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In a world where a new version of the Paleo Diet seems to get published weekly, we watch experts argue concepts back and forth – all the while keeping consumers wondering what the heck we are supposed to eat!
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As Ayurveda slants toward a vegetarian diet, one would think the idea of a Paleo Diet would ruffle my vegetarian feathers – not so! I do, however, think it’s extremely wise to study the diet of our ancestors, as they determine our food genetics, which is what we are wired as humans to eat.
That said, I think there are some very confusing and potentially dangerous Paleo guidelines that may be going against our genetic grain. To help sort this out, a short review of the logic (and lack thereof) around eating a Paleo Diet is in order. Here are some of my questions:
- Has the Paleo Diet gone too far?
- Are there variations of the Paleo Diet that make sense?
- Has the dietary pendulum, once again, swung too far?
- Is there real value that we can take away from how our ancestors ate?
Let’s dig in as I review the good, the bad and the ugly of a Paleo Diet. Here is a glimpse of the classic Paleo Diet according to PaleoDiet.com.
Paleo Foods to Eat:
- Grass-fed meats
- Fresh fruits and veggies
- Nuts and seeds
- Healthy oils (olive, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia, avocado, coconut)
Paleo Foods to Avoid:
- Cereal grains
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils
Other Paleo Diet sources, such as PaleoLeap.com, suggest a gentler and perhaps wiser version of the Paleo Diet, allowing dairy and potatoes. So, it seems that within the Paleo community there is much discrepancy and continued refinements that are being made.
Much of the logic that I draw from in this article is, of course, from the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and from Harvard researcher Daniel Lieberman’s book, The Story of the Human Body, which offers some of the most well-researched insights into how our ancestors ate and our current genetics around food.
Paleo Myth #1: Our ancient ancestors ate meat 3 times a day at every meal.
Eating meat at every meal was simply not part of our genetics. Early hunters were not particularly good hunters and would often go days without eating meat. To support this theory, research suggests that a diet high in red meat builds excess carnitine in the blood. At normal levels, carnitine is very healthy. In excess, as a result of a diet of too much red meat, the excess carnitine is converted to a toxic cancer causing chemical called TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide), show one study. (1)
In the same study, regular meat eaters readily converted carnitine into TMAO, while vegetarians who ate red meat did not convert the carnitine into TMAO. This suggests that red meat, in smaller infrequent dosages, is well tolerated compared to eating meat at every meal as many Paleo experts suggest.
Paleo Myth #2: Our ancestors did not eat starchy veggies, such as potatoes.
Yes, we were called “hunter-gatherers,” but perhaps a better description of our ancestors would be “hunter-diggers.”
While men would go on hunting parties, they were not great hunters and would often come back empty-handed. The women, children and elders would gather nuts, veggies and berries and dig up starchy root vegetables that would feed the humbled hunting party when they came back home with less meat than they intended to. According to Lieberman, starchy root veggies, like potatoes, made up around 35% of the Paleo Diet – which is curiously a no-no in the Paleo world. (2)
New, more liberal versions of the Paleo Diet are not making exceptions allowing potatoes and starchy veggies but, according to Lieberman, it was these complex carbs that sustained us. If the ancestral women didn’t know where and how to dig up these root veggies, it is questionable that our species would have survived on the hunting skills of men alone.
Paleo Myth #3: Our ancient ancestors ate only meat and veggies and no grains.
According to the latest anthropological findings, much of the “gathering” was harvesting grain from indigenous grasses. This contributed greatly to the starch that researchers believe made up some 35% of the hunter-gatherer diet.
The anti-grain sentiment that floods the media today has much to do with the fact that we have over-eaten grains, such as wheat. Wheat was first harvested in the fall to be eaten in the early winter in the mountains of Turkey. It was a glutinous grain that helped insulate the body for a cold and long winter. It is a lipophilic grain that helps the body store winter fat. (4) Since then, wheat has been hybridized to be harvested 3 times a year and is eaten by many Americans 3 times a day. We do not have the genetics to tolerate wheat in such excess. When wheat makes you bloat, in a sense, it is just doing its job. It is a hard-to-digest grain that digests slowly, allowing excess glucose to be stored as fat and even congest the liver. That said, new studies suggest that we have microbes and specific enzymes specially designed to break down the hard-to-digest gluten protein – when eaten in season and in moderation. (6-8)
Paleo Myth #4: Our ancient ancestors did not eat legumes.
Again, thanks to our female gatherers, beans and legumes were routinely eaten. Prior to the onset of cooking, beans were eaten in the spring when moist, warmer weather softened the hard protective coatings of beans, leaving the hard-to-digest toxic anti-nutrients to decompose in the soil. In Ayurveda, beans are generally a spring food and are eaten when the hard-to-digest anti-nutrients are naturally discarded.
Once our ancestors started cooking their foods, beans, along with many other fibrous veggies, were more tolerated and gained favor in the hunter-gatherer diet.
Paleo Myth #5: Our ancient ancestors did not eat dairy.
Researchers believe that it takes about 10,000 years to create or change a genetic pattern. This has been recently proven, as many Northern Europeans have what is called “Lactose Persistence.” (3) This is the ability to digest lactose from milk which, in most mammals, stops shortly after the child is weaned off of the mothers’ milk. This represents a genetic shift in the ability to tolerate dairy after thousands of years of dairy consumption.
This, along with many other anthropological findings, suggests that we did in fact consume dairy. That said, few dairy-eating cultures actually consume the milk directly. The fat is typically skimmed off to make butter and the remaining skim milk is made into cheese. During cheese-making, the hard-to-digest lactose is converted to lactic acid, which is very easy to process and the hard-to-digest milk protein, casein, is pre-digested by the lacto-fermentation of the milk. Ancient cultures knew this, and in the mountain malgas (dairy huts) of Europe and India, these techniques are still practiced.
NOTE: While gluten and dairy are part of our genetic history, these foods are not required to be a part of a healthy diet. Today, 74% of American people experience some sort of digestive distress – indicating that the digestive strength required to digest these harder-to-digest foods is just not there in most of us. In addition, the way these foods are processed today makes them even more difficult to digest. If you have trouble with these foods, I suggest two things:
- Avoid them until you can strengthen your digestion.
- Source ancient wheat and non-homogenized and raw or vat-pasteurized organic dairy.