The Paleo Diet Under Attack

I’ve been going to Crossfit for almost 2 years now.  With the exception of a herniated disc and subsequent surgery, the experience has been very positive.  I am stronger, faster (cut 20 mins off my marathon time with more to come this year), and mentally tougher than before I started.  During the certification seminar I attended (and supported by lots of research) it was often pointed out that nutrition is at least as important as training when trying to improve fitness and overall health.  While Crossfit doesn’t force anything on anyone, they are big advocates of the Paleo diet.  First written about in the 70’s and popularized by Loren Cordain and later Robert Wolf, the Paleo diet aims to re-create how humans ate prior to the Neolithic Revolution.  Human nutrition needs were established 100’s of thousands of years ago and satisfied by a simple hunter gatherer diet.  Our ancestors  ate lots of fruit, meats, vegetables, nuts, and other naturally occurring foods.  Complex carbohydrates (grains, sugars, and legumes) were not added until people settled down and began farming which is when our diet problems began.  There are a few exceptions (foods one would think are Paleo but you’re not suppose to eat) like potatoes, beans, rice, etc… but in general, the diet promotes natural, non processed eating.

I’m not going to write about the diet itself or if it works/does not (that is gigantic argument and as the Harvard Dept. of Public Health points out: most diets work equally well in reducing weight over the long term.  The problem is sticking with them.  Click here and look 2/3 of the way down at the section “Low-Carbohydrate Diets: Choose Good Carbs, not No Carbs”).   What I have been hearing more about and find interesting is what ancient human beings were actually eating prior to the agricultural revolution.

In his early papers regarding the diet, Lauren Cordain talks a lot about when humans started eating grains and how early hunter gatherers would have needed tools to process them which had never been found (to support his conclusions that grain consumption was minimal).  I’m no expert, but the dates Mr. Cordain used in his papers were widely accepted by anthropologists: 10,000-15,000 years ago give or take. His conclusions (written in the 90’s-00’s about grain consumption) were pretty logical.  Then, last year an article in Science Daily reported that a Canadian research team had discovered evidence to the contrary.  The article can be seen here.

And today, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a study noting that “starch grains found on 30,000-year-old grinding stones suggest that prehistoric man may have dined on an early form of flat bread…contrary to his popular image as primarily a meat-eater.” You might have noticed the article on Yahoo news.  Of course we have no way of knowing how much bread people were eating 30,000 years ago.  We also don’t know how much grain was eaten 100,000 years ago.

As I mentioned previously, one of the key and simple principals of the Paleo diet is to re-create the eating habits of our early ancestors. We lived for 10’s of thousands of years that way right? So… go back to our roots since early humans were not over weight and likely more healthy than we are today. Yet, mounting evidence that humans ate grains (and in large enough quantities to make tools for processing) 9x earlier and processed grains (in the form of bread) 2-3x earlier than previously thought is a big problem for the foundation of the diet not to mention the diet’s name.  That doesn’t make the modern Paleo diet as written about by Mr. Cordain unhealthy or invalid and I make no so such claim… but, what I do believe is that his use of a lack of early grain consumption (and the tools that went along with it) to buttress the argument regarding the diet is clearly called into question.

Again, this doesn’t mean anything about the diet itself or if it works.  I’m going to guess that those who support the diet will respond in just this way.   Who cares what people were or were not eating 10,000 to 100,000 years ago.  What matters is how the diet works/doesn’t work today.   The answer to that question, however, like so many other heath and especially diet related issues is very much open to debate.

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2 Responses to The Paleo Diet Under Attack

  1. Robbie says:

    This is really interesting. That link about adding healthy carbs is the best way to go, until I’m in an intense race. Then I’ve got to boil down the fuel to Clif Bloks, and whole grain coffee.

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