The Paleo Diet: Fact or Fad?

Corse_Annalies_aBy Annalies Corse

Medical Scientist/Naturopath

The Paleo Diet

Humans are social creatures, we love sharing our time, opinions and ideas with others. We enjoy looking to others for inspiration, and we like to experiment with everything from how we dress, what we study to what we eat and hobbies we enjoy. Inevitably, this leads to the phenomenon of the fad, that social construct which seemingly appears from nowhere, but is suddenly everywhere. Whilst fads are obvious when it comes to fashion, they are very pervasive when it comes to food, diet and nutrition. Every year could be crowned with the title of a particular diet. In 2015, it was most certainly the Paleo Diet.12634397

When it comes to fashion, fads are not particularly harmful (unless you consider 12-inch high heels and the man bun as dangerous to health). Fashion fads do not need to be based on fact; they are simply creative expressions that people find attractive. On the other hand, diet fads (whether you like it or not) are inextricably linked to science, evidence and fact. Some diet fads have no scientific basis whatsoever; others do. As a consumer, you probably do not want to trawl through medical and scientific journals to back up your decision to try a diet. You would rather read a recipe book or a new diet book showing you how to eat according to this new diet straight away. Who wouldn’t? These books are much prettier to look at, easier to understand and relaxing to read than any medical journal. Let’s take a look at the Paleo diet, and examine some of the evidence behind 2015’s most popular diet.

Despite the hype around this diet over the past couple of years, it is not new. Research and books covering the diets and health of our Paleolithic and Neanderthal ancestors have been published for the past 30 years. In 1985, Doctor Boyd Eaton published the scientific paper Paleolithic Nutrition: a Consideration of its Nature and Current Implications in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine. In brief summary, Boyd wrote that Paleolithic people seldom or never ate cereals and grains. These people were pre-agriculture, and they lived as hunter-gatherers. Other research from the 1980’s and 1990’s stated that Paleolithic man did not consume dairy.

Well before the term paleo started appearing in the scientific literature of the 80’s, other clinicians and scientists studied the effects of the typical western diet, comparing them to primitive diets and their effects on health. The most notable of these include Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, A Comparison of Primitive and Modern Diets and Their Effects by Dr Weston Price (1939), Primitive Man and His Food by Arnold DeVries (1952), The Stone Age Diet by Walter Voegtlin (1975) and Boyd Eaton’s The Paleolithic Prescription (1988).


paleoFast-forward to 1991, and medical journals started to accumulate research supporting that how our Paleolithic ancestors not only ate, but also lived should form the foundations of how to treat modern disease. Modern epidemics of metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease, cancer and inflammatory diseases (the non-infectious diseases) were clearly the plagues of modern man, with diet firmly placed at the center of the debate. The idea of lifestyle medicine was born.

Evidence for the Paleo diet mainly comes in the form of anecdotal evidence. This is your own, personal experience. If you lost weight, improved your sleep, cured your acne, or were able to safely discontinue your cholesterol or diabetes medications on a Paleo diet, science wont really be interested. In science, we need studies in animals, human tissues, large populations or controlled trials to be sure that a hypothesis (theory) has been tested extensively, and accurately. Since 2007, studies have started to accumulate, looking specifically at the paleo diet. Their greatest success appears to be in attaining a health body weight and improving health in those with metabolic syndrome (obesity, elevated fasting blood glucose, elevated blood triglycerides and high blood pressure). Evidence in other conditions, such as dementia, Autism, cancer and autoimmune disease is ongoing.

Counter evidence against the principles of the Paleo diet (particularly that is was devoid of dairy) has been published since 2014, with dairy proteins having been isolated from the dental calculus (plaque) in ancient dental fossils. Some anthropologists are also reminding us that there would be no one type of paleo diet, as our ancestors would have had a very limited diet, which would have varied depending on where they lived in the world. Additionally, their ancient fruits and vegetables would have been virtually unrecognizable to us and nothing like our modern edible plant based foods.

There is no denying that the Paleo diet is indeed a nutritional fad. It shows all the hallmarks of a modern trend including blogs, Instagram feeds, celebrity endorsements, recipe books, treats and snacks all devoted to this way of eating. Despite the fact that it’s fashionable at present, the Paleo diet is not in the same category as other harmful nutritional fads of years gone by, such as the cabbage soup diet, the lemon detox diet or the baby food diet. There is some scientific evidence to support the health claims of the Paleo diet, but will that be enough for us to remain loyal followers of this nutritional paradigm? Modern man loves nothing more than looking out for the next big thing. Only time will tell if the Paleo diet will be remembered as a trend, or the diet that saved its modern followers from a future of chronic disease.


References

  1. Alberti KG, Eckel RH, Grundy SM, et al. Harmonizing the metabolic syndrome: a joint interim statement of the International Diabetes Federation Task Force on Epidemiology and Prevention; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; American Heart Association; World Heart Federation; International Atherosclerosis Society; and International Association for the Study of Obesity. Circulation. 2009; 120(16):1640-5.
  2. Eaton, S. and Konner, M (1985) Paleolithic Nutrition. A consideration of its nature and current implications. New England Journal of Medicine. 312(5): 283-9.
  3. Huang PL. A comprehensive definition for metabolic syndrome. Dis Model Mech. 2009; 2(5-6): 231-7.

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