By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD
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With so many questions about Paleo eating, I thought I'd explain the facts, so you can make the best choices from every nutrient-rich food group.
What is the Paleo Diet?
It's what we think we ate 10,000 years ago in the Paleolithic era before agriculture & before today's chronic diseases, like diabetes, heart disease & obesity.
The Paleo sales pitch
We're just not genetically matched to eat foods we've grown or raised, like grains & dairy. Eat what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate to lose weight, avoid disease & discover a new level of wellbeing.
The positive in Paleo is that is promotes natural, wholesome foods BUT it goes too far, particularly putting dairy & grains off limits (more below).
What's on & off the Paleo menu?
Let's take a look how the Paleo shopping list stacks up for each nutrient-rich food group.
Great, all vegetables are allowed, so we are on the same page.
Note that primitive man would not have wanted to fill up on low-calorie vegetables, as they needed lots of energy to hunt & gather. However, most modern, less active men should fill up on vegetables to limit calories.
Fruit / Not all
Fresh fruit, particularly berries, dates & figs, as these may have been some of the first fruits to be routinely consumed by our Paleo ancestors.
But Paleo often limits other "higher-sugar" fruit, including fresh bananas, mangos and pears. Dried fruits can also be off bounds.
Remember, fruit eaten fresh or dried in the correct amounts offers natural sweetness, fibre & antioxidant nutrients.
Off limits because until the dawn of agriculture 10,000 years ago & the domestication of dairy animals, we didn't eat butter, cheese or yoghurt.
But several European, African & Middle Eastern populations have evolved to tolerate lactose, showing humans have evolved to include dairy.
If you need to avoid dairy, I'll show you how below.
Grass-fed meats & wild game meats.
Grass-fed beef has higher levels of omega-3 healthy oils, so there is a nutritional (as well as a animal welfare) benefit in choosing pasture-fed meat over meat raised on grain feedlots.
Fish & seafood, with an emphasis on omega-3-rich fish like salmon. Great, as omega-3s are fantastic for your metabolic health.
Healthy Oils / Not all
Nuts & seeds.
Oils, including olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado & coconut oil. But not refined vegetables oils, such as canola, sunflower & cottonseed oil, which are higher in omega-6 fats. The idea is that an imbalance of 'omega-6' oils contributes to inflammation & other health problems.
Whilst there is some evidence for this, the problem can be addressed by choosing olive & other monounsaturated (omega-9) oils for the majority of cooking & consuming more omega-3s from oily fish.
Starches / Not Grains or Legumes
Starches from sweet potatoes are allowed.
But not regular potatoes because they contain higher levels of 'saponins' in the skin, which are claimed to cause damage to your gut lining. While large quantifies of potatoes with skin-on could potentially be harmful over time, lower amounts most commonly consumed are unlikely to cause issues.
Another reason potatoes are not allowed is due to a high glycaemic index (GI). But this depends on cooking - boiled results in low-GI, whereas baked is high-GI. Also, when potatoes are eaten in limited portions with meat & vegetables, the GI is lessened.
Grains like wheat, rye & rice are not allowed because; they are net-acid producing, are lower in nutrients by weight than vegetables & fruits, & we didn't evolve eating grains.
But, early humans consumed grains as long ago as 30,000 years. Only some people with an intolerance will need to avoid grains. And the acid-producing properties get cancelled out by other nutrient-rich foods, especially fresh vegetables.
Legumes (including peanuts) are not allowed because they are 'toxic' with lectins we can't tolerate. But, legumes are not toxic the way we consume them & legumes have been a staple food of traditional cultures in Latin America & Africa.
Paleo is about minimising processed foods, fast food, refined sugar & alcohol. Your first priority is to de-junk your diet, then optimise it for nutrient-balance.
Why eat Diary, Grains & Legumes?
There are good metabolic reasons reasons to include specific foods (that are banned on Paleo) as part of your optimised nutrient-rich diet.
Humans have evolved to digest lactose, so Dairy can be included for most people.
But if you can't tolerate dairy or lactose, ensure you get your calcium from calcium-enriched non-dairy alternaives, like calcium-fortified soy milk, yoghurt or cheese.
Milk, cheese & yoghurt are rich in protein, calcium & vitamin D. Calcium in particular can be lacking in Paleo diets.
The protein & natural sweetness (from lactose) in dairy helps you feel satisfied.
Probiotic yoghurt, in particular could be very important to promote healthy gut bacteria balance that actually reduces inflammation & enhances metabolic health.
Choose low or reduced-fat dairy to cut calories or if you want to feel more satisfied with full-fat dairy, simply choose smaller portions that fit into your nutrition plan.
Cut back on highly processed grains, but include traditional grains for some of your starches.
If you can't tolerate wheat or gluten, follow a gluten-free diet but still be accountable for for your gluten-free starch portions. As may gluten-free starches have higher GI scores, it can be more challenging to feel satisfied with less gluten in your diet.
Wholegrains (not white, fluffy bread) are rich in fibre, protein (yes!) & antioxidants.
A whole bunch of research shows correct amounts of wholegrains helps lower cholesterol, reduce diabetes and cancer risk.
Choose low-GI options, like barley wraps, oats (porridge), rye bread & quinoa in salads as part of your Starch Exchange target.
Rich in protein, especially for vegetarians. Legumes are also high in fibre, B vitamins, magnesium & a range of phytonutrients.
There is also ample evidence for the benefits of legumes for reducing chronic disease, especially as part of a vegetarian diet.
If you want to go meat-free, choose vegetarian foods wisely to ensure you still get your nutrients in the right balance. Include legumes & beans in curries, soups, stews, Mexican dishes or simply as backed beans.
7 Problems with Paleo
Paleo sounds compelling I know, BUT...
1. Ancient people likely didn't have as much chronic disease because were very active & also didn't live long enough to develop diabetes.
2. Not all cave women were lean. Some obesity was present, as evidenced by statues from the Paleolithic era.
3. Humans have evolved on a variety of different diets, including dairy & grains so there is not a single Paleo diet.
4. Eating true Paleo is almost impossible, as our ancestors likely ate much more marrow, organ meats & even insects.
5. Eating Paleo takes careful balancing with deficiencies in calcium, fibre and Vitamin D most common.
6. Paleo doesn't outperform traditional diets like the Mediterranean diet in terms of long-term health benefits.
7. As much as Paleo has going for it, it can be harder to stick to & be less flexible than a nutrient-rich plan where all food groups are allowed.
The verdict on Paleo
Some positives & a great promotion for natural, whole foods BUT I recommend you adopt a nutrient-rich food philosophy.
Choose to enjoy the metabolic benefits & flexibility from eating the optimal balance with correctly matched amounts from all food groups.
That's what the very best of nutritional science offers.
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