Guest Blog by Emma Rushe
The paleo diet, almost unheard of ten years ago, is now gaining ground as a science based1,2 and common sense approach to maximising health. Millions of people worldwide have joined this growing movement, choosing to eat and live more in sync with our Paleolithic ancestors in an effort to regain the health we once enjoyed.
The paleo diet, in its simplest form, is a diet based around the foods humans could traditionally ‘hunt and gather’, including muscle and organ meats, fish, vegetables, salads and fruit, nuts and seeds. It is a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods that is argued to suit our genetic make up and physiology, which anthropological evidence suggests has hardly changed in the millions of years since our evolution.
It wasn’t until the agricultural revolution eleven thousand years ago that our diet shifted towards cereal grains, dairy products and meat from farmed animals, enabling humans to more easily and safely access food all year round. Eleven thousand years may sound like a long time, but it is actually only a tiny period of time in our evolutionary history, suggesting that to a large extent, we are not at all well adapted to consuming these foods, especially in the more refined forms and vast quantities we choose today.
Evidence suggests those hunter-gatherers that shifted towards agriculture suffered tooth decay3, anaemia, a reduction in height and bone density, and increased infant mortality. These changes can be attributed both to an inability to cope with a diet inappropriate for our physical make up4, as well as a reduction in nutrients, healthy fats and protein.
Dr. Weston A Price5 , a dentist from the United States, carried out detailed research into the cause of dental decay, travelling the world and examining the teeth and dental records in many differing areas, including isolated human populations. He came to the conclusion that crowded, crooked teeth and cavities were the result of physical degeneration resulting from nutritional deficiencies over the generations. In those isolated populations still enjoying a diet of natural, traditional foods, he found beautiful straight teeth with jaws wide enough to accommodate them, as well as strong bodies and on the whole freedom from the health concerns we face today.
Purveyors of the paleo diet believe that most of our modern day ills can be attributed to this dramatic shift in diet6,7. Bring in the industrial revolution too and suddenly processed and packaged foods were widely available, as well as increased access to sugar after the Second World War.
Experts believe that cereal grains, dairy products, as well as refined sugar, industrial seed oils, and processed foods were never supposed to be part of our diet, and that our health has suffered as a consequence. Some of the illnesses that have risen each and every year since the agricultural and industrial revolutions include diabetes, heart disease, obesity, cancer, autoimmune disease, depression and dementia.
The arguments put forward by the Paleo community against sugar, industrial seed oils, cereal grains, pseudo cereals such as quinoa, dairy products, and legumes are numerous. As a society, most of us know and understand why eating too much sugar is bad for us, but the fact that some of the foods the paleo diet discourages are thought of by most of society as being part of a healthy diet is harder for many to grasp.
Take cereal grains as an example, we are told repeatedly that whole grains are healthy – they contain slow-release energy, fibre and nutrients, which benefit our digestive systems and our hearts. The paleo diet argues that in fact, cereal grains are low in important nutrients when compared to vegetables, fruit, meat and fish, and instead contain proteins and anti-nutrients that can be harmful to health. Let’s look at these more closely.
Firstly, many cereal grains contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. So this means bread, breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes, pasta, pastries and so on. Gluten can also find its way into other foods as a thickener and flavouring, as well as through cross-contamination.
We are eating an enormous amount of refined, gluten-rich food across most of the world, and this dramatic rise in consumption is thought to have increased the rate of gluten allergies and sensitivities.
The most recognised reaction to gluten is coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition causing damage to the lining of the small intestine. It is now understood that symptoms can be less obvious than once thought, with many sufferers never experiencing the classic digestive disturbance associated with this disease but instead experiencing symptoms such as headaches, joint pain and skin problems. This means many people remain undiagnosed, in addition to the increasing numbers of people suffering with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, a newly recognised condition involving a reaction to gluten that is not autoimmune or allergic. Symptoms are wide-ranging and therefore difficult to diagnose, however experts believe it could affect as many as one in ten people.
Gluten is thought to be damaging to the lining of the digestive tract8, and has been linked with many chronic diseases, especially inflammatory conditions such as autoimmune disease9,10. In fact there are some diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, that researchers believe are so closely linked with gluten consumption11 that gluten can even be thought of as a trigger for the condition, and removal of gluten from the diet has been shown to relieve or even promote remission in some cases12.
Another problematic part of all cereal grains, as well as pseudo cereals like quinoa, dairy products and legumes, are something called ‘lectins’.
Lectins are proteins found in all foods, and although not all lectins are thought to be as problematic as others, those found in cereal grains, dairy and legumes are thought to be more toxic and have the potential to damage the lining of our digestive tracts13, which can promote a condition called leaky gut and increase inflammation14. Leaky gut is a condition in which the lining of the digestive tract becomes too porous, allowing microbes, toxins and large particles of protein to interact with our immune system, setting the stage for inflammation, allergies and autoimmunity.
Cereal grains and legumes also contain an anti-nutrient called phytic acid, which is part of the plants in-built defense mechanism. Phytic acid binds tightly to some of the nutrients in the food and prevents you from absorbing them15, which is why although we may be told that whole grains, beans and pulses are nutritious and full of minerals, the reality is the phytic acid content will limit how much of these nutrients you will absorb and benefit from.
Nuts and seeds also contain phytic acid, and in fact phytic acid is thought to have some beneficial effects in the body16, so it is not necessarily something that needs to be avoided completely, but its effects can become problematic if phytic acid containing foods comprise a large part of the diet, as they do for many, especially in the case of cereal grains.
Many argue though that rather than avoiding all the foods discouraged by the paleo diet, such as cereal grains, pseudo cereals, dairy products and legumes, that proper preparation methods can be used to reduce the problematic constituents of these foods.
Soaking, fermenting, sprouting and then cooking cereal grains, pseudo cereals and legumes reduces their lectin and phytic acid content, reducing their impact on our digestive tracts and freeing up the nutrients for absorption.
There are many resources online explaining how to prepare these foods, but a useful book called Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, gives detailed information.
Choosing raw, unpasteurized dairy products is another way some have found they can benefit from the nutrients contained in these foods without the adverse effects associated with processed milk products17,18,19,20.
Industrial seed oils high in omega 6 fats, such as refined sunflower, soya bean and vegetable oils, and supposedly heart-healthy spreads like margarines, are also now widespread and the fats of choice for many which is thought to skew the ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 fats in the diet compared to that of our ancestors21.
We have been led to believe that saturated fats found in red meat and butter will clog up our arteries, raise inflammation and cause cancer but the evidence that these recommendations are based on are outdated, with more recent research suggesting that this is not the case22,23 and that vegetable oils high in omega 6 fats and diets low in saturated fats actually increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease and other causes24.
As well as focusing on what not to eat, there are specific foods over and above standard meat, fish, fruits and vegetables that are actively encouraged when following the paleo diet to nourish the body, heal the gut lining and reduce inflammation.
These include unrefined, healthy fats such as extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil and coconut milk, and fats from foods like cold water fish, grass fed meats and avocadoes; organ meats like liver for bioavailable iron, vitamins A and B12; bone broths for their gut-healing gelatin and collagen; and fermented foods such as sauerkraut and kefir for the billions of healthy bacteria they deliver to repopulate the bowel.
While dietary change may form the backbone of the paleo movement, living the Paleo way also encompasses lifestyle changes including getting better quality sleep more in line with our circadian rhythms, and moving in a more natural, functional way. These factors, crucial to achieving optimal health, are often forgotten and compromised in our modern society where we often sit still for hours at a time, and can access technology and artificial light 24 hours a day. Reduced sleep has been found to have an impact on many areas of health including risk of chronic disease25, hormone balance26, inflammation27, and weight control28.
I do believe that the Paleo diet and lifestyle have wide-reaching benefits for many people regardless of their age or condition. Any diet that encourages people to eat real, nutrient dense food, with adequate quality protein, healthy fats and colourful plant foods, rather than processed inflammatory choices is likely to bring profound health benefits to many, but it can and should be used as a framework rather than a tightly-controlled, prescriptive regime.
We are all unique, and while some people will thrive on a classic paleo diet, others will need to adjust their intake of macro and micronutrients to suit their height and weight, age, activity levels and stage in life. Add in other factors such as stress, exercise, genetic variations, food allergies and sensitivities, illness and disease, and the chance of the classic paleo diet working miracles for everyone seems very unlikely.
Thankfully, what was once thought of as ‘The Paleo Diet’ is evolving, from a traditional and rather strict regime to a more relaxed and malleable template, enabling people to personalise it to suit their needs. There are already variations, including the autoimmune paleo diet, a temporary elimination programme specifically tailored to those suffering with any of the vast array of autoimmune diseases, and many websites and books encourage followers to experiment with calorie and carbohydrate intake based on personal needs and symptoms.
My personal experience of using the paleo diet in all its forms for my clients and myself is very positive and I have found it to be enormously helpful for balancing blood sugar levels, reducing inflammation, promoting weight loss and reducing cravings, correcting nutrient deficiencies, relieving digestive disturbance and improving chronic health conditions
Emma Rushe BSc Nutr Med, Cert ASK is a nutritional therapist.
There are more tips on using Lucy Bee Coconut Oil in a Paleo diet here.
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