Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Paleo Diet: Does It Work?

This guest post comes to you courtesy of my friend Tristan Dimmick: trainer, health & fitness enthusiast, and all around stand up guy.

When I first discovered the Paleolithic Diet back in 2009, I had just started training at a CrossFit gym, at a time when both were relatively unknown concepts to the masses. At the time, there were very few major publications on the subject, beyond Loren Cordain's The Paleo Diet, which came out in 2002, in addition to a few podcasts, including Robb Walf's now very popular weekly "Paleo Solution." Now, there are dozens and dozens of guides, memoirs, recipe books, websites, podcasts, apparel, tweets, and any other medium you can imagine, all devoted to the Paleo Diet, or the Primal Diet, or variations on the theme. It has quickly become one of the biggest "fad diets" in America, but only because of the repeated bastardizations of the core concepts everyone can benefit from. I'll start by explaining how the idea for the diet originated, how it has evolved over the years, and what parts of it I think everyone can use to find better health and wellness.

Apparently the basic premise of the Paleo Diet has existed as far back as 1975, when gastroenterologist Walter L. Voegtlin published his book The Stone Age Diet: Based on In-depth Studies of the Human Ecology and the Diet of Man. The principles of the diet have remained essentially the same over the decades between this book and Cordain's. According to the theory behind the diet, the vast majority of the human genetic adaptation and evolution occurred during the paleolithic era, when our species lived a largely nomadic, hunter-gatherer lifestyle. This involved a diet heavy in wild plants, lean wild animals, fruit, nuts, and seeds, with very little starch or carbohydrates, and no processed sugars. Furthermore, the theory states that we have only been in the neolithic era, during which we have been domesticating grains and other crops to grow our own food, for the past 10,000 years. This, the theory claims, has not given us enough time to adequately adapt to the relatively new foods introduced into our diet, so we are still genetically suited to a diet closely resembling that of our ancestors. To do this, then, we are supposed to cut out all grains, legumes (including peanuts and peanut butter), dairy products, processed foods, and sugar. Whatever is left on the menu, we can eat to our heart's content.

I think this line of thinking is a mistake. The first problem with it is that there never was one specific type of diet our ancestors ate. The foods they ate all depended on the local climate, terrain, time of year, and availability. Research into paleolithic diets has shown a wide variety of food types and amounts all across the world, with no single, unified diet in existence. Depending on where you lived, you ate different things as a hunter-gatherer! Never in the history of humanity have we had one single diet that remained the same throughout the year and across the globe. It just doesn't exist! So the concept of eating according to paleolithic principle is flawed, in that there were no set principles; it all depended on a variety of factors unique to each location. Beyond that, some paleolithic cultures did consume wild grains and legumes! They became more of a central part of the human diet once we started farming, but neither were absent from our history before that point.

Now, don't get me wrong here. I eat according to basic paleo principles, but I don't kid myself into thinking it's following some magical diet our species used to have. I think the overall concept is flawed, but I think it has some very useful ideas that everyone can appreciate and use:

It encourages you to learn to cook real food. Look at the list of what the paleo diet basically boils down to: vegetables, meats, fish, fruit, nuts, and seeds. Nothing artificial, nothing processed. Nothing in there offers the luxury of throwing some lunch meat on a couple pieces of bread and calling it a meal. A paleo meal inevitably requires cooking some sort of meat, eggs, or fish, along with a load of vegetables, in some sort of healthy fat like coconut oil, olive oil, or grass-fed butter. Maybe you have some fruit on the side, maybe you have a handful of almonds, or maybe you throw in some sunflower seeds. So you are basically forced to: cook, learn to pack your own meals, and start buying and appreciating fresh food more. Pre-packaged meals are no longer an option. You discover a whole new world of cooking, appreciating the food YOU created, and making a connection between what you put in your body and how it makes you feel.

It helps connect you to local food and farmers. A big part of the Paleo diet is switching from conventional, corn and grain-fed animals to pasture raised, grass-fed ones, finding eggs from farms that raise their chickens outdoors on a normal diet, and getting fish sourced from the wild instead of farmed. There is also a heavy emphasis on fresh, seasonal produce, which necessitates sourcing from local farms. You start to become more aware of what's in season, and where your food comes from. Depending on where you are, you can buy vegetable CSA boxes, meat CSA's, entire pigs, cows, and chickens, and fresh, local eggs. All of these things are healthier for the environment, the food production system, and your own body, and make Paleo's emphasis on sourcing local, natural food really good for everyone involved.

Above all else, it makes you think about what you're eating. Eating paleo is very restrictive. The idea is to cut out anything that can be a potential irritant to your system, that you are not adapted to handling. This, for many, does not have to mean avoiding all grains, dairy, and legumes forever; it just means avoiding them for a time in order to determine what might be messing with your system. I personally have discovered that I can't handle wheat; it makes me feel bloated, gassy, and totally bound up inside, so I avoid it, and feel much better. Other people can handle it fine, and to them, I say go for it! Eat wheat! But the important part is that you think about what you're eating, and how it's affecting you. When you eat very restrictively like this, you get a change to see what changes occur. Do you feel better? Great! Add in some dairy. Do you still feel better? No? Maybe you have a dairy issue! The only way to really tell these things is to just experiment a little, and pay attention to the results. And for that, I think the Paleo diet is extremely useful.

So maybe it's not the perfect diet, and maybe it isn't for everyone. But I think it has some positive parts amid the dogma and its rabid defenders; if you take the good from it, you're on the right track to eating healthy and feeling better.

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