THE paleo diet invites us to imitate the food choices of our prehistoric ancestors. In practice, this means avoiding dairy, grains, legumes, and processed sugar, and consuming vegetables, fruits, nuts, pastured meats, and wild-caught seafood instead.
Proponents of the paleo diet argue that by eating this way we will lose weight and reduce our risk of chronic disease.
The roots of the paleo diet can be dates back to the 1950sbut it owes its current popularity to a book by Loren Cordain entitled The Paleo Diet: Lose Weight and Get Healthy by Eating the Foods You Were Made To Eatthe first edition of which came out in 2001.
In the 22 years since the publication of Cordain’s book, the paleo diet has been embraced by several million people and a multi-billion dollar industry developed in connection with him, including premium foods and a certification system.
The Health Claims of the Paleo Diet
Although the paleo diet has many adherents, clinical research has yet to prove its purported health benefits.
For starters, it doesn’t seem to outperform conventional diets recommended as a means of medium to long term weight loss. The only multi-year study published to assess impact of paleo diet on weight loss found that following the paleo diet was no more effective than following the diet Official nutritional recommendations from the Nordic countries After two years.
It’s a similar story with the claims that have been made about the impact of the paleo diet on chronic disease. For example, a recent review found that studies examining the impact of the paleo diet on type 2 diabetes were inconclusive.
Likewise, the authors of a study 2020 reported that following the paleo diet resulted in a higher relative abundance of gut bacteria that produce a chemical associated with cardiovascular disease, which contradicts the claim that the paleo diet will reduce the likelihood of chronic disease.
Why have the health benefits claimed for the paleo diet not been supported by clinical research? As evolutionary anthropologists, we believe the problem is that the paleo diet is based on a faulty premise and faulty data, and in what follows we will try to show why our research has led us to this conclusion.
A flawed premise
The idea behind the paleo diet is that the the continued rise in obesity and related diseases in many countries is the result of a mismatch between the foods we eat and the foods our species has evolved to consume.
This lag, it is argued, is a consequence of the fact that it has been too short a time since the appearance of agriculture 12,000 years ago for evolution to have adapted our species to coping with a high-carb, low-protein diet or processing domesticated foods. .
This argument seems reasonable because there is a perception that evolution is a very slow process. However, it is actually not supported by research on diet-related genes.
Work on lactase persistence – the continued ability to produce the enzyme lactase into adulthood – illustrates this. Lactase allows us to digest lactose from milk sugar, so the persistence of lactase is useful for a dairy-based diet. Lactase persistence is only found in a few regions, including Europe. Ancient DNA Research indicates that the persistence of lactase is less than 5,000 years in Europe.
Likewise, a analysis of genetic data from African populations published last year found evidence of a recent adaptation in a family of genes linked to alcohol metabolism. In this case, natural selection has operated over the past 2,000 years.
This evidence shows that the rationale for the inadequacy of adopting the paleo diet is not supported by genetic studies. Such studies demonstrate that evolution can produce food-related adaptations in much less time than has elapsed since the appearance of agriculture.
There’s also a problem with the paleo diet’s recommendations for the contributions of the three macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and fat — to a person’s diet.
According to the current version of the paleo diet, we should aim for a diet of 19-35% protein, 22-40% carbs, and 28-58% fat, by energy. This makes the paleo diet lower in carbohydrates and higher in protein than recommended conventional diets, such as those promoted by Health Canada and the united states department of agriculture.
The macronutrient ranges recommended by the Paleo Diet are based on a 2000 study who estimated macronutrient percentages for over 200 hunter-gatherer groups. However, recently we found there is a problem with this study.
The problem lies in the macronutrient values that the researchers used for plant foods. While they used multiple sets of macronutrient values for animal foods, they only used one set of macronutrient values for plant foods. They obtained the plant data from an analysis of foods traditionally eaten by Indigenous Australians.
In our study, we assessed the effects of this decision with two plant macronutrient datasets, both of which consisted of values from plants consumed by hunter-gatherers from multiple continents.
Using multicontinental plant data produced significantly different macronutrient estimates. These in turn produced wider ranges of macronutrients than those recommended by the paleo diet. The ranges we calculated are 14-35% protein, 21-55% carbs, and 12-58% fat, by energy.
These ranges overlap those recommended by Health Canada (10-35% protein, 45-65% carbohydrates and 20-35% fat) and the united states department of agriculture (10-30% protein, 45-65% carbs, and 25-35% fat).
The fact that the macronutrient ranges of hunter-gatherer diets overlap with government-approved macronutrient ranges casts doubt on the idea that the paleo diet is healthier than conventional recommended diets.
It’s time to leave the paleo diet in the past
Given that the rationale for adopting the paleo diet is not supported by the available scientific research, and its macronutrient recommendations are not scientifically sound, it is, in our view, not surprising that the purported benefits for the health of the diet have not been supported by clinical studies. studies.
The paleo diet has been an interesting experiment, but at this point it seems likely that people following it might just be wasting money. Government-recommended conventional diets offer comparable results cheaper. In our opinion, it’s time to leave the paleo diet in the past.