Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Paleo Diet Potluck

Paleo-vegetarian? It's time for me to re-evaluate the Paleo Diet.

When I first learned about the Paleolithic diet, I learned that it attempted to approximate the diet of our ancestors who lived over a million years ago, and up to a time before agriculture. (Paranthropus boisei, shown, lived from about 2.6 to 1.2 million years ago.)

I read several years ago that this diet excluded:
  • Grains (wheat, rice, corn, millet, barley, oats, quinoa, teff, amaranth)
  • Beans and legumes (dried or fresh, such as peas, string or green beans, peanuts, chickpeas, navy, kidney, adzuki, mung, soybeans)
  • Dairy products
  • Potatoes, yams, and other starchy tubers
  • Salt
  • Sweeteners (some honey is allowed)
  • Coffee, tea, alcohol, juices, and all beverages except for pure spring water (not from a tap)
  • Added oils and fats
  • Meats
  • Seafood
  • Eggs
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Nuts and seeds (in moderation, since nuts, grains, and beans are all seeds and seeds are not thought to have contributed to Paleolithic foodstuffs)
All foods were supposed to be organic, not farmed, and locally grown. Plants should be from heirloom and non-genetically engineered varieties, since ancient fruits and vegetables were not as sweet or pulpy as today's selections. Eggs should be from free range hens. Meats should be lean and low-fat, since animals in Paleolithic times were lean.

Foods, including meat, were primarily eaten raw. Some grilling over an open wood fire was allowed, since the debate over what impact fire and cooking had on the evolution of our genome (hinging on when cooking was introduced) is still alive in some parts of this community. Cooking is also a safety issue, it reduces risk for foodborne illness.

No cigarettes, vitamins, supplements, or drugs, especially synthetic, were allowed. I even heard of some who shunned electricity. Which leads me to the reason I'm writing this...

All paleo dieters make concessions. This is where paleo dieting becomes colorful.
  • Some say no to organic whole grains but yes to genetically engineered, monocultured oils, extracts, and supplements made from those grains.
  • Some say yes to factory-farmed meats (which have a different fatty acid profile from prehistoric meats).
  • Some dress their salads (vinegar and other fermented or pickled foods are not included in a traditional paleo diet).
  • Some say yes to beer but no to the barley that the beer is made from.
And just about everyone on a Paleo diet lives in a modern, polluted and plugged-in world where threats from environmental toxins, politically-induced famine, resource depletion, and improvised explosive devices now accompany threats from infections and accidents ... and where the food market is global, with products travelling great distances before they arrive on food market shelves.

It is the interpretation of the paleo diet which makes it healthful or not.

In the past, I sidelined the Paleolithic diet because I thought it was too extreme. I also thought it was too meat-centered and too high in protein, especially for a community I'm used to dealing with - people with diabetes. (e.g. Older diabetics often present with chronic kidney disease (CKD). High protein diets accelerate kidney deterioration in CKD.)

But the challenges presented by adapting this diet for a modern human have spawned some creative solutions:
  • Nut milks and cheeses in place of dairy products.
  • Sprouted grains - which are really a cross between a grain (seed, not allowed) and a plant (allowed). Sprouting also reduces gluten and denatures chemicals that interfere with digestion.
The emergence of these more accessible paleo-like diets has changed my mind. In fact, some are not unlike diets many health professionals currently recommend.

From my observations, these paleo take-offs don't require all organic, locally grown, non-farmed vegetables and fruits. They allow grains and beans, albeit in a less processed, low GI (glycemic index) form. They allow farmed meats in lieu of freshly killed wild meats. Coffee, tea, beer, wine, and juices are allowed. Cooking is not discouraged. I've even heard of "paleo-vegetarian" diets which are plant-based but include the occasional animal product (great for CKD since they're lower in protein). Paleo-vegetarian makes sense ... After all, if you were the person doing the gathering and cooking, you probably weren't the person doing the hunting, so you probably didn't have unfettered access to the kill.

There are probably as many flavors of paleo diets, as many varieties of macronutrient patterns, as there are, and were, cultures, societies, and groupings of humans. One common ingredient ... all paleo diets shun processed food. How can I sideline that?

Here are a few quotes from Dr. Milton (professor of physical anthropology at the University of California in Berkeley who specializes in the dietary ecology and digestive physiology of human and non-human Primates, from my post Eat The Weeds) where she responded to Cordain (of Paleolithic diet fame):
"Because some hunter-gatherer societies obtained most of their dietary energy from wild animal fat and protein does not imply that this is the ideal diet for modern humans."

"The hunter-gatherer Hazda of Tanzania consume "the bulk of their diet" as wild plants, although they live in an area with an exceptional abundance of game animals and refer to themselves as hunters."

"It seems prudent for modern-day humans to remember their long evolutionary heritage as anthropoid primates and heed current recommendations to increase the number and variety of fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets rather than to increase their intakes of domesticated animal fat and protein."
Photo of Paranthropus boisei from BBC. Caption:
"In East Africa, a hominid called Paranthropus boisei (2.6 until about 1.2 million years ago) became specialised so that it could eat tough-to-chew but more abundant plant foods such as nuts, roots and tubers (largely underground vegetables, the potato being a modern example)."


Anrosh said...

Hurrah !

Unknown said...

It is really a very diverse community at this point. Even in academia you have Milton and Wenda Trevathan doing what they are calling "evolutionary medicine," which promotes a plant-based diet, whereas Cordain, Lindeberg, and Eaton posit a meatier one.

At the NYC meetup you have people who eat only meat and others who eat only fish and mostly plants. They can argue about who is "more" paleo, but in the end they all get good results.

In my experience it's very hard to do a low-fat high-plant paleo diet. Tubers and sprouted grains are a must, but I definitely feel more vital now that I eat fat ad libetum.

Unknown said...

I have regained my health, waistline and blood sugar control, along with improved lipid numbers on a paleo diet-type diet. My paleo diet (at least my interpretation of it) allows for lots of veggies, some fruits (mostly berries), moderate protein and unrestricted natural fats.

I came to paleo through the back door, not the front, by removing foods from my diet that spiked my blood sugar (T2). Grains and processed foods did me in - even so-called healthy whole grains (oatmeal was a disaster for my blood sugar - I had no idea until I started daily testing). Hunter-gatherer type eating allowed me to drop my A1c to 4.9 (and keep it there for 4 years) with no meds; allowed me to drop my blood pressure meds completely and drop (and keep off for 4 years now) 75 pounds without effort or hunger.

I know I can't argue with that.

Matthew said...

I see the idea of paleolithic nutrition as more of a guiding principle than a list of foods to eat. Why do traditional mediterranean or okinawan diets appear to be healthier than other modern ways of eating? Is there no reason or is it because they both are in different ways closer to the diet we are more adapted to through evolution?

I see the most to be gained through combining the best of the stone age with the best of modern civilisation to create something better than either usually is.

Women's Health Blogs said...

[...]Paleo Diet - Paleo word comes from Paleolitikum, ie a diet that is inspired from the Paleolitikum era. Actually, the genetic of primordial human similar[...]

Angela and Melinda said...

Just came across this really interesting article from NYT on the use of stone tools for eating meat as early as 3 1/2 million years ago, almost a million years earlier than previously known. The stones were used by Australopithecines, waaaayyyy distant ancestors. They're also the ones who may have made the first art, by enhancing a natural object with a stone tool, as in this photo, Pebble w/ a Face from Makapansgat (South Africa):
Cool, huh?

Anonymous said...

Seriously, lets face it. Being truly paleolithic would not only include a laundry list of silly restrictions, but also have occasional fasting. I myself follow a loose version of this diet because I am gluten, lactose, and legume intolerant.