The Paleo Diet is a way of eating that matches our genetic heritage. For millions of years, the human diet consisted primarily of fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, nuts, and starchy tubers. Our Paleolithic ancestors were free of the chronic diseases that plague us today. It is only in the past few thousand years, since the dawn of agriculture, that we have adopted a diet heavily dependent on in grains, processed sugar, processed flours, and industrial seed oils. This relatively new highly inflammatory, low-nutrient, and high-caloric diet hasn’t done us any favors when it comes to health (1).
Humans are sicker than we have ever been. Currently, one-seventh of the world’s population suffers from diabetes &/or obesity (2, 3). The top three causes of death in Canada are cancer, heart disease and stroke (4). The top four selling drugs are an antidepressant, a PPI for acid reflux, an anti-inflammatory, and a statin for high cholesterol, each bringing in about 6 billion dollars each year (5).
What if there was a way to reverse or even prevent chronic disease, and remain healthy and drug-free well into your golden years? Well, there is! Following a diet, and lifestyle that our body and genetics have been accustomed to for millennia may be the answer. Research shows that our diet, lifestyle, and environment account for 90–95% of our most chronic illnesses (6, 7). The key to personal health is discovering which foods help you and which foods harm you. Everyone is different in the foods they can tolerate. But, the Paleo Diet is a great starting place. It is a nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory, real-food diet, which eliminates the disease-promoting dietary culprits that affect most people.
WHAT DOES SOMEONE FOLLOWING A PALEO DIET EAT?
- Pastured or wild meat from healthy, humanely raised animals. High quality pastured unmedicated meat is a great source of high-quality protein, and highly bioavailable vitamins and minerals. Don’t eat only steaks and expensive cuts, but focus on eating all parts of the animal. This is called “nose to tail” eating. Make a broth out of the bones, make paté out of the liver, sauté the heart, eat the skin, throw cartilaginous and fattier cuts such as spare ribs or brisket in a slow cooker. Eating nose to tail is not only easier on the pocketbook, but it has exceptional health benefits. Liver is a rich source of B vitamins such as folate, B1, B2, B3, B6 & B12, preformed Vitamin A (which you can’t reliably obtain from vegetables), and minerals such as iron and zinc (8). Heart is the richest food source of CoQ10 (9). The bones, skin and cartilaginous & fatty cuts of the animal are rich sources of glycine, proline, and gelatin which help heal the gut lining and strengthen bones, joints, skin, and hair (10). Products from pastured, or grass fed/grass finished animals have a higher level of vitamin K2, and a more favorable omega-3 to omega-6 ratio, compared to conventionally raised, grain fed animals.
- Wild fish & seafood. Fatty fish are rich in essential fatty acids EPA & DHA, and an excellent source of high-quality protein.
- Fruit & vegetables. Fruit is known for its vitamin C content, and vegetables are high in vitamins B, C, K1, antioxidants, and phytonutrients.
- Starchy tubers and starchy vegetables. Such as yams, sweet potatoes, potatoes, squash, plantain. These are high in soluble fiber which is soothing to the digestive tract and feeds our gut bacteria.
- Healthy fats. Such as pastured butter, ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, lard from a healthy pig, tallow from a healthy cow. Saturated fats are good for you, and don’t be scared to eat these healthy fats (11). Stay tuned for a whole blog on saturated fats.
- Fermented vegetables. Sauerkraut, kimchi, beet kvass, lacto-fermented pickles, and salsa, etc. Fermented foods are pre-digested by bacteria, which makes it easier for you to digest and assimilate nutrients. Also, fermented foods are full of healthy bacteria and are essentially a probiotic. Fermented vegetables are super easy to make at home. Check out this page.
- Grains, pseudo-grains and their flours. Yes, even quinoa. Plants are smart. They can’t move or fight to protect themselves from predators, so they protect themselves using toxic substances instead. Grains contain toxins which damage our gut lining, and other substances that bind to nutrients, preventing their absorption, thus making the grain much less nutritious. If you don’t notice any negative consequences when eating grains, it is still a good idea to limit them as they are very low in bioavailable nutrients.
- Processed sugar. Eating excessive amounts of processed sugar, especially in liquid/drink from, is associated with insulin resistance, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and reduced immunity (12, 13). Check out Nancy Appleton‘s, Ph.D., list of 141 reasons not to eat sugar.
- Industrial seed oils. Such as canola oil, safflower oil, peanut oil, flax oil, cottonseed oil, corn oil, soybean oil, sesame oil. These oils are high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Increased amounts of omega-6 is associated with a plethora of inflammatory diseases (14). As well, because of the instability of the polyunsaturated fatty acids in these oils, they go rancid quickly after processing which makes them even more inflammatory. In addition, nasty chemicals such as hexane, bleaches, and deodorizers and high temperatures are used in the manufacturing of these oils (15).
Grey Area Foods:
**Some people benefit from these foods, others not so much.**
- Pastured, full-fat dairy. Full-fat dairy, especially fermented dairy such as yogurt or kefir, is very healthy for those who tolerate it. Full-fat dairy is associated with lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity whereas fat-free dairy is not (16, 17, 18). As well, fat-free dairy has been linked with an increased risk of infertility (19). Dairy contains fat-soluble vitamins A & D, and if its pastured dairy, vitamin K2, as well as minerals, and a healthy fat called Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), and if its fermented (yogurt or kefir), it contains healthy bacteria.
- Legumes. Legumes are often unjustly excluded from the Paleo Diet because they contain lectins and phytic acid. Lectins are a protein that can damage the lining of the small intestine, while phytic acid binds to minerals, preventing their absorption (making the legume less nutritious). The good thing is that we cook most legumes before eating them, which completely inactivates lectins (20). And soaking your legumes for 18 to 24 hours before you cook them, pre-digests 30% to 70% of phytic acid (21). The major health benefit of legumes is that they contain a certain type of fiber which feeds our good gut bacteria. Legumes do contain a high amount of FODMAPs, so can cause gas, bloating and digestive upset in sensitive folks, or people with SIBO (22). It is still a good idea to avoid legume flour, as they will still contain lectins & phytic acid.
MISCONCEPTIONS OF THE PALEO DIET
- The Paleo Diet is an all meat diet. This is not true. People following a healthy Paleo Diet eat a wide variety of foods, including vegetables, fruit, starchy tubers, healthy fats, etc.
- The Paleo Diet is a low carb diet. This is also not true. A person can follow a low carb version of the Paleo Diet, but there are many healthy carbs a person following a Paleo diet can eat.
- You need to follow a strict Paleo Diet 100% of the time to reap the benefits. Also not true. Many people greatly benefit from the Paleo Diet when followed 80% to 90% of the time. It is better to think of the Paleo Diet as a “Paleo Template“. A strict Paleo Diet may feel too restrictive for many people and doesn’t allow for individuality. Whereas a Paleo Template allows for experimentation and personalization.
- People following a Paleo type of diet are trying to re-create the diet of our ancestors. Basing your diet strictly on what our ancestors ate is illogical. Nobody truly knows what our ancestors ate, and the ancestral diet varied greatly from regions and seasons. Instead, it is about embracing an evolutionary perspective and adopting it into a modern context. Besides, if you feel better eating a Paleo style of diet, then what does it matter what our ancestors ate.
- It is too expensive to eat Paleo! It is true that eating real foods can be pricier than eating processed junk, but with a little planning, eating Paleo can be very affordable. Eat cheaper cuts of high-quality grass-fed meat (the cheaper cuts are usually more nutritious anyhow). When fruit and veggies are in season, buy a whole bunch and freeze, jar, or preserve. Squash lasts almost all winter if not cut into. Grow food in a backyard garden. Even if it does cost a little more to eat healthier, it will be cheaper in the long run when you have a lifelong healthy body and mind! As the saying goes “pay your farmer now, or pay your doctor later.”
- Wait a Minute! Didn’t our Paleolithic Ancestors All Die at the Age of 30? It is true that the average lifespan of Stone Age people was about 30 years old. Our ancestors had challenges that are not common today, such as high infant and childhood mortality, surviving the elements, war and violence, and most importantly lack of acute medical care. If our ancestors lived past childhood, early adulthood, and into old age, they had lifespans similar to ours, but without developing any chronic inflammatory and degenerative diseases (23).
- The Paleo Diet isn’t sustainable and is bad for the environment. The foods we choose to eat do have ethical consequences and do influence the environment. I think that everyone can agree that factory farming is detrimental to the environment. So, if someone following the Paleo Diet, or any diet that includes factory farmed meat, then they are not eating sustainably and are having a negative impact on the environment. There is an alternative, purchase your food from a farmer who practices regenerative farming. Sheldon Frith, a regenerative agriculture consultant, argues that livestock is necessary for food production to be sustainable. When farmed sustainably, livestock has a positive impact on environmental health. The natural byproduct of sustainable farming is healthy meat, healthy vegetables, healthy soil and a healthy planet. Read these two thought-provoking articles here and here.
- Paleo assumes that we quit evolving, and have the same genetics as our ancestors. Not only are we continuing to evolve, but some scientists argue that we are currently evolving at a rate 100 times faster than our ancestors have over the past 6 million years. As much as 10% of our genome shows recent genetic selection (24). That being said, we are still very close genetically to our Paleolithic ancestors. And, although we are evolving at light speed compared to our ancestors, this doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from eating a whole food, anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense diet.
PERSONALIZATION IS KEY
The key to success with a healthy diet is finding out what foods are good for you. Studies show that individuals metabolize and react to the same food differently (25). Starting with the Paleo diet is a great idea because it eliminates most dietary triggers for most people. From there, you can experiment with what foods help or harm you. There are a lot of diet gurus out there, but your own best guru is yourself!
I WOULD LIKE TO HEAR FROM YOU!
Have you tried eating an ancestral, whole foods diet? Did you notice your health improve?
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