Rebutting the Inclusion of Paleo on a List of "4 Celeb Diets to Avoid"

Look at this terribly unbalanced Paleo meal.  Why would you ever want to eat something that lacks refined grains, dairy products,  artificial colors/flavors,  preservatives, etc. etc. etc. (Get the recipe here!)
In a Yahoo.com "Healthy Living" piece, Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D., and Nutrition Editor of Eating Well Magazine gave her opinion on four celebrity diets to avoid. As you can probably guess, she wasn't a fan of the "Paleo Diet" as she names it number one on her list of "celeb" diets to steer clear of.

This article was brought to my attention by a friend and fellow Paleo diet adherent who has, in the year that he has been following an ancestral eating plan, lost weight, increased athletic performance, improved mental clarity, and experienced freedom from the constant yo-yo of conventional diets.

In an email to me he said, "Part of me relishes the criticism of paleo because that keeps it a 'secret' for all of us that have seen the light. At the same time, to see Paleo under a headline of 'diets' (which paleo isn’t) to avoid, bothers me and make me want to defend it."

I agree that if people want to continue to struggle with the conventional dietary wisdom, it is their prerogative, and I also believe that uninformed critiques of the "Paleo Diet" (as my friend stated, it is much more than that) should not be taken lying down.

So, without further ado, let the rebutting commence!

1. Megan Fox is rumored to have followed this diet, also called the Caveman Diet. On the Paleo Diet, you're supposed to eat like your ancestors, which means eating a lot of animal protein, "natural" carbohydrates (essentially fruits and vegetables) and some nuts.

While I can neither confirm nor deny whether or not Megan Fox tried going Paleo, at least Wright got it right with the "eat like your ancestors" part. After that, however, it's all downhill as she falls right into the reductionist reasoning that defines mainstream nutritional wisdom.

Rather than discussing how Paleo urges practitioners to eat real, unrefined, and unprocessed foods (of both the animal and plant variety) she talks about animal "protein" and "'natural' carbohydrates".  Reductionist thinking like this fails to see that the whole is often greater than the sum of the parts.  She also seems to think that fat isn't a macronutrient worth mentioning in the same sentence as protein and carbs.

The biggest problem is that she has no appreciation for the nuance or subtlety of Paleo.  It is a word that means many things to many people, and there is no central dogma or guru dictating the terms of "The" Paleo diet.  Many Paleo adherents agree with Chris Kresser in that the most important thing is to "think, experiment (and) consider...specific circumstances" before making decisions about our diet and lifestyle choices.

2. The Paleo Diet is high in protein and fat-and there's an emphasis on getting health-sustaining omega-3s into your diet from oily fish like wild salmon, game meats, free-range chicken and grass-fed beef, all of which can be pricier than their farmed or conventionally raised counterparts.

Thankfully she doesn't try to demonize fat and protein as either "bad for the heart" or "bad for the kidneys" respectively. She does mention that there is an emphasis in Paleo on eating wild fish, game, and pastured beef and poultry, but she mistakenly thinks it is all about the omega-3's.

In Paleo, the inclusion of pastured meats is just as much about reducing omega 6 consumption as it is about getting sufficient omega 3. Pastured meats and wild fish are also rich in fat soluble vitamins that are lacking in factory foods. However, she seemingly supports the conventional system in spite of its nutritional failings and numerous other issues because responsibly produced food "can be pricier".

This price argument is spurious as the "conventionally raised counterparts" are subsidized by tax dollars, depend on what is essentially slave labor, and are products of a system that externalizes untold costs related to healthcare, environmental degradation, an food security.

3. What's interesting about this diet is that its phases are the opposite of most other diets in that they get more restrictive as you progress. For example, at the first level, you get 3 "open" or cheat meals a week, plus what they call "transitional items," such as condiments to flavor food. But when you move to level 2, you only get 2 "open" meals a week and you phase out the transitional items. This type of transition might make it easier to stick to.

What Paleo diet is she looking at? Mark Sisson recommends following the 80-20 principle, Rob Wolf suggests a 30 Day challenge followed by the gradual reintroduction of foods to assess individual tolerances, and Loren Cordain, arguably the strictest of the Paleo promoters, doesn't recommend that you "get more restrictive as you progress."

4. What's missing? Dairy, which is how most of us get our calcium and vitamin D. The Paleo Diet is also low in carbohydrates-and there's research that shows limiting or eliminating carbs impacts your memory and your mood.

Seeing how she previously dismissed grass-fed products as being "pricier", I can only assume that she talking about conventionally produced dairy products, where the fat soluble vitamins have to be added in after the fact.  If that is the case, why not simply take dietary supplements?

Even without supplementation, vitamin D can be had through regular sun exposure as well as many "Paleo" foods such as liver and eggs.  Calcium too can be found in foods such as green leafy vegetables, fish, and nuts like almonds.  Although based on the unproven "acid/alkaline" food hypothesis, Dr. Loren Cordain suggests that on a "Paleo" diet, the body excretes less calcium, reducing the need for a high dietary intake. From this perspective, dairy itself could ironically exacerbate calcium loss.  Whether this is actually the case or not, regular dairy consumption did not emerge until very recently (from an evolutionary perspective), making it unlikely that there is any real "need" for dairy in our diets.

Eating a Paleo diet also does not imply that you are "limiting or eliminating carbs".  Mark Sisson recommends following the "carbohydrate curve" depending on your personal activity levels and goals (note: The "maintenance" level of 100-150gms of carbs equals 400-600 calories per day from dietary carbohydrates) and "Perfect Health Diet" author, Dr. Paul Jaminet, recommends roughly 1lb a day of "safe starch" like plantains, taro, and sweet potatoes.  While there are surely low-carb advocates such as Nora Gedgaudas, author of "Primal Body Primal Mind", their recommendations are by no means the rule.

Even if Paleo were "low/no carb" the argument that low carb diets impact memory and mood is misleading.  As Wright did not cite her source for this claim, I can only imagine that she is basing her statement on studies such as "Low-carbohydrate weight-loss diets. Effects on cognition and mood".

In this study, which only tested participants over a three week period, investigators did find that "during complete withdrawal of dietary carbohydrate, low-carbohydrate dieters performed worse on memory-based tasks than ADA (low calorie) dieters."  However, they also found that "Low-carbohydrate dieters reported less confusion (POMS) and responded faster during an attention vigilance task (CPT) than ADA dieters."  Long-term studies would be needed to show whether or not these effects are permanent.

Conclusion

Wright is clearly committed to the low fat, low calorie, low sodium paradigm that has held court in the halls of medicine and legislature since the 1970's.  While they are surely well intentioned, such individuals, especially those with the revered letters "R.D." following their name, tend to miss the big picture.

The nutrition problem in America is not due to "celeb diets" and the cure isn't to be found in more information.  Paleo is a call to our lost relationships with not just food, but to ourselves, our "tribe", and our planet.  It is a lifestyle in the truest sense, and it is one that is principled rather than prescriptive.  In the simple thought "eat like our ancestors" you will find complex solutions to complex problems.

So, enjoy the feeling of the sun on your face, run barefoot, and allow yourself time with your family and friends away from the insidious tentacles of technology.  Think about how your grandparents lived, think about how ancient peoples lived, and allow your mind to travel to a time before we "knew" what we "know".  Most of all, don't worry if people think you are crazy for living this way.

As the artist Jean Dubuffet said,

“For me, insanity is super sanity. The normal is psychotic. Normal means lack of imagination, lack of creativity.”
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About Tony Fed

Tony is the host of the Paleo Magazine Radio podcast, author of "Paleo Grilling: A Modern Caveman's Guide to Cooking with Fire", and Cofounder of Powerful PT, an innovative information resource for Fitness Professionals. He has appeared on numerous local and national television and radio broadcasts and regularly hosts healthy cooking workshops and informational lectures. He is also a full-time Personal Trainer and Wellness Consultant who lives in Jacksonville Florida with his wife Jamie.
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4 comments:

  1. I could see a reasonable person looking at Paleo and deciding its not for them, but an "expert" telling a large audience to avoid it is particularly inflammatory. It speaks to her unfortunate indoctrination into the conventional wisdom that the govt and others push on everyone. I wish she'd open her mind, read, research, and try Paleo. I'm sure it would open up new worlds for her. Awesome rebuttal Tony! - Doug

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  2. I appreciate your well-written, well thought out blog!! Keep up the great work!!

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  3. So far any summary/criticism of paleo from an "outsider" that I've read has been unabashedly uninformed. From the vegan staple of, "Paleo dieters haven't done their research because they support factory farming and they all have heart disease," to several claims I've seen that we eat low fat, low carb and high protein diets (low carb I understand the confusion about, but low fat?!). It's shocking how confidently people can blast things that they are clearly ignorant of. "Don't criticize what you can't understand," as the poet Dylan once said. ;)

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  4. The only time my memory felt screwed up was when I was transitioning from brain fuel of glucose to ketone. After that, I was clear as a bell most of the time. This woman needs to continue her research.

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