So Paleo has been in the news quite a bit lately (see recent Breakfast TV spot here) and it has pretty much become a script for how this plays out. Scene 1 we see some random person who has adopted the Paleo lifestyle, insert editorial about cavemen, etc and then a brief description of the eating habits (meat, fish, veggies, fruit, nuts and seeds). In scene 2 we tend to see the naysayers who trot out all manner of excuses as to why this 'diet' could potentially be 'dangerous' as well as numerous other poorly thought out arguments concerning our Paleo ancestors.
The biggest myth I have seen appear over and over, usually by a dietician or nutritionist, is that you will become nutrient deficient without your healthy whole grains or dairy. Instead of arguing why I think this is a fallacy and the result of "just not doing your homework", let us actually look at what you get out of grains and dairy.
If I take bread for instance, and flip over to the back and take a look at the vitamin content (I linked in the info for Dempster's Ancient Grains to give you an idea) you see that it contributes mostly to Selenium, Magnesium, and Maganese. Depending on the type of bread you may also see an "Ok" amount of other minerals like Iron, Thiamine, or Folate (most at 8 - 10%).
If we look at what types of foods are actually high in these vitamins/minerals you'll notice some interesting things. I have taken the vitamins/minerals above and searched out the foods that contain the most. It is a pretty easy exercise, simply Google the vitamin/mineral name and then "foods".
If you take a look through these you will notice that fruits/veggies/nuts/seeds/meat/fish MAKE UP MOST of the top foods. You will see flours and grains in there, I will not lie. However if you look at HOW MUCH you have to eat of each you can gain a better appreciation, especially if you are concerned about caloric content. Calorie per calorie, Paleo-friendly foods are amongst the most nutritious you can eat. Conversely most grains are pretty nutrient-poor if you consider the calorie content one must eat to accumulate the necessarily vitamins/nutrients. Also do not be fooled about protein content, most grain protein comes in the form of gluten, which the digestive system has issues breaking down (or can't break down at all).
"How about dairy then? How will I ever get my calcium, vitamin A and D" you say ... well.
In all cases but calcium, Paleo-friendly foods outperform dairy. Regarding calcium, and this goes for all the vitamins/minerals even the ones Paleo is plentiful with, it is not just about how much you eat, it is about about how much you absorb. Co-factors that aid in calcium absorption are Vitamin D and Magnesium, both of which Paleo is high in. Dairy products also tend to be high in vitamin D (fortified) but here is an interesting tidbit. Just as you need some vitamin D to help with calcium absorption, you require a fat source for vitamin D to be digested properly. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin meaning that it is absorbed in the intestines with the aid of lipids (fats).
Now, think about that for a second then consider the vast majority of dairy you eat. It is probably low-fat, right? Think about it.
For some other fun facts about calcium on Paleo you should definitely check out Diane Sanfilippo's blog post on calcium here. While most people are probably willing to give something different a try they are less adventurous when it comes to their children. If you are nervous about your children being nutrient deficient (especially if they tend to be pickier eaters) you can check out Diane's other post on the USDA Recommendation for kids vs Paleo.
I do not think the issue here is that Paleo is necessarily a nutrient deficient way of eating (obviously), it is that we have come to rely on grains and dairy so much as an "easy way" to eat and the food industry (mostly forced by the gov't) has fortified these foods with vitamins/minerals such as A, D, and folate so we do not become deficient from lack of better alternatives.
If you will not eat veggies and fruits, nuts/seeds, and meat to get these vitamins/minerals then by all means eat fortified grains and dairy. However I really am becoming tired of RDs and nutritionists raising the alarm bells because you decide to get your nutrients from REAL WHOLE FOODS. Do your homework folks, the information is out there. If you are reading this then you already know how to use a computer, work on your Google-fu and start cutting through the garbage dietary advice we are being force fed.
Do not want to believe me? Oh, you need to hear it from an actual science people. Sure, here you go.
Origins and evolution of the western diet: Health implications for the 21st century. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81:341-54.
The nutritional characteristics of a contemporary diet based upon Paleolithic food groups. J Am Nutraceut Assoc 2002; 5:15-24
Nutrition and health in agriculturalists and hunter-gatherers.
Hone your new found Google-fu by searching for others, they are plentiful. Grab a healthy snack of some fruit, veggies, or nuts (or even jerky! there are healthy versions) before you do, you may be there awhile.