Understanding The Paleo Diet

If you’re savvy on the various new programs and ideas for weight loss and overall health improvement, you’ve probably heard about the Paleo Diet.  The Paleolithic era was the time period from about 2.6 million years ago to the beginning of the agricultural revolution, about 10,000 years ago. 

Dr. Loren Cordain, a member of the faculty of the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, is the author of "The Paleo Diet."  Following decades of research by Dr. Cordain and his colleagues, they determined that hunter-gatherers who lived in this period of time were typically free from many of the chronic illnesses and diseases that seem to be epidemic in Western populations, including:

  • Obesity
  • Cardiovascular disease (heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, congestive heart failure, atherosclerosis)
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer
  • Autoimmune diseases (multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc.)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Acne
  • Myopia (nearsightedness), macular degeneration, glaucoma
  • Varicose veins, hemorrhoids, diverticulosis, gastric reflux
  • Gout

Following Dr. Cordain’s research The Paleo Diet was created, and is based upon eating wholesome, contemporary foods from the food groups our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have thrived on during the Paleolithic era.

WHAT PALEO INCLUDES:  These foods include fresh meats (preferably grass-produced or free-ranging beef, pork, lamb, poultry, and game meat, when possible), fish, seafood, fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and healthful oils (olive, coconut, avocado, macadamia, walnut and flaxseed).

WHAT PALEO DOES NOT INCLUDE: Dairy products, cereal grains, legumes, refined sugars and processed foods were not part of our ancestral menu. Legumes not only include beans and lentils, but also soy and all soy-based products. Don't forget that peanuts and peanut butter also belong to the legume family and are not recommended on the Paleo Diet.

The Paleo Diet is based upon modern foods that mimic the food groups of our pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer ancestors. The following seven fundamental characteristics of hunter-gatherer diets can help to optimize your health, minimize your risk of chronic disease, and lose weight.

Higher protein intake – Protein comprises 15 % of the calories in the average western diet, which is considerably lower than the average values of 19-35 % found in hunter-gatherer diets. Meat, seafood, and other animal products represent the staple foods of modern day Paleo Diets.

Lower carbohydrate intake and lower glycemic index – Non-starchy fresh fruits and vegetables represent the main carbohydrate source and will provide for 35-45 % of your daily calories. Almost all of these foods have low glycemic indices that are slowly digested and absorbed, and won’t spike blood sugar levels.

Higher fiber intake – Dietary fiber is essential for good health, and despite what we’re told, whole grains aren’t the place to find it. Non-starchy vegetables contain eight times more fiber than whole grains and 31 times more than refined grains. Even fruits contain twice as much fiber as whole grains and seven times more than refined grains.

Moderate to higher fat intake dominated by monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats with balanced Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats – It’s the type of fat—not the amount—in your diet that raises your blood cholesterol levels and increases your risk for heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes. Cut trans fats and Omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and increase healthful monounsaturated and Omega-3 fats that were the mainstays of Stone Age diets. Recent large population studies show that saturated fats have little or no adverse effects upon cardiovascular disease risk.

Higher potassium and lower sodium intake – Unprocessed, fresh foods naturally contain 5 to 10 times more potassium than sodium, and Stone Age bodies were adapted to this ratio. Potassium is necessary for the heart, kidneys, and other organs to work properly. Low potassium is associated with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke – the same problems linked to excessive dietary sodium. Today, the average American consumes about twice as much sodium as potassium.

Net dietary alkaline load that balances dietary acid – After digestion, all foods present either a net acid or alkaline load to the kidneys. Acid producers are meats, fish, grains, legumes, cheese, and salt. Alkaline-yielding foods are fruits and veggies. A lifetime of excessive dietary acid may promote bone and muscle loss, high blood pressure, and increased risk for kidney stones, and may aggravate asthma and exercise-induced asthma.

Higher intake of, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and plant phytochemicals – Whole grains are not a good substitute for lean meats, fruits, and veggies, as they contain no vitamin C, vitamin A, or vitamin B12. Many of the minerals and some of the B vitamins whole grains do contain are not well absorbed by the body.

Proponents of the Paleo Diet tout that it can help you drop unwanted pounds and ward off disease and illness. The Diet is based on what humans ate during caveman times. The Paleo Diet is lifestyle-based on the idea that in the past 40,000 years, our DNA has changed very little. Therefore, eating processed foods like cereals, dairy products, and refined sugars invite disease and weight gain. The Paleo Diet simplifies your food and asserts that eating natural plants and animals is your prescription for optimum health.

The Paleo Diet comes with a set of ‘rules’ to help guide people on their Paleo path… they include:
Rule #1: Build a “Paleo Plate” for Every Meal -- Two-thirds of your plate should be comprised of vegetables; the other one-third is a palm-sized portion of lean protein, one fruit and a dollop of healthy fat, like avocado.
Rule #2: Eliminate All “Inflammatory” Foods
Rule #3: No Calorie Counting
Rule #4: Eat Dinner for Breakfast
Rule #5: Take 3 Cheat Meals a Week -- Get the benefits of the Paleo Diet by following it 85% of the time. A full 100% commitment is ideal for 30 days but can be a difficult transition – which is why the plan allows for some cheat meals. Indulge three meals a week.

While it makes sense to eliminate sugar and processed foods from your diet, many wonder why these other foods are Paleo no-no’s…

Why no dairy? Humans are the only animals that continue to drink milk after the weaning process—this includes consuming dairy products as they are milk-based. Chances are pretty slim that our Paleo ancestors drank milk once their natural breast-feeding ended. Natural health advocates have denounced dairy for decades. Certainly, we’ve all been taught for years that we need milk to be healthy, but more and more research shows that most people should avoid dairy products completely. The “milk mustache” trend in advertising is more of a response to the threat of natural health information than anything else. Celebrities, athletes, and politicians may be donning this upper-lip promo, but chances are they got a lot more than calcium in exchange for their milky smile. Even many of the experts who helped create the popular government-based food pyramid work for the dairy industry. In fact, Walter Willet, M.D., Ph.D. -- the second-most-cited scientist in all of clinical medicine and the head of nutrition at Harvard's School of Public Health -- is one of the pyramid's most vocal critics.

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In researching this, however, I noticed that some of the nuts which are allowed on the Paleo Diet are also high in  phytates (such as almonds, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and walnuts)—so do your homework.  Give the Paleo Diet a try for 30 days to see if you feel any difference. Before making any changes though, it is recommended to consult your health care provider, and get some blood work done to ensure the Paleo Diet is safe for you.

By Cindy Grey

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