The Paleo Diet: A Contemporary Approach to Health
Proponents of the Paleolithic diet or Paleo diet believe that people are genetically designed to adapt to a diet that is similar to what their ancestors consumed more than 10,000 years ago. In a world where many foods are processed, genetically-modified or lab grown, it may pay to look back at what kept man strong, agile and healthy during the Paleolithic era.
What is the Paleo Diet?
The Paleo diet is not new at all – in fact it dates back to more than 10,000 years ago. It was the diet consumed by cavemen and warriors during the stone ages before technology in agriculture began.
The modern Paleolithic diet is now being promoted by its proponents, particularly Loren Cordain, Ph.D., the world’s leading expert on Paleolithic diets, as one to which man remains genetically adapted ever since he existed. According to studies (Eaton, 2006), estimates suggest that man’s ancestors obtained about 35 percent of their dietary energy from fats, 35 percent from carbohydrates and the rest from protein. Furthermore, their intake of polyunsaturated fats and cholesterol was high; they ate a lot of fruits and vegetables but had minimal grain and dairy consumption. Therefore, their vitamin, mineral and fiber consumption was high but low in phytate (a substance found in cereals) and sodium. Sugar was in the form of honey, which comprised 2–3% energy intake, compared with 15 percent added sugars people eat today. Advocates therefore believe that if modern man adapts this type of diet which kept his ancestors strong, agile and healthy, he may be able to avoid chronic diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease which are currently plaguing mankind.
Contemporary Diet Based on Paleo Food Groups
In the Paleolithic era man hunted, fished and gathered his food which consisted of wild meat, fish, shellfish, eggs, nuts, fresh vegetables, fruits and roots. Realistically speaking, this would be impossible to mimic, since most of modern man’s food come from the groceries and markets, where he gets meats from domesticated animals, frozen fish and seafood, cultivated and sometimes genetically-modified fruits and vegetables. But it is still possible to pattern a diet that is characteristic of the caveman’s diet by knowing what foods can be eaten and what foods should be avoided.
What Foods to Eat
To formulate a contemporary diet based on the Paleo diet, a study was done by Loren Cordain (Cordain, 2002) on the most popular foods Americans consumed which can be incorporated in the diet based on the nutrient intake in the Paleolithic era. These included the four most commonly eaten meats in the (beef, chicken, pork and turkey), 20 top fruits, 18 top vegetables (excluding potatoes and corn) and 20 types of fish or sea food. Ten top nuts and seed like walnuts and almonds were also included. As hunters and gatherers, ancient man ate more animal food sources which comprised about 55-65% of their energy source. These foods represent a wide variety of choices which can be consumed, and there is no recommended amount of calories or servings to consume.
What Foods to Avoid
A contemporary Paleo-based diet excludes two major groups, the grains and dairy because these foods would have been rarely or never eaten by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers. Although eggs are allowed, milk, butter and cheese are not. Other restricted foods include processed foods, salty or sweetened foods, food additives, grains (except for very small amounts of whole grains) and legumes. One is also encouraged to drink only water, coconut water or organic green tea.
Benefits of the Paleo Diet
The study on contemporary Paleo diets by Cordain found that compared to the usual Western diet, it contained more fat, but this was because of the high intake of both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats; saturated fat from animal sources, however still fall within healthy limits. It also contains a high amount of omega-3 fatty acids and low in omega-6, which likewise support health by preventing high cholesterol levels.
The high intake of fruits and vegetables ensures adequate amounts of macro and micronutrients, including fiber, vitamins and minerals.
As a hunter-gatherer’s diet, this low carbohydrate diet is coupled with an active lifestyle that recommends plenty of exercise, thereby promoting weight loss.
According to the diet’s supporters, these will ensure a well balanced diet that is gluten-free and low in sugar and salt. These translate to disease prevention, including obesity, diabetes type 2, heart disease, and other chronic diseases.
Disadvantages of the Diet
Like other types of diet programs, some experts criticize the Paleo diet for its limitations. Analysis of the diet reveals that it contains lower amounts of calcium and vitamin D compared to the recommended daily allowance and contains 4 times more proteins than normal Western diets. This may put a person at risk for osteoporosis, a bone disease characterized by weak and fragile bones. However, Cordain asserts that when skeletons of ancestral humans were analyzed, they were found to have maintained robust, fracture-resistant bones, which were free from signs of osteoporosis. This may be because of the fact that they maintained greater activity levels and had more exposure to sunlight, thereby increasing calcium absorption. Their positive calcium balance may have also come from the large amounts of fruits and vegetables they ate.
Some would argue that the diet is high in cholesterol. The Paleo proponents counter that the ratio of polyunsaturated (good) to saturated (bad) fats is high. This means that the beneficial effects of dietary good fats outweigh the minimal effect on serum cholesterol.
For some people it may be difficult to adjust to a restrictive low carbohydrate, high protein diet such as this. Still others think that it will be difficult to sustain a diet which restricts food choices and is potentially expensive.
People who choose to follow the Paleo Diet program must learn more about its pros and cons and must be aware if the plan suits their individual needs. Consultation with a dietician or medical doctor is also recommended, especially with the need for calcium and vitamin D supplementation.
Foundational to the Paleo Diet concept is
- Food must be NON-GMO sourced.
- Animal sources MUST be grass fed 100%. Grain-fed animals have higher Omega 6 ratios (a bad thing when excessive).
- Food must be pesticide, herbicide and chemical free.
- The soil from which the food is sourced must be mineral nutrient rich “live soil.” Know and support your farmer!
- Vegetables should be minimally cooked (less than 2 minutes). Raw is preferable.
- Eat as many different colors of vegetables and fruits as possible.
- My recommendation is to eat the following portion allocations. 4 portions vegetables, 3 nuts, 2 fruits, 1 meat.
- Juicing is a great way to get in the quantity of raw vegetables that you need.
Eaton, S. The ancestral human diet: what was it and should it be a paradigm for contemporary nutrition? Proceedings of the Nutrition Society (2006), 65: pp 1-6.DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1079/PNS2005471
Cordain, L. The Nutritional Characteristics of a Contemporary Diet Based Upon Paleolithic Food Groups. JANA. Summer 2002, Vol. 5, No. 3 pp. 15-24.
Zelman, K. Diet Review: The Caveman (Paleo) Diet. WebMD. Accessed 4/28/12.