If you’re hearing a lot about the paleo diet, but are still somewhat confused about what it is, there is a reason for that. The bandwagon is filled with grass-roots practitioners and adherents who vary somewhat on the specifics. Variations aside, adherents claim this lifestyle cures and manages everything from obesity and arthritis to depression and auto-immune disease. This idea hasn’t come from a single author/doctor/guru; the paleo approach has evolved (pun intended) from decades-old theories about diet, health and evolutionary biology into a more scientifically reasoned and researched approach incorporating the latest understanding of human physiology and nutrition.
So what is the paleo diet exactly? The short answer to this question, as the name implies, is to eat what a paleolithic human would have eaten. Based on evidence that primitive cultures around the world historically enjoyed good health by consuming the kinds of foods our bodies have evolved to thrive on, the paleo lifestyle is an attempt to recapture that nutritional wisdom. Although we have no diet books handed down from cavemen, we can look at primitive cultures from this century who have enjoyed good health before being introduced to a modern diet dependent upon highly processed, nutritionally empty foods.
These primitive people ate whole, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, some cooked, some raw and some fermented. They ate ruminant animals that foraged on grassy pastures and lots of wild fish and seafood. They consumed a range of seasonal local organic vegetables and some fruit in moderation, and a few nuts and seeds. It’s a simple premise, but when you’re foraging for dinner at a supermarket instead of a savannah, it can get a little more complicated, and you need to know what to avoid as much as what to eat.
Against the grain
Instead of counting calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein grams, a paleo approach is concerned with nutritional quality more so than macronutrient proportions, and most importantly, seeks to avoid nutritionally empty and/or toxic foods. Most notably on the uhealthy list are grains. Even whole grains are excluded from this diet. Evolutionary reasoning on this maintains that the advent of agriculture is relatively recent, and the human’s physiology hasn’t evolved to properly utilize this as optimal food. Theories aside, we now know that the anti-nutrients in grains, including phytic acid, make it difficult to access much nutrition from them, and the type of fiber they contain can damage the lining of our guts. Leaky gut is thought to be a contributing factor in bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, food allergies, and auto-immune disease. Also, the body converts digested grains directly into glucose, which may help maintain proper metabolism in moderation, but should not be the primary fuel for running our bodies. When glucose is consumed in excess, as in the Standard American Diet (SAD), it puts stress on the organs responsible for metabolizing sugar and can lead to insulin resistance in those who are metabolically compromised.
Seeds of discontent
Seed oils are also a major bugaboo. Paleolithic man would not have consumed these highly processed, industrial substances, and modern man consumes them in copious amounts in everything from salad dressing and snack foods to sauces and cooking oils. They do contain essential fatty acids, as do all fats, but the ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 are extremely high. Research has shown high omega-6 levels in the body cause inflammation when out of proper proportion to omega-3, an anti-inflammatory. Studies implicate inflammation as a culprit in a growing number of devastating diseases; Alzhiemer’s, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis to name a few. Seed oils, including canola, soybean, corn, cottonseed, safflower, sunflower, have raised our omega 6:3 ratios to higher proportions today than ever before in human history. Optimal ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 have been thought to be close to 1:1 and modern ratios range from 10:1 to 20:1 and in instances have been found to exceed 25:1. Aside from nutritional imbalances, many of the seeds for these oils are sourced from genetically modified grains, are processed at high temperatures, and extracted with solvent chemicals, denaturing them and promoting rancidity and carcinogenic properties.
Sugar; the good not as bad, the bad, and the ugly
Sugar of all stripes is off limits. While not all sugar is created equal–– high-fructose corn syrup is particularly insidious in our modern diet–– sugar is not a food in whole form and should be avoided. It feeds cancer cells and unfriendly digestive bacterias and yeasts, causes insulin resistance and diabetes, obesity, digestive disorders, among other problems, and is nearly devoid of any nutritional value. Let’s be real. We all know it’s bad, but very few can make the leap to total abstinence. The good news is, by avoiding processed foods altogether, you can cut a major source from your diet right away. Aside from that, choosing sweeteners wisely and inmoderation is a good starting point. Stevia is a naturally sourced sweetener that has not been found to be toxic, and is not processed by the body in the same way as other sweeteners and is the best choice. Xylitol and other sugar alcohols, while not traditionally used, have been found to be safe. Also, on some paleo-approved lists is yacon syrup and luo han guo. These are whole foods and and are insoluble fibers, so they are processed differently by the body than sugars. Although these products can be expensive and are not widely available, they can be found online. The next on the best-choices list are distant runner-ups; honey, maple syrup, and perhaps coconut sugar. They have a lower glycemic index, and can be safe in strict moderation for those not already metabolically compromised or trying to lose weight.
Along with the infamous “all-natural” HCFS, artificial sweeteners should be considered toxic and avoided entirely. Agave, while recently promoted as a health food, is also not a good choice. It has similar properties to HFCS, and unfortunately this is not widely known. Cane sugar, beet sugar, sucrose, and turbinado round out the rest of the worst offenders list.
Hold the soy, please!
Processed foods in general are unhealthy––even the ones disguised and marketed as health food! Soy is found in some form in practically every aisle of the grocery store. Soy contains inhibitors which interfere with protein digestion and pancreatic function, absorption of essential minerals as well as vitamin B-12, and vitamin D (which 50% of Americans are already deficient in). Phytoestrogens in soy disrupt endocrine function, are a culprit in infertility and breast cancer, stimulate the growth of estrogen-dependent tumors, and cause thyroid problems. Lastly, soy processing produces MSG, a potent neurotoxin, toxic lysinoalanine, and carcinogenic nitrosamines. Unprocessed soybeans, although a whole food, are frequently from genetically modified sources. Like other beans and legumes, which should also be avoided, they are high in phytic acid, but that sounds like the least of our worries from the soybean!