The Paleo Diet:
A Sustainability and Nutritional Perspective
By Emily Powell
The Paleo Diet is a strict regimen of natural and whole foods whose popularity has taken the U.S. by storm, creating swaths of followers that have taken a metaphorical oath to avoid all food products of our industrialized agricultural system. It was sparked by the game-changing “Stone Age Diet”, written and published in 1975 by Dr. Michael Voegtlin, and is a modern weight-loss and health plan based on the presumed eating habits of prehistoric humans. The basic idea is to reject the processed/modified foods of our industrial food system, reverting instead back to the foods which we were “meant to eat” (the foods for which the digestive adaptations of humans are more appropriate).
According to NerdFitness.com’s “Beginner’s Guide to the Paleo Diet” (1), “if a caveman couldn’t eat it, neither can you.” This means you can eat lots of meats, fish, nuts, leafy greens, regional veggies, and seeds… no grains (even whole grains. None of that.), refined sugars, or dairy. (The precise restrictions might vary based on the person and their customizations). It sounds pretty straight-forward, and definitely healthier/easier to digest than the processed, refined, hydrogenated diets of most modern Americans. But what does the Paleo Diet actually mean for our bodies and our planet?
The Paleo Diet embodies the movement of a people towards the complete omission of refined and processed foods from the diet, and as such, has enabled those who suffer from adverse effects of processed foods to find relief. These include people suffering from an undiagnosed gluten intolerance, a lactose intolerance, and cancer patients (since cancer is a relatively modern condition, becoming more common since the advent of technology and technologically-manufactured food/goods, the idea is to revert the internal condition of the body back to the age of the cancer-free caveman). In addition, those who are committed obligate themselves to a strict healthy diet, aiding those who find difficulty in sticking to a healthy palate through more casual circumstances. At the very least, the benefits of the Paleo Diet come directly from the consumption of more fruits, more vegetables, more healthy fats, and more lean protein. The benefits of these are as follows…
- Fruits and Vegetables – Low caloric density, which means you can eat more for less calories. More fiber, which means you feel fuller for longer than when you eat refined and fiber-free foods. Higher micronutrient content, which means more vitamins and minerals that your body needs for regulation of endless services! Fruits also can satisfy a sweet craving without refined sugars.
- Healthy Fats (nuts, seeds, avocados) – Unsaturated, good for your heart. These are needed just as much as protein or carbs. MUCH better than the standard American sources of fat from hydrogenated oils, trans fats, and saturated dairy or animal fats.
- Lean animal proteins – Lowfat, minimally-processed proteins like chicken breast and eggs is good (hot dogs, deli meat, SPAM, and other highly-processed forms of animal product give me the heebie-jeebies. They should do the same to you.).
However, one aspect of the Paleo argument, that prehistoric humans did not eat grains and that grains are inherently bad for our health and physique, is historically and scientifically misinterpreted. According to archaeological scientist Christina Warinner in her TED talk (2), scientific groups performing something miraculous called “dental calculus” on fossilized plaque from paleolithic humans have found these beings DID eat whole grains, including barley. Archaeological evidence has also found that mortar and pestles from over 30,000 years ago (20,000 before the invention of agriculture) contain remnants of grains and seeds that were finely ground for consumption.
In addition, fallacies surrounding the presumed evils of grains are also falsely publicized. As our dear friend NerdFitness points out, grains (specifically whole grains… I’m assuming that my audience understands refined grains like white bread and milled corn cereals spike your blood glucose levels, have been associated with higher rates of obesity, and should be enjoyed in moderation) are composed of complex carbohydrates, which are broken down by the digestive system into glucose for sustained energy. Any glucose that is not used is turned into fat. This, however, is a poor argument to support the complete and utter omission of all grains from your diet, because the same process is true for ANY macronutrient (read: carbs, fats, proteins). Any and all calories you eat, whether they come from fruits, vegetables, almonds, chicken breast, or quinoa, which aren’t used for energy are turned into fat (3). Whole grains (quinoa, brown rice, barley, bulgur, oats, etc.) are beneficial (4) because they contain a balance of fiber and other complex carbs, helping to slow digestion and release of energy, allowing you to feel energized and full for longer periods of time. Grains are good. Enjoy responsibly.
Now for the sustainability of the Paleo Diet. Let’s examine these same food groups I listed above with the lenses of a sustainability analysis.
- Fruits and vegetables – All good if it’s locally grown, preferably organic, and seasonal. Out-of-season produce is a recipe for disaster if it is grown in another region, partly because of the amount of energy taken to grow and ship it, partly because of the uncertainty of its support for local economic vitality, and partly because the transition period from one region/continent to another is a prolonged opportunity for particulate contamination.
- Healthy fats (nuts, seeds, avocados) – Almond trees take obscene amounts of water (and are, ironically, mostly grown in super-ultra-mega-arid California), and there are a variety of specific impacts that are specialized to specific products.
- Lean animal proteins– Okay, it kills me to see Paleo-ites consuming enormous amounts of beef, because 1) feedlot cattle were definitely not a staple in the cavemen diet, 2) according again to Christina Warinner, humans have no specific carnivorous adaptations to eat meat and therefore would not have been enormously prevalent in the diets of Paleolithic beings, and 3) it’s vastly unsustainable because of the land/water/feed required, the waterway pollution caused, the methane released, and the manufacturing costs incurred. Chicken, eggs, turkey, and dairy, as I’ve discussed in past blog posts, are much more efficiently-produced forms of protein. So there’s that.
Compared to a diet of manufactured foods, full of artificial ingredients, there’s no doubt that the Paleo Diet is simpler and has the potential to make some people feel awesome. However, as with any trend or development or product, there are widespread and complex impacts and interactions that could take hundreds of pages to explain. So I’ll leave you with this: Even though the diet cannot adhere to the exact foods Paleolithic humans ate (unless you’re a homesteader who hunts for his own meat and scavenges his own produce), there is something to be said for the limiting of artificially produced foods and the positive effects it can have on your body and your relationship with food. The Paleo Diet does not however, discriminate against unsustainably produced foods. That, my students, is the initiative that you must spearhead.
Emily’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.