Most everyone agrees that Americans eat too much processed food. The evidence is in our expanding waistlines and the growing ranks of type-2 diabetes sufferers.
But does the secret to less obesity and better health really lie in eating like our caveman ancestors, who evolved to be hunter-gatherers? Proponents of a paleo diet say it does and that if you eschew grains, dairy, legumes and added sugar in favor of protein, nonstarchy vegetables and healthy fats, you will look and feel better. Many nutritionists aren’t buying it. They say we’re biologically different from our Paleolithic predecessors and that diets that ban whole categories of relatively unprocessed foods are too restrictive and flawed from a nutritional standpoint.
But there’s another reason you might want to hit pause on a pure Paleo lifestyle. Foods Wilma and Fred didn’t scarf down are forbidden for dieters following their foragers’ path—meaning nix all dairy, legumes (low-fat, protein-packed, fiber-full beans and lentils and healthy-fat peanuts), grains (including wheat, oats, corn, rice, and quinoa) and starchy tubers (including phytochemical-rich potatoes and beta-carotene-packed sweet potatoes).
“I can’t think of any nutritional reason why such foods should be prohibited,” says Marion Nestle, M.P.H. Ph.D.,Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at NYU. Elimination of food groups can also be hard to maintain long-term. “The basic principles of healthful eating are simple and easy-to-follow: Vary unprocessed foods. Don’t overeat.”
A Paleo dieter consumes about 700mg of calcium daily—shy of the recommended 1,000mg for men 19 to 50. Low vitamin D levels—largely in dairy and fortified foods—follows. Cavemen didn’t take supplements nor did they slurp down diet soda, which Paleo allows in limited amounts. Most, says Dr. Marion, also didn’t live past 30.
Follow Paleo and you will get lean. But as Dr. Nestle puts it: “Health is about where the calories come from.” Bottom line: It may be best to try to incorporate the diet’s best principles (like the focus on whole foods ) into your life—without holding yourself to its extremes. But if you do go full-Paleo, stick to lean proteins, and bend the supplementation rule so that you’re getting the nutrients you need.