There are misconceptions and unproven facts about what’s healthy or not that circulate in the paleo diet community and that lead people to mistakes, confusion or frustration when it comes to eating the healthiest diet possible.
The quasi-omnipresence of some of those myths and misconceptions has become so strong that some bloggers now feel bad about being associated with the paleo diet community and prefer being on the side of organizations such as the Weston A. Price foundation, which gets things right at places where some early paleo authors are wrong.
Other authors, like Paul and Shou-Ching Jaminet from the Perfect Health Diet, have taken the best science and facts about healthy eating and created their own spin of a diet adapted to our species, good health and longevity.
As a movement gets bigger and starts getting popular in the mainstream, mistakes and misconceptions are bound to be spread and the phenomenon is unavoidable. When that happens, the community should unite in teaching the right information and poking open some unfounded facts that prevent the movement from being fully credible.
Some have decided to talk openly about common misconceptions in order to expose the truth and change the way people think about a healthy Paleo diet. One such author, Dr. Kurt Harriss from the popular PaNu (recently renamed to Archevore) blog, proposed the term Paleo 2.0 to differentiate old and unproven Paleo diet sticking points from the real science and anthropology about food and its relation to our health.
This website is fully on board with the ideas brought forward by the Paleo 2.0 concept. In other words, we could say that this website is Paleo 2.0 compliant.
Something to always keep in mind is that trying to imitate our past is futile and impossible so we should always consider things through multiple lenses. Science, anthropology and common sense are three such lenses. The idea of eating like caveman shouldn’t be viewed negatively because it’s what instantly made sense for many people. Other recent and fad diets like the standard American diet aren’t rooted in any history, ancient tradition, or thorough science, and haven’t endured the test of time.
Some of the wrong things that are taken as fact by many people about the Paleo diet have already been discussed in previous articles. For example, the place of dairy on a Paleo diet and the many virtues of butter try to dismantle some of the myths around dairy. Other articles, like my article on the health benefits of saturated fat try to break the myth about our ancestors eating only lean meat.
I think that it’s in good order though to discuss those sticking points all at once in order to explain why some early Paleo authors are wrong in their assumptions and why some of the diet recommendations on this website differ from the earlier writings about the subject.
The most important concept and one thing that should be kept in mind through any endeavor into the Paleo diet is this one:
The goal is and has always been optimal health and well-being, not sticking to dogmas just for the sake of being righteous.
The three main ideas that need to be tackled are the idea that healthy meat is lean meat, the idea that all dairy is bad and the idea that potatoes and other starchy vegetables are bad or suboptimal.
Paleo and lean meat
There are a lot of people in the Paleo community who think that healthy meat is lean meat. Most of those people base their assumption around the fact that grain-fed muscle meat tends to contain much more fat than grass-fed muscle meat. Those who can’t afford or can’t find a reliable source of grass-fed meat often also think that the fat of grain-fed meat shouldn’t be consumed and that only lean grain-fed meat should be bought. Some earlier Paleo authors have pushed the notion that healthy meat is lean meat so much that a large part of the community now associates Paleo with eating lean meat.
This assumption is completely false and shows that the lipid-hypothesis is still alive and kicking even in the Paleo community and that trying to imitate our ancestors can lead to fundamental mistakes.
It should be noted though that lean meat is not unhealthy per se, only that excess protein from eating only lean meat is.
The thing is, the body isn’t able to metabolize more than about 30% of our calories as proteins and the absolute need for proteins is much lower. Proteins are a bad source of energy. Carbohydrates and fats are the real fuels for our cells. Instead, proteins are used for growth, repair and many enzymatic functions, not direct energy production.
To metabolize proteins, the body creates toxic by-products like ammonia and urea. In excess, this can be detrimental. Protein poisoning, also called rabbit starvation, is possible in the most extreme cases of protein overconsumption.
Saturated and monounsaturated fat, for their part, are an excellent and reliable source of energy, so good that our own bodies store extra energy as those kinds of fats in roughly equal parts. In addition to being a great source of energy, saturated and monounsaturated fats have many important functions in the body. Contrary to metabolizing proteins and carbohydrates, no toxic by-products are created with those fats and they stay neutral in high amount instead of becoming toxic and detrimental.
The fallacy of cavemen eating mostly lean meat
First of all, our ancestors probably didn’t eat much lean meat. The muscle tissues of wild ruminants might be lean for many species for a good part of the year, but most studies that look at the fatty tissue composition of wild animals tend to overlook the fat outside muscle tissues like subcutaneous fat, marrow fat, brain fat and fat around organs like the kidneys.
Traditional cultures were well aware of the importance of fat as a great source of energy and went out of their way to seek out the fattest animals and utilize every bit of fat found in them. They knew which animals to hunt and in which season they were at their fattest state. For example, Eskimos are good at spotting fat caribous in herds just by looking at the horns.
In addition to that, some wild ruminants are especially fatty and those were often the most hunted and prized animals. Many hunters will tell you that wild game is often far from being lean.
So, if today we eat steaks with much more marbling than the steaks of animals living in the wild, it only compensates for the fact that we don’t eat the other sources of fat that were available in those animals.
Fatty grain-fed meat
Another subset of people accepts the fact that saturated and monounsaturated fat are healthy in high amount, but still tend to think that the fat of grain-fed animals is highly problematic and too high in polyunsaturated fat.
While it’s true that sourcing grass-fed meat is beneficial and desirable because it’s more nutritious, it’s not a reason to shun and believe false facts about grain-fed meat. The elitist attitude that only grass-fed meat should be eaten scares away a lot of people who first become interested in a Paleo diet.
The fat composition of grain-fed animals isn’t higher in omega-6 fat, rather it’s lower in omega-3 fat. That simply means that those who regularly eat grain-fed meat might need to make sure that they regularly eat fatty fish like salmon or sardines to bring their omega-3 fat intake in balance with their omega-6 intake.
A lot of people are also scared by the amount of some hormones found in the fat or grain-fed animals. While it’s true that the fat of grain-fed animals usually contains more hormones like testosterone, it’s nothing compared to the amount of those hormones found in ruminant bulls, which our ancestors used to eat much more.
To summarize, grass-fed meat is always the gold standard, but you shouldn’t shy away from fatty cuts of meat even if you’re budget or geographic situation only allows for grain-fed options.
Paleo and dairy
Even though this point has been discussed before on this website, many people are dead stuck in believing that any dairy from any source is inherently bad and that it should be avoided at all cost.
Here again, we’ve focused our attention on imitating our ancestors instead of looking at what’s really going on and what’s really important. The main focus should always be on eliminating the biggest sources of malnutrition and toxicity in our diets: grains (especially wheat), legumes (especially soy), sugar and vegetable seed oils.
The main undesirable element in milk is the sugar lactose, but many dairy sources contain very little to no lactose at all. Aged cheeses, properly fermented yogurt, butter, clarified butter and heavy cream are good examples. In addition to that, although lactose is not properly digested by most people, raw milk still contains the lactase enzymes that help break it down and should be well tolerated.
The second undesirable element in dairy is the protein casein. Some people seem to have issues with that protein present in milk. Here again, butter and heavy cream are two choices that contain extremely low amounts of the protein casein. Also, many people who can’t tolerate cow’s milk end up doing just fine with dairy from other sources like sheep or goats, mainly because their milk contains a different form of the casein protein. Finally, some react to casein as a cross-reaction linked to wheat consumption. This means that they no longer have a problem with casein once their body is healed from the damages of wheat and other gluten-containing grains.
Not many traditional cultures have been noted for consuming milk, but many have been noted for consuming high amounts of dairy fat or fermented dairy of some kind. Those cultures were most often really healthy and thriving.
Additionally, by shunning all dairy for ideological reasons about imitating our past, we miss out on a great source of healthy fat, butter fat. Of course, dairy is not necessary at all on a healthy diet and its products should still be avoided by people with digestive issues or an autoimmune disease.
Paleo, starchy vegetables and potatoes
Another misconception running around in the Paleo community is that starchy vegetables are unhealthy and that regular white potatoes are especially bad. The bias against starchy vegetables probably comes from the low-carb ideas about a healthy Paleo diet.
It’s important to understand that our ancestors probably enjoyed calorie-dense starchy vegetables as much as they could once they knew how to cook them properly, which dates back a very long time ago. The amount of amylase, an enzyme that digests starch, in our saliva is much higher than in most other mammals, showing that we became adapted to eating and digesting starchy vegetables.
We now know than an optimal diet is not a long-term zero or very low carb diet and that some amount of carbohydrates is healthy and desirable. In fact, in a discussion about the perfect macronutrient ratio, it has been established that 20% of our calories as carbs is probably optimal. Obtaining that amount of carbohydrates by eating only non-starchy vegetables is very difficult if not impossible and is not necessary at all. Many people understand the need for at least some carbohydrates, but choose fruits instead of starchy vegetables to fulfill that need. This is fine as long as fruits are eaten in very moderate amount, but the fructose content of most fruits makes them problematic in too high amount.
Contrary to the simple sugars like glucose and fructose found in fruits, starchy vegetables are often mostly starch, a polymer of glucose molecules. Starch is broken to simple glucose molecules in our digestive systems and our bodies end up only dealing with glucose, which is a sugar that can be used by all our cells for energy, contrary to the toxic fructose.
Therefore, as a source of carbohydrate, starchy vegetables, provided that they don’t contain toxic proteins, are often healthier than most fruits. They are also often very nutritive and contain high amounts of some key minerals and vitamins.
Of course, the story is almost never all black or white and two main subgroups of people might want to take it slow on the starchy vegetables:
- Metabolically deranged people: Those with a broken metabolism that isn’t insulin sensitive anymore might find it hard not to overeat starchy vegetables and might struggle to lose weight if they eat just a little too much of them. Those people often do better if they go on a lower carbohydrate diet for a while in order to heal and help their body learn to use fat as a source of energy. Some people might never be able to go on a higher carb diet, but most people end up being able to include healthy amounts of carbohydrates without problems after a while.
- People with digestive issues such as bacterial overgrowth: Some people with digestive issues and IBS-like symptoms, especially those suffering from bacterial overgrowth in the small intestine, have a hard time breaking down starch and should limit their overall starch consumption.
Regular white potatoes are a vegetable that has received its load of hatred from the Paleo diet community in general, often without reason. It’s already established that, like eggplants, tomatoes and bell peppers, potatoes are in the nightshade family of vegetables and can create problems for those already sensitive to other nightshades. Unlike other nightshades though, most of the toxins are found in the skin of potatoes and not in their flesh. We now have access to simple tools to detoxify vegetables such as potatoes: potato peelers.
Potatoes, especially green potatoes and those with green spots (try not to pick those), also contain saponins, mainly solanine and chaconine, which are also toxic in high dose. Once again, the major part of those compounds is found in the skin and is easily removable. Many studies have failed to demonstrate that the amount of those compounds found in commercially available potatoes could be detrimental to our health.
It’s very important to keep in mind that virtually all vegetables contain some amounts of toxins. Potatoes are no exception and are often not any worse than other commonly eaten vegetables. This is why it’s a good idea to eat a diet that’s diverse when it comes to plants.
I myself have been dealing with digestive issues and many otherwise healthy food choices are still off limits for me. In spite of that, I tolerate potatoes pretty well and include them as a source of healthy carbohydrates in my diet. Many people are in similar situations where they struggle to properly digest many sources of carbohydrates, while peeled and cooked potatoes are just fine.
Potatoes are a great source of vitamin C, potassium, vitamin B6 and magnesium. Potatoes are also a source of complete protein and can be eaten exclusively in periods of scarcity without the risk of being protein deficient. Many cultures have thrived on diets very high in potatoes.
I’ve abstained from including recipes with regular potatoes in the past in order not to confuse people, but I can not stay on the safe side anymore and have to speak the truth in what’s really healthy and what’s not. I’ve already done so in showing that most nuts and seeds are often suboptimal, even if many people swear by them. The association against potatoes is strong and will take a long time for some people to break.
Some people with digestive issues might still want to abstain from potatoes, like they should already do for other nightshade vegetables like tomatoes or peppers, but most healthy people can eat potatoes, without the skin, and benefit from them. Starting now, some of the recipes on this site will feature potatoes. If you’re still not sure about eating potatoes because of everything you’ve heard around the Paleo diet circles, now is the time to practice your skeptic muscle, try them for yourself and see how it goes.