Hey guys today I wanted to take a nice deep dive into our pasts and see if all the hype around the PALEO DIET, Hangs true..
So unless you have actually been living in a cave you have most likely heard about the paleo diet, most of you have possibly tried it..
A little meat here, some fresh veggies there a smattering of fresh fruit. Either wholegrain or processed food free?
IS it healthy? And does it work?
The Paleo, or primal, diet is based on two central ideas.
- We adapted to eat particular kinds of foods.
- To stay healthy, strong, and fit — and avoid the chronic diseases of modernity — we need to eat like our ancestors.
A brief history of eating!!
Our oldest cousins, the earliest primates, lived more than 60 million years ago. And, just like most primates today, they subsisted mainly on fruit, leaves, and insects.
About 2.6 million years ago, at the dawn of the Paleolithic era, things began to change.
Our early human ancestors started rockin’ the opposable thumb and big brain adaptations. They started using stone tools and fire, and, as a result, slowly changed their diet.
By the time truly modern humans came on the scene about 50,000 years ago, our ancestors were eating an omnivorous hunter-gatherer diet.
Arriving us at the paleo model..
- Animals (meat, fish, insects usually all or at least most of these including cartilage, bones and organs.
- Animal products (eggs and honey)
- Leaves, stems, roots (vegetables basically)
- Nuts and seeds that can be eaten raw
With this being the usual starting point and then most suggesting later to add in some component of diary through cultured yogurt or milk..
Then adding some legumes prepared properly by soaking overnight.
What’s so special about hunter-gatherers?
About 10,000 years ago, most of the world figured out agriculture. And thus, we moved from the Paleolithic to the Neolithic period.
Planting and farming provided us with a consistent and relatively reliable food supply, without which civilization could never have developed.
Yet the 10,000-year time frame since the dawn of the Neolithic period represents only about 1% of the time that we humans have been on earth.
Many people believe that the change from a hunting and gathering diet (rich in wild fruits and vegetables) to an agricultural diet (rich in cereal grains) gave rise to our modern chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
This is a fundamental tenet of the Paleo Diet, and a big reason why the suggestions say we should return to the meat and produce-based diet of our past.
What does paleo promise?
The whole idea of the primal or paleo diet strongly suggests, as you have probably gathered (no pun intended) it that our genetic build up doesn’t match the 21st century lifestyle and diet availability, As a result of this it suggests that our health and wellbeing suffer as a result.
The Paleo diet also makes some key evolutionary assumptions:
- Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were robust and healthy; if they didn’t die young from accident or infectious diseases, they lived about as long as we do now.
- When Paleolithic hunter-gatherers shifted to Neolithic agriculture, they got relatively sicker, shorter, and much weaker.
- Modern hunter-gatherers are healthy, and their health declines when they switch to a modern diet.
What’s the evidence?
While a case can be made for this evolutionary trend, as a matter of fact, hunter-gatherers were not the pristine models of health made out to be.
To start with, they certainly harbored various parasites. They were also subject to many infectious diseases.
What’s more, a recent study in The Lancet looked at 137 mummies from societies ranging all over the world — from Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest, and the Aleutian Islands — to search for signs of atherosclerosis.
They noted probable or definite atherosclerosis in 47 of 137 mummies from all four geographical regions, regardless of whether the people had been farmers or hunter-gatherers, peasants or societal elite.
All got hardening of the arteries, no matter what their lifestyle. In fact, the hunter-gatherers of the Aleutian Islands had the highest prevalence, with 60% of their mummies having evidence of atherosclerosis.
Food for thought right?
So it todays paleo really paleo?
Depending upon where you are from our ancestors shared the same diversity, Coming from all over the world each with its own environment and incredibly diverse diets!
Still, in most cases, primal diets certainly included more vegetables and fruits than most people eat today. So if we want to be healthier, we should do what our ancestors did and eat a lot of those. Correct?
Maybe so… but not necessarily for the reasons that Paleo proponents recommend.
First of all, most modern fruits and vegetables are not like the ones our ancestors ate.
Early fruits and vegetables were often bitter, much smaller, tougher to harvest, and sometimes even toxic.
Over time, we’ve bred plants with the most preferable and enticing traits — the biggest fruits, prettiest colors, sweetest flesh, fewest natural toxins, and largest yields.
Just look how many types of potatoes there are?
Likewise, most modern animal foods aren’t the same either.
Beef steak (even if grass-fed) is not the same as bison steak or deer meat. And so on.
This doesn’t make modern produce or modern meat inherently good or bad. It’s just different from nearly anything available in Paleolithic times.
So the claim that we should eat a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and meats because we are evolved to eat precisely those foods is a little bit suspect. The ones we eat today didn’t even exist in Paleolithic times!
Leading to grains.. sin or saint? Of modern society.
Proponents of the Paleo diet argue that our ancestors’ diets could not have included a lot of grains, legumes, or dairy foods. And they contend that the past 10,000 years of agriculture isn’t enough time to adapt to these “new” foods.
This argument is compelling but doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
- To begin with, recent studies in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, using more advanced analytical methods, have discovered that ancient humans may have begun eating grasses and cereals before the Paleolithic era even began — up to three or even four million years ago!
- Further research has revealed granules of grains and cereal grasses on stone stools starting at least 105,000 years ago.
- Meanwhile, grain granules on grinding tools from all over the world suggest that Paleolithic humans made a widespread practice of turning grains into flour as long as 30,000 years ago.
In other words, the idea that Paleolithic humans never ate grains and cereals appears to be a bit of an exaggeration albeit a steady assumption.
Grains and inflammation
Another argument for a Paleo diet is that eating grains can lead to inflammation and related health problems.
While this can be true for people with celiac disease (about 1% of the population) and for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (estimated to be about 10% of the population, if it even truly exists), on the whole, the research does not support this argument.
In fact, observational research has suggested that:
- whole grains may decrease inflammation, but
- refined grains may increase inflammation.
In other words, it appears that processing may cause problems, not the grain itself.
Meanwhile, controlled trials consistently show that eating grains, whether whole or refined, does not affect inflammation at all!
What can we make of that?
At worst, whole grains appear to be neutral when it comes to inflammation.
So the whole minimally processed wholefood diet approach doesn’t sound so far fetched now does it?
The evolution of the GI tract!
Heres where it really starts to get exciting, if we were only meant to live in an environment the same as our ancestors, We really wouldn’t have lived very long now would we.
Our digestive systems have adapted over millennia to process a low-energy, nutrient-poor, and presumably high-fiber diet. Meanwhile, Western diets have become high-energy, low-fiber, and high-fat.
Our genes produce only the enzymes necessary to break down starch, simple sugars, most proteins, and fats. They aren’t well adapted to cope with a steady influx of chicken nuggets, McDonald’s big macs, and Ben and Jerrys ice cream.
So how is it that we can still digest our food, even if it is imperfectly at times?
Thank the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut. These friendly critters interact with our food in many ways, helping us break down tough plant fibers, releasing bound phytonutrients and anti-oxidants, and assisting us to assimilate many important compounds.
Now, we don’t have direct evidence of which bacterial species thrived in Paleolithic intestines, but we can be pretty confident that our ancestors’ microbial communities would not exactly match our own.
That’s because bacteria evolve and adapt at a rate much faster than our slow human genes. And for us, that’s a good thing.
It helps to explain why, even if the ancient human diet didn’t include grains, legumes, dairy, and other relatively modern agricultural products, we still might thrive on such a diet today – at least, with a little help from our bacterial friends.
Something to think about with the amount of friendly bacteria being around 100x fold our own we are basically around 1% human!!
Conclusion & recommendations
What does the Paleo diet get right?
Despite the faulty evolutionary theory it’s based on, in the end, the Paleo diet likely gets more right than it gets wrong.
- Paleo-style eating emphasizes whole foods, lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and other healthy fats, which is a massive improvement over the average Western diet.
- Paleo-style eating has been extremely effective for improving several chronic diseases. That alone is a huge plus.
- Paleo-style eating has made us more aware of how processed and crappy a lot of our 21st century food is.
However, we need more rigorous (and carefully matched) trials before we can reach any definitive conclusions.
What are the challenges?
Despite its obvious benefits over the typical Western diet, the Paleo diet has some flaws.
- The evidence for excluding dairy, legumes, and grains isn’t (yet) strong. So as a nutrition coach, I can’t say it’s a one-size-fits-all prescription. Certainly, some people should avoid dairy and gluten, and keep legume and grain consumption more modest. But most of us can improve the way we look, feel, and perform without completely eliminating these foods.
- The evolutionary arguments don’t hold up. The human species isn’t simply a collection of adaptations to life in the Paleolithic era. We are an ever-evolving accumulation of inherited characteristics (and microorganisms) that have been switched, reconstructed, lost, and reclaimed since the first prokaryotes came to life on Earth. This evolution has continued over the past 10,000 years — and won’t stop any time soon.
- In the broader sense, strictly following a list of “good” and “bad” or “allowed” and “not allowed” foods tends to be problematic for most people. Generally, this approach leads to anxiety and all-or-nothing thinking. Maybe it makes us feel more confident and (falsely) sure of ourselves in the short term. But it’s less effective over the long-term — because ultimately, it decreases our consistency.
This may explain why we are seeing the Paleo diet itself evolve.
Which may suggest that at some point in the future the diets of today could be classed as millenialoithic!
In a nut shell!! ( I’m getting good at this)
There’s a lot we can take away from the paleo diet, its easy to see why it was so coveted when the insurgency of cross-fit hit main stage.. Not particularly ideal for the sport but ill cover that in another post.
YET the main points being eat a whole minimally processed diet of good proteins, vegetables and fats with moderate amounts of carbohydrates with some exercise and truth be told you can be in the best shape of your life..
I hope you enjoyed this post and as always please share, like comment and enjoy!