27 Mar What is a Paleo Diet and Lifestyle?
The Paleo Diet- How Our Bodies Were Meant to Thrive
The concept of a Paleo diet and lifestyle is based off how humans were eating and living prior to the Neolithic period, which is when agricultural practices changed our diet considerably. Grains (especially the genetically modified super grains found in today’s markets) were not a part of this ancient human diet and were only introduced at the time of the agricultural revolution about 10,000 years ago.
In the past 200 years the industrial revolution has changed (and by changed we mean worsened) our diet to an even greater degree with the introduction of processed and artificial foods as well as an increase in the amount of food that is available to us due to our ability to store foods for long periods of time. In the past century we have been introduced to things like splenda, aspartame, hydrogenated oils, genetically modified foods, and a plethora of chemicals used to preserve and “improve” our foods.
In reality these products really only have the potential to further decrease our levels of health. Has anybody else noticed that as our nation has become more developed, more intelligent, and more advanced, our overall level of health has been drastically becoming worse as cases of obesity, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, cancer, allergies, food sensitivities, and other diseases continue to rise? The Paleo diet encourages us to stop trying to outsmart our bodies by consuming things like “sugar free” “fat free” and “low carb” in order to improve our health get back to the basics of eating. Basically the Paleo lifestyle encourages us to fuel our bodies the way they were meant to be fueled.
The Paleo diet, also known as paleolithic, ancestral, or caveman diet, is all about natural whole foods to help achieve improved levels of health and physique. The human body evolved with the food found in nature. Obviously the meats, vegetables, fruits, and nuts were a little different variety than those found in our supermarkets today, so the Paleo diet simply encourages consuming modern foods that (to the best of our ability) emulate the foods available to our pre-agricultural ancestors: Meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, fruits, roots, tubers, nuts, and seeds.
Food such as grains, legumes and dairy were not consumed in Paleolithic times and are there for not encouraged on this diet. Considering the average American gets the majority of their fiber from things like whole grain breads, cereals, and crackers and the majority of their protein from dairy products and conventionally raised meat; this diet can take some serious dietary adjustments as people learn to obtain their fiber from things like vegetables, fruits, and nuts and their protein from grass-fed meat and wild-caught fish.
There has been a great deal of negativity around the Paleo Diet in recent years, mostly due to misinformation and a serious lack of understanding about the basic principles of nutrition. However before we completely dismiss this diet as another fad or an incredibly “unbalanced” way of eating, let us at least consider the positives outcomes of this diet and the reasons why Dr. Kremer and I often encourage our own patients to at least try this diet for at least 30 days to see if symptoms improve.
Modern Day Foods and Related Illness
According to the USDA, over 75% of corn and over 90% of soy have been genetically modified. In addition, over 75% of the processed foods in our supermarkets contain some form of genetically modified ingredient. Those statistics in themselves should be enough to permanently scare everybody away from grains and processed foods! While genetically modified foods haven’t been on our market long enough for us to fully understand the damage that these can do to our health, it’s doubtful that the consumption of these goods will lead to positive health outcomes!
In recent years the number of Americans suffering from food allergies and food related disorders has dramatically increased! In fact, the prevalence of food allergies among children under the age of 18 increased 18% percent from 1997 to 2007. In addition, cases of Celiac Disease have increased 400% over the past 50 years. Lastly, in the UK (one of the few countries to conduct annual food allergy evaluations) found that in the year 1999 cases of soy allergies doubled from the year prior! It just so happens that the prior year was also about the time that genetically modified soy had begun arriving in the UK from America.
Does anybody else wonder if perhaps our bodies are trying to tell us something about these genetically modified “super foods” that we continue to consume in mass quantities? Thus, one of my favorite things about the Paleo diet is that it suggests organic fruits and vegetables, thus discouraging the intake of genetically modified foods (by definition, organic foods cannot be genetically modified).
The next positive aspect of the Paleo lifestyle is the way that it encourages a more balanced intake of proteins, carbs, and healthy fats. In order to understand why this balance is so important we must first understand the roles that carbohydrates, proteins, and fats play in our bodies:
The roles of carbohydrates in our bodies include:
- Fast and readily available source of fuel
- Are easily used by the body for energy
- Provide fiber, an important component of intestinal health and waste elimination.
- Provide vitamins and minerals (fruits and veggies)
The roles of proteins in the body include:
- Growth support (especially important for children, teens, and pregnant women)
- Tissue repair
- Immune function
- Essential hormone and enzyme production
- Source of energy when carbohydrate is not available
- Preserving lean muscle mass
And the role of fats in the body include:
- Support normal growth and neurological development
- Provide energy (fat is the most concentrated source of energy)
- Absorbing certain vitamins ( like vitamins A, D, E, K, and carotenoids)
- Providing cushioning for the organs
- Maintaining cell membranes
Now, backing up, when we hear the word “carbohydrate” we often think GRAINS, however keep in mind that carbs are found in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy products and legumes (although the latter two aren’t really relevant as these food items are excluded on the Paleo diet). When we obtain our carbohydrates from vegetables and fruit sources (as opposed to grains and legumes) we have the added benefit of powerful vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants NOT found in most grains; unless of course those grains have been fortified or enriched, as is the case of the majority of grains in this country. However, if a food has to be “enriched” from its original state to contain the simple vitamins and minerals so readily (and naturally) provided from other food sources, shouldn’t that tell us something about the overall quality of that food? Keep in mind that the Paleo lifestyle doesn’t suggest removing all carbs; it simply suggests obtaining them from fruit and vegetable sources.
As we consider the various roles of proteins, carbs, and fats listed above we see that carbs basically provide energy; well energy and fiber (and vitamins and antioxidants when fruits and veggies are used). However the last time I checked, a bowl of squash, broccoli, and even raspberries provide a much superior supply of fiber (and natural vitamins and minerals!) than say, a slice of bread or a bowl of pasta. As we continue to consider the above listed roles of each nutrient and then consider the average American’s diet of cereal for breakfast, crackers for a snack, sandwich for lunch, granola bar for a snack, and pasta with bread for dinner, it’s no wonder that so many are overweight and obese! Carbs provide energy for the body and the majority of Americans eat like marathon runners!
As we consider the role of protein and fats in the human diet we see that these nutrients provide a range of benefits- from growth and immune function to vitamin and mineral absorption- which seem to me to be just a bit more important than simply providing energy to the body. Now, we aren’t saying that carbs are “bad” as they certainly do have their place in a balanced diet. However, placing those higher carb foods (starchy veggies and fruits) earlier in the day and around workouts will ensure that those carbohydrates get utilized for energy instead of being stored as fat. The rest of the time, relying more heavily on those proteins, fats, and a plethora of vegetables, will keep my body functioning at optimal levels, provide steady energy, and promote a healthy body composition.
In with the Good, Out with the Bad
Another positive aspect of the Paleo diet is that it discourages the consumption of processed foods, which our bodies are not designed to handle, especially the quantities of that we are putting in them every day. The breads, crackers, pastas, protein bars, and canned/packaged/frozen meals that we consume everyday often lack the basic nutritional components that we need to function optimally and are overloaded with other fillers, chemicals, and additives and TOXINS that actually disturb the body’s natural balance thus creating things like hormone imbalances, mood disorders, thyroid dysfunction, chronic inflammation, autoimmune conditions, weight gain, and food allergies/sensitivities. One result of over-consumption of these processed foods is the phenomenon of being malnourished and obese at the same time, which is growing ever more popular in this country as a result of the standard American diet. While one would think it impossible to be both obese and malnourished that the same time, it actually makes sense that many are becoming more overweight while becoming more deficient of vital vitamins and minerals as a result of the vast amount of empty calories being consumed each day.
One final great benefit of the Paleo diet is that it encourages the intake of organic, grass-fed, and free-range foods, thus naturally moving people away from hormones, improper diets, and other mystery products being given to our livestock. In addition to the disturbing diet and “supplement” regimen imposed on these animals, most commercially raised cattle and poultry are forced to endure ruthless conditions prior to reaching the chopping block. Granted, not everybody can afford to implement a 100% organic diet, however simply making an effort, being aware, and buying organic, free-range, and grass-fed when financially feasible is a step in the right direction.
The Downside…But Not Really
While there are quite a few benefits of the Paleo diet, for some this diet can have its drawbacks as well. One concern with the Paleo diet is the amount of non-organic saturated fats that can be taken in with this diet. Many who begin this diet aren’t aware of the drastic differences between organic and non-organically raised meats and thus believe that they can get away with eating all of the conventionally raised bacon, beef, pork, and lard that they want. Keep in mind that organically raised animals provide a much different nutritional makeup than non-organic and can result in drastically different health outcomes when consumed regularly. (Click here to learn more about grass fed beef!) However, with that said, those who can’t afford to purchase ALL of their meats in organic form will still have much better health outcomes than those individuals following a Standard American Diet. For those who can’t afford to purchase meats in organic form, simply sticking to wild caught fish, lean poultry and beef, and shellfish will still reap many of the benefits of a Paleolithic diet.
Another possible drawback of the Paleo diet is the fact that it restricts legumes. Take the lentil for example- This legume is an excellent source of protein and fiber, is one of the most filling sources of carbohydrate out there. Not to mention, this little fiber powder house is incredibly affordable (I believe they were less than 99 cents a pound last time I checked). For those with families and those on a tight budget, lentils and other legumes are a great way to squeeze in that protein and fiber without blowing the bank. With this said, there are many who simply can’t tolerate legumes and tend to function much better on fruits and vegetables than legumes (for instance, those with autoimmune conditions, leaky gut, or chronic inflammation should consider omitting legumes altogether). While some certainly do better without legumes in the diet, those Paleo parents out there might find that adding the occasional black, pinto, kidney, lentil or legume of choice to the dinner table might help keep the kiddos happy while saving money. Again, following a Paleo-type diet with the occasional lentil dish thrown in is going to be much healthier than the Standard American Diet.
This brings me to the last possible drawback of the Paleo diet- cost. The Paleo diet can be downright expensive for those who follow it closely. Buying only organic veggies and meats and free range eggs can add up quickly and in today’s economic times many American families simply can’t afford the extra food costs. With that said, most American families still find room in their budgets for things like lattes, chips, and soda and many will find that by eliminating these items from their food bill they will have more room in their budget for things like organic carrots and grass fed beef. For those families who can’t go 100% organic, at least giving the Paleo lifestyle a try by sticking the basic principles can make a big difference to overall health (and throwing in the occasional bag of lentils or other affordable legume is perfectly fine). When it comes to cost and food, whenever financially feasible it is always worth it to spend a little more on higher quality foods. After all, doesn’t it make sense to spend a little extra money now and prevent future health problems than to not take care of your health and have to spend a lot of money in years to come trying to mend health issues that could have been prevented? I’d rather spend my money on veggies and beef now than doctor bills in the years to come and the Paleo Lifestyle is one of the best ways to make this happen!
-Cassie Kremer, Lifestyle & Nutritional Educator and Certified Gluten Practitioner