Is the Paleo Diet a Load of Bunkum?

paleo diet cavemanI reckon it’s not all bunkum as I actually like a some of what the diet has to offer. The paleo diet says let’s all have less carbs, and sugar in any form is a carbohydrate so why not less of that? The last few years I have cut down on sugar quite a bit and also have less starchy food, but more so called good fats (I consider these to be saturated as well as monounsaturated). Of course not all would agree but personally I feel the benefits.

It would be essential for someone on any diet to make sure they are not missing out on important nutrients. The one-size-fits-all approach of diets is silly really. We all respond differently to foods and have different nutritional needs, so it’s better to experiment and create a personalised diet that sits well with your own body. Books and videos spruiking the latest fad are guides only and should not be taken as gospel, no matter how convincing the food guru sounds.

Back to paleo. So the theory here is to mimic the diet of our paleolithic ancestors – basically less carbs, no cropped grains and a restricted variety of pre-agricultural vegetables and fruit. But it begs the question – what did our ancestors really eat? A new study in the Quarterly Review of Biology says big brains need carbs. It says “carbohydrate consumption, particularly in the form of starch, was critical for the accelerated expansion of the human brain over the last million years, and co-evolved both with the variation of the salivary amylase genes and controlled fire use for cooking”.

Importantly the brain uses up to 60% of blood glucose and eating starches are a very efficient way of getting fuel for good wholesome thoughts. And contrary to what a lot of paleo dieters think, starches would have been readily available as well as seeds, fruits and nuts. So our paleolithic ancestors were not only tucking into mammoth but also into a naughty amount of evil carbohydrates.

Also human salivary glands produce a good amount of amylase to break down starches – an evolutionary adaptation to eating said starches. Other apes produce very little and so have less carbohydrates in their diet.

Not to say of course the paleo diet is not best for you. We all have our needs.

Quiet Earth sponsored audio: Cafe Mantra Nurture

Categories: Health and Lifestyle

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3 replies

  1. If interested, another perspective:

    Primal Body, Primal Mind
    Nora Gedgaudas
    pp. 37-43

    The hunter-gatherer diet can be described via at least two different perspectives: ice age Paleolithic and post–ice age, or neo-Paleolithic. The diet of neo-Paleolithic peoples, including modern-day hunter-gatherers with some regional variation, essentially consisted of high-quality animal-source protein, both cooked and uncooked (including organ meats of wild game, all clean), that was hormone-, antibiotic-, and pesticide-free, naturally organic, and entirely range-fed with no genetic alteration.

    This diet included some eggs, when available, insects (sorry to say), and seafood. This diet was typically moderately high in fat, calorically, at a rate estimated to have been roughly ten times our modern intake (and fat was highly coveted). This included varieties of saturated, monounsaturated, and omega-3 fats, and balanced quantities of omega-6 fats, together with abundant fat-soluble nutrients. Neo-Paleolithic, primitive human diets, as well as diets during more temperate periods amid the ice age, generally included a significant variety of vegetable matter, some fresh raw nuts and seeds, and some very limited quantities of tart, wild fruit, as was seasonally available.

    There was far more plant material in the diets of our more recent ancestors than our more ancient hominid ancestors, due to different factors. The current ice age (yes, “current”), known as the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation, started about 2.58 million years ago, around the time the first hominids appeared, during the late Pliocene era, when the spread of ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere began. […]

    There can be no question that our physiology is profoundly influenced by this climatologic history. We have spent highly significant time periods during our ancestral history locked in the grip of mostly ice and snow, with only the briefest periods of warmer reprieve when edible plant life could have grown over a significant portion of the Northern Hemisphere. Periodic swings in climatic conditions, from relatively brief periods of reasonably temperate conditions to prolonged, harsh, ice age conditions, are more recently understood by climatologists to have been relatively each and every ice age during the last 250,000 years actually began quite abruptly, typically (ironically) following spikes in global temperature. Each time this change occurred, the climate descended into full-blown glacial severity within less than twenty years, sometimes well within ten years! Only those people adapted in their physiology and cunning would have survived such sudden onsets of frigid, and unforgiving conditions (Calvin 2002). Even while the Northern Hemisphere was gripped in snow and ice during these periods, Africa was being ripped apart by droughts and wildfires, with catastrophic areas of flooding elsewhere. During any ice age, the entire planet endures a relentless range of such extremes.

    Studies of ancient human coprolites, or fossilized human feces, dating anywhere from three hundred thousand to as recent as fifty thousand years ago, have revealed essentially a complete lack of any plant material in the diets of the subjects studied (Bryant and Williams-Dean 1975). In other words, it is likely we subsisted for a very significant portion of our evolution largely on the meat and fat of animals we hunted. Fat was the prime commodity for its concentrated nutrient and energy value. This has even been true of neo-Paleolithic hunter-gatherers and traditional societies, as clearly shown by the exhaustive scientific work of Weston A. Price first published in 1939 (Price 1989). As omnivores and opportunists, we would always have certainly procured whatever might have been available to us for food. Permafrosts and droughts, however, left many of us limited options for long stretches of time. Fat, too, is our most efficient, dense, and prolonged-burning fuel. It is essential for an important multitude of bodily processes, not the least of which is the functioning of the human brain.

    Another important limitation stems from the fact that we as a species have only relatively recently developed a universally controlled use of fire. By most accounts, this did not occur before fifty thousand to one hundred thousand years ago. Although scattered evidence of fire exists from as far back as three hundred thousand to four hundred thousand years ago, it is unlikely that the sophisticated development of cooking practices occurred much before the use of fire became more universal and commonplace—sometime after Cro-Magnon man migrated into Europe. (The oldest-known pottery dates only as far back as 6800 BCE, incidentally.)

    What makes the use of cooking especially significant is the toxicity of most plant species. Wild plants contain any number of toxic compounds that would have made their use as food in any significant quantity perilous. Cooking is the only means by which many of these “antinutrients” can be neutralized.

    Modern produce has been genetically modified to reduce the presence of harmful compounds to a significant extent. Most wild plants, on the other hand, require extremely careful selection and preparation. Most starchy roots, tubers, and legumes would have been prohibitively dangerous to consume without extensive cooking. Furthermore, the energy expended in the procurement of the remaining types of plant foods easily exceeds their potential caloric value, to say little of their meager, inferior available protein content, which is so critical to our needs. Mass die-offs of megafauna following the last ice age ten thousand years ago and over-hunting by humans may have led to an increased dependence on plant foods and ultimately to the development of agriculture. Some people also hypothesize that it was an addiction to the exorphins (morphinelike compounds) in grains that sparked this widespread development. […]

    Nonetheless, it is widely accepted that it was, in fact, our extended dependence on the meat and fat of animals (rich in eicosapentaenoic acid, or EPA; and docosahexaenoic acid, or DHA) through these frozen winters of unimaginable duration that allowed for the rapid enlargement and development of the human brain. Meat and especially fat would have been the most coveted and important commodities of all. We never would have survived as a species without them.

    Our increased dependence on hunting also likely helped facilitate and develop the very human qualities that we most intrinsically value—cunning, cooperation, altruism, sharing, advanced creativity, the power to foresee the future and to be able to call upon the past in terms of the future, the capacity to evaluate with complexity, and the ability to imagine solutions—qualities not particularly found in other primates (Ardrey 1976). Also, interestingly, the dominant form of fatty acids in the human brain is omega-3; in chimps and other primates, it is mostly omega-6. This is a very significant distinction and one that is the likely result of these evolutionary, ice age–induced dietary changes.

    Many authors popularizing the notion of Paleolithic diets base their conclusive evidence on the diets of more-contemporary primitive peoples, forgetting that for most of our evolution, the world has been a very, very different place. Either way, it is evident from even the most recent analysis of primitive diets that animal-source foods and fat-soluble nutrients invariably play a critical, central role in such peoples’ extraordinary physical and mental health and freedom from disease, as characterized in primitive peoples and more traditional groups. It is also quite evident that diets consisting of any significant quantity of carbohydrates are a strictly modern phenomenon, one that our ice age human physiology has evolved little adaptation to—or defense against.

    Carbohydrates, other than the largely indigestible variety found in fibrous vegetables and greens, have generally played a minimal role at best through most of human evolution. Fruit was consumed only seasonally by our neo-Paleolithic ancestors in most places, and wild fruit is extremely fibrous and smaller in size, with less total sugar content. Many potatoes and tubers would have required extensive cooking to neutralize extremely toxic alkaloids. Wild varieties that would have been available to us through most of our history as a species can be especially toxic.

    In other words, it isn’t likely we were eating baked potatoes with our woolly mammoth steaks—or much starch at all.

    In fact, of all the macronutrients (that is, protein, fats, and carbohydrates), the only ones for which there are no actual human dietary requirements are carbohydrates. This is a critical and very fundamental point to remember: we don’t ever have to eat any sugar or starch of any kind at all in order to be optimally healthy.

    Our bodies can manufacture glucose, as needed, from a combination of protein and fat in the diet. As a matter of fact, glucose is really needed only in an ongoing way mainly for fueling our red blood cells. Most organs and tissues in the body, including the brain, actually prefer, if we let them, to use ketones, the energy-producing by-products from the metabolism of fats. This fact is very overlooked or misunderstood by the majority of medical and nutritional experts.

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