Paleo O Paleo, Wherefore and What for, O Paleo?

If you’re like most people, trying to figure out the best eating regimen for your lifestyle can be far more perplexing than it seemingly should be. Simple answers to complex questions are rarely adequate, and when it comes to optimal diets, this is certainly true.

It’s a subject so widely debated you don’t have to go far to find warring expert opinions on vegan diets vs. carnivore diets vs. fasting diets – and the list goes on. What’s the answer? I turned to internationally recognized experts for opinions, people that I admire and consider leaders in the field. Peruse the quotes below!

Sports Nutritionist and Author of four books, Nancy Clark, RD, CSSD, says: “When people rave about the Paleo Diet, I ask what they were eating pre-Paleo. The answer tends to be “Junk.” So of course they feel better when they eat cleaner. There is nothing magic about Paleo. It is limiting, and a challenge to eat a balanced Paleo Diet that includes enough carbs and calcium. I vote for a modified Paleo — eating cleaner, closer to the earth (less processed foods), more whole grains, lots of fruit and veggies, lean proteins and low fat dairy or alternate sources of calcium. Just be sure you create an eating plan that you will enjoy maintaining for the rest of your life. Balanced and moderate diets tend to be sustainable in the long run. If you are doing Paleo, do you really never want to eat Thanksgiving stuffing or birthday cake ever again? That doesn’t sound very healthy to me.”  Reading this carefully, what Nancy Clark is recommending, as confirmed in her recent blog post, is eating a wholesome variety of foods from all food groups. She consistently refrains from demonizing any particular food, which I find very refreshing. Clearly, some foods are not good for us, but setting up a meal plan that forbids foods simply sets the stage for people cheat or fall off the wagon.  Most of my clients who follow regimens that remove whole categories of foods, without a medical need to do so, do report that they “break their diet”, and then binge.

Then there’s this article, a special feature printed in the prestigious Nutrition Action Newsletter, a publication of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Written by Marlene Zuk, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior at the University of Minnesota and author of the book, Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells us about Sex, Diet and How We Live.  In this question and answer format article, the Paleo premise is explored in some detail. Here are some questions and answers:

In answer to the question,

Q: Is the Paleo diet our natural diet?

The problem is that it’s really a fantasy to try to construct what early humans were eating.

First of all, what do you mean by early humans? The word “Paleo” doesn’t mean much from a scientific perspective. Are you talking about the ancestors of the genus Homo, such as Australopithecus? Are you talking about other members of the genus Homo, like Homo erectus? Or do you mean humans in Africa before they migrated out of that continent? Or is it after they left Africa? Or are we talk­ing about people who were living the way that contemporary hunter-gatherers do—people who forage and hunt but don’t use agriculture?

Q: What difference would that make?

A: Because so far as we can understand, the diets of all these different early hu­mans were really different. What people were eating 10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, for instance, was doubt­less not what people were eating 100,000 years before that.

Q: Didn’t their diets also depend on where they were living?

A: Yes. Picking a specific place or time to say, “Oh yes, we should be eating like those people,” doesn’t make sense. Is seafood okay on a Paleo diet? I suppose it depends on whether you think Paleo people were living on the northwest coast of North America, or whether you think they were in central Africa, in which case

I don’t think there were a lot of shrimp available there. Take the ancestors of the Inuit First Americans living in the Arctic. They get a lot of attention from Paleo enthusiasts because they relied on meat and seafood for food since so few edible plants grow up there. But the fact that nothing grows there just means that people can adapt to living without a lot of plant food. It doesn’t mean that they should live that way if they have a choice.

Q: The Paleo diet shuns grains. Did early humans ever eat them?

A: The absence of starchy foods on a Paleo diet is really interesting because it’s based on a fantasy of what our an­cestors ate. Over the last 10 years, after Paleo diets started to become popular, scientists have discovered traces of seeds and grains on the teeth of fossilized early humans. They’ve also found remnants of grains on stone cooking tools.

It’s looking like some early humans not only ate grain, but they also were grind­ing it into a crude flour and cooking that into a primitive form of pita bread.

There’s also good evidence now for a continued evolution in amylase genes. Amylase is an enzyme in our saliva and our small intestine that breaks down starches so we can absorb them. If you look at populations today that eat a lot of starch, they’ve evolved more cop­ies of amylase genes than populations that don’t eat much starch. Extra copies make the digestion of starchy foods even easier.

The moral is that you’re really on shaky ground every time you try to set up a “this is how it was and that’s how we should be” standard. We’re always revising our ideas of what early humans were like, and that is a worthwhile endeavor. But we shouldn’t do it to find what we’re supposed to emulate.

Q: Does Paleo food exist today?

A: Not really. Even if you wanted to try to eat what people were eating a long time ago, the majority of those foods are simply not available. Early humans were not eat­ing plants or animals that resembled very closely the plants or animals that we eat today.

Human beings have been influencing the foods they eat ever since there were people. For example, the ancestors of apples were nasty, horrible, little tiny bitter things that, really, why would one eat them?

The ancestor of corn that was used by peoples in the Americas for quite a long time was called teosinte. It looked like the head of a grass seed, which it basically was, and nothing like what people eat now.

The meat in the supermarket, even grass-fed beef, has also been modified from its ancestors by breeding. People un­derestimate the degree to which human beings have affected everything in their environment.

And finally, another of my go-to gurus, David Katz, MD, MPH, globally recognized expert in nutrition, weight management and chronic disease prevention. He is the President of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine; Director, Yale Prevention Research Center; and Editor-In-Chief of Childhood Obesity journal.

Since many people who exercise using the CrossFit model are following the Paleo diet protocol, I share this from his article on the Eating Practices of the Best Endurance Athletes in the World:

Kenyan runners tend to eat a limited variety of foods, and that was certainly the case with these elite athletes. Most of their nutrients came from vegetable sources, and the “staple” edibles were bread, boiled rice, poached potatoes, boiled porridge, cabbage, kidney beans and ugali (a well-cooked, corn-meal paste that’s molded into balls and dipped into other foods for flavoring).

Meat (primarily beef) was eaten just four times a week in fairly small amounts (about 100 grams — 3.5 ounces a day). A fair amount of tea with milk and sugar was imbibed on a daily basis (more on this in a moment).

If you’re thinking about heading to a nutritional-supplement store to purchase some performance-enhancing supplements (or you already purchase on a regular basis), bear in mind that the Kenyan runners were not taking supplements of any kind. There were no vitamins, no minerals, no special formulations or miracle compounds, nada. The gold-medal-winning Kenyans adhered to the odd philosophy that regular foods could fuel their efforts quite nicely.

And there’s this quote, from his Huffington Post article, “I have long emphasized the relevance of adaptation to the dietary requirements of every species, and thus, presumably our own. This lends support to approximations of our native diet, popularized under the “Paleo” rubric. But I have also noted that mammoth is hard to find these days, that our Paleolithic ancestors got lots of exercise and consumed an estimated 100 grams of fiber daily, and that even they ate “mostly plants”. And he concludes, “whether about wheat or meat, sugar or starch, calories or carbohydrates, this fat or that fat, we seem to have an insatiable appetite for mere grains of truth about diet and health, rather than the complete recipe. Planting such seeds, we are reaping just what we are sowing: more heat than light, unending opportunities for food industry abuses, stunning lack of public health progress and the very kind of trees that make the forest impossible to see.

Back again, then, to Shakespeare, “Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?” I am merely collecting information, assembling facts and piecing together the puzzle. So far, the image is clear – all foods have their place in a healthy diet today. There is no one solution to the best diet dilemma, rather a collection of elements, that when taken together and as a whole, improve our chances for avoiding obesity and the diseases associated with it.