October 21, 2013

The Paleo Diet

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“The best part of the Paleo Diet: you’ll eat well, feel great and lose weight!”  As if we haven’t heard this hackneyed allurement before with every type of diet. Yet, this is one of the claims made by Loren Cordain, Ph.D. and author of the latest sensationalized diet book, The Paleo Diet.

I must admit, the Paleo Diet does appear to be different from the historic and current food fads. For one reason, the Paleo Diet’s rise to popularity has followed a very different trajectory than other blow-up and burnout diets: it first came out in 2002, and slowly gained momentum to its recent worldwide popularity. The Paleo Diet also takes a different approach from other diets. Cordain bases the nutrition principles of his book on our genetic code, claiming that “the Paleo Diet is the only diet that ideally fits our genetic makeup.” Considering that the basics of human physiology and our genetic profile have minimally changed in the past 40,000 years, he claims we are still designed to eat like our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

Cordian discusses at length in his book the differences between our Paleolithic ancestors just 333 generations ago and their 21st century relations. All known records of our hunter-gatherer ancestors depict them as healthy, fit, strong and vivacious people that were free from the chronic diseases that plague the majority of the nation today. Fast forward thousands of years, and the descendants of these healthful people are obese or overweight and constantly battling chronic health problems. According to Cordian, the devolution of the hunter-gatherers, and thus the demise of their health, began with the Agricultural Revolution 10,000 years ago. Prior to the Agricultural Revolution, our Paleolithic ancestors never ate dairy, cereal grains or refined sugar; never salted food; virtually all of the carbohydrates they consumed came from fruits and non-starchy vegetables and wild, lean animal foods comprised most of their diets. The ways of our ancestors flipped upside down with the Agricultural Revolution, but our genetic code did not.

So, what exactly is the premise of the Paleo Diet? By following six main principles, Cordain claims you can return to the “vivacious health” of your ancestors: (1) all of the lean meats, fish and seafood you can eat, (2) all of the fruits and non starchy vegetables you can eat, (3) no cereals, (4) no legumes, (5) no dairy products and (6) no processed foods. Cordain makes the bold claim that you can’t overeat on the Paleo Diet due to the “thermic effect” of protein, which he believes increases the metabolism and burns more calories.

Before I tackle that illogical claim, I’d like to talk a little bit more about meat consumption in general. Cordain’s belief about unrestrained meat consumption seems to counter everything else the mass media and current health experts tell us. Even my nutrition professors encourage minimal meat consumption for optimal health. What is the reasoning behind Cordain’s radical nutrition profile? It lies in the fact that the nutrition composition of modern day grain-fed, sedentary and industrialized meat differs vastly from the lean, wild meat consumed by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Compared to the meat consumed thousands of years ago, most meat eaten today contains levels of high in saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. The wild game stalked and hunted by our ancestors was lean and virtually free of the harmful substances above. Cordain’s suggestions for lean protein sources: skinless turkey breast, shrimp, beef liver, halibut … the list goes on.

Though Cordain’s diet brings an interesting perspective to health, nutrition and weight loss, some points remain where I doubt its total effectiveness. First off, Cordain’s assertion that meat has a thermic effect and that one “cannot overeat on the Paleo Diet” goes against the cornerstone of weight loss: calories in = calories out. Take in more calories than you are expending and you will gain weight. In the obesogenic culture which America has evolved to, it is always possible, and very likely, to overeat and disrupt this balance. Secondly, Cordain fails to recognize the differences in the life span of our paleolithic relatives and ourselves. Humans live much longer today than they did thousands of years ago, and this fact partially accounts for the large disparity between common causes of death of our ancestors (accidents, starvation) and chronic diseases that kill many today. Another consideration is the differences in food availability and way of life. Hunter-gatherers sustained themselves by running food down and often going through cyclical periods of starvation due to lack of food availability. If we are truly staying to our ancestors ways, should we do that, too? Modern society does not allow it. Lastly, if Cordian really wanted to pursue personalized nutrition and health through genetic code, he would take into account specific origins of a person’s ancestry. Food sources and activity profiles for a person 10,000 years ago in Rome probably differed greatly from another’s in Antarctica. It has only been with the recent globalization of food that we have come accustomed to variety, but that was certainly not the case thousands of years ago. Following Cordain’s logic, different people’s genetic codes have adapted for certain types of food and activity specific to a certain region.

No doubt about it, the Paleo Diet certainly seems like a recipe for health and longevity for the most part. I do not think any dietician or health professional will disagree that consuming fruits and vegetables and not consuming processed foods could be deleterious to anyone’s health. The premise of the diet is certainly original and offers a refreshing scientific approach for those who like to envision themselves as a fierce hunter-gatherer. I think the Paleo Diet has many admirable aims, but I also think it must be looked at with scrutiny of the present day. Though this diet and way of life worked for our ancestors thousands of years ago, the reality is, it’s the 21st century and I won’t be going out to hunt for wild, lean meat with my bow and arrow anytime soon.