Divisive Paleo Diet Impractical for Many

Isabel Hulkhower, Columnist

If you’ve spent any time down the rabbit hole of outlandish food trends, you’ve undoubtedly come across the paleo diet. Paleo is an extremely rigid lifestyle plan in which dieters only eat foods cave people would have been able to hunt or gather, such as meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. The diet forbids the consumption of anything else, including things like grains of any sort, legumes, dairy, refined sugar, soy, most cooking oils and processed food.

The diet gets its name from the Paleolithic era, which started about 2.6 million years ago, and ended with the advent of agriculture around 8,000 BCE. This style of eating then went the way of the dinosaurs until 1975, when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin published his book The Stone Age Diet, which coined the term “paleo diet.” From there, the diet slowly lost popularity before coming back into the mainstream in 2002 after Loren Cordain published his book The Paleo Diet, introducing the world to the extreme joy of a lifestyle that excludes bread.

The main justification for the paleo diet is that our bodies are not prepared for modernly engineered foods. After all, food technology has astronomically progressed in the last 10,000 years, whereas our digestive systems have hardly evolved. Food has steadily become more processed and filled with things like fat, salt and sugar that we are hardwired to crave because of their previous scarcity. These elements make our food undeniably tasty, but paleo proponents argue that we are actually only able to process a small amount of the food that is currently available, and these recent additions are to blame for our collective obesity, fatigue and other assorted health woes.

Fad diets are based on some sort of science (or pseudoscience) about the inner workings of the body and look to aid in some quick weight-loss solution. The paleo diet is compelling because instead of referencing the same old research about fat absorption or carb burning, it’s based in evolutionary biology, lending it an air of legitimacy that new breakthroughs don’t necessarily possess. It seemingly makes sense because it is represented as a return to what our bodies are actually meant to process.

When referring to this lifestyle, people throw around terms like “caveman” and “primal,” which make it seem exciting — possibly to the point of danger. In reality, this diet mostly involves eating grass-fed meat at home and trying to avoid snack machines. The total saturation of this diet craze in a world already overrun with food blogs has given birth to some truly notable recipe blogs with names like “Cave Girl Eats,” “Paleoista,” “PaleOMG,” “Ancestralize Me,” “Cave Momma,” “Modern Paleo Warfare” and “Hunt Gather Love.” These are just a few of the countless websites dedicated to living paleo that make up a supportive and vast online community dedicated to swapping tips and recipes for “living primally.”

A huge subgroup within this paleo community is CrossFitters. CrossFit is a fitness craze that gets you into great shape by doing diverse, high-intensity workouts in big warehouse gyms. Though you might not know it, many CrossFitters also have dual identities as cavemen. CrossFit’s hyperintense outlook on fitness extends to the kitchen, and paleo’s extreme rigidity and meat-centrism fit right into that lifestyle. For many, paleo and CrossFit go hand in hand, working together to sculpt and fuel the body.

In researching this unusual lifestyle I came across a lot of anti-paleo dialogue, with most people criticizing the diet as improperly researched and hard to stick to. However, my issues with the diet go beyond just this.

The first issue is reliance on animal protein. This diet absolutely requires it, and not just occasional meat in moderation. Instead, it mandates a constant flow of meat and eggs mainlined into your primal bod. This raises the issues of animal cruelty and environmental sustainability. The fact that eating meat is awful for the planet is not exactly breaking news, but the paleo diet additionally mandates a great deal of fresh fruits and vegetables. While that is A-OK during the summer, it is very difficult to adhere to proper seasonal eating while subscribing to a paleo plan.

Another serious downside to the paleo lifestyle is that it forbids alcohol, which means a total disruption of social habits for people who drink. The only paleo narratives I’ve come across that claim the diet is easy to stick to are written by Mormon moms, for whom alcohol consumption isn’t exactly an issue. But perhaps the most relevant issue with the paleo diet is that it is comically expensive and only truly accessible to those with a lot of disposable income. Few paleo adherents acknowledge that the diet’s seemingly miraculous health benefits are only available to a tiny portion of high-status eaters, implying that many modern “cave people” are unaware that their lifestyle is exclusive and class-bound.

It’s really not groundbreaking information that the best thing you can do for your body is eat a diet of minimally processed food that’s heavy in fruits and veggies, but paleo really takes this to the next level. The caveman angle makes the whole thing even less appealing to me, but as far as fad diets go, you could definitely do way worse than going primal.