The Paleo Diet is one of the biggest diet trends of 2010. In the book, written by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., professor at Colorado State University, readers are called to eat the way he states primitive people ate, in order to achieve a body as trim and free of chronic disease as our cave-dwelling ancestors.
Paleo enthusiasts, such as Sebastien Noel of The Paleo Lifestyle, profess “you get to gorge on all the good meat, fish, and good fats you want,” while avoiding foods we generally think of as healthy, such as grains, dairy, and legumes, and even limiting fruit. The rationale is that before agriculture, people did not have access to carbohydrate sources and therefore, our body is not designed to process these foods. Paleo supporters believe foods with carbohydrate lead to fat gain, diabetes, heart problems, and inflammation. The list goes on to blame carbohydrate for obesity, depression, mental illness, arthritis, Crohn’s disease, osteoporosis, and dental problems.
The other two macronutrients, protein and fat, are heavily promoted by the diet, especially saturated fat. On Noel’s website, he states ”fat, especially saturated fat, is the cleanest energy source available to us,” and promotes butter and coconut oil, discouraging the use of olive oil, which is a known source of monounsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats raise good cholesterol and are the cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which has been proven to reduce the risk of certain diseases and cancers.
The Paleo Diet’s criticism of grains and legumes goes beyond the fact that they contain carbohydrate. It focuses on two of the main chemical components that are present in some grains and legumes: gluten and lectins. Gluten, found in wheat, barley, and rye, is a known antagonist of Celiac disease, which is characterized by gluten intolerance. Lectins are found in grains, legumes, seeds, nuts, and certain vegetables in the nightshade family. Cordain states lectins harm the body by causing the immune system to attack itself.
What We Know
Lectins are found in many plant foods and are tolerated by the majority of people. There is some research that shows certain lectins may mimic hormones and behave like insulin, causing fat gain. People with certain digestive disorders may be particularly sensitive to lectins and should avoid them. Just as a small percentage of people are allergic to peanuts while many others aren’t, people can have sensitivities to a wide array of foods and food components that cause symptoms, which can vary greatly between individuals. Many children with autism have been shown to benefit from a gluten free casein free (GFCF) diet. The important distinction here is that just because a food component can cause symptoms in some does not mean it’s harmful to all.
Although we all eat some lectins, we don’t all get diabetes, arthritis, or become obese. Why? According to David J Freed, allergist, it is “partly because of biological variation in the glycoconjugates that coat our cells and partly because these are protected behind a fine screen of sialic acid molecules, attached to the glycoprotein tips.” Our cells are generally protected from potentially harmful food components. In many cases where this protection is compromised, it is due to infection, such as a flu or strep virus that strips off the sialic acid molecules.
Pros of the Paleo Diet
Recommends fewer processed foods and emphasizes whole foods. Processed foods contain refined grains, sugars, and excess salt that contribute to chronic disease.
Plenty of vegetables. Vegetables contain vitamins, minerals, fiber, and antioxidants that help prevent chronic diseases and cancer.
Calorie reduction: most people who follow the Paleo Diet eat fewer calories than they did before, which facilitates weight loss and can contribute to longevity.
Cons of the Paleo Diet
Macronutrient Ratio: Paleo supporters encourage a macronutrient breakdown of 20% of total calories from carbohydrate, 65% from fat, and 15% from protein. Whereas this is consistent with dietary guidelines for protein, (ironic considering the emphasis on meat,) it is way too low in carbohydrate, as 40-60% carbohydrate is recommended for a healthy diet. A healthy intake of fat is 20-30% of total calories, whereas Paleo enthusiasts insist up to 80% fat is safe and even beneficial. This ratio is sadly not based on research, but on the composition of human breastmilk and the human body itself.
The Paleo Diet eliminates food groups such as dairy, legumes, and whole grains that are considered to be healthy for the majority of the population. There is plenty of evidence that people who eat dairy are more likely to be a normal weight and have better bone density than people who do not. Cutting out grains makes it difficult to get enough essential vitamins, such as folic acid, which reduces the risk of neural tube defects like Spina Bifida. And legumes, including beans and lentils, serve as a source of protein, minerals, and are a great source of fiber, which reduces cholesterol. “They’re a cheap source of protein and have so many good qualities that it would be foolish to give them up,” states Joan Salge Blake MS, RD, LDN who is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
The premise of the Paleo Diet: even today there’s such variability in the diets of hunter-gatherer cultures that it’s impossible to identify one general type. In fact, recent anthropological findings suggest primitive diets consisted of plentiful gatherable foods, such as seeds, berries, roots, nuts, shellfish, honey, and the occasional animal. A recent study which analyzed archeological digs in Italy, Russia, and the Czech Republic revealed traces of starch grains on stones used for preparing food. “There is probably no single diet to which our ancestors were adapted,” said University of Arkansas anthropologist Peter Ungar. ”Recent foragers have varied in their diet from marine mammals (the Inuit) to diets composed mostly of a few plant species in the outback.”
Modern concerns: raising animals for food is considered the greatest contributor to global warming, and rainforest destruction. Production of modern meat is threatening the many indigenous people who live in forests, with a lifestyle similar to the primitive man the diet is modeled around.
I want to encourage anyone who’s seeking a healthier lifestyle to go for it, and not be discouraged by the sea of confusing information. The key is to educate yourself as much as possible and maintain an open mind. My suggestion for those interested in the Paleo concept is to do a modified Paleo Diet that includes vegetables, lean meat, fish, and eggs (limited to 1 yolk per day), but to also add in some of the power foods that research still stands behind as healthy and disease-fighting for the majority of the population. This includes beans, whole grains, nuts, 2-4 servings of fruit/day, and olive oil. This is what I consider a “whole foods” diet. Continue to avoid processed foods, refined sugars, and be cautious with saturated fat (see my last blog, Cuckoo for Coconut Oil).
I agree with the Paleo philosophy that many of the chronic diseases people experience today are caused or accelerated by our modern diets and lifestyles. Our processed foods, consumption of refined grains and sugars, and activity are at the top of the list of the antagonists to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and others. I disagree that whole grains, legumes, and dairy should be cut out by the majority of the population. And my biggest concern is that in trying to be healthier, people may do themselves harm in the process. For those wanting to improve their health, going to the extreme of cutting out three food groups is the equivalent of using a skin graft to treat a paper cut. As you gather information and hunt for the best eating plan for you, continue to consider me a qualified resource to help you on your journey.