This dude is clearly feeling good about eating like a caveman. (Photo by Bernd Vogel/Corbis).
By Janet Helm for U.S. News & World Report
Let me get this out of the way right now: I’m not a fan of the Paleo diet. I don’t support this restrictive, meat-heavy diet that bans so many nutritious foods, such as dairy, grains and beans. It’s a diet plan that landed at the bottom of the list in U.S. News Best Diets rankings, scoring only 2 out of 5 stars.
Even so, it was at the top of the list of most-searched diets of 2013, according to the annual Google Zeitgeist trend report. So that means a lot of people are curious about adopting the diet – or are already fully entrenched in the paleo lifestyle. This growing interest is what’s behind the burgeoning Paleo industry that’s popped up – with Paleolithic-inspired cookbooks, magazines and blogs, along with Paleo-friendly foods, snacks and restaurant menu items.
While health professionals may scoff at this primal eating plan (also known as the caveman diet), Paleo followers are so passionate about this lifestyle that they can’t help but proselytize. I’ve never seen such devotion to a diet. For nonbelievers (like myself), there’s often a concerted effort to attack the doubters. When did eating turn into a religion?
While I may not recommend a Paleo diet, I must admit there are some positive outcomes of this trend – which is showing no signs of going away anytime soon. Here are eight positive things we have to thank for the growing popularity of the Paleolithic approach, along with a few concluding thoughts:
1. Back to basics.
The Paleo diet shuns processed foods, so the emphasis is on eating closer to nature. Even though I believe not all processing is bad, I agree with the need to eat more whole, fresh, nutrient-rich foods that don’t come in a package.
2. Return of homemade.
Since so many foods are off-limits, and you can’t always get paleo-approved items when eating out, Paleo followers are cooking more at home. That’s great. Although, I don’t see how a gluten-free, grain-free, dairy-free cookie is any healthier than its non-Paleo counterpart – and it’s still a cookie (which really wasn’t eaten by cavemen).
3. Abolishing a fear of fat.
Paleo is not a low-fat diet. In fact, it celebrates certain fats. For too long, people thought all fat was bad, so I’m glad to see the emphasis on olive oil, nuts and avocado. The avocado has especially enjoyed a boost from the Paleo trend – served up in smoothies, baked with an egg nestled inside a half, smashed in puddings and chopped in salads. However, I’m less enthusiastic about coconut oil, which I don’t think deserves the cult status.
4. Permission to eat the yolks.
Goodbye, egg white omelets. Now it’s in vogue to eat the whole egg. The paleo diet relies heavily on eggs, which are hard to beat as a versatile and affordable source of high-quality protein and other nutrients.
5. Surge in nut butters.
While peanuts are off-limits (since they’re a legume), tree nuts are fully embraced in the Paleo plan. That’s got to be one of the reasons why we’re seeing so many new nut butters on the market – creamy and crunchy spreads made with almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, walnuts, pecans and other nuts. You can also find lots of recipes for making your own nut butters – which are terrific as a topper on toast, spread on sandwiches or used in baking.
6. Creative vegetable hacks.
Since pasta and rice are forbidden, Paleo followers have turned to vegetables to replace these mealtime staples. You don’t need to be Paleo to enjoy spiralized veggie noodles or faux rice made from cauliflower. I recently wrote about these new vegetable creations, which are quickly gaining mainstream status.
7. Increase in protein snacks.
I can’t help but think it’s easier to find grab-and-go protein-rich snacks due to the Paleo trend. Most snack foods tend to be high in carbs and sugar. But now convenience stores, airports, malls and other places are stocking individual bags of nuts and seeds, proportioned nut butters, refrigerated hard-boiled eggs and gourmet jerky.
8. Combination of diet and exercise.
The Paleo lifestyle emphasizes exercise (especially CrossFit) – after all, hunter-gatherers were always on the move. So I like that nutrition and physical activity are getting equal billing. You do need both – so that’s good.
Even though there may be some positive outcomes of the Paleo trend, the diet has several flaws that I can’t get over. If people feel better following this lifestyle, then it’s hard to argue with that. I’m all for people doing what feels right. But could the reason behind the newfound euphoria be that they got rid of the junk? Of course you’ll feel better – and likely lose weight – if you curtail refined carbs, salty processed meals and sugar-laden treats.
Yes, we should be eating more whole, fresh foods. But the rationale to completely eliminate dairy, grains and beans just doesn’t hold up for me. Why miss out on a Greek yogurt parfait in the morning or a wedge of brie with a warm, crunchy baguette in the evening? Oh yeah, no baguette either.
Maybe it’s good to cut down on white, refined grains, but why miss out on oatmeal and the vast array of tasty, nutritious whole grains, such as farro, quinoa, bulgur, millet and spelt. These are all amazing ancient grains – are they just not ancient enough?
Beans and legumes are wonderful fiber-rich plant proteins. I can’t imagine banning these nutritional powerhouses. That means no hummus or falafel, no chili with beans, no black bean veggie burgers, no lentil curries and no bean salads. Oh, and I love beans and whole grains together – why eliminate these nutritious plant-based foods that have tons of research demonstrating their health protective properties? We should be eating more of them – not following a plan that forbids them.
Sure, some Paleo followers interpret the restrictions differently and allow for some of these foods, but why have so many arbitrary rules? Why spend time trying to determine if a food is truly Paleo or not?
My biggest problem is the idea of putting a label on the way we eat. Nutrition shouldn’t be an exclusive club. It shouldn’t be about what we delete – but what we eat. It’s easy to fall into the trap of ascribing foods as good and evil. Paleo has some things right, but I think the diet gets a lot wrong, too. I’d rather have people pick the best of Paleo and skip the rest – then just say they’re enjoying a healthy diet.