When it comes to the subject of optimal nutrition, one of the diets which is receiving increasing prominence in mainstream media (both as a fad and as a proposed solution to many modern health problems) is the Paleo Diet. The internet is awash with information on what is also being referred to as the Caveman, Primal or Hunter-Gatherer diet. It is also a topic that many of our patients have been asking us about recently – so hence this post!
What is the Paleo Diet?
At the centre of the Paleo philosophy is the premise that human beings have evolved as a species over a significant period of time (during which their physiology adapted to the types of food which was available to them. The term Paleo derives from the Paleolithic, or Stone Age period – which represents a reference point for optimal nutrition that humans are genetically best suited to consume.
These early people lived the Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle and though their diets varied significantly depending on their living habitat, they were all characterised by an absence of certain types of foods which only became widely available after the invention of agriculture, which is a relatively recent event when compared to the whole history of human evolution. These foods are: grains – whole and refined, legumes, all forms of dairy, seed oils (which require mechanical intervention to be obtained in large quantities), sugar and its modern substitutes, e.g. high fructose corn syrup and alcohol. Particularly the 20th century has seen an increasing industrialisation of food production with highly processed foods being widely available, cheap and convenient.
The corner stone of the Paleo Diet is the elimination of all agriculturally derived and processed foods and basing the nutrition around foods which were available to humans in the Paleolithic era – meat (including organs), fish, shellfish, eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts and starchy tubers.
The main rationale is that the consumption of foods which humans have not evolved to eat in considerable quantities is over time very likely to lead to a whole range of health problems. Depending on the individual’s pre-disposition these can range from more obviously food related problems e.g. digestive complaints or weight control to potentially a host of degenerative diseases such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and cancer. These conditions are also often being referred to a diseases of civilisation as they are noticeably rarer if not entirely absent in populations which still follow a Hunter-Gatherer lifestyle.
Objectives of the Paleo Diet
The Paleo diet is not a diet in the conventional sense which this word acquired in the modern day, as it is not intended to be a short term intervention with a primarily aim being a weight reduction. It is nutritional philosophy aimed a improving and sustaining optimal human health by ensuring that the body gets all the nutritional elements it requires to function the way it has evolved to be. In fact, the Paleo movement extends onto exercise and other lifestyle choices. It advocates exercise mim-icking physical activities which Hunter-Gatherers would have been exposed to such as sprints and intense, short duration activity, over long term repetitive cardio exercise. Sunlight exposure and amount and quality of sleep, as well elimination of chronic stress are also high on the agenda as these elements are also considered to be primary contributing factors to disease.
A Selection of Resources:
Dr. Loren Cordain – is considered to be one of the first to popularise the term ‘Paleo Diet’ , he has conducted a substantial amount of academic research into the health benefits of Stone Age Diets for contemporary people and is widely published in peer reviewed scientific journals. His book ‘The Paleo Diet’ is one of the most popular ones on the subject.
Mark Sisson – a former professional marathoner and tri-athlete whose mission is now “to change the lives of ten million people”. He runs his website Mark’s Daily Apple which contains a wealth of well sourced and referenced articles addressing every possible topic which the Paleo movement touches on. Mark represents the Primal side of Paleo – which does allow for certain agriculturally derived foods (primarily dairy) to be consumed if the individuals can tollerate them. Mark’s book ‘The Primal Blueprint’ contains some very simple steps to guide the transition into the Primal lifestyle.
Gary Taubes – the author of bestselling book ‘The Diet Delusion’ (‘Bad Calories Good Calories’ in the USA) , explores in an engaging manner the last century of nutritional research and illustrates how science can be influenced and biased by outside interests. Taubes presents a case which casts doubts on what most people as well as health authorities perceive to be sound nutritional ad-vice.
Melissa and Dallas Hartwig – the authors of the Whole9 blog, who have developed the Whole30 programme, are advocates of one of the ‘strictest’ Paleo regimes. Their book ‘It All Starts With Food’ explains really well the interplay between food, hormones and overall health without getting too scientific.
Chris Kresser – maintains a very informative website and has recently published his first book – ‘Personal Paleo Code’ – which is designed to help people to further fine-tune their Paleo nutrition to suit their individual requirements.
The Paleo Diet does not need to be bland and repetitive – there are a variety of blogs and increasing number of cook books which provide inspiration and guidance to aspiring Paleo gourmets such as Nom Nom Paleo and paleOMG
Best selling author, Dr Mercola gives his take on what he believes is right and wrong with the Paleo Diet and provides some additional recommendations to some of those set out the above.