The Paleo Diet is arguably one of the healthier of the “healthy” diets available, but there is one mistake that many can make when going on a lower-carb Paleo Diet. Let’s discuss.
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Are You On a Healthy Paleo Diet?
Dr. Michael Ruscio: Hi, this is Dr. Ruscio, and let’s discuss if you’re on a healthy version of the Paleo Diet. Now, if you don’t know what the Paleo Diet is, essentially the Paleo Diet is a type of diet that tries to bring us back to a diet that’s more proximal to what our ancestors ate before the advent of farming and supermarkets and industrialized foods. So it’s much more of a, I guess we could say, genetically correct diet. Meaning, it’s the type of diet that we as humans would eat in our natural environment should there be no interfering factors and one that we ate for the majority of our evolution.
And certainly, we’ve seen a number of studies published over the past several years that have shown the Paleo Diet actually performs better than other diets, like a Mediterranean diet or a more vegetarian-based diet, for many conditions. Not to say it’s the only diet that can be helpful. I certainly don’t want to paint that picture.
But when we do compare different types of diets, the Paleo Diet has been shown in head-to-head trials compared to other types of diets that are more traditional to be healthier in many parameters. Again, all healthy diets can help compared to something like a standard American diet. But when we look at different healthy diets compared to one another, we tend to see a bit of an edge for the Paleo Diet or a Paleo-type diet.
Now, something that’s important to clarify is, what are the foods that one eats? And a main tenet of the Paleo Diet is essentially avoiding all processed foods and focusing on healthy sources of protein via meat, egg, nuts, seeds, and lots of healthy vegetables and some fruit consumption. And of course, it’s devoid of anything that’s processed. So there’s an old adage that if you couldn’t hunt it, gather it, fish it, or forage it, you don’t eat it. So again, it’s a naturally occurring food diet.
Now, there’s a few nuances here that are important. More traditional dietary advice emphasizes a higher consumption of carbohydrate. If we think back to the old food pyramid, the base was carbohydrates. That was a very carbohydrate-favored or -weighted diet. And many of the more classical heart-healthy, lower-fat, higher-carb diets tend to favor a lot of carbohydrate.
What’s different about the Paleo Diet is it tends to pull out a lot of these because it has one focused more so on lots of vegetables and healthy sources of meat. And so I wanted to put up a study that helps to drive some of this point home because sometimes there’s confusion about whether this is healthy.
So a group of anthropologists essentially did a sampling of hunter-gatherer societies worldwide. And they tried to assess what do the dietary trends of hunter-gatherers look like. So they wanted to get past the, “Okay, you’re a diet guru. You wrote a diet book.” They wanted to get past the opinion, and they wanted to get more so to the fact of what do hunter-gatherers actually eat when we go do a sample of hunter-gatherers around the world.
I’ll put some information here up on the screen, but I want to quote from this paper. Most — 73% — of the worldwide hunter-gatherer societies derived over 50% of their subsistence from animal foods. Continuing, only 14% of these societies derived more than 50% of their subsistence from gathered plant foods. So, important concept here: that we do see that globally hunter-gatherer societies tend to consume more animal-based foods than they do plant-based foods.
And I think this is an important thing to keep in mind because sometimes advocates of a higher-carb, more vegetarian diet try to make the argument that we evolved on a diet devoid of meat. And that doesn’t seem to be the case. Again, I’m open to people using any type of diet, but let’s be factual in how we support a certain diet. What we’re seeing from the anthropology literature in this very well-performed study that sampled multiple hunter-gatherer tribes, we see that 73% of tribes consumed more than half of their calories from animal foods.
But here’s a very important point, and it’s the next point here that I want to quote: “Plant food consumption decreases as climate becomes colder and is replaced by increasing fish intake.” I’ll overlay a picture of the globe here to help you visualize this, but when we’re in an equatorial region, near the equator, it’s warmer. There are lots of plants, lots of vegetation. Hunter-gatherer societies there tended to eat more carbs.
But as we go away from the equator and we go more north or south into what would be a cooler climate, less vegetation can grow and the hunter-gatherers now are going to be consuming more animal-based foods. But the main factor that changes is that it’s fish consumption that increases to account for that increase in animal foods, or I should say fish food.
Why that’s important is sometimes those who go on a Paleo Diet tend to subsist or rely heavily on things like beef. And albeit it’s healthier beef like free-range, grass-fed beef, this isn’t in alignment with the way we tend to eat in our more natural state or what we evolved over the centuries eating as the Paleo Diet prescribes.
So if you’re someone that’s eating a paleo-type diet, a few takeaways from this. One, if you’re concerned about maybe eating fewer carbs and more protein and fat, from a hunter-gatherer perspective or a developmental perspective this seems to be sound for what our genes have evolved to be accustomed to. And certainly, when we look at more contemporary science, looking at a Paleo-type diet versus a higher-carb-type diet, we see in most studies, the Paleo Diet performs better. It has a slight edge. Both diets can work. Both diets can be healthy, but the Paleo Diet seems to work a little bit better.
But be careful not to get pulled into this camp of thinking that because you’re eating healthy sources of beef that are grass-fed and pasture-raised and therefore higher in omega-3s, that this means it’s okay to eat copious amounts of beef. Because it does appear that as we go onto a progressively lower-carbohydrate diet as hunter-gatherer societies, they tend to eat more fish and not necessarily have a heavier reliance on game animals. So if you’re not eating any fish, definitely start eating fish.
And if you’re not eating much fish, try to increase your fish consumption slightly. There are no highly specific rules here, so don’t overthink it. But just remember if you’re eating beef, let’s say, every day, that may not be the best thing to do, and you may really want to try to gradually build into your diet more sources of fish consumption because this seems to be more in alignment with our evolution and with these principles of the Paleo Diet.
In any case, this is Dr. Ruscio. I hope this information helps you get healthy and get back to your life.
If you need help with the Paleo Diet, click here.