You may have heard the big news: the paleo diet ranked dead last in the US News and World Report diet rankings. When my inbox floods with links to the latest paleo bashing in the media, I don’t even get surprised or annoyed anymore. It amuses me. The one downside of this stuff is that work grinds to a halt for a few hours because a popular pastime around the Primal headquarters whenever one of these reports comes out is to see who can pick the ripest, most ridiculous misconceptions or blatant falsehoods. The big upside is even more publicity, more notoriety, and more laughter. Laughter is always a good thing.
Initially, you may weep at the ignorance on display. That’s how I was when I first started out, along with a bit of teeth gnashing. But it gives way to deep belly laughter that resonates through every bone in your body and plucks at the ligaments holding them together to create a sweet sonorous melody filling the room and reaching up to the skies above. At least it did for me.
So let’s laugh together. I’ll draw on three of the best statements and quotes we’ve been passing around and provide a bit of translation and/or commentary. Bonus: you can use these as quick replies whenever someone smugly thrusts the US News diet ranking in your face.
Does it have cardiovascular benefits?
While some studies have linked Paleo diets with reducing blood pressure, bad “LDL” cholesterol, and triglycerides (a fatty substance that can raise heart disease risk), they have been few, small, and short. And all that fat would worry most experts.
Translation: Although actual studies on the Paleo diet in live human subjects result in improved risk factors for heart disease, including lower blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides, “all that fat” worries our expert panel. We’ve got a hunch that those results are invalid and do not reflect reality. Because reasons. Just trust us. Hey, who’s up for a SlimFast shake whose third ingredient is heart-healthy sugar?
Translation: There’s absolutely no way to tell if you’ll lose weight on this diet. None. We’ve racked our considerable brains, combed through the scientific literature, and consulted with several dozen different experts on human metabolism and nutrition. We’re all absolutely stumped. There is literally nothing present in the extant body of human knowledge that would indicate the Paleo diet can help you lose weight. The likely, if unfortunate, answer is that we will never – absent divine intervention – truly know if this diet can work for weight loss. We strongly suggest that you abandon your futile pursuit of weight loss on the Paleo diet and turn to one of the weight loss diets with extensive support in the scientific literature, like the Cookie Diet. Oh, and if you think “trying it out for yourself” can help you learn whether or not you’ll lose weight on Paleo, think again! Your inherent bias toward wanting to lose weight on the Paleo diet may induce hallucinatory delusions whenever you step on a scale to track your progress. Your weight will only appear to be lowering, and you’ve always worn that same size pant. What, you had to buy a new belt because the old one wouldn’t fit? How do you know you didn’t just imagine buying a new belt – ever think of that? Exactly. Don’t be fooled by the placebo effect, people.
In reality: Randomized controlled trials of the Paleo diet have shown it works for weight loss. And when compared to the Mediterranean diet, the Paleo diet has been shown to be more satiating per calorie. More recently, the same thing happened when they compared a Paleo diet to a standard diabetes diet in type 2 diabetics. Being able to eat fewer calories – spontaneously – without getting any hungrier is pretty much the defining characteristic of a successful weight loss diet. Paleo is also pretty good at helping you lose fat where it matters most. A recent study showed that postmenopausal women eating Paleo lost liver and waist fat, improving their waist-to-hip ratio and lowering their ApoB (a good approximation for LDL particle number) among other improvements.
Even if those studies didn’t exist, you always have the ability to determine if a diet works by trying it out yourself.
Are there health risks?
Possibly. By shunning dairy and grains, you’re at risk of missing out on a lot of nutrients. Also, if you’re not careful about making lean meat choices, you’ll quickly ratchet up your risk for heart problems.
Translation: By embracing eggs, beef, wild salmon, chicken, lamb, pork, kale, chard, romaine lettuce, spinach, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, broccoli, sweet potatoes, beets, carrots, oranges, sardines, organ meats, shellfish, fennel, onions, garlic, asparagus, seaweed, butternut squash, yellow squash, zucchini, tomatoes, strawberries, cantaloupe, almonds, macadamia nuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts, and tuna, you’re at risk of missing out on a lot of nutrients. All those foods might taste nice and look pretty on a plate, but they are incredibly nutrient-sparse.
You won’t just increase your risk of heart disease. You will “quickly ratchet up” your risk. Let’s take this apart, because it’s a sneaky choice of words. “To ratchet” is “to cause something to rise (or fall) as a step in what is perceived to be an irreversible progress.” So not only are you increasing your risk of heart disease, you are setting out on an irreversible path toward heart problems. Each bite of 85/15 ground beef you take, each morsel of lamb chop you swallow, each time you fail to make a lean meat choice – these are death contracts upon which you can never renege.
In reality: I actually won’t quibble on the notion of dairy being a good, dependable source of nutrients like calcium, potassium, protein, and healthy fats. It is, which is why I support the consumption of dairy as long as you’re not intolerant of any of the components and suffer no ill symptoms. That said, you don’t need to eat dairy to get calcium, potassium, protein, or fat (besides, I highly doubt US News and World Reports count “dairy fat” as one of the benefits). In fact, leafy greens like kale, collards, mustard greens, and spinach and other vegetables like bok choy are excellent sources of calcium. Edible bony fish like canned sardines are also a great Paleo source of calcium, while protein and potassium are easy to come by on Paleo (in fact, the US News and World ranking committee admitted that Paleo provided nearly 10 grams of potassium, or double the recommended amount). As for general nutrient density, basic Paleo meets or (more commonly) exceeds the USDA recommendations for most nutrients (PDF).
I was disappointed to see that they’d removed the reader response section, where readers could vote on whether a particular diet had worked for them or not. In 2011, when Paleo was similarly trashed by US News and World Report, the reader response overwhelmingly indicated that the diet worked for people (who were possibly experiencing a collective hallucination). This directly contradicts the opinion of the experts that Paleo is just too hard to follow (even if it were effective). Same goes for the way “paleo diet” is trending on Google. As Robb Wolf illustrates in his recent rebuttal to the diet rankings, if Paleo was “too hard,” we wouldn’t see the consistent upward trend of Google searches. We’d see a big drop off in interest – and we just aren’t seeing that.
Anyway, those are my thoughts. What about you? How many relatives and friends have you heard from regarding this? Does it change your mind at all?
Thanks for reading, all!
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.