Paleo dieting: Even a caveman can do it, but should we?


Everyone wants to be healthy, but following through is often challenging — particularly over winter break, when many students find themselves catching up on their favorite shows and scarfing down homemade cookies. Conveniently, New Year’s is a time for new beginnings (at least, in theory). It’s a time when people resolve to hit the gym and go on a diet.

While the general consensus is that regular exercise and a good diet are the keys to a long life, the definition of healthy eating is far from clear. One needs only to step into a GNC, a health food store or even watch late night infomercials to see another miracle diet guaranteeing everything short of immortality. Whether or not such diets work seems irrelevant. According to NBC, Americans spend close to 50 billion dollars annually on diet products, most of them going unused.

The Paleolithic, or Paleo, Diet however, has bucked the trend. The diet has not only gained real popularity, but has stood the test of time — both because of and in spite of its use of dietary science.

The Paleo Diet, which bases its approach to dieting on evolutionary history, has existed since the 1970s. Famed gastroenterologist Walter Voegtlin introduced the concept in his book “The Stone Age Diet,” published in 1975.

Loren Cordain later introduced the Paleo Diet as it is known today, taking issue with the fat and sugar-heavy diets of contemporary Americans and calling for a return to the diets of our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

The idea of the Paleo Diet is simple: If our caveman forbearers could have found it, picked it, or bludgeoned it to death, the Paleo Diet approves.

The diet promotes foods that Paleolithic humans could have easily acquired, specifically hormone-free meat, fish, seeds, fruits, certain vegetables, mushrooms and even insects. The diet shuns Neolithic innovations such as cultivated grains like barley and wheat, legumes, dairy and more modern fare such as refined sugars.

Unlike other diets, Paleo is not singularly focused on weight loss or building muscle mass. Rather, its goal is an overall improvement of one’s health, particularly a reduction in the risk of chronic diseases that advocates claim have arisen since the start of the Neolithic, or agricultural, era.

Since the publication of Cordain’s 2002 book, simply titled, “The Paleo Diet,” the nutrition plan has gained popularity, first in exercise communities, due largely to its emphasis on protein. The diet made its way to mainstream society soon after. 

Brandon Lee, a senior engineering major who has been on a low-carbohydrate version of the Paleo Diet since his second year on campus, sticks rigidly to the plan  — except on days when he lifts weights. On lifting days, more carbohydrates are needed to replenish one’s glycogen levels. 

“I still don’t eat grains or pasta on these days, but I do have ice cream, chocolate, honey and/or potatoes if I can get my hands on them,” Lee said in an email. 

Lee credits Tom Naughton’s 2009 documentary, “Fat Head,” for inspiring him to start the diet. 

“It exposed the faulty science behind current [dietary] guidelines. It ended up advocating a low-carb way of eating,” Lee said. 

In the documentary, comedian Naughon critiques Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me” by eating McDonald’s for a month but cutting out sugars and starches while restricting his caloric intake to 2,000 calories a day and his carbohydrate intake to 100 grams a day. Ultimately, Naughton lost weight and his cholesterol level dropped with no restriction of fat or protein. 

Since beginning his diet, Lee said that his average weight is about nine pounds less than it was beforehand. Prior to starting Paleo, Lee said he was eating an abundance of refined carbs (grains, pastas, cereals and the like).

“That actually made it difficult to eat vegetables,” he said, referencing the difficulty of balancing one’s diet while eating the wrong things.

Beyond weight loss, Lee claims that the diet is making him feel better in his everyday life, even going so far as to attribute healing qualities to it.

“The pain I received in freshman year of high school as a result of joint injury from swimming is gone. I used to [have an asthma attack] like once a year, but it pretty much stopped shortly after I started my [new] way of eating,” he said.

There may be evidence to back Lee’s claims.

A 2006 study undertaken by the department of clinical sciences at Lund University in Sweden concluded that the Paleo or a Paleo-like diet can reduce C-reactive protein levels in the body — which eases joint inflammation.

Suggestions have been made by some in the medical community that there is a link between asthma and the consumption of processed foods, but thus far, no evidence has arisen to support their claims. It is, however, widely accepted that vitamin C and E deficiencies can lead to poor lung function.

Unlike most people on Paleo, Lee eats only one big meal a day but rigidly follows his diet, which can predictably lead to some challenges when trying to eat on campus.

“I usually end up going to Market Central and eating lunch meat and cheeses. Sometimes Magellan’s and Tutto Fresco serve stuff I’ll eat, meat and vegetables not drowned in some sort of high-sugar or -carb sauce,” he said. 

When cooking for himself, Lee tries to keep his meals local and focused on protein-vegetable balance.

“When I do have the time, I’ll usually cook some meat I get from a local butcher’s store and usually broccoli,” Lee said. 

The meat component, which comprises 30-35 percent of total protein intake, is a difficult and often expensive requirement to uphold. All meat consumed while on Paleo must be free of hormones and biological additives, which, as anyone who has been to a grocery store can attest, drives up the price. As of 2012, organic beef costs an average of $5.84 a pound versus $4.98 for non-organic, according to the Agricultural Marketing and Resource center and the USDA.

While Paleo has grown in popularity since the publication of Lorain’s book, even gaining wide mainstream acceptance, not everyone sings its praises. Elizabeth Ruder, a professor in Pitt’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences is one such critic.

Describing it as a “fad diet,” Ruder claimed that, “[The Paleo Diet] is underscored by the statement — that I do not agree with — that our ancestors did not suffer from chronic disease.”

Ruder specifically takes issue with the absence of legumes.

“Legumes really are advantageous for preventing chronic disease. They provide a lot of indigestible material that the microbes in your gut feed on,” Ruder said.

Supporting her point, Ruder noted that the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend between three and five serving of legumes per week. 

Ruder’s criticisms of the Paleo Diet are far from singular.

In a 2011 study facilitated by U.S. News and World Report, in which medical professionals from clinics and universities evaluated and reviewed specialty diets, paleo finished in a tie for last place out of 29 diets examined. In categories ranging from short and long-term weight loss to practicality and safety, paleo received no more than a 2.3 on a 5-point scale. Professionals taking part in the study criticized Paleo for its high cost and lack of grains.

Ruder also noted that Paleo’s macro-nutrient breakdown is strikingly similar to the Atkins Diet, which, according to her, can lead to increased cholesterol, heart disease and kidney failure if followed for an extended period of time.

“Meats and animal proteins can also come with saturated fats with them, which may be deleterious for heart health. There’s emerging research that suggests having a lot of animal protein in the diet is bad for kidney health, as well,” Ruder said.

Due to both cost of food and its restrictive nature, people often find the Paleo Diet difficult to maintain.

“Ultimately, when you’re looking to promote health, it’s not about a diet that somebody does for two or three weeks or months, its about something that becomes their lifestyle,” Ruder explained when talking about a diet’s effectiveness. If a diet is financially prohibitive or impractical in the way that many accuse Paleo of being, the likelihood that someone will stick to it can be greatly reduced.

Leslie Bonci, director of the sports nutrition program at the UPMC Center for Sports Medicine, agrees with the results of the U.S. News and World Report study and added that, “there are elements of [the Paleo Diet] that are very good and there are elements that seem much too restrictive for the majority of people.”

“You pretty much take the crap out of your diet. You’re not eating junk food because that’s not what the paleo diet is,” Bonci said.

Bonci supports a balanced diet that incorporates some aspects of Paleo.

“I really like the idea of trying to combine and take the best of Paleo, which is the fruits, the vegetables, some nuts and lean meat and then sprinkling in some other things which are really not bad foods. Use some low-fat dairy foods, use some whole grains and definitely use some beans. I think that’s a far better option,” she said.