What is the Paleo Diet?

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Basics: Describing The Paleo Diet

Describe how The Paleo Diet works.

With readily available modern foods, The Paleo Diet mimics the types of foods every single person on the planet ate prior to the Agricultural Revolution (a mere 500 generations ago). These foods (fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, and seafood) are high in the beneficial nutrients (soluble fiber, antioxidant vitamins, phytochemicals, omega-3 and monounsaturated fats, and low-glycemic carbohydrates) that promote good health and are low in the foods and nutrients (refined sugars and grains, saturated and trans fats, salt, high-glycemic carbohydrates, and processed foods) that frequently may cause weight gain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and numerous other health problems. The Paleo Diet encourages dieters to replace dairy and grain products with fresh fruits and vegetables — foods that are more nutritious than whole grains or dairy products. To be clear, the Paleo Diet is not an entire reflection of our ancestors as they typically ate fatty meats. The Paleo Diet uses the advances of the modern world to substitute good fats (e.g. good omega 6:3 ratio instead of the bad fat in fatty meats)

How does The Paleo Diet differ from the glut of diet books constantly bombarding the public?

The Paleo Diet is the unique diet to which our species is genetically adapted. This program of eating was not designed by diet doctors, faddists, or nutritionists, but rather by Mother Nature’s wisdom acting through evolution and natural selection. The Paleo Diet is based upon extensive scientific research examining the types and quantities of foods our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate. This nutritional plan is totally unlike those irresponsible, low-carbohydrate, high-fat, fad diets that allow unlimited consumption of artery-clogging cheeses, bacon, butter, and fatty meats. Rather, the foundation of The Paleo Diet is lean meat, seafood, and unlimited consumption of fresh fruits and veggies.

Since hunter-gatherers lived a “nasty, short, and brutal life,” how can we know if their diets were healthful or not?  Don’t their short life spans suggest a poor diet?

It is certainly true that hunter-gatherers studied during modern times did not have as great an average lifespan as those values found in fully westernized, industrial nations. However, most deaths in hunter-gatherer societies were related to the accidents and trauma of a life spent living outdoors without modern medical care, as opposed to the chronic degenerative diseases that afflict modern societies. Remember this was well before modern medicine had antibiotics for infections. In fact, Infectious Disease was the #1 killer of our ancestors…not the case today (here is my plug for the pharmaceutical industry!). In most hunter-gatherer populations today, approximately 10-20% of the population is 60 years of age or older. These elderly people have been shown to be generally free of the signs and symptoms of chronic disease (obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels) that universally afflict the elderly in western societies. When these people adopt western diets, their health declines and they begin to exhibit signs and symptoms of “diseases of civilization.”

How can the lean meat and seafood-dominated Paleo Diet help me lose weight compared to a high-carbohydrate, low-fat diet?

Conventional wisdom tells us that to lose weight we must burn more calories than we take in and that the best way to accomplish this is to eat a plant-dominated, low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet. The first part of this equation is still true — a net caloric deficit must occur in order for weight to be lost. However, the experience for most people on low-calorie, high-carbohydrate diets is unpleasant. They are hungry all the time, and for the vast majority, any weight lost is regained rapidly or within a few months of the initial loss. The diet doctors with their low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets offer us an alternative, but this nutritional gambit is nothing more than a short term ploy to lose weight that in the long run is unhealthy because of its reliance upon fats (bacon, butter, fatty meats, cheeses, etc.) at the expense of healthful fruits and vegetables.

There is an alternative — a diet that emulates what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate — a high-protein, high-fruit and veggie diet with moderate amounts of fat, but with high quantities of healthful omega-3 and monounsaturated fats. Protein has two to three times the thermic effect of either fat or carbohydrate, meaning that it revs up your metabolism, speeding weight loss. Additionally, protein has a much greater satiety value than either fat or carbohydrate, so it puts the brakes on your appetite. Finally, three recent clinical trials have shown high-protein diets to be more effective than low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets in promoting weight loss.

Fiber, Cereals, and Grains; even whole grains and oats are out on a Paleolithic Diet

Aren’t whole grains good sources of fiber, minerals, and B vitamins? How can I get these nutrients if I cut down or eliminate grains from my diet?

On a calorie-by-calorie basis, whole grains are lousy sources of fiber, minerals, and B vitamins when compared to the lean meats, seafood, and fresh fruit and veggies that dominate The Paleo Diet. For example, a 1,000-calorie serving of fresh fruits and vegetables has between two and seven times as much fiber as does a comparable serving of whole grains. In fruits and veggies most of the fiber is heart-healthy, soluble fiber that lowers cholesterol levels — the same cannot be said for the insoluble fiber that is predominant in most whole grains. A 1,000-calorie serving of whole grain cereal contains 15 times less calcium, three times less magnesium, 12 times less potassium, six times less iron, and two times less copper than a comparable serving of fresh vegetables. Moreover, whole grains contain a substance called phytate that almost entirely prevents the absorption of any calcium, iron, or zinc that is found in whole grains, whereas the type of iron, zinc, and copper found in lean meats and seafood is in a form that is highly absorbed.

Compared to fruits and veggies, cereal grains are B-vitamin lightweights. An average 1,000 calorie serving of mixed vegetables contain 19 times more folate, five times more vitamin B6, six times more vitamin B2 and two times more vitamin B1 than a comparable serving of eight mixed whole grains. On a calorie-by-calorie basis, the niacin content of lean meat and seafood is four times greater than that found in whole grains.