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The Paleo Diet: Is It Healthier to Eat Like a Caveman?

June 12, 2013

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A new diet has been gaining popularity in recent years, and though the craze may be new, the roots of the philosophy are very old – in fact, prehistoric.

The Paleo diet, also known as the “caveman diet,” is based on the belief that modern humans can achieve optimum health by eating the way our ancient ancestors did before the advent of agriculture. As Integrative Nutrition guest speaker Mark Sisson explains on Mark’s Daily Apple, “Our ancestors evolved over millions of years under certain environmental conditions. While the world has changed in innumerable ways in the last 10,000 years, the human genome has changed very little and thus only thrives under similar conditions. Simply put, if you want a good future you better listen to your past.”

So what should you eat on the Paleo diet? Everything that ancient humans were able to hunt and gather during Paleolithic times: fish, grass-fed meat, wild seeds, nuts, seasonal vegetables, fresh fruit, mushrooms, and roots. Notably, the diet discourages the consumption of legumes, including beans, lentils, and peanuts; all grains – even whole grains; dairy products; processed oils; refined sugar; and refined salt.

 

Though the Paleo diet allows for squash, potatoes, and other starchy root vegetables, the regimen is usually low-carb and high-protein and high-fat. According to the Paleo diet, the human body requires only minimal amounts of glucose, and excess carbohydrate consumption is the cause of most metabolic disorders, obesity, and other “diseases of civilization.”

Proponents of the Paleo diet believe that eating this way, combined with regular exercise and a low-stress lifestyle, significantly reduces systemic inflammation, regulates insulin and blood sugar levels, creates healthy cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and reduces the risk of chronic disease. A typical Paleo daily menu may be:

Breakfast: Mixed nuts and berries with coconut milk
Lunch: Large green salad with roasted chicken, tomatoes, broccoli, red peppers, mushrooms, pine nuts and dressing of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Snack: Beef jerky
Dinner: Grilled salmon with sesame oil, garlic, and roasted vegetables
Dessert: Baked apples with cinnamon

So is the Paleo diet really a healthy choice? That’s controversial. U.S. News and World Reports, in its annual evaluation of the “Best Diets for Healthy Eating,” gives the Paleo diet only 2 out of 5 stars, placing it dead last out of 29 other diets. “Experts took issue with the diet on every measure,” says the evaluation; it ranked poorly under the criteria of weight loss, ease and convenience, nutrition, safety, diabetes, and heart health.

Yet Dr. David Katz, Integrative Nutrition guest speaker and one of the judges on the panel, is quick to clarify: “Fundamentally, I am a proponent of the Paleolithic diet. In reality, virtually no one today practices anything close to a true Stone Age diet. When was the last time you saw a mammoth? When the Paleo diet label is used to justify a diet of sausages and bacon cheeseburgers, the concept has wandered well off the reservation. When used as guidance away from processed foods and toward a diet based on a variety of plants, nuts, seeds, eggs, fish, and lean meats, it is eminently reasonable, and no doubt a vast improvement, over the typical American diet.”

There’s no one-size-fits-all diet. Some people may thrive on the Paleo diet while others may feel best on a high-carb vegan diet. That’s the essence of bio-individuality: try different ways of eating and find the foods that work best for you.

Have you tried eating Paleo? How did it make you feel?