Is it ethical to be Paleo?

In today’s crazy hectic world where much less time is devoted to food preparation compared with in the past, fad diets abound as people are continuously searching for a magic bullet or quick fix for their weight and health woes. In the last few years we’ve had the Blood Type Diet, the 80/20 Diet and the Zone Diet, to name just a few, but one diet that seems to be sticking around longer than usual is the Paleo Diet.

While an early incarnation of the Paleo Diet first appeared in the 1970s, the Paleo Diet in it’s current form was popularised by U.S. researcher Loren Cordain, who published his first book on the topic in 2002. Recently, several Paleo-style cafes have popped up around where I live l and I continue to meet people following some form of the Paelo Diet, which has made me think that this is one fad that isn’t going away any time soon.

The premise behind the Paleo Diet is that for optimal health we should revert back to eating the foods consumed by our pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer ancestors, which proponents of this diet argue is the way we have evolved to eat. This means the inclusion of lean meats (game and/or pasture-raised preferably), fish, vegetables, berries and nuts and the exclusion of grains, legumes, dairy products, sugar, potatoes, many fruits, processed foods and alcohol.

In my humble opinion, as both a dietitian and an ethical eating advocate, I feel the Paleo diet has both positives and negatives. On the positive side, any diet that encourages people to cut out, or at least cut down on, processed foods is a good one. As a society we eat way too many packaged and processed foods that are full of additives and devoid of goodness. Getting back to basics with wholesome, fresh foods is definitely the way to go if you want to keep well and maintain a healthy body weight.

The Paleo diet also recommends cutting out grains, which I half agree with. While I definitely agree with avoiding highly processed grain-based foods, such as some breads, cereals, biscuits etc., I don’t feel it’s necessary to avoid grains altogether. Minimally processed whole grains (such as oats, barley, quinoa etc.), high-quality wholegrain breads and pasta and rice in small quantities are fine in moderation.

My main issue with the Paleo diet is of course the emphasis on a high intake of animal-derived protein foods. For starters, I don’t feel that a high intake of meat is healthy and I’m not the only one of this opinion. In a recent article about the Paleo diet in the Huffington Post* it was stated that “…according to a U.S. News and World Report analysis, a panel of doctors and nutritionists determined that the diet was not a good choice for curtailing diabetes, improving heart health or losing weight.”

There are also the ethical issues associated with eating lots of meat. Firstly there are the animal welfare implications. The high demand for cheap and plentiful meat in the developed world has led to the intensification of farming methods and what we now call factory farming. Battery cages for laying hens, sow stalls for pregnant pigs and feedlots for cattle and sheep all severely restrict animals’ ability to move around and carry out their natural behaviours.  If there was a further increase in the demand for meat due to more people following a Paleo-style diet, this would lead to further intensification of farming practices and a worsening of animal welfare standards.

Secondly, there is the issue of the impact of a meat-rich diet on the earth’s resources and it’s ability to feed a growing population. Over a third of the crops grown worldwide are fed to farm animals and land clearing to make way for farm land is a major threat to wildlife and biodiversity. According to a recent article in National Geographic,** one important aspect of multi-faceted approach to solving the world’s food dilemma is for us to eat less meat – not more. The author goes on to argue that as the consumption of meat in developing countries rises due to newfound prosperity, people in developed nations will need to cut back on their consumption of meat.

Overall I think the Paleo Diet does make some good recommendations – that we should eat mostly fresh, minimally processed foods and reduce our intake of highly refined grains and sugars. I don’t agree with a high meat diet but if and when you do eat animal products, choose those that have been raised on pasture, which includes those farmed according to certified organic and true free range principles. I guess only time will tell if the Paleo Diet is just another passing fad or whether it is here to stay.  Ultimately, if we can strike a balance between eating in a way that is healthy for us and for the entire planet, everyone and everything will benefit.


** National Geographic May 2014, Vol. 225, No.5, pp26-57


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