Paleo Diet: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

paleoman

The Paleo Diet has taken the weight loss and fitness world by storm. But does it really stand up to the hype? Here's the good, the bad, and the ugly on the latest diet craze.

The Good

At its core, the Paleo Diet rests upon sound dietary principles that have withstood the test of time. After all, we are all here and that much is proof that our ancestors were doing something right when it came to diet and nutrition. In a nutshell, we should focus on whole foods found in nature. If a food can't be hunted, gathered, or grown, it's probably not that great of an idea to consume large amounts of it. For much of the world, there still aren't many other options. It is definitely a first-world problem to have to "suck it up" and eat foods that come straight from nature, without having had every last bit of nutrition processed out of them.

Not to mention, the health benefits of giving the body a break from constant inundation with additives, preservatives, colorings, and flavorings that it has yet to evolve adequate metabolic means to deal with. According to FDA, there are over 3000 substances which comprise the "Everything Added to Food in the United States (EAFUS)" list. While certain safety testing is needed to get on the FDA-approved list, it is an easily overlooked- or conveniently forgotten- fact that no amount of testing has ever been done on the health effects of all these 3000 chemicals acting together within the body. However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to note that the sharp rise in chronic disease within the United States corresponds rather closely with the amount of processed foods that Americans consume on a daily basis.

From this perspective of eating a diet that is strongly rooted in wholesome, natural foods, the Paleo Diet stands head and shoulders above the rest. But it is not without its legitimate criticisms.

The Bad

For whatever reason, no dietary program seems to get very far in the mass consciousness without acquiring a growing list of "Thou Shalt Nots" and the Paleo Diet is no exception. In this case, the forbidden foods revolve around a molecule called phytic acid. Also known as as inositol hexakisphosphate (IP6), or simply phytate, this molecule is shunned by Paleo enthusiasts as an "anti-nutrient" due to its ability to bind up nutrients such as iron and zinc that are present in our meals. As nuts, seeds, and beans (legumes) are high in phytic acid content, these otherwise highly nutritious (and natural) foods sometimes find themselves on the no-no list when it comes to the Paleo Diet.

However, what Paleo gurus seem to ignore is that- no matter how much phytate is present in a food- it cannot possibly bind up all the nutrients present. Which means, eating a handful of almonds will always result in a net gain of nutrition to the body. There is no scientific evidence to support the notion that eating phytate- containing foods actually results in a net loss of nutrition to the body.

While it is true that the presence of phytates in a meal can reduce the amount of nutrients that would otherwise be absorbed from a meal, there is no reason to completely disavow these foods. Rather, a more sensible approach is to limit the portion sizes of these foods so that the phytate content is not overwhelming when taken in the context of the entire meal.

In addition, there are other measures that can be taken to minimize the negative impact of phytates on nutrient absorption:

The Ugly

As with every fad diet, there are those people who inevitably take it to the extreme. While fanaticism may be a good motivator for some, there is a tendency to develop a form of tunnel-vision which typically ends up with common-sense getting thrown out the window, and resulting in potential harm. In the case of the Paleo Diet, a friendly attitude toward meats and other animal products tends to attract those who are looking for an excuse to overindulge in fatty meats like bacon, while completely ignoring fruits and vegetables. At the end of the day, there is little use in having ripped abdominal muscles if one will only be sporting them from a casket.

Taken as a whole, the Paleo Diet is a sensible approach to eating that emphasizes whole, natural foods and avoidance of processed, garbage foods. But even the most sensible idea can be turned into a monster when taken with an inflexible, narrow-minded, or extreme attitude. When in doubt, err on the side of moderation and balance, and keep in mind that the loudest voices in life are rarely the most truthful.

References

Engle-Stone R, Yeung A, Welch R, Glahn R. Meat and ascorbic acid can promote Fe availability from Fe-phytate but not from Fe-tannic acid complexes. J Agric Food Chem. 2005 Dec 28;53(26):10276-84. DOI:10.1021/jf0518453.

He WL, Feng Y, Li XL, Yang XE. Comparison of iron uptake from reduced iron powder and FeSO4 using the Caco-2 cell model: effects of ascorbic acid, phytic acid, and pH. J Agric Food Chem. 2008 Apr 23;56(8):2637-42. DOI: 10.1021/jf0730946.

Jin F, Frohman C, Thannhauser TW, Welch RM, Glahn RP. Effects of ascorbic acid, phytic acid and tannic acid on iron bioavailability from reconstituted ferritin measured by an in vitro digestion-Caco-2 cell model. Br J Nutr. 2009 Apr;101(7):972-81. DOI: 10.1017/S0007114508055621.