Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Why I Ditched Paleo

It was a little over three years ago when I first heard of the concept of the Paleo Diet. I was introduced to it through a podcast on Underground Wellness interviewing Mark Sisson, the author of the Primal Blueprint. I had never thought about diet in the way that Mark did, and I was immediately fascinated by his approach. You mean we were healthier before we adopted agriculture? And we didn't eat grains, legumes, and dairy?? Interesting. I had just finished reading Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories", so the low-carb approach was firmly in my radar. Things seemed like they were beginning to come together.

In the next few months, I would dive head first into this Paleo/Primal diet concept... I found Robb Wolf's podcast, I read Dr. Cordain's original Paleo Diet book, I discovered several paleo-related blogs... I began to immerse myself in the paleo world. I even wrote a research paper for a class I was taking in Italy in my study abroad experience, called "The Health Benefits of Eating a Paleolithic Diet". No question, I became a paleo machine. I even started this here blog soon after; it all began as a place where I could express my contrarian opinions thoughtfully and back it up with scientific research. I felt like I needed to prove I was right, because everyone in my world thought I was wrong. (I never took on the "paleo" name though... it's as if I knew my position might change some day)

It was around this time when I went full paleo... I made a conscious effort to avoid grains, legumes, and to some extent dairy for nearly two years. With promises of "perfect health"... some sort of vast utopia, free of ill health and disease, including even the pesky day-to-day maladies like seasonal allergies and headaches... I set out to feed my body only the foods that we had "evolved" to thrive on. I shunned anything else; no rice, no beans, no oatmeal, no bread, no soybean oil, not too much fruit, limited starch and carbs, no pasteurized dairy. I avoided gluten like the plague, because obviously, it's downright evil. I even went through a phase where I thought nightshades might be killing me.

Every day I would go to school and sit in my conventional nutrition classes thinking... "Man, I just don't understand how these professors could dedicate their lives to teaching and researching nutrition and still have their facts so wrong!" As if I, at 25 years old, knew far better than someone who's been at this for twice as long. I couldn't wrap my head around it. How could they not see it... carbs and grains are killing us! Ugh.

The truth is, when you stop and think about how people eat around the world today, none of this paleo stuff makes a whole lot of sense. If gluten were really as bad as the paleo folks say it is, how would we have cultures like the Italians and the French who eat it on a daily basis and experience far greater health than we do in America? If legumes are indeed the scourge of the diet world, then how on earth are all of these Latin American countries not extinct? How do they stay so thin? If carbs really make us fat, then how is it possible that nearly every human being on this earth eats a high carb diet, yet most maintain a healthy body weight?

But perhaps most importantly of all... how can most of the world go on eating what they like, without a shred of doubt and guilt, and without knowing anything about nutrition, yet maintain a thin, healthy body?

These are all question's I have struggled to rationalize through the paleo lens.

Smile. You can eat neolithic foods and not die.

And then I would think about my own experience. For the first 24 years of my life, I ate a high-carbohydrate, gluten-full, typical American diet. Did I experience digestive distress? Rarely, if ever. Did I have chronic mental fog? Nope. Did my athletic performance suffer? Not at all. Did I struggle with my weight? Not once. Did I have trouble sleeping at night? Definitely never.

What did I expect to happen when going paleo? I don't quite know. But whatever it was, it didn't happen. I've never needed to lose any weight. Maybe I expected to feel better, and to think more clearly, and to sleep better, and to feel happier. These are all things that are supposed to happen. I was told, "You don't even know what it's like to have so much energy and feel so great all the time! Your mind can't comprehend it... you're just so used to feeling tired that it feels normal!" Really? I can't believe I ever fell for that. This may be true for someone a little older and a little more metabolically broken, but it wasn't true for me.

I already felt great. I was already thinking clearly. I had already been sleeping eight hours a night. I was perfectly healthy. I felt no different before or after. In fact, I feel even better now because I have a healthy relationship with food. I love food. I don't fear anything.

It was scary the first time I let myself have a slice of pizza at a family party. The first few times, I was convinced I was making myself sick, having imaginary "reactions" to gluten. It wasn't until I let my mind get out of the way that I realized... eating pizza at a party with people I love is a good thing. No, pizza isn't the most nourishing food, but that's not the point. The point is that it tastes good, and that it brings friends and family together. I don't stress anymore over eating a bite of cake, or enjoying a slice of my grandmother's delicious apple pie. Life is too short not to enjoy all that it has to offer.

Paleo is a great place to start. I still believe that the cornerstone of any healthy diet should be fruits, vegetables, and animal foods. Perhaps paleo would be best as a short-term, temporary diet to kickstart a lifestyle change. But in the long-term for most of us, we have nothing to gain by eliminating entire food groups, especially if we've been eating them for most of our lives with no ill effects. Most people will be perfectly healthy including rice and beans in their diet... and the same can be said for oatmeal, corn, potatoes, cheese, yogurt, and even bread. These foods taste good. And let's not forget about the indirect health benefits of eating food you like! Never forget what your personal experience has taught you, and trust yourself first. No one knows what's best for you like you do.

Are there people who really would benefit from eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy long-term? Probably. But these people are few and far between.

Anyone who tells you paleo is the only way is either A) straight up lying to you, or B) completely ignorant. The nutrition/health world is much more expansive than what can be encapsulated into one catch-all phrase. As a dietitian, the principles of the paleo diet function best as a tool in my tool box. Nothing more, nothing less.

Plus, now I can eat fried butter balls at the fair :)


  1. I love this post Brendan! Partly because of nostalgia - I was there when you first went paleo :) Also because I eat Paleo, but I agree with you anyway! I love eating paleo because I feel so much better on it. I am one of those people more metabolically broken, I still constantly struggle with blood sugar problems, like, erryday, gah, but I am ten million times better with absolutely no gluten in my diet, I got rid of this pesky year long rash on my torso by getting rid of dairy, and coincidentally, bloating, and I don't go crazy hyper/angry as often since I don't eat sugar! Wee! But, in agreeing with you, going strictly paleo is a bit stressful, because sometimes if I think of eating away from Paleo, I feel guilty or think I will react badly. But when I do eat ice cream, yogurt, grains, etc, I am usually being social and I enjoy myself, and I remember that my body is capable of eating this stuff just fine not that often!

    It's like the Italians taught us - food is more than nutrition - its a social encounter, and they enjoy their food because they enjoy the love thats put into it, the quality, and the people they share it with. I like how you say that the paleo diet is a tool, I'm going to use that when I explain it to people! And I do tell people you can pretty much shape the diet to shape you, there shouldn't be absolutes, only guidelines.

    P.s. I had chocolate chip rice pancakes tonight for dinner. Omg so good. :D

    1. Thank you Tina! Glad we agree. Food is so much more than nutrition, I think our modern, obsessive society just makes it feel that way sometimes. Well written response, I love it, and I'm so glad that Paleo has helped you :)

    2. Rice flour pancakes or using cooked rice? :) I've been looking for things to do with leftover rice lol

  2. Great article and like the idea of it being a tool just not dogma. I did experiment with Paleo for a few months but didn't have the mental willpower to continue (I like food too much) however it showed me that I did feel better in the morning (less sluggish and bloated) if I didn't consume carbs with supper so I took something positive away from the experiment.

    1. I agree, I love food too much too. But the more you experiment the better!

  3. Totally agree. (In fact, I have my own ideas about Paleo that I wrote about here: I recently read something about the Paleo diet that discussed the idea that when one is so focused on a strict diet, he loses out on sharing in traditions, bonding over meals, and, well LIVING. I think you make a good point that Paleo isn't a long-term strategy, but I'm sure you'll get lots of crazies coming out of the woodwork to shoot you down. No one likes to be told their Paleo God isn't real. ;)

    1. Fantastic article Gretchen! I love the Matt Stone quote too. I agree with you that the Paleo diet isn't inherently bad, but I don't think it's best for most people, and it's unnecessary to restrict grains/legumes/dairy for many people. Not too many crazies coming out of the woodwork yet, still waitin! ;)

  4. I'm also metabolically broken. I have Celiac AND I have a wheat allergy AND I'm lactose-intolerant (which also makes my skin break out severely)! But anyway, I used to be full paleo but now I'm more like 80-90% paleo.. When you have a lot of food allergies and autoimmune stuff I think paleo is a great starting point for people! I do nutritional counseling and I tell people that just trying to live a more whole-foods lifestyle is a great place to start! I also tell them how I used to be strict paleo but since my body requires a lot more starchy carbs, I've added as much as my body tells me! It's all about listening to your body. If you eat a little debbie and feel like crap, don't eat it! If it doesn't bother you, have a treat! Anyway, food isn't anything to be obsessed with (or too strict with), it should keep your body fueled enough for what you need to do--and it should be celebrated with the ones you love! BOOM. ;)

    1. Agreed, Paleo would be a great place to start for someone with autoimmunity and food allergies. I also found that I require more starchy carbs, and I suspect there are a lot of people out there still restricting starch who would do their bodies good to eat a little more! :)

  5. The premise of this post is that you were basically healthy and felt great before going paleo. I think for much of the paleo community, that is not the case. When I was in my very early 20's I had so many seemingly unrelated problems with no clear cause. I was frustrated and felt like I had the health of a 50 year old (at least). The paleo community consists mostly of people who are highly MOTIVATED to eat in such a way because of their genetic imperfection, and sometimes their athletic goals. You sound like you're pretty well off, genetically. But I have had trouble sleeping since childhood, stomach aches often, and many more symptoms. Paleo has truly done what it promised for me, and for many others. I have a friend in her late 20's that has reversed her rheumatoid arthritis with paleo, a friend who is just 19 and in college who has healed his digestive issues, and another who said "the paleo diet has changed my life in ways I never thought possible." These aren't bloggers or paleo celebs. These are actual friends from my hometown and I am glad to say I had a small role in introducing them to paleo. Having the genetic composition to eat what you want without ill effects is a blessing, and I am glad you can enjoy it. But please don't judge those of us who are less fortunate and need to fine tune our lifestyle in order to enjoy good health or even function reasonably well. And you don't have to be low carb to be paleo.

    1. Of course, for some people Paleo is great. I know that it helps a lot of people turn their lives around and get healthy again. That's why I say Paleo is a tool in my toolbox. I still believe in eating whole, real foods as the base of any healthy diet, but adhering strictly to Paleo isn't for everyone. Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you've had success with it!

  6. In your article, you say "Are there people who really would benefit from eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy long-term? Probably. But these people are few and far between."

    In your response to a comment you say "Of course, for some people Paleo is great. I know that it helps a lot of people turn their lives around and get healthy again."

    Make up your mind. Personally, I think you just posted this out of sensationalist journalism and to get reads because you're now against paleo. Much like the people who write articles bashing CrossFit.

  7. I'll admit my wording was not clear. Paleo can be therapeutic for many people in repairing the guy, regulating blood sugar, etc. but in the long term there can be more flexibility to maintain that, in my experience/opinion. There are very few cases where it is best for someone to stick to paleo forever.

    And yes, I posted this partly because its controversial and I knew it would get more readers. Part of blogging is writing about topics people will want to read about!

    1. So, other than "I can eat these things again" and satisfying pleasure centers via flavors, what are the benefits of bringing grains, dairy, legumes, and sugar back into your diet?

    2. I can spend less money on food, I have more variety to choose from, I spend less time and energy on cooking/thinking about what I'm going to eat/planning all my meals ahead of time, I can spend more time on other things, I have no anxiety about going out to eat with friends and family, I don't have to be rude when I'm offered non-paleo food, I can try more new foods from other cultures... in general I just spend less time worrying and more time enjoying myself :)

    3. Sorry, I should have clarified... what health benefits? (And why would one have to be rude when offered non-paleo food? Are vegetarians rude when they say they don't eat meat when someone offers them meat?)

    4. I don't know if there are any direct nutritional health benefits. Paleo is just about the most nutrient dense diet there is. But to me, health extends beyond just the food we eat. If I'm going to a social event where I have a choice between A) eating pizza vs. B) alienating myself by bringing my own meal, I'd choose the pizza nearly every time, despite it being clearly worse nutritionally. The mental and emotional satisfaction I get out of enjoying pizza (or whatever it is) with others trumps the fact that it's not a nutritious meal.

      I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's a little stressful for me to eliminate entire food groups, especially when I don't see any real benefit from doing so. I still eat a pretty nutrient-dense diet, but allowing myself to broaden my food intake does a lot for my mental health and my stress levels. Hope that makes sense!

    5. It clarifies your position on paleo for me. You don't understand the anti-nutrients that come with eating grains and sugars and you quit eating paleo because it was hard for you and you felt judged by your peers if you didn't eat what they were eating (peer pressure).


    6. Awesome. Thanks for clarifying your complete lack of knowledge of nutrition, as there are no anti-nutrients in sugar, and there are more anti-nutrients in nuts, seeds, and vegetables than there are in grains. Also, the wild plant foods that our beloved Paleo ancestors ate were wayyyyy higher in antinutrients than any of these things.

      You're welcome!

    7. "...the vast majority and highest levels of antinutrients are in foods like grains, beans and potatoes."

      Since I've given up grains, joint pain is gone. Mood swings are gone. Crippling hunger pangs are gone. Energy is up. Body fat is down. I sleep better. I feel better. I can't say the same for veggies back when I didn't eat very many.

      I don't wish to argue this anymore because, like my wife, the RN, you have a background in science and there for you must know more than I do. She actually came to me with concern when I told her I was giving up grains. I asked her "What do they offer that I can't get from veggies and fruit?" She had no reply. Because they offer nothing I can't get from the other two, which also come with tons of vitamins and minerals. And without the inflammatory side-effects. And without constant gritty feeling on my teeth. And without the bad breath. And without the digestion issues. And without the bloated feeling.

      But, you have a degree, so I bow to your superior intellect. It's the same attitude that made me drop my last PCP. "Do you have acid reflux?" "No." "Well, take these pills anyway because I know better." I never did and I still don't have acid reflux issues.

      Good day, sir.

    8. Anonymous,

      I have been following this thread, to my apparent detriment, and am finding it difficult to isolate the point of your arguments. The title of this post is "Why I Ditched the Paleo Diet." It is a personal recountance of an individual's journey with the Paleo diet and the realization that there is more to life than optimal nutrition. That cannot be disputed. I congratulate you on your journey back to health via the Paleo diet and I encourage you to keep it up if you're finding success.
      For many others however, there is a balance that must be struck between optimizing dietary intake and and allowing oneself to fully engage in social events - which may include potentially deleterious food choices. If you have never experienced the pull to engage in social events with friends, then I both congratulate your resistance to peer pressure and pity your isolation from doing so.
      I believe the purpose of this article is very simple: for those individuals in seek of improving their state of health, the Paleo diet offers a tremendous baseline tool in which to build upon. For others who are free of insomnia, digestive abnormalities, excessive adipose or weight, and mental fog, then restricting diet, particularly in times of social engagement, may be unnecessary. How can a logical person argue with that?

      I hope you continue to find health & happiness.


    9. I said "Good day, sir."

    10. In opposition to my previous claim, I am back.

      First, I would like to apologize for the rant. Second, I would like to state that I came to this article already in a bad mood. Third, I'm tired of people trashing Paleo (and CrossFit) because they think it's either pointless, doesn't work, or will get people hurt. Fourth, this statement is what really annoyed me: "Are there people who really would benefit from eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy long-term? Probably. But these people are few and far between."

    11. If the original poster had kept this post to why HE ditched paleo and kept it to his reasons, I probably wouldn't have cared. If people want to eat crap, that's their choice. But he wanted to make a claim that very few people will benefit from eliminating grains, legumes, and dairy for the long-term. Which, he admits, don't have any real health benefits by consuming them. If this is the case, then wouldn't most people benefit from dropping them from their diet and replacing them with healthier options? I think they would. I know I have.

      Then there was Gretchen's comment where she included a link to her blog post titled "Why your paleo diet is pathetic." And in a comment on her post, she states "I'm sorry if you thought I trashed paleo." By the title alone, she's trashing paleo. But this all brings me to another point.

      I, personally, am moving away from telling people I eat paleo (or primal) simply because it brings up negative reactions. Similar to what vegans used to (and still do, I'm sure) get when they say they're vegans. These days, I believe in JERF and telling people I don't eat processed foods.

      And, as far as my social life goes, I have a healthy one. Just last week I was out to dinner with family and friends to a steak house. While they gorged on batter-fried onions and fries covered in cheese and bacon, I enjoyed seared ahi tuna. Then we all enjoyed our salads. One of them was happy when I gave him my croutons. Then we had steaks. While they ate more fries, I enjoyed a nice baked sweet potato. Lastly, while they consumed gigantic beers, I had a few glasses of wine.

      Was my meal healthier? I think so. Was I rude by telling them I didn't want to eat the other things they were eating? No. Did I feel peer pressure to eat those things? No. Did I feel left out by not eating those things? No. Did they look down upon me because I did not eat those things? No. Did I enjoy my time any less because I did not eat those things? No. We had a great evening, socializing together, each eating what we wished and none of us left caring what the others ate. If you're living in a world where you feel you can't share good times and good company without eating the same things as everyone else, then you're living in the same world as people who think they can't have sober fun when hanging out with friends who are drinking. For me, life is not worth living as a sheep.

      Also, if veggies have just as many anti-nutrients as grains (or more, as you claimed above), then why would you say that they're part of a nutrient-dense paleo diet? Shouldn't we avoid them as well?

      Lastly, back to the point I was making with my wife when she got concerned about me giving up grains and dairy, what do they have to offer that I cannot get from a better source? A source with more nutrients? Absolutely nothing. Fiber? It's in all plants. Carbs? It's in all plants and in a better format in veggies and fruits than those found in grains and sugars. Oh wait, the pasta has been fortified with vitamins? That's what they put into it when it was processed from grains into pasta just to make you think it has a health benefit. And those vitamins aren't, in my opinion, as readily used by our bodies as they would be if gotten from veggies or fruit where they naturally occur.

      I'm not trying to say that Paleo is the end-all-be-all of human nutrition, but getting off grains, sugars, dairy, and legumes will go a long way to helping people be healthier. Getting rid of all processed foods from their diets will make people healthier. I have yet to meet anyone personally who did not find some benefit from eating this way.

      Again, sorry I came off a little rash, but I was at a tipping point. I'm done.

    12. Hi Anonymous,

      Before I begin, let me start off by saying that an apology, when used properly, does not give free reign to hammer in your original argument...for which you apologized. With that being said, let me make this clear for you. I think something has been lost in translation and you're struggling with a fairly simple concept.

      Burn has graduated with a degree in dietetics, worked for quite some time in the field, and is now a registered dietitian. I graduated with my bachelor's in nutrition and am a current Naturopathic candidate. We are both heavily involved and versed in Paleo/Primal living, ranging not only from nutrition, but to exercise, physiology, and lifestyle habits. I provide for you our credentials so as to help you understand that you are presenting a novice argument for astrology amongst astronomers.

      I once again congratulate you on your success with the Paleo diet. I advocate the diet for most everyone. However, most people find it very difficult to strike a balance adhering to the diet 100% while living a fulfilling life. At full Paleo, there is little or no leeway when attending a dinner party (not dining out where individual orders can be made), socializing at a brewery amongst friends, having pizza or pasta amongst teammates the night prior to a big game, etc. etc. I believe you are shortsighted in selecting your dining out engagement as an example as to what Burn is referring. Sure, if you can stick to Paleo when you dine out (if that's what you want), then go for it. However, there exists a deeper problem that transcends this article if you believe that abstaining from pizza amongst teammates or refusing a slice of pie that your grandmother made does nothing to isolate you from others. Whole cultures reside on the concept of meal-sharing.

      With all this being said, eating an ancestral/traditional diet provides the greatest dose of nutrients, least problematic gastrointestinal upset, and can often resolve many of the chronic issues that people experience. HOWEVER, it does not necessarily need to be adhered to 100% Should healthy people want to knock back a couple of beers on gameday or have an ice cream cone with their boyfriend/girlfriend after date night, then are you suggesting that there is no health benefit in doing so? Quite to the contrary, health is composed far more than corporal fitness. These necessary indulgences are part of being human and living outside the realm of strict dietary adherence.

      If any of this has thus far confused you, then here are bullets:
      1. The Paleo diet provides the framework for a healthy, nutrient rich diet
      2. In healthy individuals, deviation is not only allowed, but encouraged in times of social or emotional satisfaction
      3. Don't argue amongst astronomers unless you're well educated in astrology

      Oh, and vegetables do have tremendous amounts of anti-nutrients (phytic acid & lectins), which are negated (for the most part), through cooking.

      Congratulations on your success with Paleo. Adhere 100% should you wish to do so. For others who want a beer with friends, pizza with teammates, or an ice cream with their date, try to contain your criticism.

    13. For the sake of brevity, I'll stick to your bullet points even though I understood everything you wrote.

      1. Agreed
      2. Agreed
      3. Go fuck yourself.

      Just because you have a degree, it doesn't mean you're the smartest person in the room.

      Again, my main complaint is that he states that in the long run, for most people, paleo won't do any good.

  8. Paleo is definitely a good starting point. It allowed me to become better in tune with my body. I have severe RA and eating the Paleo way helped me to find my triggers. Because of Paleo I was able to heal my gut issues and found certain foods that I was actually allergic to. I use to think a food allergy meant something that made your tongue swell or made you really sick to the stomach. Until I started the autoimmune protocol, I had no idea I was allergic to tomatoes....which are in almost everything. After eliminating them from my diet my inflammation went down a lot and I don't have flare ups like before. I also have a gluten sensitivity, which I had no idea about until I started eating the Paleo way. Now, I still eat many Paleo meals, but that's because I fell in love with the taste of real food and developed a slight obsession with everything coconut. I don't always eat Paleo, because I want to be able to enjoy family functions without feeling guilt or starving because nobody else cooks the Paleo way.

    1. Thank you for sharing, that's great that you found some RA relief through Paleo! Like I said, I really believe the benefits of Paleo can be achieved for pretty much everyone using only a short-term protocol. It's great for catching food sensitivities like that, and learning how your body responds to certain foods!

  9. Well... that was entertaining. All I can say is that little argument was sooo extra. Sending positive thoughts and vibes your way Bren! Good article!