The Paleo Diet – Revival of the Caveman?
There’s no doubt about it, the Paleo (Paleolithic) Diet, also known as the Hunter-Gatherer Diet, Stone-Age Diet or Caveman Diet is creating quite a stir amongst health professionals, the media and the online blogging community.
If you don’t quite get what the hype is about, here’s a rundown on the newest (or oldest) health movement around.
What exactly is the Paleo diet?
The general preconception about the Paleo diet seems to be that it is all about eating red meat- loin cloth and shaggy hair optional!
This idea could not be further from the truth. In essence, it is a diet best described as a “vegetarian, gluten-free diet with the addition of organic or free range meats”.
The contemporary Paleo diet plan is based on eating the foods we believe our ancient human ancestors ate during the Paleolithic era, a period of around 2.5million years which ended approximately 10,000 years ago.
The premise of this eating approach is that our bodies have naturally evolved to eat foods sourced from hunting and gathering and that they are better suited to our genetic make-up than farmed or processed foods.
Paleo advocates believe that agricultural evolution and the introduction of grains, dairy and other processed foods into our diets over the last 10,000 years is largely to blame for the increased prevalence of modern diseases such as obesity, diabetes, autoimmune and cardiovascular disease.
Some of the reasons for this are:
- Grains and legumes are high in carbohydrates, often of a high Glycaemic Index which have deleterious effects on blood sugar regulation if eaten regularly and in high quantities. This will eventually lead to obesity, diabetes and possibly even cardiovascular disease.
- Grains and legumes contain “anti-nutrient” compounds such as phytates which bind to and block nutrient absorption. Lectins are another ‘anti-nutrient’ found in these foods which can initiate harmful immune responses and damage the digestive tract to cause leaky gut.
- Dairy and grains contain allergenic proteins (casein and gluten) that can cause severe intestinal inflammation and damage, negatively affect mental function and initiate auto-immune reactions in some people.
- Typical Western diets high in processed foods, dairy and grains are pro-inflammatory and acid forming. This can lead to chronic disease states and cause nutrient depletions as calcium and other essential minerals are leeched from our bones in order to buffer blood pH (acid) levels.
The Paleo way of eating is not about depriving yourself of tasty foods or calorie counting- it’s about eating fresh, nutritional foods our bodies can utilise in a positive way.
The Potential Benefits of Going Paleo
You only need to visit a Paleo internet site to read impressive anecdotal evidence from Paleo followers.
Common health benefits from living a Paleo lifestyle include impressive weight loss (specifically fat loss), enhanced energy levels and reduced incidence of inflammatory and metabolic diseases amongst other health improvements.
Scientific research is also coming to the party with a growing evidence base, some studies as recent as 2012, showing potential benefits of the Paleo diet in preventing or improving conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Other preliminary trials have revealed promising health results from individuals following a Paleo-based diet measured by body weight, waist circumference, blood inflammatory markers, blood pressure, lipid and cholesterol profiles, glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.
Paleo foods to enjoy:
- Vegetables (avoid potatoes)
- Fresh Fruit
- Organic or free-range grass-fed lean meats
- Nuts and Seeds (best soaked or sprouted before eating)
- Coconut products including oil and milk
- Oils including olive, coconut, avocado, walnut and flaxseed
- Herbs and spices
- Some alcohol and caffeine is usually permitted, but only in small amounts or until you can completely phase them out of your diet
Foods to exclude:
- Processed and packaged foods- basically anything containing artificial additives
- Dairy (some flexibility with dairy products depending on which guidelines you follow)
- Canned foods that are high in salt
- All grains (ie. wheat, rye, barley, oat)
- Grain-like seeds (ie. quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth)
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Soft drinks
These guidelines can be tweaked slightly to achieve different health goals.
For example, if your aim is to lose weight, you can limit your intake of fruit and root vegetables like potato and sweet potato since they are relatively high in carbohydrates.
Some variations to these dietary guidelines do exist due to the increasing number of ‘Paleo gurus’ spreading the word, some are more rigid on food exclusions than others.
Names you may recognise include the original Paleo researcher, advocate and author of the Paleo Diet, Loren Cordain, or popular online bloggers-turned authors including Mark Sisson (The Primal Blueprint) and Robb Wolf (The Paleo Solution).
Basic Paleo Lifestyle Guidelines
Speak to any faithful Paleo follower and you will also find that being Paleo not only refers to eating a Paleo diet but also following a Paleo-based lifestyle. It’s all about eating and living the way we were designed to.
Exercise has invaluable health benefits and should be integrated into your life on a daily basis.
The Paleo approach advocates natural movements preferably done outside such as walking, hiking, sprinting occasionally if you are able, and lifting heavy things (ie. weights/using your own body weight for resistance).
Long-distance running or any form of “chronic cardio” is discouraged due to it’s stress-activating and pro-inflammatory effects.
Sleep and Sunshine
Good quality, undisturbed sleep patterns in tune with our natural circadian rhythms are central to the Paleo lifestyle.
Why? Ongoing sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on all functions of the body leading to chronic inflammation, stress activation and disease.
Exposure to sunlight during the day is another important part of living a healthy Paleo life.
In addition to providing us with fresh air and a better awareness of our surroundings, being outside in the sunlight provides us with Vitamin D- an essential nutrient for health and wellbeing.
Believe it or not, people could have fun before the days of mindless TV watching and endless electronic game-playing took over.
An important part of living Paleo is regularly making time in your schedule to relax by spending time not using electronics, having fun, being physically active or ‘playing’ since stress is a modern-day killer.
Criticisms of the Paleo Diet
As you could expect, the dairy and agricultural industries are up in arms about a diet which excludes their products from our daily food intake.
Some arguments put forward against the Paleo diet include increased risk of calcium deficiency and thereby osteoporosis due to not eating dairy.
Luckily there are many other food sources of calcium readily available in the Paleo diet such as dark green leafy vegetables, nuts and seeds, small fish bones (eg. sardines) and bone broths.
Calcium absorption and utilisation is also enhanced when following a Paleo diet due reduced consumption of acid-forming foods and dietary ‘anti-nutrients’ like phytates.
Calcium supplementation is another option for people with increased calcium requirements following a Paleo diet.
Another criticism of the diet is the potential lack of carbohydrate intake due to the exclusion of grains.
An important aim of the Paleo diet is to reduce our reliance on carbohydrates for energy and fuel our bodies with good quality proteins and health-promoting fats as they are more sustainable and functional sources of energy.
As discussed, grains have many detrimental effects on health so daily carbohydrate requirements can easily be met instead by eating some fresh fruit or having a small serving of sweet potato (which incidentally doubles as a delicious sweet-treat when roasted in some coconut oil with a dusting of ground cinnamon).
A common concern about the diet is the high fat-intake in comparison to the traditionally advocated low-fat, high-carb diets.
What sets the Paleo diet apart from other high-fat diets like the Atkin’s Diet is the focus on eating health-promoting, beneficial fats such as anti-inflammatory, polyunsaturated omega-3 fats. These are sourced from nuts and seeds, fish and fish-oil supplements if required.
Saturated fat intake comes from coconuts- now regarded as a ‘superfood’ for their many health benefits, or from grass-fed meats which have been found to have increased nutritional anti-oxidant levels and less inflammatory fat profiles than grain-fed meats.
Hm… Even if that is true, doesn’t high fat, especially saturated fat intake cause cardiovascular disease?
That belief has certainly been the general concencus for a while, however recent research is telling a different story.
For example, a 2010 meta-analysis of many epidemiological studies shows no consistent correlation between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease and stroke.
Furthermore, replacement of saturated fats with carbohydrates, especially refined carbohydrates has been found to exacerbate the atherogenic dyslipidemia associated with insulin resistance and obesity that includes increased triglycerides and healthy and harmful types of cholesterol.
If that is not evidence enough, saturated fats do not appear to accumulate in the body unless in the presence of a high-carbohydrate intake- so reducing dietary carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates) seems to be more effective in reducing fat storage in the body than reducing fat intake itself.
The Final Word
It is clear that there is no one diet or exercise regime that will suit everyone’s needs.
However the Paleo diet and lifestyle approach isn’t an extreme weight-loss plan or short-lived diet fad.
It offers a more holistic approach to health and wellness with a focus on fresh, nutrient-dense foods, regular exercise and good quality rest and relaxation.
How could you go wrong?
Whether you follow the diet down to the letter or take some general pointers from these Paleo guidelines- challenge yourself to improve your health and wellbeing today!
For more information on the Paleo diet and lifestyle or to try some Paleo recipes, take a look at the following links: