Google “paleo” and you’ll get 27 million hits; an Amazon search will get you over 10,000 results. Whether you know what it is or not, you’ve heard of paleo, and you’ve probably also heard of Whole30, the Primal Blueprint, the Keto diet or something else similar.

What’s all the fuss about these grain-free, dairy-free diets, and can you eat all the bacon you want and drop the pounds, lose diabetes, and gain magical powers? We’re kidding about the magical powers, but it’s true that many claim significant health benefits from a paleo diet. Are their assertions grounded in fact? Let’s take a look.

Paleo Isn’t a Diet

We joke about hipsters and their fascination with everything vintage and “old”–teenage girls these days are wearing grandpa sweaters and the giant glasses our parents wore in the 1980s have come back, full circle. As it turns it, paleo is sort of the same thing–a return to the diets of yesteryear.

Paleo devotees are always quick to point out that it isn’t a “diet” in the strict sense of the word (meaning, it isn’t about restricting your calories or sticking to the same five foods); rather, it’s a total lifestyle change that incorporates the movements and heating habits of our paleolithic ancestors.

A Brief History of the World  

Sound weird? We’ll explain more. In the last ten thousand years or so, human civilizations in places like Turkey, Europe, Mexico, and Asia learned to cultivate grains like rice, maize, and wheat. These agricultural revolutions were about as impactful as the Big Bang; they radically changed how humans thought, organized and grew.

Thanks to farming, humans gradually became less reliant on hunting and gathering. Instead of spending all their spare time hunting a woolly mammoth, for example, families could now store excess food and have time for other pursuits.

Trading could take place, allowing some individuals to develop skills like metal working and allowing others to, simply put, have some time to think. Without the advent of farming, there’s little doubt that our great civilizations wouldn’t exist.

The Problem With Grain

Grains

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All of this, however, came with some downsides. Because people were gathering in farming communities and able to have children more rapidly (grains helped to wean little ones at an earlier age, enabling more offspring more quickly), diseases like measles and the black plague could flourish.

Those who study such things also point out that grain-eaters were more sickly; losing height to their hunting ancestors. Plus, they were dealing with problems like bad teeth and anemia, things that, today, are easy fixes, but back then could prove catastrophic.

A study in Economics and Human Biology, in fact, analyzed over twenty studies and concluded that the adoption of agriculture significantly impacted cultures all over the world, even though they adopted farming at different times and were not connected.

Back to the Past

Paleo devotees (they often call themselves cavemen) have jumped on this body of knowledge, advocating a wholesale change in lifestyle, back to the “good ol’ days,” if you will. Now, however, they have more ammunition to power their claims.

For instance, Whole30, a fad diet designed to help people jumpstart a healthier lifestyle and take on food addictions, explains that grains–even whole grains–contain anti-nutrients called “phytates.” These minerals are not accessible to the body and in fact, deplete the body of other important minerals such as zinc and calcium.

Paleo advocates see similar problems with dairy (hunters and gatherers wouldn’t have cultivated dairy animals for milk) and legumes, resulting in a list of foods to avoid. The trouble is, this list of foods to avoid is long, and includes many of the staples of our American diet: pasta, cereal, and bread. Not to mention pizza, ice cream, and donuts!

Is it worth cutting these things out?

Benefits to the Paleo Lifestyle

At this point, you’re probably wondering what is the paleo diet and the paleo diet plan? Let’s break it down:

  • No grains (this includes things like rye, sorghum, quinoa, corn, and rice)
  • No dairy (except, in some cases, grass-fed, raw, and/or fermented dairy products such as grass-fed butter and kefir)
  • No legumes (some paleo people say legumes–and even some grains–are fine, if properly soaked and prepared in traditional techniques, such as sourdough bread)
  • No added sugars, preservatives, or processed foods (i.e., no Doritos, and you’ll need to make your ketchup, mayo, and dressing or spring the for the somewhat costly alternatives that are free from those bad ingredients)

At this point, people start realizing all their favorite foods (coffee creamer, Coke, and hamburgers smothered in cheese) are out and start to get worried.

That’s usually where a nice paleo person will take you by the hand and explain that it’s not about restricting what you eat, it’s about retraining your taste buds and changing your eating habits, moving from cramming food into your body on your way home to enjoy it, and finding a whole new world of fruits and vegetables open up to you.

This is Why We Love Bacon

Paleo Bacon

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Bacon, for example, takes on a whole new meaning (you’ll need to find the kind that isn’t made with sugar or nitrates) and now that you’re not pounding high fructose corn syrup, strawberries become dessert. Coconut flour, as it turns out, makes a passable muffin–though hardcore devotees argue that it’s more about learning to be happy without dessert rather than finding replacements for dessert.

Some people buy it, and some people don’t, but it’s hard to deny the thousands upon thousands of positive testimonials.

Is There Anything Paleo Can’t Fix?

The Primal Blueprint, created by paleo advocate Mark Sisson, and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom, created by paleo devotee Melissa Hartwig, together enjoy over 4,000 reviews with over 70% of those five-star ratings.

Reviewers rave about the difference the paleo diet recipes made in their lives sharing testimonials about almost every condition under the sun. In fact, here’s a quick list of the benefits paleo advocates have attributed to the paleo diet:

  • Weight loss
  • Lessening or disappearance of acne
  • Healing of fibromyalgia
  • Reduction or disappearance of chronic pain
  • The disappearance of brain fog
  • No more hormonal fluctuations
  • Appetite curbing (no more constant feelings of hunger)
  • Diabetes improvement

There’s more where those came from!

Paleo Critics

Like any wildly-popular book, diet, or lifestyle, there’s bound to be detractors, and the paleo diet has its full share. Many, for example, criticize the lifestyle’s focus on what our ancestors did because the truth is, even if we wanted our lives to look exactly like theirs, there’s no way they could.

Modern food is almost indistinguishable from the food our ancestors would have hunted and foraged. Tomatoes, bananas, avocados, and even broccoli, as we known them today, are in response to decades of careful cultivation. They simply didn’t exist in their current forms centuries ago.

Meat is different, too, with cattle undergoing decades of careful breeding to produce more meat, more quickly, with a marbling pattern that makes it more delicious. Plus, critics argue, humans, themselves, have changed and adapted in response to diets changing, adapting to milk, for example.

Are Carbs So Bad?

Nutritionists also worried that by drilling an anti-carb message into paleo devotee’s brains, paleo advocates are causing a whole new set of humans. As it turns out, people do need carbohydrates to support our brains’ function, create red blood cells, and build reproductive tissue.

Eschewing all carbohydrates just isn’t the answer.

The Environment Matters, Too

There’s also the pollution concern. Our huge meat consumption creates one big giant carbon fiber footprint, in part because of the need for grain to feed all those cows and in part because of the methane and manure all those cows produce, which in turn rises pollution rates. Consuming wheat, in comparison, leaves a tiny carbon footprint.

How Do We Find the Balance?

As with most things, the truth tends to be somewhere in the middle. Some people find that the paleo diet simply doesn’t work for them, but a vegan diet (a la the China Study) does. Others find that a paleo diet isn’t conducive to modern life and instead incorporate a few of the most basic changes, but leave the rest untouched.

Most find routines that work for them; avoiding dairy and gluten during the week, for example, but enjoy a glass of wine with dinner on the weekends. Ultimately, it falls on the individual to do his or her homework, learns his or her own unique body, and find what works for her. That’s one “diet” that will never go out of style!

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