01.10.2021 Nutrition

The Problem with Paleo

Nadia Marshall takes an Ayurvedic perspective of this current diet fad


The Paleo diet is big news these days. Everyone has heard of it, even if they haven’t tried it yet. If you’ve done any reading on the subject you would’ve found many articles criticising the diet from an environmental, anthropology, archaeology, genetic or other scientific perspective.

Recently, there has been some discussion of the deleterious effect of high protein diets on longevity but I haven’t found too much on the potential effects of the Paleo diet on your body and mind in the shorter term. So, I thought I’d tackle the topic from an Eastern medical perspective – that of Ayurveda, the traditional medical system of India and sister science of Yoga.

But first, for those who aren’t sure, what is the Paleo diet?

The idea behind the Paleo diet is pretty cool – to eat in a way that is more consistent with the evolutionary needs of our genetic make-up, rather than the forces of industry or Western nutritionism. The diet, which first emerged in the 1970s but wasn’t popularised until the early 2000s, involves eating modern foods that attempt to mimic the food groups we think our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era, from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution, about 10,000 years ago. As a result, it basically avoids all foods that are readily available to us thanks to modern farming techniques, including grains and legumes. The hope is that by doing this, we will help to prevent or control many of the “diseases of civilisation” such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and autoimmune disorders.

When strictly following a Paleo diet you are allowed to eat lean meat (preferably grain fed, free range or game), fish and seafood, eggs, fresh fruits, veggies, herbs, spices, nuts and seeds. Some processed oils are also allowed (including olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado and coconut).

The list of things you can’t eat is a little longer, including: cereals, grains, legumes, all dairy products, refined sugar (a little honey is okay), salt, refined vegetable oils and all processed foods. A few sources also mentioned avoiding potatoes, bananas and dried fruits. But I understand these dos and don’ts vary depending on which Paleo diet book you pick up.

The Ayurvedic Viewpoint

Before I explain the Ayurvedic view of the Paleo diet, I should mention that Ayurveda evolved as a direct result of the Agricultural Revolution. In fact, it arose in response to humans beginning to settle in groups, villages and towns, eating more cultivated food and living more sedentary lives. The great sages of the time saw this occurring and came together to discuss what impact these changes would have on human beings; their bodies and their minds.

Ayurveda was created specifically to help humans maintain balance within this changing context and to treat the physical and mental illnesses that may arise as a result. It is a complete system of medicine that has evolved over thousands of years to prevent and treat the “diseases of civilisation”.

Ayurveda has a few things in common with the Paleo diet. It recommends avoiding all processed food, highly processed dairy products as well as refined sugar, flour and salt. It also recommends eating plenty of in-season, organic fruits and vegetables. This is the absolute starting point of Ayurvedic nutrition because processed and non-organic foods didn’t exist 7,000 years ago (when Ayurveda was developed). It is also where the similarities with the Paleo diet end.

There are two things to focus on when reviewing the Paleo diet from an Ayurvedic perspective – the consumption of too much meat on the body/mind and the elimination of grains, legumes, dairy and salt on the body/mind.

Let’s look at them separately.

1) The Effect of Eating Too Much Meat

From a physical perspective, every kind of meat has slightly different qualities and therefore different effects on the body. But overall meat is heavy, heating and sweet. As a result, it pacifies certain elements in the body while aggravating others. From an Ayurvedic perspective, it pacifies Vata (Air) but tends to increase both Pitta (Fire) and Kapha (Earth) in the body/mind.

This means if eaten in excess meat will cause inflammation and other excess heat conditions in the body. Aggravated Pitta (Fire) will also cause increased intensity, competitiveness, judgment and aversion or aggression in the mind. However, in high Vata (Air) conditions, such as severe depletion, meat is often used as a medicine. In these cases, cooling meat is chosen and is prepared with spices as a slow-cooked soup or broth to make it easier to digest. Interestingly, the few meats that are cooling rather than heating include buffalo, rabbit, venison and goat; all meats that Paleolithic man probably would have consumed more of (but modern Paleo followers may not necessarily).

Due to its heaviness, meat is also considered very difficult to digest. If our digestive fire (known as ‘Agni’ in Sanskrit) is imbalanced, meat will not be digested properly and undigested food wastes or toxins (known as ‘Ama’ in Sanskrit) will result and accumulate in the GI tract, eventually overflowing into the channels and tissues of the body. This process is believed to be the root cause of all disease in Ayurveda.

It is pretty likely that Paleolithic man would have had stronger digestive fires than we do today given the lifestyles they led. But these days, living in the modern world, humans have a strong tendency towards imbalanced digestion so eating a lot of meat is generally not advised by Ayurveda.

From a mental perspective, meat is considered ‘Tamasic’, one of the three universal qualities used to describe the mind in Ayurveda (the other two being Rajas/agitation and Sattva/peace). When Tamas accumulates in the mind it can cause dullness, heaviness and eventually depression. For this reason, excessive meat consumption is not recommended in Ayurveda or Yoga.

2) The Effect of Eliminating Grains, Legumes, Dairy and Salt

From an Ayurvedic perspective, the elimination of grains, legumes, dairy products and salt will also have an effect on the body/mind. The grains and legumes of choice in Ayurveda (aged long-grain white basmati rice and mung daal) are predominantly sweet in taste (like meat) but they are also cooling and light. This means they are easy to digest but are nourishing to the tissues and pacify Vata (Air), Pitta (Fire) and Kapha (Earth). They are also considered ‘Sattvic’, promoting clarity, peace, calmness and tranquility in the mind. By eliminating them entirely, you are effectively removing a strong foundation of balance for the body/mind.

Unhomogenised milk is also considered an important food in Ayurveda because it is Sattvic and directly nourishes the deeper tissues of the body, including the foundation of our immune system and longevity known as ‘Ojas’. None of the foods allowed within the Paleo diet nourish Ojas apart from almonds and honey. Ghee (or clarified butter) is another highly prized food in Ayurveda because it directly enkindles the digestive fire, balances the elements, nourishes Ojas and is Sattvic.

Unrefined salts such as Himalayan crystal salt are important for balancing the six tastes within a meal. The salty taste brings out the flavours of the other five tastes – sweet, sour, pungent, bitter and astringent and also helps to encourage the elimination of wastes, soften the tissues, improve digestive capacity and pacify Vata. So eliminating it altogether will again lead to imbalance in the body/mind.

From an Ayurvedic perspective, the Paleo diet may suit some people better than others, depending on their constitution, state of imbalance, geographic location, strength and digestive capacity. But no matter what your constitution, following a strict Paleo Diet will lead to imbalance, unless it is closely overseen and adjusted by a practitioner. It will eventually create excessive heat, create dull digestion, increase undigested food toxins and also increase dullness and heaviness in the mind.

I still like the premise of the Paleo diet but the main problem is it has been taken out of context and from an Ayurvedic perspective, context is everything.

If you are a meat lover and are absolutely determined to give Paleo a go, I’d recommend replicating a Paleo lifestyle as much as possible too – eating foods that are local to the region you live in, eating seasonally as much as possible and doing a reasonable amount of daily exercise to keep your Agni strong. Favour cooling meats, cook with spices, make soups, make sure you get your meat/plant ratios right to avoid excessive ketosis and acidity and maybe allow a little flexibility. An 80:20 rule is a good idea with any dietary approach to ensure you don’t get too intense or strict with things.

And, if you’re concerned with the Tamasic consequences of too much meat eating, you’ll need to do other things to cultivate Sattva in your life like spending plenty of time in nature and daily meditation. You might also want to consider seeing an Ayurvedic practitioner from time to time to get your pulse checked for any brewing subtle imbalances.

This column is an excerpt from my (much longer) “Paleo Diet: An Ayurvedic Review” which explores the pros and cons of the approach in more detail. Read the full article at our website: www.muditainstitute.com

Enjoy Nadia’s Chicken Soup recipe.

Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook, Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic near Byron Bay. Their ‘WARMTH’ cookbook is available as a FREE download from their website.

Nadia Marshall

Nadia Marshall is an Ayurvedic Consultant, Cook, Health Writer and Managing Director of the Mudita Institute & Health Clinic near Byron Bay. Their ‘WARMTH’ cookbook is available as a FREE download from their website.