Paleo pitfalls

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

October 2013

The paleo diet is based on what our Stone Age ancestors are likely to have eaten with some minor concessions to modern tastes. It includes lean meat and fish, vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries. It excludes all cereal grains, legumes, including beans, dairy products and processed foods. Is it possible to reproduce that diet today?

Unfortunately we cannot return to the agricultural Eden of the Stone Age. Before the Agricultural Revolution hunter-gatherers could choose from more than 100 edible plants, several times as many as the most dedicated shopper will find in the local market. Their fruits and vegetables were not starch-laden like ours and the fiber content was much higher. In order to get sufficient daily calories the typical Stone Age human took in roughly 10 times as much fiber as we do. Modern fruits and vegetables are bred for sweetness, size and suitability for mechanized harvesting, not for nutritional value. The United States Department of Agriculture has documented the decline of nutrients in garden crops for decades.

The percentage of fat in venison is about 7 percent, roughly one-fifth of that in a T-bone steak. Almost all that deer fat is polyunsaturated and heart-healthy while the fat of a beefsteak is almost all saturated and contributes to the epidemic that has made 30 percent of us obese. Even lean cuts of supermarket beef have more saturated fat than most wild game because modern cattle eat corn, not grass.

The exclusion of dairy products from the paleo diet eliminates a source of vitamin D. Our ancestors lived in temperate climates where sun exposure provided plenty of vitamin D and they wore little or no clothing. Paleo diet enthusiasts who live in the northern half of the U.S. receive so little of the proper wavelength of sunlight that for several months of the year they are unable to produce vitamin D.

The paleo diet excludes legumes because like grains, they contain substances that interfere with the absorption of iron and calcium. However, most of these antinutrients can be removed by soaking and cooking. Vegetarians, especially vegans, need legumes for adequate protein.

Even though we cannot reproduce the true paleo diet of the Stone Age, we can follow its basic principles: lean meats, lots of fruits and vegetables, no refined grains or sugar, avoidance of fried foods and plenty of nuts and berries. And an occasional glass of wine.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.