What is the Paleolithic (Paleo) Diet?

By Dr. Ben Balzer, family physician

There are races of people who are all slim, who are stronger and faster than us. They all have straight teeth and perfect eyesight. Arthritis, diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, depression, schizophrenia and cancer are absolute rarities for them. These people are the last 84 tribes of hunter-gatherers in the world.

They share a secret that is over 2 million years old. Their secret is their diet, a diet that has changed little from that of the first humans 2 million years ago, and their predecessors up to 7 million years ago. Theirs is the diet that man evolved on, the diet that is coded for in our genes. It has some major differences to the diet of “civilization”. You are in for a few big surprises.

The diet is usually referred to as the “Paleolithic Diet” referring to the Paleolithic or Stone Age era. It is also referred to as the “Stone Age Diet”, “Cave Man Diet” or the “Hunter-Gatherer Diet”.

The basic principles of the Paleolithic Diet are so simple that most high school students can understand them. Within 15 minutes from now you will grasp the major elements. At the technical level, Paleolithic Diet Theory has a depth and breadth that is unmatched by all other dietary theories. Paleolithic Diet Theory presents a fully integrated, holistic, comprehensive dietary theory combining the best features of all other dietary theories, eliminating the worst features and simplifying it all.

All major dietary components are covered- (i.e. vitamins, fats, protein, fats, carbohydrates, antioxidants and phytosterols etc). This is for the simple reason that it is the only diet that is coded for in our genes, it contains only those foods that were “on the table” during our long evolution, and discards those which were not. Have you ever wondered why almost everybody feels the need to take vitamin supplements at times, or why so many people feel the need to “detoxify” their system? There are very real reasons for this that you will soon understand. Now, come with me, I’d like to share the secret with you…

Basics of the Paleolthic Diet

For millions of years, humans and their relatives have eaten meat, fish, fowl and the leaves, roots and fruits of many plants. One big obstacle to getting more calories from the environment is the fact that many plants are inedible. Grains, beans and potatoes are full of energy but all are inedible in the raw state as they contain many toxins. There is no doubt about that – please don’t try to eat them raw, they can make you very sick.

Around 10,000 years ago, an enormous breakthrough was made – a breakthrough that was to change the course of history, and our diet, forever. This breakthrough was the discovery that cooking these foods made them edible, the heat destroyed enough toxins to render them edible. Grains include wheat, corn, barley, rice, sorghum, millet and oats. Grain based foods also include products such as flour, bread, noodles and pasta. These foods entered the menu of New Stone Age (Neolithic) man, and Paleolithic diet buffs often refer to them as Neolithic foods.

The cooking of grains, beans and potatoes had an enormous effect on our food intake- perhaps doubling the number of calories that we could obtain from the plant foods in our environment. Other advantages were soon obvious with these foods:

· they could store for long periods (refrigeration of course being unavailable in those days)

· they were dense in calories, ie a small weight contains a lot of calories, enabling easy transport

· the food was also the seed of the plant, later allowing ready farming of the species

These advantages made it much easier to store and transport food. We could more easily store food for winter, and for nomads and travelers to carry supplies. Food storage also enabled surpluses to be stored, and this in turn made it possible to free some people from food gathering to become specialists in other activities, such as builders, warriors and rulers. This in turn set us on the course to modern day civilization. Despite these advantages, our genes were never developed with grains, beans and potatoes and were not in tune with them, and still are not. Man soon improved further on these advances, by farming plants and animals.

Instead of being able to eat only a fraction of the animal and plant life in an area, farming allows us to fill a particular area with a large number of edible plants and animals. This in turn increases the number of calories that we can obtain from an area by some 10 to 100 fold or more.

Then followed the harnessing of dairy products, which allow man to obtain far more calories from the animal over its lifetime than if it were simply slaughtered for meat. Dairy products are interesting as they combine a variety of components, some of which our genes were ready for and some not. Whist cows milk is ideal for calves, there are several very important differences between it and human milk. For example, the brain of a calf is only a tiny fraction of its body weight whereas humans have very big brains. Not surprisingly, cows milk is low in critical nutrients for brain development, particularly omeg 3 fats.

Paleolithic Diet buffs refer to the new foods as Neolithic foods and the old as Paleolithic Diet foods. In simple terms we see Neolithic as bad and Paleolithic as good. Since then, some other substances have entered the diet, particularly salt and sugar, and more recently a litany of chemicals including firstly caffeine then all other additives, colourings, preservatives, pesticides etc.

Grains, Beans and Potatoes (GBP) share the following important characteristics:

· They are all toxic when raw – there is no doubt about this, it is a fact that no competent source would dispute, they can be extremely dangerous and it is important never to eat them raw or undercooked. These toxins include enzyme blockers, lectins and other types. I will talk about them in detail later as they are very important.

· Cooking destroys most but not all of the toxins. Insufficient cooking can lead to sickness such as acute gastroenteritis.

· They are all rich sources of carbohydrate, and once cooked this is often rapidly digestible-giving a high glycemic index (sugar spike).

· They are extremely poor sources of vitamins (particularly vitamins A, B-group, folic acid and C), minerals, antioxidants and phytosterols

Therefore diets high in grains, beans and potatoes (GBP):

· Contain toxins in small amounts

· Have a high glycemic index (ie have a similar effect to raw sugar on blood glucose levels)

· Are low in many vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytosterols, ie they are the original “empty calories”

· Have problems caused by the GBP displacing other foods

As grains, beans and potatoes form such a large proportion of the modern diet, you can now understand why it is so common for people to feel they need supplements or that they need to detoxify (ie that they have toxins in their system), indeed both feelings are absolutely correct.

Unfortunately, we don’t necessarily realize which supplements we need, and ironically when people go on detoxification diets they unfortunately often consume even more Neolithic foods (eg soy beans) and therefore more toxins than usual (perhaps they sometimes benefit from a change in toxins). More detail on these issues follows.

The essentials of the Paleolithic Diet are:

Eat none of the following:

· Grains – including bread, pasta, noodles

· Beans – including string beans, kidney beans, lentils, peanuts, snow-peas and peas

· Potatoes

· Dairy products

· Sugar

· Salt

Eat the following:

· Meat, chicken and fish

· Eggs

· Fruit

· Vegetables (especially root vegetables, but definitely not including potatoes or sweet potatoes)

· Nuts, eg. walnuts, brazil nuts, macadamia, almond. Do not eat peanuts (a bean) or cashews (a family of their own)

· Berries – strawberries, blueberries, raspberries etc.

Try to increase your intake of:

· Root vegetables – carrots, turnips, parsnips, rutabagas, Swedes

· Organ meats – liver and kidneys (I accept that many people find these unpalatable and won’t eat them)

Expect some minor tuning problems, don’t worry, you can deal with them:

· It will take some time for your body to adjust to the changes after all these years. There is a huge surge in your vitamin intake. There is a huge decrease in your toxin intake.

· Start with breakfast for few days, as this is the easiest place to start as most people eat it at home, and it tends to be the least Paleolithic meal of the standard 3. For weight loss you will eventually need to reduce your carbohydrate intake, but ignore this initially as most people have high carb intakes and this can continue for the first few days that you are on this diet. If you reduce too quickly then you may fell unwell. Then move on to lunch or dinner for a few days and then to all 3 meals. If you work, you will often find it easier to take your lunch to work.

· Keep reading more about the diet – and read it again. Remember, there are many dietary myths that will need to be unlearned. Particularly, please read the section on fats several times. Knowledge on fats has exploded over the last decade and there is a realization in mainstream nutrition that omega 3 fats are critical to good health. It is very important to ensure that you have an adequate intake of these.

The low fat diet craze of the 90’s was well intentioned but many people “threw out the baby with the bath-water”- most people reduced omega 3 fat intake as well as other fats, and sometimes even increased omega 6 fats. There is now a realization that the low fat diet theory of the 90’s doesn’t often work (it has about a 6% success rate like most other diets) and that the vast majority of the Western population need to increase their omega 3 intake and decrease their omega 6 intake. Even if you don’t end up on a Paleolithic Diet, you will benefit from a better appreciation of fats.

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To read more about the Paleo Diet, go to Earth360

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