Straightening out the Facts for “Paleo Diet: Healthy or Hoax?” Article

Straightening out the Facts:
“Paleo Diet: Healthy or Hoax?”

Thursday morning, while sipping on a fresh brewed, French pressed cup of coffee I came across an article in The Huffington Posttitled, “Paleo Diet: Healthy or a Hoax”.  I am usually a relatively objective person and enjoy seeing both sides of an argument (my minor in sports philosophy probably has something to do with that), but the article really got me fired up, so much so that I decided to write a response to it.  I guess it could have been the fact that it was a Thursday, I had a big paper due that afternoon and an exam to study for, or the fact that the arguments in the paper were so poorly constructed.

Here is a link to the aforementioned article if you would like to read through it before you dive into my response.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/20/paleo-diet-healthy_n_1898529.html

To start my review off, I want to declare that I attempted to be as objective as possible, letting the facts speak for themselves and I have great respect for anyone who is attempting to improve the lives of people using nutrition; however, the article presented half truths, hasty generalizations, and did not really present much in the way to factual proof.  Those issues need to be addressed so the American population can make intelligent, informed nutritional decision.  That being said, I decided I would tackle the article as efficiently and precisely as possible (it ended up longer than I anticipated but I wanted to fully address the issues).

First, there is the factual misinformation, or the “half-truths” they provide. Joy Dubost can be quoted as saying “it has eliminated several food groups like dairy and grains, which provide essential nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin D, magnesium, and phosphorous in dairy, and B vitamins, fiber, and antioxidants in grain”. Well Joy, I think we need to straighten a few misconceptions out and look at the facts.  Dairy and grains are not the only source of the things you mention, In fact, I chose to make a “meal” example using Joy’s recommendations and what I might eat for a meal following the Paleo Paradigm, and here is the nutritional breakdown of her suggested food choices vs. my preferred “Paleo” options.

Nutrient Breakdown

The Standard American Diet (SAD), as per Joy’s recommendations, followed the high carbohydrate, low fat, plant based protein recommendations and consisted of 1 cup of milk, 1 cup whole wheat flour (akin to a decent bowl of whole wheat pasta), and 100 g of black beans (plant based protein source).   The Paleo meal consisted of 100 g ground beef (85/15), acorn squash, and a small spinach salad with a handful of almonds.   In full disclosure, I actually ate this exact meal on Friday, although the absolute amounts might not be the same as I am not a fan of weighing and measuring food (a whole separate issue which I will address someday down the road).  I also used the nutritiondata.self.com database to run all this information through and encourage you to double check the results if you would like.

The meals were virtually identical in calories (29 kcal less in the Paleo meal), however their macronutrient and micronutrient profiles were drastically different.  To start off, look at the macronutrient breakdown. The SAD meal had 104 g of CHO, 8 g of fat, and 30 g of protein (73% CHO, 6% Fat, 21% Protein). The Paleo meal had 38 g of CHO, 32 g fat, and 35 g of protein (36 % CHO, 31% Fat, 33% Protein). Even if we stopped there, I think it is safe to say that the SAD meal is extremely unbalanced and would have a high glycemic load on your body, not to mention the lack of healthy fat in the meal (a serious issue in regards to health which we will discuss in a little bit).

Speaking of the fat content, we ought to take a closer look at the fat breakdown between the meals. The SAD meal contained an extremely small amount of fat, especially the essential fats (only 232 mg of Omega-3), where as the Paleo meal contained more than TEN TIMES THAT AMOUNT (2534 mg Omega-3). Also, the Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio is much higher in the SAD vs. Paleo meals at 12.2:1 and 2:1 respectively.   The Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio is positively correlated with systemic inflammation and a quick Google search can lead you to a plethora of excellent studies.

While the quantity of the protein in the meals is similar, their qualities are drastically different.  Below is a breakdown of the amino acid profiles of the proteins present in 100g of black beans vs. 100g of ground beef (85/15).

Amino Acid Profile

The A.A. profile of the beef is far superior to the beans in every category. Looking at these numbers, I think it is hard for anyone to argue that beans are a superior protein source.  Gram for gram the meat is superior in terms of A.A profiles, contains more healthy essential fats, has a better Omega-6/Omega-3 ratio, and is more nutrient dense than the beans. . .Case closed on that front

It is obvious that the macronutrient profile of the Paleo meal is far superior to the SAD in terms of balanced macronutrient ratios, protein quality, glycemic load, and healthy essential fat content.  Diving deeper into the issue and addressing her argument that milk and grains provide essential micronutrients that are missing in Paleo foods, we actually discover that is not true, and in most cases they fall short when compared to a Paleo meal.

According to the nutrient analysis of the SAD meal, there was no vitamin D in dairy or grains. . . except if you chose “fortified” options, fortified meaning you dump vitamins into the mix. According to many nutrition textbooks, the majority of the micronutrients we derive from those grain-based foods are in fact due to the “enrichment” process where additional nutrients are added in. The best sources of Vitamin D found naturally are fatty fish (wild salmon, sardines, anchovies) and are one of the most emphasized foods when following a Paleo diet. Magnesium content was essentially was identical. The SAD meal did contain about 400 mg more phosphorous than the Paleo Meal; however, phosphorous is found in high quantities in meat and eggs, both of which are staples in a Paleo diet, indicating lack of phosphorous is not a real issue when following the Paleo paradigm. In addition, the phosphorous found in SAD foods are generally found in “enriched” or fortified grains, once again, we see you need to dump in extra vitamins and minerals into your food while it is processed in order to get those micronutrients in your diet . . . I am pretty sure my acorn squash and spinach did not need to be fortified.

What about the Vitamin B Joy talks about? First off, there are multiple forms of “Vitamin B”: Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2) Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (P.A.), vitamin B6, Folate, Biotin, and Vitamin B 12.  Lets do a quick rundown on those as well and see what the differences are between the meals.  The SAD meal provided 1.5 mg and 1.7 mg of Thiamin and Riboflavin respectively, while the Paleo meal provided zero.  Ok, the grains “win” here, but once again according to nutrition textbooks, the source of these vitamins is from “enriched or fortified” grains, not from the grains themselves. Niacin, Folate, and B6 levels also are slightly greater in the SAD, but once again, the SAD sources are “enriched or fortified”, whereas the Paleo food choices are from natural sources. Also, nutrition textbooks recommend meat and dark green leafy vegetables as the best source for these vitamins. And I am fairly certain meat and leafy vegetables are epitome of a Paleo based diet.  The Paleo edged out the SAD in terms of B12 and P.A. and came from real, non-enriched food sources.  So the SAD does do a little bit better job of providing the “B” Vitamins;  however, it is not from the food itself, it is from the enrichment/fortification of the grains during processing that gives them the edge. I don’t know about you, but I prefer my nutrients to come from natural sources such as meat, fish, vegetables, nuts, and seeds; not dumped into my food from a bag.

Joy’s next argument about lack of antioxidants completely falls apart when we look at the numbers. Vitamin A, vitamin E, vitamin C, vitamin D, and vitamin K all function as antioxidants, and when we examine the nutrient profiles for these two meals the data is quite alarming. The SAD meal provided virtually no antioxidants when compared to the Paleo meal. The most alarming ones are vitamins A, C, and K. The SAD diet supplied 51.2 IU, 2.5 mg, and 3.2 mcg respectively, while the Paleo meal provided 10258 IU, 51 mg, and 485 mcg respectively.  While many people may think antioxidants are just “health promoters” and aren’t actually necessary, that is not true at all, for example vitamin C is highly important in collagen synthesis. Collagen is essential for healthy bones, ligaments, tendons, and blood vessels.

There is another extremely apparent problem with the SAD meal that Joy “prescribes”; there is ZERO choline, which presents a major problem. Choline is an essential nutrient needed structural integrity and cell signaling for cell membranes and neurotransmitter synthesis.  Choline deficiency can lead to fatty liver and hemorrhagic kidney necrosis, both are things you really, really do not want to have.

Discrepancy in vitamin D. . . check; magnesium . . . check; phosphorous . . . check; fiber. . . check; antioxidants. . . check. Well, there goes the argument about apparent deficiencies in micronutrients from a Paleo based diet. Lets take a brief detour back to the macronutrients and look again at the fat content of the meals

The SAD meal was startling low in healthy fats.  Given the vilification of fats over the fast few decades most people would not think this would be an issue, that could not be further from the truth. Fats are essential in brain function, the production of steroid hormones, bile salts, and maintain our cell membranes. They are key players in the transmission of nerve signals that generate muscle contractions, and are obligatory for the transportation of vitamins D, E, A, and K.  Fats are also a major component in regards to our levels of satiety and neuroregulation of appetite

The issue of saturated fat, meat intake and “clogging your arteries” is a completely separate issue and one I cannot begin to unravel in an article.  There is a lot of research showing that saturated fat intake does not “clog your arteries”, in fact this age-old hypothesis is currently under intense scrutnizaiton. (If you want to take a deeper look at this issue, I suggest you look up Chris Masterjohn, a nutritional biochemist who is heavily researching this issue).

The article also states that low-fat yogurt and blueberries are not allowed. This is not dogma here, I do not remember reading anywhere that says if you have yogurt and blueberries for breakfast, you cannot eat a Paleo based diet. The “no-dairy” is specified for some individuals and as an autoimmune protocol to help attenuate or reverse autoimmune issues. The big names in the “Paleo World” do in fact believe there are people whom are able to process dairy just fine, in fact if grass fed (O6/O3 ratios) it is a great source of probiotics and can be beneficial for certain circumstances.

Lisa Sasson believes that the elimination aspect is detrimental and states, “Quinoa, ice cream, and pasta make use social creatures – these things we love to eat, [make] us social creatures ”. I am fairly certain that I am a social creature and I make do just fine without quinoa or pasta, in fact I would venture to guess that most of us would prefer to eat a steak, dark chocolate, or fresh fruit over virtually flavorless quinoa or pasta. Also, eliminating grains and legumes from your diet does not limit you in anyway from a wide variety of food choices.  I mean lets face it, there are an infinite amount of meals you can make using meat, vegetables, fruits, nuts, oils, and tubers.  I wonder what Joy and Lisa’s stance would be on veganism?  Would they, like the masses of people out there, preach the wondrous “joy” of all things vegan? If so, they would be highly hypocritical. If I am not mistaken, and I do not believe I am, vegan diets are the most exclusionary of all diets: no meat, fish, dairy, eggs, or any other animal by products.

The elimination aspect of the diet is aimed at one thing, to improve your health. It is not there to make life miserable, keep you from enjoying yourself, or prevent you from living; in fact it is supposed to make your life better, allow you to enjoy yourself more, and live longer by decreasing your lifestyle based health issues.

The Paleo diet is not a strict, by the numbers diet. It is a lifestyle, a paradigm by which to live your life.  The whole goal is to eat good, nutrient dense, wholesome foods, aid in autoimmune and lifestyle-based diseases, and to live as healthy as possible. In this specific case the numbers speak for themselves, and they speak quite loudly.  It is clear that Paleolithic food choices are optimal when it comes to food quality and promote healthy, wholesome nutrition.

I will admit to the following: the author of the article did hit the nail on the head when she opened the article by saying “The assertion is simple: diseases like obesity, diabetes, and heart diseases are illnesses ‘of civilization’ and so, to combat the ill effects of the modern diet, we should return to a pre-civilization, hunter-gatherer diet of meat, fish, fruit, and vegetables”. Thank you for sticking with me and reading through the whole article. I apologize for all the numbers and nerd speak but I just can’t help myself. I truly care about your health and well being and hope I can impart a little knowledge that will help you with living a healthy life!

Textbooks for Reference

Antonio, J., Kalman, D., Stout, J. R., Greenwood, M., Willoughby, D. S., & Haff, G. G. (2008). Essentials of Sports Nutrition and Supplements. Humana Press.

Gropper, S. A., Smith, J. L., & Groff, J. L. (2009). Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism. Cengage Learning.

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