The Paleolithic Diet
Daniel-J. Crisafi, ND.A., MH., PhD
My coach strongly suggested I adopt the Paleo diet. What do you think of this popular diet?
The Paleolithic or Paleo diet is certainly one of the most popular diets undertaken to achieve increased athletic performance as well as for weight loss. As with other popular diets, there are variations. However, what I present here is the Paleo diet as defined by its recent "creator", Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet. I call Loren Cordain a recent "creator" since the idea behind the Paleolithic diet is not new. In fact, it dates from the Paleolithic period!
A Bit of History
In the 1950’s, an American nutritionist, Irvin P. Johnson, known by his pseudonym Rheo H. Blair, recommended a very similar eating plan to the Paleolithic diet. The Blair regimen was followed mainly by fitness buffs and bodybuilders during the 1950’s and 60’s. The coach of the stars, Vince Gironda, used the plan with his clients, including Arnold Schwarzenegger.
In 1975, the American physician Walter Voegtlin published a book, The Stone Age Diet, the premise of which was that humans are carnivores and that the human diet should consist mainly of food sourced from animals.
In the mid-80’s, two American doctors. Eaton and Konner, published a study in which they developed Voegtlin’s ideas even further. The article entitled "Paleolithic Nutrition: A Consideration of its Nature and Current Implications" was published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine giving the theory an air of respectability. According to these researchers, people in the Stone Age had none of the diseases of civilization such as cancer, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. They believed radical changes in diet as well levels of physical activity would explain the discrepancy. Later, in 1989, Eaton and Konner published a book, "The Paleolithic Prescription", in which they developed their thesis and offered specific food suggestions.
The Paleo Diet: What is it?
The Paleo diet is limited to food consumed by our distant ancestors, those of the so-called Paleolithic period, between approximately 3 million to 12,000 years ago. Given that these people were hunters and gatherers, adherents of the Paleo diet discourage the consumption of foods that became available with the advent of agriculture and raising of livestock.
Imagine, if you can, your ancestor, from very far back indeed, and what he would have been eating during this period. The basic foods at the time were whatever wild plants, vegetables, fruits and nuts he could pick as well as insects. In addition to food he could hunt, fish and pick, he could also steal some eggs and wild honey, where accessible. No, your Paleolithic ancestor did not eat dairy - it was quite difficult to get since the domestication and breeding of cattle and goats did not yet exist. It would have been quite difficult to find a wild mammal that would have allowed him to extract her milk. Too much work, it would seem!
Proponents of the modern Paleolithic diet sometimes go a step further by recommending we eliminate legumes and potatoes - foods that people of the Stone Age would have consumed.
The Paleolithic diet, therefore, consists of plant-based foods (fruits, seeds, nuts and vegetables) and foods from animal sources (amphibians, insects, mammals, poultry and fish). Interestingly, most books recommending the Paleo diet seem to ignore (voluntarily or not) the consumption of insects and amphibians. The macronutrient ratio of this plan is interesting. Eaton and Konner suggest a ratio of 45% carbohydrates, mostly fruits and vegetables; 35% protein and 20% fat. Fats in this case would be those which are naturally present in nuts, seeds and animal tissues.
"With isotopic chemistry, we now know more about the Paleolithic diet of the Neanderthals. On the menu: 80% mammoth and rhinoceros meat and 20% plants."
Natural Sciences March 17, 2016
Hence, the diet does not allow anything that comes from livestock production or agriculture that would not have been available in the wild.
|Foods that are Permitted||Forbidden Foods|
|Meat, poultry, fish||Cereal Grains|
|Fruits and vegetables||Potatoes|
|Nuts and seeds||Legumes|
|Fat (those naturally present in meat, nuts and seeds)||Fat (vegetable oils and fat) derivatives / extracts such as olive oil and other vegetable oils as well as butter.|
The argument given by proponents of the Paleo diet is simple. According to research in medical anthropology, our most important diseases, such as cancer and cardiovascular disease, were virtually non-existent in the Stone Age. The diet of these ancestors was very different from ours today, notably for the total lack of grains and dairy products and only a small amount of simple sugars. Humans have followed this diet for about 2 million years and are genetically adapted to it. Nonetheless, about 10 000 years ago, our diet began to change radically. Humans began to consume food groups hitherto absent from the diet, such as cereal grains (wheat, millet, barley, etc.) and dairy products. According to advocates of the Paleo diet, our current diet is not suited to our genetics.
Proponents of the Paleo diet recommend a return to our traditional food sources to reduce levels of degenerative diseases.
The Paleo diet has many positive points going for it. First, any diet that increases the proportion of protein in the diet while encouraging the consumption of large amounts of fruits and vegetables is bound to have beneficial effects. Our current diet, based in part on that which has been followed by our recent ancestors is too focused on consuming cereal grains and carbohydrates. Bread, pasta and potatoes are staple foods for many individuals. The Paleo diet provides an important corrective to this situation. Finally, this eating plan inevitably leads to a significant decrease in simple sugar consumption, thus providing excellent health benefits.
The paleo diet also makes food preparation easy. Indeed, simmering beef cubes with herbs and a few vegetables – what could be simpler? And what about a grilled chicken breast with a large green salad? The Paleo diet may, therefore, encourage us to prepare simple dishes, cooked with ease and speed.
In addition, the Paleo diet is not practiced in a vacuum - it has been recommended in several recent studies. These studies, mostly undertaken since the 2000s, assert that following a Paleo diet may indeed have a positive effect on blood sugar, blood lipids (cholesterol and triglycerides) and blood pressure. Positive effects on weight loss have also been noted.
Although it is much more balanced than other "miracle" diets, a strict Paleo diet does have certain shortcomings, including the restrictions. Let's start with a criticism of its premises.
First, and contrary to what the authors of Prescription Paleo thought, people in the Stone Age did suffer from degenerative diseases. Certainly, these diseases were not present at such high levels as they are today, but they did exist. Moreover, since the average lifespan during the Paleolithic period was significantly shorter than it is today, it is normal that the rate of degenerative diseases would be lower. In fact, people in general did not live long enough to suffer from the diseases of old age.
Second, focusing on the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors without putting the same amount of emphasis on their high level of physical activity is to confuse the issue. If we accept the assumption that these people were, indeed, healthier, then we must practice both their diet and level of physical activity. Physical activity is as important as food.
It is true that agriculture and raising livestock were introduced about 10,000 years ago. But do not forget that these practices - as they released humans from the need of to hunt, feed and follow the herds - have allowed the development of civilization and culture. The people in the Paleo age were ignorant, literally!
Finally, studies have shown that contrary to what some theorists suggest about the Paleo diet, humans can adapt to dietary changes relatively rapidly. Certainly, we are not talking about an adaptation over a few hundred years, but over a few millennia. For example, Marlene Zuk, a biologist, found that humans have adapted biologically to dairy product consumption. Even if they did not originally produce the lactase enzyme needed to digest milk sugar, their descendants did develop the ability to produce it. We cannot conclude that because our distant ancestors did not have the ability to digest, absorb or metabolize a food substance that we cannot.
Note also that the Paleo diet itself has some shortcomings. Indeed, at the practical level, it has certain limitations or major flaws. Excluding pulses, dairy and cereal grains greatly limits the variety of food. Forget the Italian meal with pasta (even gluten-free pasta), or the Tunisian meal of couscous, chickpeas and lamb. Oh, no rice. In terms of the traditional shepherd's pie, eat only the meat, since corn and potatoes are out of question. If you want pizza (of high quality and natural, of course!) you will have to ask for it with no crust (even gluten-free crusts) and with no cheese.
Yes, the Paleo Diet is unequivocally against all cereal grains, whatever the amount. However, cereal grains are an important part of a balanced diet. Granted, in our current diet we eat too much grain. Nevertheless, eliminating all grains from the diet can compromise any attempt to achieve optimal health.
A similar argument can be made regarding the consumption of legumes. Legumes contain nutritional components which have been shown to have significant effects against cancer and cardiovascular disease. To reduce their consumption is to reduce the quality of the diet.
For the last several years, experts have been lauding the benefits of the Mediterranean diet. However, this diet program, well documented for its positive effects on health, includes an important component of grains (couscous, pasta or bread), legumes (lentils or chickpeas) and vegetable oils (olive oil). In this case, three food groups which are forbidden in the Paleo diet have been proven to be the basis of a healthy diet.
The Last Word
A strict Paleo diet is, therefore, one that is very, and quite unnecessarily, restrictive for most individuals. Notwithstanding, a moderate Paleo diet – one in which we reduce our often-excessive grain consumption, increase the proportion of protein and plant-sourced food in our diet significantly or drastically reduce our consumption of simple sugars - can only be beneficial for health.
The Paleo diet can be used as a temporary treatment regimen for those who want to lose weight fast. It can also serve as a crash diet for athletes who want to improve their performance or increase lean body mass. Nevertheless, given its limitations, it should not serve as a permanent daily diet.
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