Perhaps you’ve seen the headlines and book titles lately. From Doctor Oz to LeBron James, everyone’s talking about the health benefits of the grain-free, high-protein paleo diet.
“The theory is that since agriculture came into being, we’re no longer perfectly adapted physiologically to the way that people have been eating,” said Laura Frank, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., to summarize the premise of the diet. “We should be eating as if we were hunter-gatherers, which we were for most of human evolution. You don’t grow it. If you can kill it or forage it, it’s OK to eat.”
On the paleo diet, you can eat meat and eggs, nuts, fruits, and vegetables, but no dairy, legumes, or grains, and certainly no processed foods. These were all introduced into the human diet much later, say paleo proponents, and are therefore unnatural for us to eat.
Frank, a professor of Nutrition and Dietetics at Immaculata, acknowledges that there’s some logic to this idea. But she thinks the paleo diet and other fad diets take “a simplistic approach to food” rather than a holistic approach to an overall healthy lifestyle that involves more than just food.
“Many fad diets start out with some basis in science, and then they misapply it,” says Frank. The paleo diet’s emphasis on fruits and vegetables is positive, she says. But the diet is based on some fallacies, such as the assumption that our ancestors were healthier than we are.
“It all depends on what you mean by that,” Frank said. In the Paleolithic Period, “if you lived to 40, you were an elder of the population! People back in those days did not develop the kinds of chronic diseases that people get with aging in our society. They didn’t live long enough.”
Another paleo fallacy is that meat formed the majority of our primal ancestors’ diets. “In reality, back in those days, people didn’t eat meat every day. Because you had to catch it and kill it!” Frank said. “You can’t do that every day.”
Frank does agree with paleo diet advocates that our modern diet can lead to physical problems. “We eat all these processed foods that have artificial ingredients in them that we would never have encountered back in our evolution. Our bodies don’t know what to do with them.”
Grains are a vital food source for cultures around the world, and for good reason. Wheat bread, corn tortillas, and rice are all filling foods that can provide essential nutrients. “It’s hard to find a civilization where grains aren’t a really important part of the whole cuisine,” Frank points out.
Because of this, Frank says, avoiding grains entirely is “not something that people can realistically fit into their lifestyles.” The paleo diet may help people lose weight initially, but its rigid restrictions make it difficult to adhere to over the long term.
Frank thinks fad diets are often rooted in “a little bit of paranoia that a lot of people have about modernity and purity. And I’m not pooh-poohing the reasonable concerns that people have,” she said, mentioning problems with genetically modified crops and toxic pesticides. “There are a lot of reasons to question the way that food is produced. But you can take it to an extreme.”
In the introductory nutrition course that Frank teaches with Instructor Susan Johnston, M.S., R.D., L.D.N., and Associate Professor Tracy Oliver, Ph.D., R.D., L.D.N., students are learning to spot unhealthy extremes.
Christine McIntyre ’17 says her professors “have helped us look critically at fad diets by encouraging us to ask questions. Does the diet call for calorie restrictions, and are these restrictions reasonable? Does it omit entire food groups from consumption, or does it promote balance? Does the diet offer variety? How much does the diet cost? What research is there on the diet’s effectiveness, and is this research reliable? Finding the answers to questions like these can help clarify whether the diet is safe, effective, or reasonable to follow.”
McIntyre researched the paleo diet and found that “the protein and fat intake levels of this diet are higher than the recommended daily values,” which may lead to high cholesterol, heart disease, and kidney problems.
The gluten-free trend is similar to the paleo diet in that it advocates avoiding certain grain products, Frank says. For people with celiac disease or different levels of gluten sensitivity, a gluten-free diet is medically necessary in order to avoid digestive tract damage.
However, she cautions, this therapeutic diet is not the answer to every physical problem. People may feel better by going gluten free, but this may be the result of the placebo effect. Or it may indicate that people are paying more attention to what they eat and making healthier food choices in general.
Frank encourages concerned individuals to get tested for gluten sensitivity. If they don’t need to eat gluten-free, they probably shouldn’t, she tells them, because of the potential for nutrient deficiencies. An article in Environmental Nutrition titled “Think twice before giving up grains” says that wheat, barley, and rye—all of which contain gluten—provide specific vitamins, minerals, fibers, and prebiotic starches, which feed beneficial bacteria in the body. These important nutrients can be difficult to get from other food sources.
Frank is concerned not only about the physical cost of a gluten-free diet, but also the financial cost. Four pounds of gluten-free baking mix can sell for $15 or more, while the same amount of whole-wheat flour is about $4. “There is even a social cost, since it’s hard to eat with others who are not following the gluten-free diet,” Frank adds.
So if we don’t necessarily need to go grain-free or gluten-free, what should we eat? “Food that you’re going to enjoy eating, and there’s enough of a balance of nutrients that it supports your health and your ability to do the things you want to do, including staying physically active,” Frank says. “To me, that’s a healthy lifestyle. It’s not a diet.”
Unlike most fad diets, Frank’s philosophy of healthy eating is relaxed and practical. She emphasizes choosing foods “that fit your personal situation.” This includes buying ingredients you can afford, and preparing meals that are appropriate for your level of skill in cooking.
“Unfortunately, my profession sometimes tends to hyper-focus on the nutrient content of the food,” Frank says. It can be helpful for dietitians to suggest healthier substitutes for people’s favorite foods, “but to just say, ‘Let’s take all of these unhealthy ingredients out of a cherished food, make it something it’s never been, and erase what it means to people’—I really object to that. I think it’s just disrespectful, and it’s also a complete lack of appreciation for all of the value that food has for people other than the nutrient content.” Food is also about our cultural heritage, our emotions, our senses, and our social connections, and Frank wants to make sure our understanding of healthy eating takes these important aspects into account.
If Frank goes to a party, she’ll eat a brownie, even if people who know she’s a dietitian give her funny looks. “Get over it—I’m off duty,” she jokes. “This isn’t the way I eat all the time. I’m enjoying myself.”
She doesn’t eat a large portion of chocolate at every meal, but she has a bite almost every day. Besides, she points out, there are some health benefits to chocolate. “I’m glad I’ve been vindicated in that area,” she says, grinning.
“In reasonable amounts, and with reasonable frequency, I will enjoy things that are not especially healthy within my overall healthy food choices. There’s room for that,” she says. “Stay away from diets and try to figure out a good way to eat for the rest of your life.”
As you do so, she advises, “do your homework. If you’re going to make dietary changes, get educated about it.” Not everyone who has a credential is worth listening to. “Make sure that you’re looking at reputable sources,” she says, mentioning WebMD and eatright.org, the website of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, as good resources, as well as Environmental Nutrition and Tufts University’s Health and Nutrition Letter.
And of course, “if you really want to get good nutrition advice and counseling, find a registered dietitian,” Frank advises. “There’s so much conflicting information out there, and it’s so hard to sort through if you don’t have the educational background to do it.”