Those of us who have spent some (or all) of our lives as vegetarians—strict or otherwise—may be scratching our heads at the currently popular Paleo diet. Although there are many versions of Paleo ( “Paleo” as in “Paleolithic,” also known as the Caveman or Ancestor diet), they all urge us to “eat as our ancestors did.” That means consuming meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts, while eliminating milk, grains, and soy.
There is something of value in the Paleo diet, as well as much that deserves closer scrutiny. I'm grateful that Paleo friends have brought fats and oils, including saturated fats, back from the dustbin of scorned foods. I never thought low-fat diets were healthy for anyone, except possibly those with heart disease. (Dr. Dean Ornish, for example, developed an almost entirely plant-based, low-fat diet which he demonstrated can reverse heart disease.)
When Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé was published in 1971, it upended the conventional wisdom that vegetarians could not get all eight essential amino acids and that the only “complete protein” was to be found in meat. Lappé also demonstrated that not only can a vegetarian diet be a healthy one, it has far less impact on the earth. Less land and water are used to feed populations that eat primarily plant-based diets as compared to meat-based diets. In the 1991 edition of Diet for a Small Planet, Lappé writes: “For every 16 pounds of grain and soy fed to beef cattle in the U.S., we only get one pound back in meat on our plates.”
Many of us who started down the path of vegetarianism are concerned about the health of the planet, the well-being of animals, and our own health and well-being. Yet many yoga practitioners (and others) who had been complete vegetarians for years are now eating meat and reporting they feel much better. And I believe them. But has the paleo pendulum swung too far to the other side? Is it any better to demonize grains than meat? Paleo proponents say we humans aren’t designed to eat grains, but are grains really the problem, or is it highly processed food that's loaded with sugar?
I also question the prevalence of coconut and chocolate in many Paleo recipes. 10,000+ years ago everyone ate local food, and if your ancestors did not live in tropical climates, they would not have been eating these. The current quest for coconut and palm oils is resulting in the destruction of tropical rain forests. (With that in mind, might not olive oil be a better choice?)
What About Gluten?
Some people are attracted to the Paleo diet because they want to avoid gluten in wheat, rye, barley, and commercial oats. But wait! Stop! If you want to be grain-free for this reason, first get a simple blood test for celiac disease, known as the tTG-IgA test. If you stop eating gluten, you can’t be tested unless you start eating it again, and if you feel better, you won’t want to do that! Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that is said to affect 1 in 133 people in North America. (This oft-cited statistic comes from the research done by Dr. Alessio Fasano in 2003. An excellent resource is his 2014 book Gluten Freedom which was written for the general public. You can read more about him and his groundbreaking research here.)
Some people are attracted to the Paleo diet because they want to avoid gluten in wheat, rye, barley, and commercial oats.
In actuality, the real number of those affected with celiac disease and other gluten-related disorders may be much higher because many people remain undiagnosed. The symptoms of celiac disease can be silent, even though damage to the lining of the small intestine is occurring. Celiac disease is NOT the same as a wheat allergy or a gluten sensitivity. In the latter two cases, it may be possible to eat gluten again after taking a break. But with an autoimmune condition such as celiac disease, the immune system is trained to recognize the “enemy.” Once the body marks gluten as an “enemy,” the immune system may attack with even more vengeance if gluten is eaten again. There is also a genetic component to celiac disease, and once the gene is triggered, it does not “go back into the bottle,” so to speak; a lifelong gluten-free diet is a necessity.
Myths About Paleo
I’d also like to comment on three of the more prevalent myths that abound in the Paleo world:
Myth #1: “We’re not designed to eat grains. Grains have only been around for 10,000 years, and that’s not a very long time.”
There is evidence that Tibetans were eating barley as long as 30,000 years ago. But I would also argue that 10,000 years actually IS a long time, and we humans are a very resilient and adaptive species.
In 2005, National Geographic published an article about three populations in the world who live long, vibrant, productive lives over age 100. These regions, the researchers found, produce more centenarians who enjoy more years of good life than anywhere else. None of these cultures eat what would qualify as a strict Paleo diet. The Sardinians in Italy eat a diet rich in vegetables, beans, cheese made from sheeps' milk, flat bread, sourdough bread, and wine. The Okinawans in Japan eat lots of vegetables, tofu, miso soup, fish, and rice. And the Seventh Day Adventists in southern California eat a diet centered around grains, beans, soy, and nuts.
All of these diets do intersect with the Paleo diet in some ways. For example, all of these traditions emphasize the importance of cooking from scratch with fresh ingredients. And I can understand why a vegetarian diet of brown rice, veggies, and tofu might not actually work for some people at all. But let’s not demonize grains and beans for everyone!
Myth #2: “Buckwheat and quinoa are okay because they are seeds, not grains.”
ALL grains are (or were) seeds, but not all seeds are grains. The most common grains (e.g., wheat, rice, oats, and corn) are in the grass, or Gramineae, family. Millet, sorghum, and teff are also in the same family. Buckwheat is completely different, being in the Polygonaceae family, related to rhubarb, while quinoa is a member of the Chenopodium family.
Myth #3: “ Grains have phytochemicals that make them indigestible to humans.”
Remember, grains are seeds and, from a plant’s point of view, it's good for a seed to be hard to digest so that it remains undigested and thereby is spread to a new location! However, humans have discovered methods to get around that, including soaking, sprouting, cooking, using spices, and fermenting grains (as in sourdough). Fermented soy (miso and tamari) are also important sources of plant-based alkaline protein and seasoning for many, particularly throughout Asia.
Those of us reading this—with internet access—have choices our ancestors didn’t have.
No matter what we eat, we can probably agree that food isn’t what it used to be. And now many of us have compromised digestive systems for many reasons, including, I suspect, a cumulative exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment. But we do have choices! Those of us reading this—with internet access—have choices our ancestors didn’t have. We can choose to enjoy food from other regions of the world sometimes. Other times we can choose to eat fresh and local. We can be more aware of how our food choices can affect not only our health, but the health of the planet. And we can honor our ancestors without eating the way (we think) they did.