Paleo Principles

This month, Matt O'Neill gives his rundown on the Paleo diet and eating nutrient rich. It seems that the hype of all things Paleo is running off the back of common sense - eat a wide variety of unprocessed wholefood in it's most natural form.

Paleo diet - Do you need to eat like a caveman?


The Paleo diet is all the buzz right now, but do you need to revert to a purely hunter-gatherer cuisine to achieve the body-shaping and wellbeing results you desire? Read on to find out. 

The Paleolithic (‘Paleo’, ‘Caveman’ or ‘Hunter-Gatherer’) diet is a modern diet based on what our ancestors likely ate during the Upper Paleolithic era from 30,000 up to 10,000 years ago. From then on, our diet radically changed, with what was the first true agricultural revolution.Paleo

At this time, separate and distinct societies around the world began domesticating plants (crops) and animals for food. The biggest change to our diet was the processing of grains and cereal crops which led to a drastic increase in the consumption of starchy carbohydrates, to where we are today, with starchy carbohydrates as our dietary staple foods for energy.

The theory for eating the Paleo way is based on our genetics; supporters of the diet claim that our genes remain unchanged since the Paleolithic era, and so modern diseases of civilization (obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease) are the result of a discordance between our conserved genes and our modern diet (the ‘evolutionary discordance theory’). 

What it includes:

Foods that you can hunt and gather:

•    Fish, grass-fed meats (including organ meats, such as kidneys and liver), eggs
•    Vegetables – all green vegetables and roots such as carrots, turnips and beets
•    Fresh fruits 
•    Nuts and seeds
•    Small amounts of natural sweeteners such as honey

What it excludes:

Foods that we grow, harvest and process

•    Grains and legumes
•    High GI tubers such as potatoes and yams
•    Corn – technically a grain 
•    Dairy products
•    Cashews and peanuts (technically legumes)
•    Processed salt and sugar
•    Processed vegetable oils
•    Alcohol

Nutritional benefits/concerns

The diet is high in: fibre, omega-3 fatty acids(relative to omega 6 fatty acids), antioxidants, low GI carbohydrates, and is low in refined sugar and processed foods. 
However, cutting out whole food groups (dairy, whole grains) has major metabolic disadvantages. This diet would be low in calcium (unless large quantities of calcium-containing leafy vegetables and nuts were consumed) and runs the risk of being a low carbohydrate diet if there isn’t a strong enough reliance on fruits and vegetables.

Experimental studies

Numerous studies have shown the benefits of following a Paleo-style diet on body weight and other metabolic markers (such as insulin sensitivity). A study in which a group of sedentary Australian Aboriginals with type 2 diabetes were returned to their traditional diet and lifestyle for 7 weeks resulted in improvements in blood glucose control, insulin sensitivity, and cholesterol [1]. Randomised controlled trials in which 2 groups are allocated to either the Paleo diet or an alternative diet (such as the Mediterranean, or Diabetic diet) have shown distinct metabolic advantages of the diet (such as greater satiety), however, further research is required [2][3]. 

Isn’t it just Atkins/low carbohydrate?

In short – no. The Paleo diet is meant to be a balance between plant and animal foods, and includes a number of semi-starchy vegetables, fresh fruits and natural sweeteners (honey) which aren’t allowed on Atkins. Although the Paleo diet is relatively high in animal foods, it isn’t a low carbohydrate diet.

Major criticisms of the diet

We don’t know exactly what our ancestors ate

The Paleolithic era was a long time ago, and there are very few archaeological records to tell us exactly what our ancestors ate. Basically, we know what they didn’t eat, but when it comes down to what they did eat – it’s mostly conjecture from piecing together limited fossil and archaeological evidence. 

A uniform ‘Paleo’ diet didn’t exist

It has been scientifically-validated that there it is very unlikely that there ever was one single Paleolithic diet [4]. The human digestive system is extremely flexible, which allowed humans to exist on very different diets, depending on their location and the season. Consider the typical diet of our ancestors living in Alaska, eating mostly raw meat and fish, compared to those living on the equator with abundant ripe fruit – they would have been vastly different in terms of nutritional composition.

There is evidence that some Paleo societies ate starchy foods

There is also archaeological evidence that early humans in the Paleo era were grinding grains and making flours, and also cooking starchy foods. Stones with wear patterns from grinding starches from 30,000 years ago from Russia, Italy and the Czech Republic suggest that starchy grains and grasses were a part of our ancestors diet, long before the first agricultural revolution [5]. There is also reasonable evidence to suggest that people were processing cereal grains for food as much as 200,000 years ago [6]

It’s not feasible in a modern world

Processed and packaged foods are a large part of the modern diet. Consider the typical Australian breakfast of cereal and milk, or toast and spread; changing to the Paleo involves a major change of diet. 

Eliminating starchy staples (bread, cereal, pasta and rice) and dairy (milk yoghurt and cheese) as food groups would drastically reduce calorie intake, and without careful planning, could put you at risk of nutritional deficiencies, including calcium (of which dairy is our primary source) and B vitamins (found in whole grain and fortified breads and cereals).

Furthermore, there are countless studies showing that many bioactive components of dairy are beneficial for fat loss and have significant metabolic advantages. If you’d like to read more on this, click here.

Following such a restricted diet makes eating away from home difficult, and the careful planning required makes it very hard to stick to long term. Sticking to a reduced calorie diet is challenging enough.

Bottom line

In my opinion, it’s not so much about the Paleo diet being nutritionally superior to the way most of the Western world eats, it’s about the western diet being nutritionally inferior. Of course any diet that promotes unprocessed, fresh food is going to have metabolic advantages and result in weight loss. 

The Paleo diet does have many nutritional benefits; high in omega-3, low Glycemic index and low Glycemic load, and high in nutrient rich fruits and vegetables, however, it’s just not necessary to cut-out whole food groups on the basis that our ancestors may have not eaten them. 

Food groups such as dairy and whole grains have mountains of scientific evidence in their favour, and are actively promoted by public health authorities. Dairy is a rich and convenient source of calcium and high-quality protein, and whole grains are packed with fibre, antioxidants, and starches which are important for bowel health, blood sugar maintenance and weight management. 

Eating the MJ way will offer you all the metabolic benefits of a nutrient rich diet and the ability to stick to it for life.

References

1. O’Dea K. Marked improvements in carbohydrate and lipid metabolism in diabetic Australian Aborigines after temporary reversion to traditional lifestyles. Diabetes. 1984; 33:596-603

2. Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Ahrén B, Branell U, Pålsson G, Hansson A, Söderström M, and Lindeberg S. Beneficial effects of a Paleolithic diet on cardiovascular risk factors in type 2 diabetes: a randomized cross-over pilot study. Cardiovasc Diabetol. 2009; 8: 35.

3. Lindeberg S, Jönsson T, Granfeldt Y, Borgstrand E, Soffman J, Sjöström K, Ahrén B. A Palaeolithic diet improves glucose tolerance more than a Mediterranean-like diet in individuals with ischaemic heart disease. Diabetologia. 2007 Sep;50(9):1795-807

4. Brand-Miller, J, Mann N, Cordain L. Paleolithic nutrition: what did our ancestors eat? In: ISS 2009 Genes to Galaxies. Eds: Selinger A, Green A. The Science Foundation for Physics, University of Sydney.  University Publishing Service, University of Sydney, Sydney, 2009; 28-42.

5. Thirty thousand-year-old evidence of plant food processing.” By Anna Revedin, Biancamaria Aranguren, Roberto Becattini, Laura Longo, Emanuele Marconi, Marta Mariotti Lippi, Natalia Skakun, Andrey Sinitsyn, Elena Spiridonova, and Jirí Svobodai. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 42, October 19, 2010.

6. Murphy, D. "People, Plants and Genes: The Story of Crops and Humanity." Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2007.

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