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last updated March 3, 2021

Is Paleo a fad diet?

by Rob Arthur

If you’ve been reading my writing for any appreciable amount of time, you probably know that I like to look at things through an evolutionary lens.

I’ve written before that our accelerating rates of chronic disease and obesity might be the result of a mismatch between our modern environment and our genes, which have been selected over millions of years under a different set of environmental circumstances.

You probably also know, though, that I tend to be pretty “diet agnostic” (a phrase I took from Precision Nutrition) and find the notion of a “best diet” to be ludicrous.

So, where does Paleo fall within this apparent dichotomy?

Well, it’s complicated.

I’m actually a really big fan of Paleo – with some significant caveats.

It’s my opinion that a nutrient-dense diet, based on minimally processed meat, fish, fruit, veggies, nuts, and seeds, has a whole lot to offer in terms of nutritional “bang for your buck”.

If one attaches the word, “Paleo” to such a way of eating, though, they are often mocked and chastised.

There seems to be divisiveness when it comes to the subject of Paleo – some promote it as a “one size fits all” panacea, whereas others denounce it as a restrictive, unsustainable fad diet.

It seems to me that both of these perspectives miss the mark, and there are some nuanced points to consider – pertaining to both the common praises and criticisms of Paleo – when evaluating whether adopting a Paleo diet is a valid means for improving one’s health and fitness.

Paleo is not about eating “like a caveman”.

Many who adopt a Paleo way of eating evaluate their food choices based on the following logic:

“Paleolithic populations were more healthy and physically capable than modern man, and we haven’t evolved since the dawn of agriculture, so we should eat like Paleolithic populations”.

Is there evidence to suggest that our physical health and relative fitness has been on the decline since the dawn of agriculture?

Perhaps, but the goal of eating “like a caveman” is problematic for a few reasons.

First and foremost, there was no single “Paleo diet” – prehistoric populations’ eating habits varied according to season and local availability.

Even among modern hunter-gatherer populations, we see that some thrive on high-carb, low-fat diets while others thrive on low-carb, high-fat diets.

Some thrive on a diet heavily reliant on animal foods, while others thrive on a predominantly plant-based diet.

Suggesting that any list of foods or macronutrient profile is “ideal” without considering a host of factors – genetics, dietary history, physical activity levels, and preferences, for example – is irresponsible.

Second, the foods to which we have access today are not the same foods to which our Paleolithic ancestors had access.

For example, cows, lambs, sheep, and pigs weren’t domesticated until around the same time grains and other crops were domesticated, so if you’re avoiding other foods under the justification that we didn’t eat them until the dawn of agriculture, you might as well cut out these foods as well.

Oh, and you’d need to eliminate pretty much all fruits and vegetables, as they’ve been selectively bred to be larger, more flavorful, more colorful, more transportable, and more digestible than their prehistoric ancestors.

Finally, evolution didn’t just stop once we started farming, we as a population have continued to see genetic adaptations since the dawn of agriculture, and some of these genetic adaptions do accommodate foods that aren’t often considered Paleo.

One such example is lactase persistence – an adaptation that allows for production of the enzyme necessary for digestion of lactose from milk past weaning ages.

Do all humans have this adaptation?

No.

However, to say that we should all avoid milk because cavemen didn’t drink it is misguided.

On a relate note, I’d be surprised if there haven’t been at least some other genetic adaptations over the past 10,000 years that allow certain individuals and populations to better digest and utilize other foods, like grains or even vegetable oils, that aren’t considered Paleo.

I haven’t seen – or looked for, to be honest – any data to back this up, but I don’t think it’s too far-fetched of an idea for those in the Paleo community to consider.

I suppose all this is to say that the idea that we should eat certain foods *because* cavemen ate them might not be the best strategy for determining what to or not to eat.

Rather the whole “eat like a caveman” concept might be most effective a tool for quickly and easily picturing in one’s head what kinds of foods are most likely well suited for human consumption based on the idea of naturally selection.

There is no “one size fits all” approach to Paleo.

As mentioned above, there are many variations of Paleo diets.

You might also notice that I use the term “Paleo” loosely throughout this article, in some contexts referring to more conventional definitions of the Paleo diet, whereas in other contexts to referring to the collective body of diets based on the notion that many staples of our modern diets are sub-optimal compared to the eating habits of generations past.

At the root of this ambiguity with respect to what should or shouldn’t be included in a Paleo diet is the fact that we’re all different, and what’s optimal for one person might not be optimal for another.

We all have individual needs, preferences, goals, and dietary intolerances and sensitivities for a variety of reasons.

For example, I find that I do just fine with well-cooked beans, hard cheeses, and the occasional beer.

Some in the Paleo community would cry, “foul”, at the idea of eating these foods under the notion that cavemen didn’t eat them.

Yet, after having eliminated these foods (among others) for an extended period of time and then reintroducing them, I see no ill effect.

Of course, my tolerance for each of these foods and their prominence in my diet varies, but I still don’t find that it’s necessary to swear them off completely because they aren’t on some list.

If a food doesn’t seem to negatively affect your progress towards your goals, why exclude it?

This applies not only to individual food choices, but also overall dietary patterns and macronutrient profiles.

Hard-charging athlete looking to smash PR’s, build mass, or compete?

You might feel better sticking with a higher-carb variation implementation of Paleo, and may even benefit from “non-Paleo” foods like dairy or white rice, depending on your needs.

Insulin-resistant desk jockey looking to manage blood sugar?

You might feel better sticking to highly satiating, nutrient-dense foods, slowly digesting foods like meat and veggies.

Trying to figure out if food is playing a role in a health issue?

You might consider implementing a more stringent set of guidelines more reflective of a traditional elimination diet (I’ll touch on this a bit more further down).

Are any of these hard and set rules for anybody?

Not at all.

The point is that any dietary strategy should only be implemented in a manner that aligns with your goals.

Now, that being said, I tend to think that a vast majority of individuals will look, feel, and perform their best without grains, vegetable oils and trans fats, and added sugar, but beyond that the details get really freaking hazy.

There may be benefit to being more restrictive at least for a little while so that you can establish a baseline before determining which foods do and do not work for you.

After all, nobody notices when a bird poops on a dirty windshield.

However, if you feel fine while regularly consuming dairy, legumes, potatoes, or whatever else you read on some blog should be avoided, then I see no need to eliminate them from your eating habits.

This is especially if you are using more traditional preparation methods like soaking, sprouting, and fermenting to better accommodate digestion and utilization of these more “gray area” foods.

You do you.

Paleo is not about weight loss.

As mentioned above, many of the guidelines associated with Paleo diets are intended to maximize nutrient density while minimizing exposure to potentially problematic foods in terms of palatability, ease of overconsumption, or other health issues associated with food.

If you look at the writing at some of the older or more prominent voices in the field – Boyd Eaton, Loren Cordain, Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson, Sarah Ballantyne, and Robb Wolf, for example – you’ll find that their work emphasizes health, wellness, and longevity much more than it emphasizes weight loss.

Now, does one have to implement a Paleo diet to be optimally healthy?

Of course not, but sticking to meat, fish, veggies, fruit, nuts, and seeds might make it a whole lot simpler (although not necessarily easier).

I’ve written before that most successful dietary approaches usually result in the following:

  1. Increased intake of protein, fiber, and healthy fats, which help us feel satisfied and encourage appropriate appetite signals.
  2. Emphasis on nutrient-dense foods that support the countless physiological processes that keep us healthy.
  3. Decreased intake of hyper-palatable foods – often highly engineered combinations of sugar, fat, salt, and contrasting textures – that promote overconsumption.
  4. Reduced exposure to foods and ingredients that may contribute to chronic inflammation and disease.
  5. An overall awareness of the impact of what how we eat, move, and live on how we look, feel, and perform that results in ongoing investment in our health across many lifestyle factors.

These outcomes not only promote health, but often also result in naturally eating an amount more appropriate for one’s needs with respect to body composition.

While these outcomes can be achieved with a variety of eating strategies, you might think of Paleo as a “shotgun blast” for optimizing one’s diet if you’re not too concerned with identifying which specific foods may or may not be keeping you from realizing your health goals.

Similarly, you might even think of Paleo as “nutritional insurance”, the benefits of which you may or may not ever need or notice in terms of specific causes and effects.

What’s often overlooked by many implementing a Paleo diet is that there are plenty of “Paleo” foods – most notably “Paleo” treats developed by food companies looking to capitalize on its rising popularity – that might not be the most accommodating to beneficial physical change.

We can swap out wheat flour for taro flour, cane sugar for coconut sugar, and vegetable oil for ghee, for example, but our livers, muscles, and fat cells can’t tell the difference.

Snacking on cookies, cakes, juices, smoothies, and all other sorts of hyper-palatable, easy-to consume foods made from “Paleo” ingredients may be an effective way to minimize exposure to potentially inflammatory of otherwise problematic ingredients, but if your goal is weight loss or blood sugar regulation, you might as well choose their conventional equivalents.

Nuts and nut butters are also a common offender here, too – it’s not difficult to eat an excessive amount of these energy-dense foods if not paying attention to portion size.

Sure, these foods might be made of ingredients considered “Paleo”, but consideration should be given to how any food – Paleo or not – aligns with one’s goals.

Calories still count – even with foods considered to be “Paleo”.

Fat bombs and Paleo cookies might not be helping you out too much if you’re implanting a Paleo diet to lose excess weight.

In the same vein, the minuscule amount of sugar in whatever spice, seasoning, or rub you might be avoiding because sugar “isn’t Paleo” probably isn’t your limiting factor.

Sticking to strict lists of ingredients just because they’re “compliant”, without any regard for their nutritional content will not necessarily lead to any significant change in body composition or overall health.

When we implement a Paleo diet, steer clear from the “treats” mentioned above, and don’t seek to replace conventional junk food with “Paleo” junk food, we might find it to take less effort and attention to eat an amount more appropriate for our needs, improve our hormonal profile, and thus lose excess body fat a bit.

Also, no diet will negate poor sleep, high stress, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Most who implement a Paleo diet and successfully improve their physical health tend to take steps to improve other lifestyle factors like sleep, physical activity, and stress management – outcomes not specific to Paleo.

If you’re coming to any way of eating – Paleo or otherwise – focusing solely on the number on the scale, or because you think your life will be better once you look a certain way or reach a certain weight, you’re going to be disappointed (more on this later).

If, however, your priority is to get healthy AF, to feel awesome, and identify what foods may or may not be contributing to your health and fitness efforts because you love – not hate – your body, then you’ll probably do much better.

Paleo is not necessarily “too restrictive” or “unsustainable”.

Many criticize Paleo saying that it is too restrictive and can lead to nutrient deficiencies.

While there are a variety of different lists of foods that are avoided as part of a Paleo diet, those that are most often eliminated are grains, dairy, legumes and beans, added sugar, and refined vegetable oils.

The idea behind eliminating these foods is that they are often the “usual suspects” with respect to digestive issues, chronic inflammation, autoimmune issues, or other diseases of lifestyle.

Though some traditional populations regularly ate (and eat) these foods without negative health outcomes, the options most of us have access to in grocery stores likely aren’t grown and prepared with traditional methods, and potentially problematic bioactive compounds may not have been deactivated or, in the case of milk, the compounds that support digestion may have been destroyed through modern processing.

Even if these foods are benign, I don’t see how their elimination would inherently contribute to nutrient deficiencies.

Without fortification, the foods that are minimized on a Paleo diet pale in nutritional comparison to those that are emphasized.

I’m not aware of any essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, or minerals that are found only in grains, legumes, vegetable oils, or dairy.

Now, some variations of Paleo are a bit more restrictive.

More stringent varieties also restrict foods like nightshades (like tomatoes and eggplant), potatoes, and other various foods.

These more restrictive alternatives are typically only suggested for those who are struggling with serious health issues that they haven’t been able to treat otherwise.

For example, there’s a popular version of Paleo called “Autoimmune Paleo” (AIP) that is probably the most restrictive variation.

The reason for the strict guidelines associated with AIP is because it is intended to help individuals identify what foods may be playing a role in autoimmune disorders, digestive issues, or other health problems.

There are plenty of anecdotes of people seeing positive effects on symptoms of various health issues upon implementing AIP or similar diets – one such anecdote is that of Dr. Terry Wahls.

Again, if we swap out the word “Paleo” and replace it with “elimination diet”, there seems to be a whole lot less of a fuss, for some reason.

Finally, I find it hypocritical to criticize Paleo for being “too restrictive” for eliminating foods that we’ve only had access to for roughly only 10,000 years, while not batting an eye at the idea of eliminating animal products, which we’ve been eating for millions of years.

I’m not trying to pick on vegans here, but am pointing out what seems to be a double standard, as long-term restriction of animal foods without supplementation (only possible through modern advances in technology) is much more nutritionally problematic than long-term restriction of the likes of grains, vegetable oils, and dairy.

Ultimately, “sustainability” and “restrictive” are in the eye of the beholder, and are dependent entirely on the mindset, goals, and preferences of the individual.

Many find that they do just fine with a “90/10” or “80/20” with respect to foods they consider Paleo and foods they don’t, while others feel better going 100% all the time.

You might evaluate whether you are an abstainer or moderator, and then proceed accordingly.

Paleo does not cause disordered eating.

I almost included this in the preceding section, but felt that it might be better served with its own dedicated section.

Is there an association between restrictive diets and disordered eating?

Yes.

But which – the restrictive diet or the disordered eating – is horse and which is the cart?

I’m certainly no expert on the subject, but there appear to be a variety of factors that contribute to the development of disordered eating, and disordered eating seems to be the result of deeper emotional and mental issues that are manifested through – not caused by – one’s eating habits.

I haven’t written much about my own struggles with this, but I used to obsess over food, losing weight, and looking a certain way, and it was absolutely negatively impacting my life in a variety of ways.

What’s interesting, though, is that I am probably more “strict” now than I was before, yet it’s no longer a stressor, I no longer freak out when I have access only to foods I don’t normally eat, and I don’t let my dietary preferences get in the way of living my life.

None of this progress has been because I’ve been forcing myself to eat foods that don’t align with my goals.

It’s been the result of deep internal work to address the emotions, beliefs, and though patterns that led me obsess over food years ago.

I’ve been eating a Paleo-ish diet for about 6 years now, and I don’t feel deprived or like I’m punishing myself.

I love the way I feel, I love the idea of maximizing nutrient density, I’ve learned to cook simple, delicious foods that I legitimately enjoy, and I have no problem avoiding foods that I once ate regularly.

Do I still struggle with thought patterns that don’t serve me?

Sure, but I’ve found these patterns to correlate much more closely with factors like my social life and sense of purpose than with what I put on my plate.

That all being said, Paleo *is* more restrictive than many other ways of eating, so if the idea of dietary exclusion causes you distress or promotes thought patterns and behaviors that negatively impact other areas of your life, Paleo might not be a good fit for you.

If you find yourself preoccupied with food, your weight, and how you look – to the point at which it is negatively impacting other areas of your life – you may not need another diet, you may need the help of a qualified professional.

The benefits of implementing Paleo-style diets are supported by scientific literature.

While I do like dabble on PubMed, to pick out specific studies and act like I fully grasp their applicability and validity would be misleading.

Fortunately, there are others with more academic backgrounds and larger teams than I who have compiled some literature on the subject, so I’ll direct you towards them.

You can find my favorite collections of literature here, here, here, and here.

I’m not offering these links to say that everybody should go Paleo, but I am offering them as a counter to the notion a Paleo approach is not supported by scientific literature.

Is Paleo a fad diet?

So I suppose I still haven’t quite answered the question of whether Paleo is a fad diet.

The answer – well, my answer – is “it depends”.

Dictionary.com defines “fad” as:

“A temporary fashion, notion, manner of conduct, etc., especially one followed enthusiastically by a group.”

The key word here is “temporary” – and can be looked at from both an individual and a population perspective.

If we are to consider those who jump from one diet to another in an effort to lose weight because they read that it worked on some blog or because their cousin spoke highly of it, then sure, it’s totally valid to consider Paleo “a fad diet”.

If, however, you zoom out a bit, and consider that we, as a species, have been eating “Paleo” diets (emphasis on the plurality of the term) for the vast majority of our time on this planet, then I don’t think it’s that crazy to consider our modern agriculture-dependent diet more of a fad.

Let’s look at another definition.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center defines “fad diet” as:

“A fad diet is a diet that promises quick weight loss through what is usually an unhealthy and unbalanced diet. Fad diets are targeted at people who want to lose weight quickly without exercise. Some fad diets claim that they make you lose fat, but it’s really water weight you’re losing.”

Are there marketers, bloggers, vloggers, and Insta-stars promoting a Paleo diet as a means of achieving quick weight loss?

Sure, but I’m not sure they are more numerous than (or even as numerous as) those promoting other dietary interventions for the same reason.

As mentioned above, if you’ll read the work of the more prominent voices in the field – Chris Kresser, Mark Sisson, Sarah Ballantyne, and Robb Wolf, for example – you’ll find that their emphasis is on health, not weight loss, and they promote it as a long-term change rather than a quick method of weight loss.

Additionally, there’s nothing inherently “unhealthy and unbalanced” about eliminating any of the foods that are typically avoided with a Paleo approach.

There are no essential nutrients found uniquely in foods that are avoided with a Paleo approach.

I’ll also add that, at least based on Google Trends, there is justification for saying there’s been a “fad” based around “Paleo diet”, peaking around 2012-2013.

Does the presence of a fad, though, necessarily mean that the subject of the fad isn’t effective or valid?

It seems to me that a fad is more a reflection of individual motives and media attention than it is a reflection of the qualities of the subject of said fad.

That said, many do not put in the time and/or effort to ensure their Paleo diet is nutritionally complete, but any nutrients they are missing are not exclusive to grains, dairy, refined sugar, or processed oils.

A poorly implemented diet is a poorly implemented diet, and there’s nothing about Paleo that makes it any more or less susceptible to nutritional inadequacy than any other diet.

Perhaps we should shift our focus away from the concept of “fad diets” – Paleo or not – and instead start looking at the societal factors that contribute to being drawn to quick-fix weight loss and the market forces that make them so damn pervasive.

So, what does this mean for you?

I’m not a doctor or dietitian, but if you are drawn to the idea of a Paleo diet, I see no reason why you shouldn’t give it a shot, considering that it appears to be adaptable to a wide variety of dietary needs and preferences.

Keep in mind, though, that it is not a panacea, you still need to ensure adequate protein, healthy fat, vitamins, and minerals, and will still need to establish consistent healthy eating habits based around your personal needs, preferences, and goals.

You may feel better with lower or higher carbohydrate intake based on your individual needs, preferences, and goals.

You may feel better eating twice a day, or you might feel better eating six times a day.

Also, Paleo – or any framework adopted for the pursuit of health – is not just about food.

Even looking at things through an evolutionary lens, food isn’t the only thing about our modern environments and lifestyles that are negatively affecting our health.

You may need to address sleep, stress management, time with nature, relationships, and physical activity.

As with any attempt to improve your body or your health, come at it with the same mindset necessary for any successful intervention – a long-term behavior change pursued out of self-love, not a quick fix pursued out of self-hate.

Find a variation that appeals to you, give it a shot for several weeks – consistently – and then start experimenting to see how your food choices affect your progress towards your goals – not anybody else’s.

Prioritize progress and consistency over perfection.

You won’t be “perfect” – there are no rules when it comes to food, only choices and effects.

Consider how foods actually affect you, not whether they fit on some list.

You might not need to skip the barbecue because there’s sugar in the dry rub.

You might not want to eat an entire box of cookies made from dates and almond flour just because they don’t have cane sugar and wheat.

You might not want to dump unlimited ghee and coconut oil in your coffee every morning just because it doesn’t spike insulin.

Get started, take baby steps (or go all in, if that works better for you), and constantly assess how your changes are working for you.

If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to shoot them my way and I’d be more than glad to share with you my thoughts.

Otherwise, have a most excellent day!


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