Debunking the paleo diet?


There has been a big hullabaloo lately over a TED talk by anthropologist Christina Warriner. Paleo haters have been sending these links out to their whole-food eating friends in droves, presumably while eating a bagel with a smug grin on their face. Does the science even hold up? Let’s see what Warriner is ACTUALLY saying.

What’s really being debunked?

straw man

  1. A person compared to a straw image; a sham.
  2. A sham argument set up to be defeated.

I was very intrigued with what this video could have contained due to the amount of press surrounding it. Christina is a very intelligent young woman and actually brings a number of very good studies from the forefront of the field of anthropology to the table! Unfortunately the main hypothesis isn’t that eating a paleo diet may not be all it has cracked up to be uses a ‘straw man’ conception. Eat what the cavemen eat, they say! Live forever!

So the talk continues to go on to how actual cavemen ate differently than what we consider a natural paleo diet today.

The good

Professor Warriner brings some great insights into what was actually consumed by our ancestors. According to recent research, legumes and grains may have been consumed earlier than we anticipated, according to dental plaque analysis on ancient bodies. In addition, the stable isotropic readings used by many to justify meat consumption of our ancestors may be somewhat flawed. Finally, for all the demonization of agriculture, it has produced the edible forms of the fruits and vegetables paleo folks around the world eat every day. You couldn’t eat a full calories load off of foraging, which many agree with.

The bad

Shades of a vegetarian agenda in attacking the consumption of red meat in the paleo community. While getting a fair amount of fat may be easier in red meat, paleo folks eat meat of all kinds, from fish to fowl. In addition, describing paleo as being targeted towards men is way off the mark and there are thousands of women on the internet to prove otherwise. Finally, the conception of paleo as a fad diet is a bit distasteful. The earliest conception of the paleo diet can be traced back to William Banting’s Letter on Corpulence, Addressed to the Public written in 1863. As long as

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diets have been discussed, the damage of grains has been part of

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the conversation.

The confusing

An attack is launched on there being no single paleo diet. In general this is a ridiculous argument – it would be like saying there’s no cure for cancer because there are so many ways to get there. Regardless, this leads to a great section on the end which argues about eating seasonally and locally. I don’t really understand why this is presented as evidence against because it’s been part of the paleo conversation forever. This brings the bulk of the nutritional advice to the presentation (predictably).


In reality we are looking to reduce consumption of toxin laden survival foods produced by modern agriculture, grains and legumes containing antinutrients of all sorts, avoiding inflammation by consuming healthy fats, and eating more vitamin rich, organic sources of vegetables and meat. Being healthy is more important than following some hokey, quasi-religious set of rules based off of some pop-culture conception of our past.

We follow the

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research. I would bet dollars to donuts that any paleo guru follows the nutritional science community closer than the anthropological community because it’s about health!

That being said, it’s important for those of us who follow paleo diets to be informed about research like this. The cliff notes version of paleo diet (“We’re not evolved, man!”) might not be enough today. If we buy into dogma we’re no better than the ‘fad dieters’ this talk is trying to go after.


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by JP Martin