The popular "Paleo diet" is not the most sustainable way to eat

Paleo flowchart
CC BY 2.0 Next TwentyEight

I love doing CrossFit, but I’m not a fan of the “Paleo” diet, which goes hand-in-hand with the CrossFit lifestyle. The diet follows a nutrition plan based on the eating habits of our ancestors from the Paleolithic period, between 2.5 million and 10,000 years ago, when people were still hunter-gatherers. The modern Paleo follower eats lots of meat, animal fat, vegetables, nuts, some fruit, and a bit of honey, but no dairy, grains, or sugar.

I usually keep my mouth shut at CrossFit gatherings, where eating Paleo is a favourite conversation topic. But when a friend recently complained about excess plastic packaging being “un-Paleo,” I felt compelled to point out that, if “Paleo” is supposedly synonymous with environmental friendliness, then there’s a lot more wrong with the Paleo diet than plastic containers. I'm not a dietary expert, but these are my own thoughts.

First, there’s nothing sustainable about importing exotic nuts from all around the world using fossil-fuel-powered airplanes. Paleo cooking depends heavily on almonds (in the form of flour, milk, oil, and whole), coconut (flour, water, oil), and other whole nuts. None of these are local to a single place. Almonds come from California and coconut products from Thailand or South America. Such reliance on imports seems entirely un-caveman-like.

Second, we live at a time when people need to start reducing meat consumption because the current level is unsustainable, even with free-range, grass-fed options (which, fortunately, the Paleo community does encourage). First, as Christina Warinner of the University of Zurich explained in a 2012 TED talk, the animals we eat nowadays are drastically different from their Paleolithic predecessors, since they’ve been bred to produce far more meat. Second, spearing mammals while chasing them on foot was probably not a daily occurrence. Third, eating a lot of meat isn’t even good for us, if you listen to the folks on the interesting documentary "Forks over Knives."

Finally, it’s trendy to bash grains as being the root of all health problems, but how does one explain the many nations that depend entirely on grains? Europe, Asia, and South America have been consuming wheat and white rice for centuries, but don't have the same obesity and health problems that North America does. Surely there's something more that’s wrong with North American eating habits than the presence of white flour -- though, admittedly, we eat too much of it.

I believe the most environmentally friendly diet is a local one, preferably organic, with the fewest imported items. Sourcing ingredients from local farms boosts the economy, puts the freshest food on the table, and can be traced back to its origins. The Paleo diet, as I see it, is a privileged diet. My not-so-secret fear is that, by perpetuating such fossil-fuel-dependent eating habits, we might all end up as hunter-gatherers sooner than we’d like. And that will look much different than current Paleo eaters think.

Tags: Diet | Food Miles