The Paleo Diet – the latest attempt to rehabilitate meat

The latest attempt to rehabilitate meat, and sell it to us as healthy food, is the so-called Paleo diet. Don’t fall for it! As with all the previous attempts, this one falls way short of good health and a sustainable or compassionate diet. Unfortunately many in the public will grasp onto anything that tells them what they want to hear.

This heavily meat-centered diet, which excludes all beans and grains (significant prohibitions), relies upon the excuse that the caveman ate that way, so we should too. For this new diet in particular, the assumptions and the reasoning really need to be questioned.  We’ll do just that. Then we’ll review what we really do know and what facts we can count on.  But we can tell you right now that the healthy vegetarian diet is still the healthiest diet there is.

Few would dispute that pre-humans and early humanity, in common with other primates (monkeys and apes) with which we largely share anatomy and physiology, evolved over the last few tens of million years or so as vegetarians. Then, let’s say about a million years ago, no one knows exactly when, desperate for food and competing with other animals for it, early signs of meat eating by humans slowly began to emerge. Back then it was probably mostly opportunistic, perhaps feeding off what was left of a dead carcass that had been left by another animal. Perhaps about 500,000 years ago, a group we’ll call “Paleo Man” began to venture out of, or were forced out of, the semi-tropics to more northern latitudes, and for the first time the seasons were encountered, particularly the winter. Changes in climate, such as the ice age, made the winter even more extreme and difficult to survive. Having no other choice and facing starvation, Paleo Man had to start to hunt animals for food whenever there were no plant foods available, and so meat eating became more common. It was also much more risky, as hunters might come back with nothing, or facing fierce animals with nothing more than a club and a spear, they might be out-fought and wind up not coming back at all. Plant foods would thus always be a safer choice, when available. Proponents of the Paleo diet claim that during this brief time (by evolutionary standards), we somehow quickly evolved as meat eaters.

Does this sound like a lot of guesswork and hypothesizing? You’re right, it is. So what can we be sure of? We can be sure that today we have the anatomy and physiology of herbivores. Our current design is that of a creature suited to eating plant foods only. This may sound new to many of you, but rest assured that leading anthropologists and medical doctors have affirmed this time and again. Consider that Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, discovered this for himself and became a vegetarian. More recently, famous anthropologist Jane Goodall realized this as well, and also became a vegetarian.  She declared in a recent book that mankind simply doesn’t have the body of a meat eater. Summing up the whole situation, world-famous anthropologist Ashley Montagu said “The order in which man belongs, the primates, is, in every one of its almost 200 species, predominantly vegetarian. Man took to killing animals as a means to supplementing his diet from necessity. That necessity has long ceased to exist. There has long been available a complete assortment of plant foods which contain everything necessary for health and welfare, so that no one ever need eat meat and dairy again.”

The claim is made by promoters of the Paleo diet that somehow in the last million years or so, we must have evolved so that our bodies are now no longer the bodies and physiology of herbivores, but of omnivores. Nothing can be further from the truth. Today’s leading medical doctors agree. Dr. William Clifford Roberts, the Editor in Chief of the American Journal of Cardiology, says “although we think we are one and we act as if we are one, human beings are not natural carnivores or omnivores…flesh was never intended for human beings who are natural herbivores.” According to Dr. Milton Mills, a Board Certified Internist, human beings have the anatomy and physiology of a “committed herbivore.” See his detailed comparison chart of herbivores, omnivores and carnivores.

The health claim centers around the assumption of an over-idealized image that cavemen, or Paleo people as we shall call them, were particularly healthy. It turns out, however, that they usually led short and difficult lives, with average life span of only 35 years or so, with accidents, exposure to the elements, infection and even starvation being their leading causes of death and disease. Since the effects of meat on health can take years to develop, the Paleo diet promoters really can’t say that meat is healthier to eat, or that the Paleo people were healthier as a result of eating meat, because they simply didn’t live long enough to develop diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – the leading causes of death and disease today.

Proponents of the Paleo diet claim that Paleo people ate meat derived from wild game, and that wild game has only 20% fat versus 40% in much of today’s meat. Wild game does have lower fat levels, but where would the average person get enough wild game to live on today? The lower fat and saturated fat claim is also probably true, but it strikes us as similar to saying “these cigarettes have only half the tar and nicotine as those.” To which we respond, “why smoke at all?”

The claim is made that cavemen routinely ate enormous amounts of meat. While cavemen certainly did eat some meat, this exaggerated claim has been seriously questioned by scientists, with recent evidence showing that Paleo Man ate a lot more plant foods than the Paleo diet proponents would have us believe.

Perhaps the most troubling is the claim that meat provided the protein necessary for the increase in our brain size.  This is a replay of the old question: where would vegetarians get enough protein? The fact is that plant foods have more than enough protein, and that, for most of our history, our brain sized had already increased to almost its current size on plant foods alone. We might also mention that one study showed that kids raised vegetarian grow one inch taller and have 5 more points on their IQs than average. The list of genius vegetarians is quite impressive and includes people such as Plato, Da Vinci, Newton and Einstein. If meat were responsible for intelligence and big brains, then lions and tigers would be way smarter than humans and apes, but the evidence is that our vegetarian primate family are the smartest creatures that walk the land.

The problem with the Paleo diet concept is that it doesn’t go back far enough. It’s not Paleo enough. Since we’ve never lost the original bodily function and design of the herbivore, it’s the vegetarian diet that’s the true Paleo diet. Faced with starvation, Paleo people had no choice but to eat meat. But we have plenty of choices, and one modern medical study after the other shows that our best food choice is a vegetarian one. According to Dr. Joel Fuhrman M.D., studies show that those following a vegetarian diet for even just half their lives live on average 13 years longer than meat eaters. Perhaps noted author and chair of the Nutrition Department at New York University, Marion Nestle, said it best when she said, “there’s no question that vegetarian diets are as healthy as you can get. The evidence is so strong and overwhelming, and produced over such a long period of time, that it’s no longer debatable.”