Can A “Paleo” Diet Improve Your Health?
By now most people have heard about a “paleo”, “primal”, or “caveman” diet, but what is it really all about? One of the most thorough looks into "Stone Age" nutrition was done by Dr. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet and considered to be one of the world's leading experts on Paleolithic nutrition.
Based upon scientific research examining the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, the foundation of "The Paleo Diet" is lean meat, including ostrich and bison as well as organ meats, seafood, fresh fruit and non-starchy vegetables -- a far cry from the Standard American Diet, otherwise known by its acronym SAD.
During the Paleolithic period, which spans to 12,000 years ago, people ate primarily vegetables, fruit, nuts, roots and meat. According to Dr. Cordain, if you went out to gather food during this time, the foodstuffs you would find the least of would be carbohydrates. As he said, there was a lot more "fauna" than "flora" in the environment. Our bodies likely developed the signal to store energy based upon the food type that was least abundant, i.e. carbohydrates, and this has continued to this day. So when you eat carbs, your body hears "store energy" -- and this situation is put on steroids with the Standard American Diet.
Researcher Nora T. Gedgaudas, in her book Primal Body, Primal Minds, has been able to show through anthropological findings that our pre-agricultural Paleolithic ancestors lived healthy lives, and show the marked decline in stature, bone density, and dental health and the increase in birth defects, malnutrition, and disease that followed the implementation of the agricultural lifestyle. She shows how our modern grain- and carbohydrate-heavy low-fat diets are a far cry from the high-fat, moderate-protein hunter-gatherer diets we are genetically programmed for, leading not only to lifelong weight gain but also to cravings, mood disorders, cognitive problems, and “diseases of civilization”--such as cancer, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome (insulin resistance), heart disease, and mental illness.
Eat the Way of Your Ancestors
Our Stone-Age ancestors not only ate more natural foods than we do today, but they also ate an incredibly wide variety of them. Dr. Mark Berry, who is involved in the Paleolithic nutrition research, explained that back then humans ate 20-25 different plant foods a day. Today, many Americans struggle to fit in five! Modern-day man eats far more carbs -- including grains, sugar and fructose -- than your ancestors could have dreamed of. See, you don't get fat simply because you overeat -- on the contrary, you overeat because your fat tissue is accumulating excess fat. But why would your fat tissue continuously accumulate fat if you're not simply "eating too much and exercising too little"? This is because dietary carbohydrates, especially fructose, are the primary source of a substance called glycerol-3-phosphate (g-3-p), which causes fat to become fixed in fat tissue. At the same time, high carb intake raises your insulin levels, which prevents fat from being released. The resulting equation is simple: fructose and dietary carbohydrates (such as grains, which break down into sugar) lead to excess body fat, obesity and related health issues. No amount of exercise can compensate for this damage because if you eat a lot of fructose (and there's a good chance you are, considering it's in virtually every processed food), it could be "programming" your body to become fat.
It's not hard to understand the dietary roots of the American weight problem nowadays when you consider that the top 10 sources of calories in the American diet: Four of the top five sources of calories, and eight out of the full 10, are CARBS -- sugars (primarily fructose) and grains! This is the opposite of what our ancestors ate, and is also counterproductive to what you need to lose body fat and stay healthy.
So What Should You Eat to Mimic Your Stone-Age Ancestors?
Ironically, when U.S. News evaluated and ranked 20 diets with input from a panel of health experts, the Paleo diet ranked lowest of the 20! But this was not because it is a poor diet, but because the panelists didn't believe it was possible to find the appropriate foods in the modern era. Nothing could be further from the truth, because food selection today is no longer dictated by your environment as it was so long ago, but rather by your choices at the supermarket or, better, the farmer's market.
As written in AlterNet: "The Paleo diet is less a prescription than a framework for considering one's relationship with food, but several themes are common to most Paleo menus. Aversion to wheat and most grains is common, and processed carbs and sugar are especially avoided. Many Paleos are suspicious of modern fruit, engineered as it was by agriculture into the equivalent of candy bars hanging from trees."
While you wouldn't be able to find many of the wild varieties of plant foods eaten by cavemen even if you wanted to, because modern agriculture has largely taken over the food supply and tweaked and shrunk it to where only a few varieties of wheat, corn and other plant foods are left, you can certainly mold your diet around the principles of Paleo eating rather simply by following my nutrition plan.
I believe it to be one of the most profound interventions for the 21st century and, when properly applied, it can improve just about anyone's health by basing your diet on fresh, whole, unprocessed, "real" food!
As Dr. Cordain stated: "Simply put, human nutritional requirements for optimal health are determined by our genes, and our genes are shaped by the environment of our ancestors through natural selection. Many modern staples and processed foods were not present throughout most of the more than 2 million years hominin species have been present on earth. The nutritional qualities of modern processed foods and foods introduced during the Neolithic period are discordant with our ancient and conservative genome. 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."
Where Does Exercise Fit In?
While exercise is important and crucial for weight loss, the foods you choose to eat are multiple times more important for controlling your weight than your exercise. And if your diet relies on carbohydrates like sugar, fructose and grains, weight and fat loss will be virtually impossible.
But alongside a good whole foods Paleo-based diet, exercise IS vitally important in building calorie-burning muscle, stimulating the metabolism, and reducing stress. The best exercise has been discovered to be short burst of high intensity activity, which mimics the behavioral patterns of the Paleolithic people. During this era, people were not running long distances without any rest, the way so many people do on treadmills today. Rather, they would exert themselves in short bursts while hunting or evading threats, and then follow this up with a period of rest. By following this strategy, you can really maximize your weight loss efforts, as long as it is combined with proper dietary changes. Short intense training improves muscle energy utilization and expenditure due to its positive effects on increasing muscle mass and improving muscle fiber quality. Muscle tissue burns three to five times more energy than fat tissues. This means that muscle gain increases your body's metabolic rate and allows you to burn more calories, even when you're sleeping.
Further, several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire session. In fact, you can actually lose more weight by reducing the amount of time you spend on exercise. With high intensity exercise, most people only need 20 minutes two to three times a week. Remember proper dietary choices are your first and most important step to fat loss, but high-intensity exercise can boost your progress from there.
How You Can Benefit From a Paleo Diet
Adopting a Paleo diet will allow you to curb sugar cravings, promote fat burning and weight loss, reduce stress and anxiety, improve sleep and moods, increase energy and immunity, and enhance memory and brain function. As many of you already know, our modern diet leads to weight gain and “diseases of civilization”--such as cancer, osteoporosis, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and ADD. Many doctors and researchers are just beginning to understand how what we eat directly affects the brain, hormone balance, the aging process, as well as the occurrence of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
When we apply modern discoveries to the basic hunter-gatherer diet, we can unveil a holistic lifestyle for true mind-body health and longevity. Both research and modern practice has proved the primal origins and physiological basis for a high-fat, moderate-protein, starch-free diet and the importance of adequate omega-3 intake--critical to our brain and nervous system but sorely lacking in most people’s diets. When we reduce or eliminate problem foods like grains, gluten, soy, vegetable oils (like corn, soy and canola) and too many starchy vegetables, and include healthy saturated fats from pastured animals and fresh organic leafy vegetables and fruits, we can finally lose weight, improve sleep and mood, increase energy and immunity, and enhance brain function and memory. Living a Paleo lifestyle may help save money on groceries, save our health, support our local farmer’s, support our local environment.
The Paleo Diet, Dr Loren Cordain, 2010
Primal Body, Primal Mind, Nora T. Gedgaudas, 2011
Body by Science August 21, 2011
Alternet.org August 29, 2011