Why Mother Jones’ Critique of Paleo is Half-Baked
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By Chris Kresser M.S., L.AC., Special to Everyday Health
I recently came across an article called “Michael Pollan Explains What’s Wrong With the Paleo Diet” on MotherJones.com. The title of the article is misleading, because it was more of a general summary of Mr. Pollan’s tips for staying healthy than a specific critique of the Paleo diet. In fact, of the five arguments in the article, only two could be construed as criticisms of Paleo. Let’s examine each of them and see whether this article should give us pause about following a Paleo diet.
#1: Meat: It’s not always for dinner
Mr. Pollan points out that not all of our ancestors ate a meat-heavy diet, and since they had to hunt it they may have only eaten it sporadically. He also reminds us that the meat they ate was wild, in contrast to the corn- and grain-fed cattle most Americans eat today.
Most Paleo experts—myself included—would agree on these points. The Paleo diet is often portrayed as a cartoon version of itself, complete with cavemen in loincloths eating huge hunks of meat. But if you look at the plate of a typical Paleo meal, you’ll see mostly (two-thirds or more) plants: a large serving of non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, winter greens, salad, etc.), a serving of a starchy tuber like a sweet potato, perhaps some fruit or nuts/seeds, and then a serving of meat, fish or poultry. It’s even possible to follow a Paleo approach without eating meat at all. I have some patients who eat only fish, shellfish and eggs as their protein sources.
What’s more, choosing pasture-raised meats and wild-caught fish as often as budget and circumstances allow is a core principle of the Paleo approach.
The more important question, however, is whether current evidence supports Mr. Pollan’s assertion that eating too much meat is harmful. This idea is based on two claims: that the saturated fat it contains clogs our arteries and causes heart disease, and that it increases the risk of colon cancer. Yet the most recent studies haven’t shown a connection between saturated fat consumption and heart disease, nor have they shown a clear link between red meat and cancer.
If meat doesn’t cause heart disease or cancer, then why shouldn’t we eat it regularly—assuming we obtain it from high-quality sources? It’s rich in highly absorbable proteins, vitamins and minerals which over half of Americans don’t get enough of.
#2: Humans can live on bread alone
It may be possible for humans to survive on bread alone—but does that mean it’s a good idea? (Humans can also survive on SPAM, but I wouldn’t recommend it.) Leaving aside the issue of gluten intolerance (which affects one in ten Americans), bread should not be a staple of our diets because it’s one of the least nutrient-dense foods we can eat. In fact, even whole grains are less nutrient dense than all forms of meat, seafood, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and dairy products, and refined grains (as would be found in most breads) are at the very bottom of the list, above only sweets and fats. Finally, bread does not contain any nutrients that we can’t get in higher concentrations in other foods.
#3: Eat more microbes
This is not a criticism of Paleo, since our Paleolithic ancestors consumed fermented foods in abundance (as they lacked refrigeration), and Paleo diet experts advocate for doing the same.
#4: Raw food is for the birds (too much of it, anyway)
I’m perplexed by this point because Paleo is not a raw food diet. The Paleo diet, like most diets, includes a combination of both raw and cooked foods.
#5: Want to be healthy? Cook.
This is a strong argumentin favor ofthe Paleo diet, not against it. Paleo consists of real, whole, unrefined foods and eliminates processed foods like flour, sugar and industrial seed oils. When you avoid refined foods, you’ll naturally end up cooking most of your meals at home.
As you can see, there’s little here that should dissuade you from trying a Paleo diet. On the contrary, Mr. Pollan’s suggestions to eat more microbes, avoid too much raw food, and cook meals at home are right in line with Paleo recommendations.
Chris Kresser, M.S., L.AC.,is a practitioner of integrative and functional medicine and the creator of ChrisKresser.com, one of the most respected natural health sites in the world. He is widely known for his in-depth research uncovering myths and misconceptions in modern medicine and providing natural health solutions with proven results. Your Personal Paleo Code is based on more than ten years of research, his own recovery from a debilitating, chronic illness, and his clinical work with patients. Kresser maintains a private practice in Berkeley, California, where he lives with his wife and daughter. You can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.
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