Paleolithic diet: Not just another gimmick

By James Casey

Every couple of months it seems there is a new gimmicky diet that only has a few simple rules and makes big promises.

When I think of the term “fad diet” several come to mind: the Atkins Diet, the Zone diet and the South Beach Diet. It now seems they have been replaced by the paleo diet.

This diet, also known as “the caveman diet,” refers to the Paleolithic era and proposes consumption of what is assumed to have been eaten by our hominid ancestors. Proponents of this diet claim our bodies are genetically programmed to eat a certain way. Some claim with the development of agriculture about 10,000 years ago the type of food we consumed has changed drastically in a relatively short time, and this is the main culprit for the prevalence in chronic diseases. Supporters of the paleo diet propose a reversion to the ancient eating habits.

The paleo diet encourages people to eat fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, nuts, seeds and healthy fats, and discourages consumption of dairy, grains, legumes, starches, alcohol and all processed foods.

As a nutrition student, one red flag this diet immediately presents is the high consumption of animal products, which of course contain lots of saturated fats. I’ve always been taught saturated fats are one of the worst things a person can eat.

“Not when you get the saturated fat from high-quality meat, grass-fed meat,” said Mark Mitrovic, Sycamore CrossFit co-owner and personal trainer. “The omega-3/omega-6 balance is fantastic in grass-fed meat.”

While grass-fed meat is generally considered healthier, including the increased omega-3 content, that does not necessarily mean obtaining such a high level of total energy from these fats is healthy.

The Institute of Medicine recommends obtaining 20 to 35 percent of total calories from fats and 45 to 65 percent of total calories from carbohydrates. Diets that try to eliminate carbohydrates, like the paleo diet, must replace that energy from protein and fat sources.

I struggled to find a body of evidence that would either support or refute a link between high-fat diets and health concerns like specific cancers, heart disease and obesity. It’s not that there isn’t evidence out there; the problem is there’s evidence on both sides of the argument.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to find any studies on long-term effects of the paleo diet or consumption of grass-fed meats. While I highly value the scientific method, it is not capable of producing answers in a timely fashion.

Fad diets are going to continue to come and go. They are often fronted by someone with all the right credentials and supported by what seems like sound scientific evidence. I suppose it’s always going to be up to us to separate helpful scientific fact from give-me-your-money fiction.

“I use it as research, eating the natural foods, nothing processed,” said Abdel Papa, senior biological sciences major, who is experimenting with the paleo diet. “I’m applying knowledge I’ve learned in class along with individual research.”

I’m with Papa. The more I learn about the paleo diet, the more it makes sense to me. So much in fact, I think I’m going to commit. Wait, did it say no alcohol?