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Scientific Myths

At The Paleo Diet®, we love a good scientific debate, and we will always adjust our position when the science calls for it. The problem is, so many of the scientific criticisms leveled at The Paleo Diet aren’t about the true diet at all—they are based on myths. Unfortunately, many people even in the scientific community believe them. Let’s set the record straight.

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The Most Common Scientific Myths.

We have attempted to address the many myths about the diet on this website. In past articles we have addressed myths used by US News and World Report to give the diet a poor ranking, a TED lecture by Christina Warinner, and questions from our readers. A few of the most common myths we’ve seen are:

Eliminating grains and dairy causes nutrient deficiencies

Dr. Loren Cordain addressed this myth very elegantly in an article from 2016 which showed that eliminating dairy and grain actually improves nutrient density. Unlike fruits and vegetables, which you can eat as much as you want on a Paleo Diet, grains and dairy contain very few essential nutrients. The few that grains and dairy are known for—vitamin D and folic acid—are actually added and may not be healthy. A Paleo Diet, by replacing these nutrient-poor foods with nutrient-rich foods, is less likely to cause nutrient deficiencies.

The Paleo Diet is an all-protein/meat diet

Bill Nye leveled this criticism on his popular Netflix show in order to debunk The Paleo Diet. The problem is that The Paleo Diet has never claimed to be all protein or meat. In fact, by volume, the diet is more plant- than animal-based. In one of the very first published papers defining The Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain, Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, and Dr. Staffan Lindeberg pointed out that the typical plant-animal ratio of most hunter-gatherer societies ranged from 35-65 to 65-35, but no society ate all animal or all plant food. Protein ranged from 19-35 percent of their diet, but never more than 35 percent due to the dangers of something called “rabbit starvation.”1

The Paleo Diet is anti-carbohydrate or ketogenic

It is true that the Paleo Diet is a lower-carbohydrate diet than the typical Western diet. But that’s because the only way to get the recommended 60 percent of your calories from carbohydrates is by eating breads and simple sugars. Likewise, it is true that our Paleolithic ancestors would have periodically gone into short periods of ketosis—particularly those who lived in colder environments—but it was not by choice. It is our belief that a long-term ketogenic diet is unhealthy. Typical hunter-gatherer diets contained 22-40 percent carbohydrates by calorie, which is a lower- but not an anti-carbohydrate diet.1 What’s more important is the source of those carbohydrates—fruits and vegetables, not highly processed sugary foods.

Our Paleolithic ancestors died young, so why would you eat their diet?

It is true that our hunter-gatherers ancestors had a much shorter life-expectancy. But life-expectancy and aging are very different. Having a life expectancy of 35 doesn’t mean you’d look like a withered old man or woman at the age of 30. Life-expectancy factors in infant mortality, disease, and violence. A more important metric is the modal age of death—the age at which the largest number of people die. For hunter-gatherer societies, that’s very similar to the modern modal age. Hunter-gatherers, however, did not suffer from the chronic disease and debilities of the modern era.

We’re guessing at what our ancestors ate

This belief is true, though it is a very educated guess based on a large body of ethnographic data. The myth is that The Paleo Diet is about eating the exact same foods. That’s not possible. Most of the plant and animal foods from those times no longer exist. The Paleo Diet is a template for better human nutrition based on mimicking the foods our ancestors ate. While it is not perfect, we believe that a diet based on our natural template is healthier than starting with a Western diet which me know to be inflammatory.

Finally, The Paleo Diet is not based on science

In its early days, there was no specific research on The Paleo Diet. That’s true of every scientific theory. Also, as with most good scientific theories, The Paleo Diet was developed by a group of respected researchers including Dr. Loren Cordain, Dr. S. Boyd Eaton, and Dr. Staffan Lindeberg who spent years reading the available research and forming their hypothesis. And now there is a rapidly growing body of research to back their theory.

1. Cordain, L., et al., Origins and evolution of the Western diet: health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr, 2005. 81(2): p. 341-54.

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