Winter 2013 True Natural Health Magazine – Your Questions Answered
By Roger French
QUESTION: The Paleo diet seems to be all the rage currently. Is it really good nutrition for humans or is it just a passing fad?
Let me establish at the outset that this diet is not for me or many readers of this magazine because it is meat based, although a plant-based version can be selected. Nevertheless, it is of interest to know what all the fuss is about, so let’s look at the details of the full Paleo diet and do a critique of it.
The Paleo diet is what humans (or various hominid species – see below) are believed to have eaten in the Paleolithic era, an era that lasted about 2.5 million years and ended around 10,000 years ago. The Paleo diet is often referred to as the ‘Stone-Age diet’, ‘caveman diet’ or ‘hunter-gatherer diet’, and was ended by the appearance of agriculture, which established grain-based eating.
(‘Hominid’ refers to the family Hominidae or ‘great apes’, which evolved to culminate in modern humans, species Homo sapiens.)
Based on the premise that our genes are much the same as they were before the beginning of agriculture plus the fact that those Paleolithic hunter-gatherers were largely free of the diseases of affluence, some nutritionists have concluded that a diet that resembles our ancestral diet should be an ideal diet for our health and wellbeing.
The modern, standard Paleo diet therefore consists essentially of the following:
- Protein-rich foods – grass-fed meats, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds;
- Vegetables, fruits, roots and fungi.
Some researchers have concluded that a guiding principle is that if a food can’t be eaten raw, it shouldn’t be eaten. Fortunately, this doesn’t mean that it must be eaten raw; it means that it should be able to be eaten raw.
The following foods make up the diet:
Protein-rich foods. Loren Cordain, author of The Paleo Diet, believes the animals from which the meat and eggs come from should be fed a natural, organic diet and people should seek out low-fat meat sources. The vegetarian version would use nuts and seeds for protein – and also the ‘forbidden’ legumes – with the option of eggs in moderation.
Vegetables are vital for good health. Some nutritionists exclude green beans and peas because they are legumes. There is divided opinion as to whether potatoes and other starchy tubers should be allowed.
Fruits are part of the diet, although quantity should be limited by people who need to lose weight, especially with dried fruits and juices.
Nuts and seeds. These are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients. In a plant-based Paleo diet, they are the staple protein foods. For those who want to lose weight, Loren Cordain limits them to approx. 120 gm per day, which, in Natural Health Dietary Guidelines, is close to the recommended amount for an adult of average size. Unsweetened nut ‘milks’ such as almond milk and coconut milk can be useful additions.
It should be remembered that peanuts are not true nuts; they are legumes like soya beans and not part of the diet.
Oils. Favoured oils are olive oil, flax oil and nut oils including coconut oil.
Beverages. Top of the list is pure water, the ultimate drink. Tea is OK, but there is controversy regarding coffee and alcohol. In Natural Health we know that the body would be better off without either. There is no place for drinks sweetened with added sugar or artificial sweeteners.
The following foods are forbidden:
‘Forbidden’ sounds a little ominous, so let’s see how bad they might be.
Refined sugars. None of our bodies wants foods as refined and unbalanced as are these, so it is top priority to avoid them. It is debatable whether small amounts of honey or pure maple syrup are acceptable.
Grains. All the cereal grains are out. They are not natural foods for humans anyway. Test this by hoeing into half a cup of raw wheat and see how appealing it is.
Starchy Tubers. Researchers generally agree that these are not part of a Paleo diet – potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, cassava and manioc. However, in Natural Health we regard these as very nutritious foods and consider it would be ridiculous to avoid them if you like them. Some Paleo enthusiasts do agree with this view.
Legumes (dried beans and peas). Soya beans, peanuts, chick peas, lentils, kidney beans, lima beans and other legumes are excluded because they have a high content of anti-nutrients called lectins. However, except perhaps for peanuts, these are extremely nutritious foods and we consider them to have a valuable role in a plant-based diet.
Dairy products. Hominids did not have dairy products until farming of animals began. We often see people reporting noticeable improvement in wellness after excluding all dairy products. Possibly, small amounts of unsalted butter could be included if desired. If you are going to eat dairy, make sure the animals are grass-fed, as are most dairy cows in Australia.
Processed meats. These are not allowed. In Natural Health, we see these as the worst of the flesh foods. The red preserved meats are cured with sodium nitrite which is mildly carcinogenic.
Extracted oils. Proponents say the following are to be avoided: corn oil, cottonseed oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, rice bran oil and wheat germ oil. The reason is probably the medium to high levels of omega-6 fatty acids in them. Omega-6 fats in excess cause blood clotting.
Salt. Avoid or at least use sparingly. In Natural Health, we go for sea salt or the highly favoured Himalayan Rock Salt.
The plant-based version excellent
One fan of the Paleo diet writes, “Once you go Paleo, you’ll feel so amazing that it will be very hard to go back to the way you used to eat”.
The plant-based version is no doubt better still. By eating vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds – and legumes too – this may well be the ideal diet for humans. Herbs and spices can make food interesting. It is remarkable to hear many people say how much better they feel after excluding dairy products, grains and refined sugars, and adhering to an essentially plant-based way of eating, which we know to be strongly protective against heart disease and cancer.