Used to be that the Paleo diet was an edgy but obscure way of eating that was part of an “evolutionary” approach to life. It was based on modern day hunter-gatherer diets and the limited dietary data we have from the Paleolithic period.
Nowadays, the Paleo diet is increasingly popular in the fitness world and has caught the attention of the mainstream, taking popular culture by storm. Not only has the entire L.A. Lakers basketball team gone Paleo, but their star player Kobe Bryant was recently quoted on the Sports World website saying that because of the Paleo diet, he “lost five pounds in just one day.”
Meanwhile, the Paleo diet was the most searched diet on the Internet in January, and books on the Paleo diet and ancestral eating have dominated the New York Times Bestseller list all year.
With popularity comes criticism of both Paleo eating and the ancestral lifestyle approach. Marketers have co-opted the diet, vegetarians have jumped on board, and mainstream dietitians and doctors criticize it as unhealthy, dangerous, and without research to support it.
With all this hullaballoo, what can we do to free ourselves from the dogma, avoid the haters, and get the most out of an ancestral Paleo diet?
Here are five suggestions for avoiding pitfalls. The goal is to evolve the Paleo diet into an ancestral lifestyle that is informed by where we came from but will take us where we want to go.
Pitfall #1: Losing Sight of the Big Picture
Solution: Call It Paleo But Make It Evolutionary
Despite its popularity, dietitians love love love to disrespect the Paleo diet for avoiding grains and dairy and being too high in fat and meat. There are other arguments against the Paleo diet including the following:
• There is evidence that some Paleo people may have eaten grains and grasses.
• There is debate as to whether we have evolved to be able to digest gluten safely.
• It’s unclear how much the human genome has evolved since the Paleolithic. If significant changes have occurred, it’s possible we should look at dietary practices from the Neolithic, which followed the Paleolithic, when identifying the ideal human diet.
• There is evidence of large-scale variation in what Paleolithic people ate. There’s also no reason to believe that Paleo people had optimal health, although we do know they didn’t have the high rates of diabetes and heart disease in modern populations.
• If you buy your food, live in a house, and don’t spend your day hunting and gathering, then you’re not actually living a Paleo lifestyle or eating Paleo.
Some of these points are highly relevant, particularly when we consider that the whole point of “Paleo” eating is for each of us to identify a flexible, individualized approach. However, we are not going to debate these arguments here because then we’d lose sight of the useful, practical points that we are after.
The great thing about the Paleo diet is that it is informed by how the human genome evolved, which allows you to eat according to what your body is best adapted for. Trying to live in a way that is more like our ancestors did can be a helpful approach because it simplifies things and limits choices in this over stressed, over complicated world.
The Bottom Line: Taking an evolutionary approach to diet and lifestyle is about making the choice to live a simpler life that is more in tune with our genome and where we came from. Be aware of your individual big picture and the big picture for the rest of humanity.
Two big questions that aren’t going to go away are 1) how do we make the Paleo diet sustainable in light of diminishing protein resources? and 2) how do we make ancestral diets achievable for people in developing countries or who are low-income in developed countries?
Pitfall #2: Getting Confused by Backlash
Solution: Turn To The Evidence—Research Trials Do Support Paleo
The Paleo diet has been receiving a lot of criticism. This can be very confusing. Probably the most uninformed and glaring example of Paleo backlash was the diet review by U.S. News and World Report that panned the Paleo diet for having no research to support its use.
In fact, there are five studies that have tested Paleo-style diets, finding them safe and beneficial for improving health markers like cholesterol and blood pressure.
One of the first studies on ancestral eating from 1984 found that diabetic Australian Aborigines who shifted to their “native” diet (fresh foods such as kangaroo, birds, crocodile, turtles, shellfish, yams, figs, honey, and fish) from their modern high-carb, refined food diets lost an average of 7.5 kg, improved cholesterol, and got rid of their diabetes. This wasn’t a double blind study, but it laid the groundwork for Paleo-style research.
A 2009 study by Swedish researchers compared a Paleo-style diet with a low-fat “diabetes” prevention diet that included dairy and grains. The Paleo dieters improved glucose tolerance, lost more weight (3 kg more), shrunk their waist size to a greater degree (4 cm smaller), and had lower blood pressure than the folks on the diabetes diet.
Meanwhile, some scientists criticize the “mismatch” hypothesis, which says that traits that were beneficial in a hunter-gatherer environment don’t jive with modern diets or lifestyles. Critics suggest that evolutionary diets based on the Paleo era are fantasies for the following reasons:
• They are based on limited fossil evidence.
• They unrealistically suggest that there was a time of perfect adaption that we’ve deviated from.
• The diet and way of life of our ancestors probably varied greatly from 10,000 years ago, when agriculture began, to 55,000 years ago when active hunting and gathering took over from the practice of scavenging dead animals from predators.
• The proportion of meat and plants in human diets varied greatly based on geography and time.
• The rate of evolution varies—sometimes it’s very fast like with the genetic adaptation to be able to digest lactose and milk—and sometimes it’s very slow.
The Bottom Line: Avoid getting caught up in nostalgia for the days of yore. Our ancestors didn’t have an “easier” life. Generalizing about Paleo people is unscientific.
Instead of living with what biologist Marlene Zuk calls paleofantasies, opt for what acupuncturist Chris Kresser calls a Paleo template—a diet that uses a basic evolutionary format that allows you to think, question, and experiment based on your circumstances and needs.
Pitfall #3: Constant Hunger
Solution: Learn What Makes You Hungry Vs. Satisfied
It’s attractive to think that there is a “wisdom of the body” that drives our cravings so that we eat the most nutritional diet possible. Unfortunately, research suggests that aside from cravings for select nutrients such as sodium, there is no “wisdom of the body” that drives food choices.
Instead, the foods we like, crave, and choose tend to be socially learned or motivated by environmental factors like stress, not by instinct. A few of these factors that drive our cravings include the following:
• Studies show that our desire for specific foods is closely linked with past emotions and pleasure, not a drive to maintain homeostasis or energy balance.
• Pleasant foods such as fat and sugar lead to the release of substances called endocannabinoids in the gut. They affect dopamine and opioid receptors in the brain (THC in marijuana also activates these receptors).
We feel good when we eat these foods in the same way as alcohol and drugs are pleasurable. Cravings for these food have nothing to do with homeostasis, energy balance, or what our ancestors ate. They just make us feel good.
• In some cases, environmental factors like chronic stress, which our ancestors didn’t experience in the same way we do, overrides genetic tendencies, inspiring food cravings. Research shows that chronic stress elevates the hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin, making us crave sweet-tasting foods.
• Preferences for certain foods are “learned” pre- and post-natally through exposure to flavors in amniotic fluid and breast milk. Enjoyment of vanilla, garlic, mint, carrot, anise, and alcohol are all learned during infancy.
• Eating behaviors and preferences are not instinctual, but are learned from the ethnic and family practices that we grow up in.
The Bottom Line: The foods we crave are not motivated by instinct. Hunger has been “hijacked” by hyperpalatable foods with a lot of fat and sugar. Meanwhile, food preferences are influenced by many factors, but what our ancestors ate isn’t one of them.
Knowing this will allow you to design an eating plan that is robust to these faults. Consider these points when doing so:
1) Eliminating the hyperpalatable sugar and processed fat foods may take some time if they’ve had a regular presence in your life.
2) Deal with your blood sugar. Focus on meal frequency and eating high-protein foods that contain a decent amount of “good” fats. For some people a high meal frequency is optimal, for others one or two meals with intermittent fasting works better.
3) Choose a carb intake that works for you. Some people will benefit from a variety of carbs—sugary fruits and starchy vegetables, while others will thrive on minimal carbs of the low glycemic variety.
4) It’s extremely beneficial to become metabolically flexible so that your body is able to burn fat readily. It is not going to happen if you live on a high-carb diet.
Pitfall #4: Ignoring Your Gut
Solution: Fix It!
One of the biggest mismatches between our current diet and that of our ancestors is that the typical western diet promotes the growth of bacteria in the gut that makes us fat. Here’s the deal:
Babies pick up beneficial bacteria as the pass through the birth canal. They get more bacteria from breast milk. This combination of good bacteria is one reason that natural birth babies and breast-fed children have lower rates of autoimmune disease.
Then, we pick up additional bacteria from our environments: food, water, soil, and animals. The typical westernized high-fat diet promotes the growth of obesogenic bacterial communities that cause inflammation and can produce an overgrowth of “bad” bacteria in the gut.
People who have diabetes or are obese have more “bad” bacteria in their guts than lean people or those without diabetes. These dangerous bacteria promote further insulin resistance and obesity. Treating the obese with “good” bacteria can help treat diabetes and cause weight loss.
The Bottom Line: If you have a poorly functioning gut, you need more than a Paleo diet. First, you have to figure out what’s wrong with your gut. If it’s inflammatory bacteria, eliminate sugar, grains, and processed foods. Increase your vegetable and plant fiber intake. Take a probiotic and eat probiotic foods.
Second, if you have small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, there are various diets that can be used to treat it, but chances are, you need to see an expert to do so. Check out Dr. Allison Siebecker’s web site
for more information.
Pitfall #5: Being Stubborn
Solution: Evolve Paleo For You
Stubbornly sticking to a diet that’s not really working just because it’s Paleo is not a smart move. Why not evolve Paleo? A recent paper in the journal Nutrition Reviews suggests potential nutrition interventions that may be relevant:
• Our food preferences and metabolism start with our mothers. A mother’s diet during pregnancy has little effect on the baby’s size at birth, but it does program the baby’s metabolism.
• A fetus adapts to under- or over-nutrition by changing its metabolism. Hormones get altered and gene signaling is affected, setting the stage for optimal body composition or obesity during adulthood.
• We learn food preferences in utero as well. Exposure to sugar and fat in the womb are thought to set us up to desire these hyper-pleasurable foods during life. One solution is for pregnant mothers to eat a wide variety of spices to expose the fetus to diverse flavors that are plant based. This allows us to develop a taste for spices and flavors that are non-caloric.
• Individualize your ancestral diet based on genetics and personal needs. We have continued evolving since the Paleolithic. For example, populations with history of a higher starch intake have evolved to have more copies of the gene for salivary amylase so that they can digest starches.
Low salivary amylase concentration promotes the growth of obesogenic bacteria in starch heavy diets. For example, aboriginal populations have fewer copies of the amylase gene than Europeans, and it’s possible that this is one reason that they experience higher obesity and diabetes rates from eating starchy carbs.
The Bottom Line: Dan Lieberman, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, suggests that “we didn’t evolve to be healthy,” but to reproduce in difficult, stressful conditions. “We never evolved to make rational choices about what to eat or how to exercise in conditions of abundance and comfort,” he writes.
That doesn’t mean we can’t. Although, if we get distracted by nutrition dogma, marketing, or arguments about whether or not to eat foods we are intolerant of (gluten! grains! dairy!) it will be a lot harder.
We all have a lot at stake here.
The solution is fairly simple. Intellectually we know the answer. The challenge is to put it in practice.
Lieberman suggests we cultivate our bodies. We need to “respectfully and sensibly nudge, push, and sometimes oblige ourselves to eat foods that promote health and to be more physically active.”