If you are getting into nutrition and are looking for diet books on Amazon.com, you’ll notice that the current best selling diet books tend to fall into two distinct groups: Vegan diet books and Paleo. Chances are you already know what a vegan diet is: No animal products of any kind. You may not be so familiar with Paleo. So let me introduce it to you.
The Paleo diet, also known as the Primal diet or the Ancestral diet, is a low-carb, high-protein diet that’s helping people all over the modernized world rid themselves of excess pounds and prescription medications. If you don’t have friends or relatives following a Paleo diet now, chances are you will very soon.
Unlike other popular diets that have come and gone, the Paleo diet is an attempt to recreate the diet of our ancestors living in the Paleolithic era ten or twenty thousand plus years ago, when people were still largely nomadic and didn’t need agriculture to support their needs for food. Leaders of the Paleo movement hope to move people away from the Standard American Diet and closer toward those foods of our human evolutionary past. You could call it an “anti-fad” diet.
Which begs the question, why would anyone want to “go Paleo” when, back then, a person would be expected to live something like 25 years?
The answer to ‘Why go Paleo’ depends on who you ask
If you ask Dr Oz, Oprah’s former weight-loss coach and America’s most widely recognized media MD, he’ll tell you that even though hunter-gatherers in the Paleolithic era died on average much younger than we do, they did not have an obesity problem. To those of you who do not follow Dr Oz, a common theme on his show is that obesity is the root of all evil in terms of chronic disease and so any diet that avoids obesity is a good thing in his book.
If you ask the leaders of the Paleo diet movement—Robb Wolf and Mark Sisson are prominent figures—they’ll tell you that, thanks to a new branch of genetics called epigenetics, we know that the foods we eat program our genes. If our genes are still programmed the way they were during Paleolithic times, the argument goes, then they will function better when we eat the way our distant ancestors ate.
As a student of epigenetics, I agree with the general line of reasoning proposed by the Paleo diet movement’s leaders; we should eat what our genes ‘expect’ us to eat. And it seems clear, to me, that following a Paleo diet offers a number of benefits, beginning with these:
- It gets us away from processed foods
- It makes us pay attention to healthy animal practices which is good for human and environmental health. The movement also emphasizes eating pastured meats, fowl, and eggs instead of what Luke and I call ‘torture meat’ (animals fed grain in feedlots). This emphasis is good for the planet, the animals, and us
- Envisioning what our ancestors could and could not have eaten gets us thinking about food in a more holistic, common-sense way than we typically do
- Cutting high-carb/empty calorie grain-based breads and pastas reliably promotes fat loss
- Paleo diet programs include other behaviors that foster health, including (weight bearing) exercise and adequate sleep
A good way to understand the Paleo diet is by checking out a few of the most popular recipes, so here you go:
Paleo breakfast: Mushroom and green pepper three-egg omelette, or berry pancake souffle
Paleo lunch: Ham and swiss deli slices wrapped into a roll, or shrimp, cantaloupe, and mint salad
Paleo isn’t big on snacking between meals. And it’s definitely not designed to feed a sweet tooth. So if you happen upon a “Paleo-compatible” appetizer or desert, don’t think that the labels “appetizer” or “desert” are meant to encourage anyone to eat when they’re not really hungry. What’s good for you is good for you. And so there’s no reason not to enjoy a healthy Paleo-friendly appetizer or desert as a breakfast or lunch.
Authors of Paleo-diet recipe books accept the fact that these days we don’t have many wooly mammoths free ranging in our neighborhoods. And good quality meat has gotten a little harder to come by. Therefore, the movement includes plenty of vegetables, acknowledging the reality that we have a rainbow of tasty veggies, and we should enjoy them.
What’s not on the Paleo menu?
The Paleolithic era ended with the introduction of farming. This is why wheat, corn, and soy, staples of the Standard American Diet, are kapu—forbidden—in the world of Paleo.
It may seem a little arbitrary to exclude corn while including broccoli. This choice is based largely on macronutrient content. Broccoli, lettuce, and kale—even in modern form—more closely mimic the macronutrient content of the kind of vegetables our ancient ancestors encountered in the wild. While corn, wheat, and soy existed in Paleolithic times, only with the advent of agriculture have these seeds been specifically engineered into their current high-starch, high-calorie and low-nutrient form.
Starch turns to sugar in the bloodstream, harming your health by a process called glycation. You can experience the effects of sugar-protein glycation by putting a little jelly or syrup on your fingertips. During a few seconds of contact, the sugars in these sweet foods chemically bond to protein in your skin. Pulling your fingertips apart requires breaking those bonds, and you feel the resistance in the form of stickiness.
Getting high-starch foods like wheat, corn, and soy out of your diet helps you become a better fat burner.
Because sugar randomly bonding to proteins inside your body can have toxic effects, your metabolic machinery is designed to burn off excess sugar first before it can start burning fat. I need my patients to realize that that until they’re burning fat for energy, whatever exercise they may be doing to trim down is not going to get them very far because trying to burn fat for energy while your body is flooded with sugar is a loosing game. That’s one reason why low-carb diets succeed where others fail.
Burning fat is where its at: Why the key to Primal health is Ketogenesis
Ketones are the breakdown products of fat our cells burn for to produce energy when they are not burning sugar for energy. One of the consistent findings emerging over and over during the past forty years of weight loss research is that mammalian metabolisms, including ours, appear to work better when burning ketones (i.e. fat) for energy than when burning sugar. By work better, I mean on a ketogenic diet you can expect to benefit from things like this: your heart will pump more strongly, your lungs will keep carbon dioxide under better control, your brain is less likely to suffer inflammation that triggers things like migraines and seizures, and your mitochondria can keep their free-radicals under control, which helps to prevent cancer.
Who decides what’s paleo?
The Paleo movement, you’ll notice, hasn’t been named after a single physician or researcher or health guru. That’s because no one person in the Paleo movement claims to have the definitive last-word answer to everything. What all contributors to the movement seem to have in common is a genuine interest in discovering the best answers to some of the most pressing health issues of our time, like Why are so many of us fat? and What can our evolutionary past tell us about the particulars of an optimum diet? The Paleo movement changes and adapts to new information because science changes and adapts to new information. And that humble, questioning approach may be why millions worldwide are finding this new movement inspiring and appealing.
Is this diet of the distant past also the diet of the future?
Remember how I said said the Paleo movement is willing to accept change? The question of dairy consumption is a perfect example. At first, the Paleo movement categorically eschewed dairy. But more and more Paleo practitioners are taking a closer look at dairy. It’s a big topic, which is why I’ll be getting into it in more detail in my next post. (Click the subscribe link to receive notification via email.)
Some great Paleo blogs to follow include:
Sean Croxton’s UndergroundWellness.com
Robb Wolf’s RobbWolf.com
Mark Sisson’s MarksDailyApple.com
Patrick Vlastovicks’s PaleoHacks.com
Kurt Harris’ Archevore.com
Liz Wolfe’s cavegirleats.com
And for all-around health info with lots of amazing recipes I like Kristen Michaelis’ FoodRenegade.com