The Paleo “revolution” has sparked controversy and debate among plant-based nutrition advocates and those who espouse a “caveman” approach to diet. However, if we look at the true paleolithic diet from thousands of years ago, it much more resembles a plant-based diet in the actual nutritional content. A 2010 study from the National Academy of Sciences examined the nutritional components of “true” paleo, “new” paleo and plant-based dietary regimens. The results showed that “true” paleo and “new” paleo were only consistent in the amount each provided of daily protein, zinc and Vitamin A. ;On the other hand, a plant-based diet much more closely matched the “true” paleo diet of old on multiple levels including: carbs (believe it or not!), fat, fiber, saturated fat, cholesterol, omega fatty acids, vitamin c, iron, calcium, potassium and sodium. Most of the reasons for all of the similarity between a plant-based diet and the “true” paleo is that the latter is a mostly plant-based diet. Hunters and gatherers of ancient days did not consume large quantities of bacon, sausage, steak and butter. They mostly foraged for their plants and would only occasionally have lean meat that simply doesn’t resemble the typical meat on tables today.
There are many good things that the “new” paleo movement brings to nutrition.Specifically, this type of diet denounces the consumption of junk foods, simple sugars and other processed foods which is always a good thing. But, “new” paleo also tends to be an excuse based on desire and not rooted in science. Advocates of a “new” paleo approach suggest that cholesterol levels are improved when eating a meat based diet. It is true that any regimen that causes weight loss will temporarily reduce cholesterol levels. A meth habit and lap banding will also lower lipid levels. But at what cost? A higher intake of saturated fat leads to higher LDL (bad) cholesterol which has been proven in hundreds of well designed studies to lead to heart disease. It’s reckless to suggest that one can safely eat a diet predominantly of animal protein and not put themselves at risk.
One major call-to-arms in the low-carb/Paleo camp is that excess insulin secretion is dubbed “the root of all evil” and foods that raise insulin should be eliminated from the diet for optimal health. So, which foods do we think raise insulin levels the most? If you’re like me, I would logically convict fruit and other higher carbohydrate foods as the most likely suspects. In a 1997 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 38 foods were systematically analyzed for the insulin response in humans. They found that meat produced a much higher insulin level as compared to it’s glycemic response. In fact, foods high in protein and fat (eggs, beef, fish, doughnuts, cheese) induced as much insulin as some “high-carb” foods. Beef was equal to brown rice and fish equal to multigrain bread. So does a paleo diet really accomplish the stated goal of significantly lower insulin secretion compared to a well rounded plant-based diet? Based on this study and others, the answer is no.
Finally, the question of “where do you get your protein?” always comes up when we talk about a plant-based dietary regimen and protein needs. As I touched on in a previous blog, we have been deluded into thinking that we need some holy grail amount of protein in our diet to be stronger, faster, smarter. However, based on published data, the average protein requirement of an adult is around 42 grams. In a 2013 study, over 70,000 people were included looking at the nutrient profiles of various regimens including vegetarians, vegans and non-vegetarians.Turns out that meat eaters get way more than the requirement and vegetarians/vegans get 70% more than they actually need. So, it is clear that a plant-based diet supplies more than enough protein for athletes and non-athletes alike.
Therefore, while it is good for everyone that processed, low-nutrient, empty-calorie foods are removed from our everyday routine, there are definite health benefits to a mostly plant-based approach that are simply lost in the “new” paleo world.