Mistakes in 'Paleo' Eating

A meaningful diet resolution might be to eat more sustainably.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Advertising is screaming at us: New year, new you. New, new, new. Everything will be better when it’s new. The old you was probably great, but it’s harder to sell things to people who honestly believe that.

The most common January undertaking in that quest is dietary—shifting the actual molecules that fuel everything we do. Most of us will fail to meaningfully change, and then feel only more inadequate in that failure. We fail because absurd goals can never be maintained, and because sometimes our own bodies (partly the way we were born, but mostly the way we’ve trained them to demand constant supplies of simple carbohydrates and insulin) make it almost impossible not to fail—to live without feeling deprived and hungry and joyless.

Maybe most importantly, many people fail when they don’t truly believe in what they’re doing. The gratification of sugar is immediate, and the idea of a paralyzing stroke decades hence is remote. It seems there are more important things to worry about right now.

One solution might be to think beyond yourself. I’m reminded of that because this week the good people at Bon Appetit magazine tweeted a story under the headline “Don’t Make These Common Mistakes When Going Paleo.” (Tell me I’m making mistakes, and I will click every time.) The “Paleo” approach to eating is, in brief, using evolutionary history to inform consumption. Some mistakes described in the article differed from what I think are the most important to consider—for Paleo or most any diet.

Their first piece of advice is to avoid eating too much saturated fat. That’s a contentious claim packed into a paragraph of a culinary magazine. Books have been written on the subject, and many nutrition experts have come to disagree that the weight of evidence supports limiting saturated fat. (Within reason—don’t test them and try to subsist on lard alone.) The Paleo movement itself arose in step with the realization over the past two decades that saturated fat had been wrongly blamed by some experts as the central dietary culprit in heart disease. While other experts disagree that saturated fat intake should be unlimited (and some research has found that substituting polyunsaturated fats can be beneficial), it’s unclear to many that strict limits are prudent.

I’m not convinced it’s worthwhile for most people to think about saturated fat at all—to avoid it or to gorge on it. So here are what I see as more pressing mistakes related to Paleo, and the opportunities that those mistakes present.

Eating in a way that’s not sustainable for the planet

Speaking of packing entire books into one paragraph: Large-scale animal agriculture has become a primary driver of climate change. We are eating and producing much more meat than ever before. The human population is on pace to hit 10 billion by the middle of the century; that’s 10 times as many people as there were in 1800. When we find a way to grow delicious red meat in petri dishes, then we can discuss exactly how much is healthy to eat. For now, the only way forward for our species seems to be to consider meat as something closer to a delicacy.

Forgetting fiber

Of all the “probiotics” on the market, one of the few with actual evidence that it serves our microbes well is plant fiber. Fiber is the carbohydrate that humans can’t digest, yet we’ve long known that people who eat high-fiber diets tend to be healthier. Among multiple studies with similar results, one with 40,000 subjects found that a high-fiber diet came with a 40-percent lower than average risk of heart disease. Fiber also seems to protect against metabolic syndrome.

One of the mechanisms behind these benefits appears to be that fiber essentially feeds the microbes in our guts, encouraging diverse populations. Those microbes are implicated in a vast array of illnesses and wellbeing. A diet heavy on meat and dairy is necessarily lower on fiber.

In that light, the idea of “Paleo-veganism” is an interesting one. Loosely defined, it could mean eating minimally processed, plant-heavy diets. If a flaw in veganism is that some people think they can drink juice and eat white bread all day and be healthy, that might be sustainable for the planet but not good for you. Paleo-veganism (again, loosely defined lest we descend into madness trying to discern the plant varieties this would include) might work as a rule of thumb that generally keeps us focused on the sorts of foods that promote health.

Rejecting the idea that technology can improve our lives

The basic idea behind Paleo is that humans evolved under certain circumstances over millennia, and then those circumstances changed tremendously in the last century, and our bodies did not keep pace. We find ourselves sedentary and overfed on amalgamations that distort our body’s expectations of “food.”

There’s almost no doubt these changes underlie epidemics of obesity and cardiovascular disease, but it’s easy to take that reasoning too far—basically to adopt a worldview in which all modern food technology is evil. It seems clear that the future of health research will involve anthropological study of our history in determining how we (and our microbes) evolved to process and prosper from food, and where we’ve gone wrong in recent decades. As we come to better understand that history, it’s important not to lose focus on the fact that for all its problems, our modern food system has us living longer and less deprived than centuries past. The challenge is striking balance.

Telling people all about how you’re “going Paleo” unless explicitly asked to do so

Other people’s diets are no more interesting than their sleep habits or their children. Breaking into a screed about your own diet shows contempt for the listener. It’s like talking about how you went to the dentist, or about something you were going to post on Facebook but didn’t.

Being hypocritical

Take, for instance, this advice from the Bon Appetit article:

It’s a no-brainer to plan a week’s worth of dinners, but don't forget about breakfast, lunch, and snacks. Kenzie Swanhart [author of a Paleo cookbook] brings raw vegetables like carrot sticks and peppers with guacamole to work. She’s also a fan of homemade plantain chips and grain-free granola bars.

Those all sound like fine things to eat, but the philosophy behind them is disjointed. The “grain-free” part is based on the idea that our bodies didn’t evolve to eat grains (which were not a significant part of human diets before the dawn of agriculture). Pop-diet books have also been written about this, citing evidence selectively. But more compelling to me, whole grains have consistently shown to be parts of the diets of the longest-lived, healthiest people. (Also is it a no-brainer to plan a week’s worth of dinners?)

If you choose to avoid grains because they weren’t part of an ancestral diet, then it’s difficult to justify any granola bars, plantain chips, and guacamole. Unless you can point to some ancient people who ate all three of those things.  The point is, if you’re going to go around talking about “going Paleo” for whatever reason—ritual, self-identification, adventure—it’s strange to be militantly inflexible about rules that are barely more than arbitrary.

Lacking a meaningful reason for what you’re doing

Changing the way we eat is a major change. It will involve multiple decisions every day. Presumably our old habits existed for reasons—convenience, enjoyment, availability, cost, marketing, etc. Modifying the habits that these conditions created means hard work and requires dedication to a cause. I’m not convinced that concern for the health of our bodies years in the future is sufficient.

I’m not even sure the promise of modifying our appearances is enough. The neurologist Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that the key is to avoid the temptation to pursue happiness—like that being sold to us through all of the new-year deals—but to pursue meaning. Piles of research have shown that a sense of purpose is a central to long, healthy life.

There’s purpose to be had in how we eat—in how conscientious we can be, how minimally we can disrupt the world for those that will come after us and those working to produce and procure our food. I think this is a sustainable and worthy resolution for a healthier way to eat, if you’re intent on making one. It works for the mind and body at once, and, most importantly, not just our own.