Eat like a Caveman? A doctor's take on the Paleo Diet.
- on June 8, 2012
The growing popularity of the Paleo Diet has been one of the most interesting diet fads in recent years. Based around Paleolithic (pre-historic human) hunter-gatherer food sources, the “caveman” diet takes eating ‘whole’ and unprocessed foods to the next level and makes amazing health claims. But is eating like prehistoric man for you?
No Soup (or bread or noodles or cake) For You!
The paleo diet omits anything derived from modern agricultural and domestication methods - the staples of human diets everywhere for the past 5,000-10,000 years. No grains, no beans, no dairy products, no salts, no sugars and no processed oils. What’s left, you say?! Essentially, the paleo diet allows only for fish, meat (preferably wild or grass-fed pasture raised), vegetables, fruit, roots, and nuts. There is still some debate about the best animal-to-plant ratio within the paleo community, but most recommend regular servings of each.
It’s Evolution (and genetics), Baby!
Proponents claim it’s the “ideal diet” because it’s based on how our distant ancestors evolved (the basis of our genetics) over hundreds-of-thousands of years. Undoubtedly, many of our “modern-era” farmed and processed foods, when eaten in large quantities, are largely responsible for chronic diseases such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, etc. Paleo-diet advocates claim that omitting agriculture-based foods can improve or correct many of these “modern” health conditions. Studying human diets is a complex arena, but there have been a few small, short-term scientific studies to support such assertions with respect to metabolic syndrome. However, many paleo diet supporters also claim modern diets (especially grains) are to blame for allergic conditions, autoimmune disorders and more.
Overall, the paleo diet is much “healthier” than the American value-meal centered diet and there are many aspects of it that are healthful. As meats are fulfilling and plant-products are light in calories per weight, it would be difficult to consume excessive amounts of calories when following a strict paleo plan. I suspect much of the weight loss (and improved metabolic markers) associated with the diet is simply due to lower calorie intake. Have you ever tried to eat 1000 calories of vegetables? Me neither! In fact, some paleo guides say counting calories isn’t necessary at all. Generally, the paleo diet can meet most key nutrient requirements - expect maybe Calcium for women. Also, dietary Vitamin D is very hard to get from food alone, so many paleo diet plans recommend a daily sunlight or nutritional supplement.
As a physician (and lover of my wife’s baked treats), I do see a few potential concerns with the paleo diet - as did the US News and World Report expert nutrition panel. Practically, the paleo diet would be extremely difficult for anyone to follow consistently in modern society. I feel it's generally a bad idea to recommend treatments (including nutrition plans) that have a high chance of non-adherence. Also, while I agree with the general sentiment that our diets are overly reliant on simple-carbohydrates, there is a large difference in the quality of nutrition among different types of carbohydrates. Carbs with a lower glycemic index are generally a good source of calories and fiber. Scientifically, there is nothing unhealthy about having whole grains, beans or dairy in moderation. Also, severely restricting carbohydrates could be dangerous with some medical conditions. If you are still determined to “eat like our ancestors”, it would be much more reasonable and healthier to mimic an early 20th-Century Mediterranean fisherman than a caveman.
“Dr. Neu” is the physician and owner of NeuCare Family Medicine. He is a board-certified Family Physician (American Board of Family Medicine) and Fellow-candidate in Wilderness Medicine.
Information contained here is intended for general health education only. All personal health and medical issues should be managed by a health professional.
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