The Pearls and Perils of the Paleo Diet
I know how emotionally-charged discussions about diet can get. So, with that in mind, (as well as the fact that for over a decade I was a vegetarian), I’ll be treading cautiously on this topic of the Paleo diet. Not only do I not want to add to the polarization that already exists in the “which is the perfect diet” debate, but because I’ve been around the health and nutrition block for over three decades, I’ve been witness to the latest, greatest diets come-(and then I’ve seen them go) far too many times to think there’s a “one size fits all” approach to this subject. As a matter of fact, if you’ve attended one of my regular talks on health you’ve probably heard me recite my favorite quote: “Follow those who seek the truth. But, flee from those who say they’ve found it!”
Now that we’ve established that no one has all the answers and there’s always more to learn, let’s explore some of the pearls from the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors as well as examine a few of its potential pitfalls.
What is the Paleo Diet?
During the Paleolithic period (approximately 2 million years ago) our “hunter-gatherer” ancestors consumed a diet that consisted of vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots, meat and seafood. This type of sustenance continued until approximately 10,000 years ago when we began cultivating legumes and grains. Proponents of the Paleo diet say that our bodies have not evolved fast enough to handle these relatively new foods and they propose we will be healthier if we adhere to a diet similar to that of our prehistoric ancestors.
Fast forward from 10,000 years ago to just after World War ll (when exhausted from the war efforts we began making choices based on convenience rather than common sense), and we see even more drastic changes to our diet. It was during this post-war era when the bulk of the US population began creating and consuming processed foods in the form of boxed cereals, frozen dinners, white bread and various sugar-laden beverages and nutrient depleted white flour products.
Although during this same time period we developed a better understanding of how to prevent the spread of infectious diseases (so our lifespan increased), chronic illnesses began to escalate. Currently 60% of adults and 54% of children suffer from one or more of these conditions (Diabetes, Obesity, Asthma, Heart Disease, Cancer, Autism, Allergies, Multiple Sclerosis, Dementia, etc.). There is no longer any doubt regarding the influence switching from a wholesome plant and animal based diet to one containing high levels of processed carbohydrates, sugar and low nutrient foods had on the increase in these chronic conditions.
Why Go Paleo? Individuals are embarking on the Paleo diet (which focuses on stabilizing blood sugar levels, reducing toxic load and increasing the intake of nutrient dense foods) in an effort to improve their health with many reporting significant weight loss and improved energy.
Dr. Loren Cordain, the author of The Paleo Diet and a leading expert in the study of Paleolithic nutrition states: “ Normalizing your system is the true strength of the so-called caveman diet. By eating foods that are concordant with your genetic ancestry, you can avoid many of the diseases associated with our modern diet. …This genetic discordance ultimately manifests itself as various chronic illnesses, which have been dubbed “diseases of civilization.” By severely reducing or eliminating these foods and replacing them with a more healthful cuisine, possessing nutrient qualities more in line with the foods our ancestors consumed, it is possible to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic disease.”
Although there are some variations (as different “experts” weigh in on the plan) generally speaking this is what the Paleo diet looks like:
Allowed foods: Vegetables, Meat, Fruits, Seafood, Eggs, Nuts, Seeds, Animal Fat, Avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, unrefined nut and seed oil, unrefined honey, maple syrup
Foods to Avoid: Dairy, Grains, Corn, Legumes, white potatoes, refined sugar, refined oils, processed food, alcohol
There are a plethora of websites advocating certain percentages of macronutrients on the Paleo diet but on average it is recommended one consumes around 23% carbs (from non- starchy vegetables) , 26% -50% healthy fat (big span, I know) and 38% protein.
The Pearls of Paleo:
Balancing Blood Sugar Levels: Currently, 28 million people in the US have Type 2 Diabetes and a relatively new and startling caveat to that statistic is the fact that 12 million of them are children! Additionally, 36% of adults and 17% of children are obese. One of the main advantages of the Paleo diet is that by eating a “protein-healthy fats-vegetable based” diet and avoiding sugar, chemically-laden processed food, starchy vegetables (such as potatoes), legumes and grains, blood sugar levels stabilize. As the neurologist David Perlmutter, MD in his NY Times bestselling book: Grain Brain as well as cardiologist William Davis, MD, in his popular book: Wheat Belly, clearly convey: if one stays on the sugar, insulin roller coaster ride induced by breads, pastas, grains and sugar laden foods it leads to fat storage, insulin resistance, inflammation, obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and Dementia. Coming off those foods which is a requirement of the Paleo plan is a major factor in optimizing one’s health.
Improved Lab Values and Symptom Reduction: According to an article in Time Magazine, several studies have compared Paleo style diets to the average American Diet and found that the Paleo plan was more effective in helping people lose weight, improve body composition, decrease blood pressure, and reduce elevated blood sugar levels. (1)
Autoimmune Illnesses: Some individuals with autoimmune disorders such as Lupus, Psoriasis, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, etc. are turning to Paleo diets to improve their symptoms of pain, fatigue and inflammation. In addition to the foods that are typically avoided due to their potential to trigger allergic reactions, on the Autoimmune Paleo version, one also eliminates eggs (especially whites), nuts, seeds (including coffee and seed based spices), nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, eggplant and peppers) , alcohol and of course artificial sweeteners. One clinical study showed promising results with this diet and MS. (2)
What are the potential perils or pitfalls of Paleo?
Too much protein: With a perceived “green light” for protein consumption, there is the risk that some Paleo followers will consume too much and the wrong kind of this macronutrient. In addition to the idea discussed by researcher Ron Rosedale, MD namely, that excess protein can stimulate a pathway (referred to as rapamycin (mTOR) that he and other researchers feel may be largely responsible for the growth of cancer cells, it is also worrisome to note that an excess of meat-based protein can result in a drop in blood PH. Because this is a delicate balance that must be maintained, calcium (which is stored in our bones and teeth) is called upon as a buffering or alkalizing agent leaving our teeth and bones depleted of this important mineral.
Sidebar: the most common recommendation for calculating daily protein requirements is to take your weight in lbs and multiply it by either .5 (if relatively sedentary) or .8 or (if more active). It should be noted that pregnant women and those working out extensively need about 25% more.
As I was doing research for this article and checking various Paleo websites, I came across a response to someone looking for Paleo snack ideas. The advice was to eat more bacon or pork rinds! I almost fell over as it reminded me of the Atkins days and what happens when we take a good general concept and expand it to the extreme. When choosing to eat Paleo, or for that matter any diet, it’s extremely important to choose the highest quality sources of protein. Beef should be obtained from cows that are grass fed and raised organically. Chicken, turkey, eggs, should be free range and raised on organic, non GMO feed without antibiotics or hormones. If beans are used as a source of protein (although not included on the Paleo plan) they need to be organic and soaked for at least 24 hours in order to breakdown phytic acid which prevents the digestion and absorption of nutrients. (3)
Too little carbs: Because the Paleo diet greatly restricts the intake of carbohydrates (to usually around 23% of the diet), it’s important to not only make sure the carbs that are eaten come from fresh organic non starchy vegetables especially greens, but also that once the health goal is achieved, consider coming more in to balance by reintroducing some of the healthier whole grains.
Not enough Fat: Dr. Joseph Mercola suggests that strict Paleo followers need to replace lost calories (from eliminating many sources of carbohydrates) with high quality healthy fats such as butter from grass fed cows, avocados, coconut oil and eggs. (4)
Toxins in Seafood: Seafood can be a wonderful source of nutrients and so is welcome on a Paleo diet. However it is often a source of toxic heavy metals such as mercury and other contaminants. It is generally recommended to avoid farm raised seafood and instead consume options that are lower in toxic contaminants such as Wild Alaskan salmon, sardines and anchovies.
Paleo does not always advocate fermented foods: Eating fermented vegetables is one of the best ways to protect your health because it feeds your gut with good healthy bacteria which help keeps yeast in check, prevents intestinal permeability (or leady gut) and assist in the breakdown of toxins.
My Vegetarian Past Haunts Me: Although much of the rationale behind the Paleo diet makes sense to me and in general I follow many of its principles, I can’t totally forget all that I learned while reading some of the vegetarian classics: Diet for a New America by John Robbins was a real eye opener and who could forget Diet for a Small Planet by Francis Moore-Lappe? These books instilled in me a deep understanding of not only the inhumane treatment of animals but also the cost to the planet in natural resources of raising cattle vs. growing vegetables and grains. Subsequently, to this day (almost 40 years after reading these books) I can’t eat beef. I don’t know how to refer to this personal testimony other than to say it’s something I think about as I watch the “what the right diet pendulum” swing from plant popularity to a diet that advocates more animal meat.
Summary: When one takes a step back and tries to determine the root cause(s) of our ever-escalating modern day ailments, the answers are complex, multi-faceted and there are more than enough places to direct the blame such as:
- 87,000 toxic chemicals created in the last 100 years (of which very few have been properly tested for their impact on our health),
- diets mainly comprised of sugar-laden, processed, nutrient depleted food
- 36-45 vaccines given to our children before the age of 5 (that although well-intended, contain harmful substances such as formaldehyde, aluminum, propylene glycol etc.)
- farming practices that include spraying 2 billion pounds of pesticides on crops each year
- genetically engineered food requiring the use of the toxic chemical glyphosate
- fast -passed stressful (and often sedentary) lifestyles
- and, let’s not forget our pharmaceutical industry’s domination of the health system…
Just to name a few…
I don’t know if returning to the diet of our ancient ancestors is the total answer to regaining our health in our modern world, and I also feel there is more to being vibrantly healthy than just diet (such as enjoying life). However, there are some pearls in the Paleo approach that I do not think should be overlooked. Diet trends and advice are always changing and it’s hard to know which path to take. But whether you choose to adopt the diet of our 2 million year old ancestors or eat a vegetarian diet (based on foods man began to cultivate a mere 10,000 years ago), the primary health components to consider in each case are to eat whole organically grown foods, consume healthy sources of fats and protein, avoid toxins and processed-chemicalized food and greatly reduce or eliminate the intake of sugar. A degree of trial and error is usually involved in finding the right diet for you. Ultimately, it requires staying informed, but even more importantly, it involves paying close attention to the messages your body gives you and exercising your own common sense.
- C. Mellberg et al, Long–term effects of a Palaeolithic type diet in obese postmenopausal women: a 2 year randomized trial, Journal of Clinical Nutrition 68, 350-357 (March 2014) |b. Jönsson T et al, Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009;8:35c. Frassetto LA, Schloetter M, Mietus-Synder M, Morris RC, Jr., Sebastian A: Metabolic and physiologic improvements from consuming a paleolithic, hunter-gatherer type diet. Eur J Clin Nutr 2009.Many more published studies can be found at http://thepaleodiet.com/research/
2. Bisht Babita, Darling Warren G. et al, A Multimodal Intervention for Patients with Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis: Feasibility and Effect on FatigueThe Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, May 2014, 20(5): 347-355. Published in Volume: 20 Issue 5: May 7, 2014
3. Gilani GS, Cockell KA, Sepehr E. Effects of antinutritional factors on protein digestibility and amino acid availability in foods. J AOAC Int. 2005 May-Jun;88(3):967-87.
The Best (in my opinion), most balanced book to read on the subject is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon