Friday, April 19, 2013

The Paleo Diet has become another major “fad diet” in our society today, and unfortunately it is often misconstrued as the next weight loss diet.  This diet is actually not targeted at weight loss at all, although it can be a side effect of the other changes involved.  The Paleo Diet is based on the idea that human beings evolved as hunter-gatherer societies for several million years on Earth.

This means that the diet consisted primarily of lean meats from hunted game, and fresh fruits and vegetables gathered in the wild.  The Agricultural Revolution began around 10,000 years ago (~333 reproductive generations), which is a very small relative amount of time in the evolutionary sense, and potentially not long enough for significant changes to our DNA to have occurred.  In some cultures (like the Inuit), this shift to an agricultural diet only occurred in the last 6 generations or so.  This means that our genes are still programmed to require and to process the foods that we ate in Paleolithic times.  Thus the prevalence of heart disease, obesity, and other modern health concerns could possibly be attributed to our deviation from this original diet, and our genetic inability to compensate for the change.

What does a Paleo Diet look like?
There are a few simple rules that can allow you to quickly convert your diet to a Paleo Diet.  Here is what you can aim to eat:
1.       All lean meats, fish, and seafood
2.       All fruits and non-starchy vegetables
3.       No cereals or grains
4.       No legumes
5.       No dairy products
6.       No processed food

It is easy to see how this diet can quickly create an improvement in health, and in most people can even cause dramatic weight loss.  Even if all of the founding tenets are wrong, it is easy to see how these changes can improve health and reduce the risk of many metabolic diseases.

Dietary Differences

How different are our diets today from those of our Paleolithic ancestors?  A simple answer is: very.  The current standard diet in North America (“standard American diet” = S.A.D.) is based on grains, dairy, refined sugars, fatty (grain fed) meat, and salty processed foods.  The ancient Paleolithic diet contained no dairy, no added salt, no refined sugar (except honey when they could find it, and fight it away from the bees), and very few grains.  Most of their carbohydrates came from non-starchy wild fruits and vegetables.  The Paleo Diet is also naturally high in fibre, lower-carb (although not actually low-carb), and rich in fruits and vegetables.  It focuses on real food instead of artificial and processed foods.
Paleo Diet
Typical SAD Diet
Low-carb Diets
**Chart adapted from Loren Cordain’s book The Paleo Diet: Rev. Ed. (2011).

What difference does it make?
It is believed that divergence from this natural diet is the underlying reason for many of the health problems seen in our societies today.  This is particularly true for the obesity epidemic in North America.  Other concerning health problems include the leading cause of death today: Cardiovascular disease (Arteriosclerosis), as well as conditions like Diabetes and High Cholesterol.  The dietary changes created by the Paleo Diet have been shown to help reduce the risk of developing Metabolic Syndrome, and can naturally produce healthy weight loss.

Meat Protein Differences
While the Paleo diet focuses a lot on meat and fresh fruits and vegetables, it goes beyond just eating more meat.  The type of meat matters!  Grain fed, feedlot meat is completely different than wild game in its chemical composition.  The muscles of the animal become marbled with fat and have much higher amounts of saturated fat, and omega 6 fatty acids.  In fact this type of meat is often up to 75% fat, whereas game meats and grass-fed beef contain about 20% fat, much of which is actually omega 3, and other unsaturated fatty acids, making them a far healthier choice.

Weight Loss Diet?
When compared to the typical SAD diet, the Paleo Diet can produce significant weight loss results, although that is not usually the reason for adapting to this dietary regimen. Unlike many fad weight loss diets, Paleo is a lifestyle change that will be followed on an ongoing basis, and it can be modified in whatever way you need to allow that to be possible.  It does not restrict portion sizes, calories or fat, but instead shifts the focus of the diet from unhealthy and “unnatural” foods to those more in line with what our ancestors would have eaten.  The idea is not necessarily to lose weight, but to gain health.

Cutting Dairy
It is not natural for human beings to consume milk and dairy products.  That sentence may strike you as odd at first, but really think about it: catching and milking a new mother cow in the wild will give you the visual of how odd it would be in Paleolithic times.  Cow’s milk is a mother’s breast milk designed by nature to turn a small calf into a full-grown cow in short order.  That is a glut of calories, and fat for us to consume on a regular basis.  Also, the dairy produced today is from cows in stalls hooked to machines, and is filled with antibiotics, hormones and other chemicals for processing.  Removing dairy from the diet can help allow the body to return to a more natural balance.

Food Sensitivities
Interestingly, the Paleo Diet seems to inadvertently avoid some of the most common food sensitivities in the general population.  These are: dairy, wheat/gluten, soy, and corn. The physical effects of food sensitivities include: fatigue, rashes, mood disturbance, dark circles under the eyes, and poor digestion.  In this way alone the Paleo Diet may be a beneficial change for many people.  For more information on food sensitivities, please see our article on Leaky Gut.

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