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The Paleo Diet: Is It For You?

There is a lot of information about the best diets out there today. Depending on which expert you’re talking to, the “ideal plan” ranges from low carb to vegetarian to one of today’s most popular plans, The Paleo Diet. It can sometimes be known by other names, include the stone-age or caveman diet. It’s not an entirely new concept. Diets like Atkins, South Beach, and The Perfect 10 all share tidbits from this popular diet. The Paleo Diet encourages followers to eat foods like our Paleolithic ancestors, as the experts believe these foods have the best genetic match to suit our nutritional needs.  It can reduce your risk of common diseases like heart disease, obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and many of the other diseases of modern civilization. While The Paleo Diet’s popularity seems to have skyrocketed in recent years, the idea of studying ancient eating habits isn’t new. The first scientific report on caveman-like eating was published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine. The lead author, S. Boyd Eaton, M.D., later wrote The Paleolithic Prescription. In 2010, Loren Cordain, Ph.D., of Colorado State University, fully revised his book, The Paleo Diet, which discusses the basics of this diet. Eaton and Cordain were able to study the diets of the Stone Age by using anthropological surveys of 229 primitive societies in Africa and South America. They found that most of these societies likely ate the same way our ancient ancestors did: by hunting and gathering. They also had many health factors in common. While many did die of acute infection or injury at a much younger age, these ancient societies did not have the types of chronic health problems that so many people are dealing with today.It seems our biology is better suited to ancient eating habits than to processed foods typical in the American diet. The study identifies major changes in the way people eat since the first Agricultural Revolution thousands of years ago. Our ancient ancestors had a lot of variation in their diet, as it was dependent on seasons and availability. They ate what was plentiful: game meat, fish, seafood, plants, fruits, vegetables—and all of it was fresh and organic (there were no pesticides or wax or refrigerators to help food keep).Eaton and Cordain believe the people of The Stone Age ate a combination of foods. We’ve broken it down by the metrics people tend to talk about when looking at diets.


Animal protein ranged from 19% to 35% of calories in Paleolithic diets, which is higher than most Americans consume today. The meat was very lean, comparable to today’s grass-fed beef or venison. Cordain also recommends eating all the fish and seafood you can. The omega-3 fatty acids in these foods are very healthy. You do have to be careful-- today’s seafood sometimes has contaminants, such as mercury in tuna, swordfish, and shark, and arsenic in shellfish. It’s important that you are selective with your seafood. People prone to gout may experience flare ups by the purine-rich seafood, especially shellfish. I have found that this amount of protein works well for some people who are insulin resistant and prone to swings in blood sugar. There are some health risks associated with consuming too much animal protein, including cancer, kidney stones, and heart disease. For people who do well with animal protein, I recommend fish, organically raised chicken, turkey, and grass-fed beef, if it’s available. (Cordain recommends including organ meats, which I don’t recommend due to the risk of containing stored toxins.)


Our ancient ancestors did not have readily available cooking oil. Because of this, they consumed a fraction of the fats and oil we do today. Even still, they got a relative balance of fats, including omega-3s and omega-6s. It’s hard to imagine cooking without oil. You can likely cut back on the amount of oil you use to cook your foods. Olive oil, coconut, and macadamia nut oils are far healthier than corn or other grain-based oils. I recommend that you never eat deep-fried foods (e.g., fries, onion rings, and fried chicken).


In ancient times, carbohydrates were consumed as part of whole foods, mainly plant foods, but also nuts and seeds. People ate a very wide variety of plant foods—an average of 100 types of vegetables and fruits over the course of a year. These were high-fiber, low-glycemic foods (some of the factors that help protect against obesity and diabetes). Today, many Americans eat very little vegetables, limiting themselves to a selection like peas, carrots, corn, and iceberg lettuce. I believe that consuming a more diverse range of fruits and vegetables provides a broader range of nutrients and, therefore, better protection against disease.


According to the Paleo research, people consumed more than 100 grams of plant fiber every day. Today, the average American diet contains less than 20 grams. Fiber doesn’t just keep us regular; it helps maintain healthy gut bacteria, which aids our bodies in fighting infections. It also prevented the absorption of excess carbohydrate calories. If you up your vegetable intake, you’ll up your fiber intake, too. If you would like to include a supplemental fiber as well, I recommend Chia seeds, ground flaxseeds, or psyllium.


Eaton and Cordain believe that many ancient people did not eat much grain. Because their research was focused in Africa and South America, the ancient grain consumption was relatively low. In Egypt and the Mediterranean areas, we see the Biblical record of people consuming grains regularly. Our Paleolithic ancestors might have occasionally consumed small amounts of the seeds that were the ancestors of modern grains. The grains we eat today, like modern wheat, have been so genetically modified that they share very little with the type of grain consumed by our ancestors. Gluten allergy and sensitivity is rampant today. I find it best to consume only small quantities of grain-based foods, such as quinoa, amaranth, and rice. The principal gluten-containing grains are wheat, rye, and barley, and spelt, and these should be limited. To say we should avoid all grains would be a stretch. Athletes, especially those participating in endurance events like triathlons, need some complex carbohydrates from grains. There are also many studies (especially those on Mediterranean diets) that show “whole grains” to have health benefits.


In the diets of our ancient ancestors, people may have consumed small amounts of beans and other legumes, but it wasn’t until the Agricultural Revolution that beans became a regular part of people’s diets. Legumes contain protein, but they also have a relatively large amount of carbohydrates. Some people may develop flatulence after eating legumes, but a supplemental enzyme called alpha-galactosidase (found in Beano) can usually help to prevent it. For those that are not lectin-sensitive, I differ from the authors, as I recommend legumes. Many studies show they are rich in nutrients and antioxidants and have effects that help prevent disease.


The Paleo Diet recommends that people do not consume dairy products. I have found that many people feel unwell when they consume dairy regularly. Still, there are some people who have no issues consuming dairy. Products like Greek yogurt are highly nutritious and provide friendly flora that is so critical to good health. Plus, dairy is a good source of calcium and protein. In the end, the Paleo Diet could potentially provide a lot of benefit for many Americans who are deal with an addiction to packaged and premade foods and refined carbohydrates. Like all diets, The Paleo Diet has its weaknesses and is not the best choice for everyone. Are you someone who could benefit from The Paleo Diet?  If you feel well on a higher protein diet, it could work for you.