Not getting enough carbs can cause hormonal imbalances, adrenal fatigue, thyroid issues, it can also disrupt your sleep, and cause so many other issues. Women are so much sensitive than men, and it’s important to respect it.
When I was on the strict Paleo diet, I probably ate around 50-100g of carbohydrates per day. When I increased the amount of carbs to about 150-200g, I saw almost instant improvement in my moods, energy levels, and hormonal balance. I was amazed.
When I was low-carb, I started experiencing really weird things, where my period would stop and then would restart again for a couple of days just 2 days later. I’d never experienced anything similar, so I knew something wasn’t right with my hormones. As soon as I increased the carbs, the next period was totally normal. I repeated the experiment twice and both times the double period came back and then disappeared again when I increased the carbs.
Another thing I noticed was that any breast tenderness during the cycle totally disappeared.
My energy levels are much more stable when I eat more carbs, and, interestingly, I don’t suffer from any allergy symptoms. If I fail to eat any major carbohydrate sources for a few days, my sneezing and runny nose return. Even to this day. But if I remember to eat some potatoes, beans or lentils, my nose is perfectly clear.
My skin also gets really dry and scaly when I eat low amounts of carbohydrates. Apparently, that’s normal because low-carb eating reduces the production of mucus in the body, which also includes sebum. Dry eyes and skin isn’t my idea of health, so I’m much happier eating moderate carbs.
My weight also started creeping up, no matter how low-carb I went. I couldn’t understand why. When I reintroduced sourdough bread, potatoes, and other healthy carb sources (up to around 150-200g per day), my weight started dropping again and dropped lower than at the lowest point during the strict Paleo diet. I also felt fuller and more satisfied than ever.
Where I come from, potatoes are a real staple. I think we eat more potatoes than any other food. Being on the Paleo diet, I eliminated them completely, but going back to them was one of the best feeling in the world. Potatoes give me an incredible feeling of well-being. Just pure bliss. Maybe it’s in my genes, I don’t know. But they certainly are a staple in our diet now, and I can’t believe I shunned them out for a whole year!
By the way, saying that potatoes aren’t Paleo is totally wrong because they have been consumed for 35,000 years! How is that not Paleo?
9. A strict Paleo diet seems to be low in magnesium.
Around 80% of the human population are deficient in magnesium, but the Paleo diet seems to be extremely low in this magnificent mineral. I spoke about it before, but one of the main reasons why I had to quit the strict Paleo diet was a bad magnesium deficiency. My muscles were twitching like crazy, and I had no more energy for anything, I was extremely irritable, which eventually pointed me to the direction of magnesium deficiency. Thankfully, I realized it and started taking supplements, which changed the way I felt in a couple of weeks.
The problem is that the Paleo diet excludes foods that are very high in magnesium, such as grains, beans, and lentils. Being on the Paleo diet, the only sources of magnesium are pretty much nuts, seeds, and bananas. But it’s difficult to eat enough of them. Quite impossible, in fact! No wonder why I became so deficient.
When I googled the connection of the Paleo diet and magnesium deficiency, I found quite a few people who complained of magnesium deficiency on the Paleo diet. Looking at the list of foods highest in magnesium, it’s not surprising.
10. A strict Paleo diet doesn’t allow dairy.
Dairy is one of the main sources of Vitamin D, calcium, and vitamin K2. Again, the argument is that the human genes haven’t evolved to process dairy. However, that’s another lie because a lot of humans (especially those of European origin) have evolved to be able to process lactose beyond childhood. There is also proof that cheese was made up to 7,500 years ago. That’s long enough for our bodies to adapt.
Each of us is a dynamic assemblage of inherited traits that have been tweaked, transformed, lost and regained since the beginning of life itself. Such changes have not ceased in the past 10,000 years. (Scientific American)
According to Marlene Zuik, “in populations that consume a lot of starches, there are more copies of genes that allow starch breakdown. All of this suggests that evolution is happening all the time and much more quickly than people think”.
And if we’re really careful about eating anything quite recent, how about turkey? It was only introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Surely, it’s much less Paleo than dairy, but it’s perfectly fine for strict Paleo dieters.
And talking about grains being fairly recent, here’s another bomb from a publication in the Oxford University Press called “People, Plants, and Genes: The Story Of Crops and Humanity”: there is evidence that cereal grains have been processed and consumed by humans as early as 200,000 years ago, which would totally crash the Paleo diet theory which is based on the assumption that humans started consuming grains around 10,000 years ago. Cereal grains might turn out to be the most Paleo thing out of all!
Blaming so many health issues on dairy is simply wrong, when there are so many cultures that consume dairy, yet live very long and have amazing health. For example, the Georgians and other cultures in the Caucasian mountains consume a lot of fermented dairy, but have one of the highest concentrations of centenarians. They are obviously doing something right.
I recently made an experiment where I gave up all dairy for 30 days. I was expecting a lot, but I actually felt better when I reintroduced it. No bad symptoms at all. I come from the North of Europe and my ancestors have been consuming dairy for thousands of years. I don’t have to run away from my origins.
Please don’t think that I’m all against the Paleo diet. Not at all! I think it can be a great framework, but there’s a great danger of becoming too strict. There’s no doubt that one of the greatest strength of the Paleo diet is the elimination of all the processed foods. But why get rid of perfectly healthy food groups, such as dairy, beans, lentils or grains?
My solution is the 80/20 principle. If 80% of the foods I eat are Paleo (i.e. fresh unprocessed food), it’s fine if the other 20% are other healthy foods, such as beans or whole grains. That seems to be the winning combination for my body, and it certainly keeps my mind sane without all the crazy cravings or mood swings.
So many people go from the SAD diet (Standard American Diet) of McDonald’s and processed foods to the strict Paleo and feel great. Of course they do! I have no doubts about that. All I’m trying to say is that there is so much room between the SAD diet and the strict Paleo diet. A much healthier and happier place for me (and I believe for many people, too) would be somewhere in the middle.
Grok is an imaginary Paleolithic figure created by Mark Sisson from Mark’s Daily Apple. According to Scientific American, “Grok cannot teach us how to live or eat; he never existed. Living off the land or restricting oneself to foods available before agriculture and industry does not guarantee good health”. I couldn’t agree more.
Think with your own head, respect your origins, and listen to your body. That’s the best advice I can give. And of course enjoy your food!
What’s your opinion on the whole Paleo debate? Do you support being strict or are you more in favour of everything in moderation? Let’s discuss!
Lots of love,
Sources of information:
Other parts of the Primally Simple Diet series:
- Part 1: To Do Paleo Or Not To Do Paleo?
- Part 2: Is Gluten Really Evil – Or Is It Just Wheat?
- Part 3: 6 Convincing Reasons Why Wheat Is Unhealthy
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, dietician or nutritionist. This is what I have learned observing my own body and researching endlessly. So please take my words as ideas, but research, think carefully, and consult your physician before making any decisions for your own health. This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience. I only recommend things that I absolutely love myself, and they’ve all been bought with my hard-earned cash.