A misconception of the Paleo Diet is that it’s just another meat-based high protein diet requiring the follower to load up on fatty meats like bacon or rib eye. Yes, you do eat plenty of meat when you follow the Paleo Diet, but it’s the type of meat and fat consumed which makes the difference.
In the 1950’s scientists discovered that saturated fat in red meat caused total blood cholesterol and LDL levels to increase, and since that time, Western society has been on the fight against saturated fats.[i] Fifty years later, science has started to believe that we don’t completely understand the role saturated fat plays in increasing cholesterol.[ii] In his article The Soft Science of Dietary Fat Gary Taubes states that the data remains ambiguous as to whether low-fat diets will benefit healthy Americans. Worse, the admonishments to reduce total fat intake have encouraged a shift to high-carbohydrate diets, which may be no better–and may even be worse–than high-fat diets.
So what does this have to do with the role fat plays in the Paleo Diet? Simply put, there is no point in further discussion about fat until a person can see past the dogma from the past 50 years that fat is evil and that it is unhealthy to consume it.
When you follow the Paleo Diet, approximately 55% of calories consumed will be from lean animal protein. Lean animal protein can range anywhere from 55% protein in mussels to 94% protein in skinless turkey breast. Other protein sources like eggs have 34% protein and whole milk only 21% protein. Sticking to lean protein means that you consume a low saturated fat to protein ratio.
One fat that the Paleo Diet is rich in is monounsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats lower blood cholesterol and help to prevent atherosclerosis. It’s found in olive oil, avocados and nuts. Wild game is high in these fats and very low in saturated fat.
Polyunsaturated fat rich in Omega 3 is also very prevalent in the Paleo Diet. Many Omega 3s come from cold water fish oils like salmon or even flax seed oil. Don’t be fooled by polyunsaturated oils. Not all of them are alike. Most processed vegetable oils are polyunsaturated by they have a large imbalance of Omega 6 to Omega 3. For optimal nutrition, these two Omegas need to be in better balance. Eating too many Omega 6 fats instead of Omega3 fats can increase the risk of heart disease and certain types of cancer. The ratio of Omega 6 to Omega 3 for the Paleo Diet is about 2 to 1. The same ratio for the typical American diet is 10 to 1. [iii]
One type of fat that doesn’t exist in any Paleo recipe is trans fat. These fats are in almost all processed foods such as cookies, cake, chips, muffins and donuts. Consumption of Trans fats raise cholesterol and increase the risk of getting heart disease. The American Journal of Public Health concluded that trans fats cause 30,000 American deaths annually.
When you follow the Paleo Diet, you will consume more fat than if you follow a traditional low carbohydrate diet. Don’t worry that’s perfectly alright. You’ll be eating fat that’s good for you while staying away from the bad fats. You don’t even have to worry about overconsumption of saturated fat. By sticking to lean cuts, you’ll consume very little of this fat.
No one worried about the ills of fat until the 1950’s which is when the modern diet became overly reliant on processed foods. In retrospect, perhaps scientists should have worried less about the consumption of animal fat and more about the consumption of processed foods.
[i] Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet, John Wiley & Sons, 2002, p.49-50
[ii] Science 30 March 2001; 291: 2536-2545
[iii] Loren Cordain, The Paleo Diet, John Wiley & Sons, 2002, p.50-52