Helpful or Harmful Diet Review: The Paleolithic Diet

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on May 17th, 2012)

Welcome back for week 7 of the Helpful or Harmful Diet Review. The big name of lifestyle diets is The Paleolithic Diet originating many thousands of years ago. It was revived in the 1970’s then again in the last decade through many books and articles it has become popular once more.

The Paleolithic Diet is a modern day approximation of the diet human ancestors ate during the paleolithic era. This was the time of the hunter-gatherer societies and agriculture was still just an itch at the back of someone’s brain. The theory is that we have changed our food supply, as a species, too quickly and we have not been able to evolve with it. Therefore we are unable to many of the foods that have become our dietary staples.

This rationale is the same as we discussed last week with the Gluten-Free Diet where our food, specifically grains with the Gluten-Free Diet, has developed and been bred to the point where it is not the food we evolved to eat. Originally, we and our food source evolved side by side with very slow and gradual changes but once it was discovered that we could influence this, the balance was altered. We removed a major evolutionary constraint (access to food) from ourselves, and we added a new, outside source of evolutionary pressure (selective breeding) to our food.

The Paleolithic Diet simply consists of only those things that could be either hunted or gathered. That’s it. There is some debate of what this means in detail but the basics are always the same between authors. Grains, man-made foods, GMOs, and alcohol are out and vegetables, fruits, nuts, and meat are in. Oils, dairy, and some beverages (like tea and coffee) are debated still.

There is some research to back up these claims through looking at the remote areas of the world where there are pockets of cultures untouched by technology that still live in the original hunter-gatherer ways. Observational studies of these groups have demonstrated that the eldest members show fewer symptoms of chronic diseases rampantly present in our own societies such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.

Those who oppose of this diet dispute the genetic claims by reminding followers that the genetic code in our DNA isn’t everything. The idea of phenotype (the portions of the genes expressed that make up our actual genetic use) and the recent discovery of epigenetics (environmental influence on genetic expression) change the game a little bit, suggesting that even though evolutionary selection may have decreased gene expression could have changed with the alteration of our food supply, thus negating this evolutionary gap.

Also, many scientists argue that the evolutionary speed is not as slow as Paleolithic Diet authors claim. There has been a definite increase in lactose tolerance since the introduction of animal husbandry (approximately 500 generations) and the increase in genes for the salivary enzyme Amylase which is responsible for initiating the breakdown of starches in our food. In response to this, Paleolithic Diet supporters say that because the negative impacts of a “Non-Paleolithic” diet (chronic “Western” diseases) do not affect the body until after reproductive age and so are not an evolutionary pressure so neither genotype (all the genes in our DNA) or phenotype mater.

This back and forth goes on and on but I won’t bore you any more with it. I just wanted to cover the basics of the argument.

Clinical trials of the Paleolithic Diet versus other diets have shown that it has just as much, if not more, health benefits than the others. These health benefits include increased insulin sensitivity (decreased risk of diabetes) and decreased blood pressure among others.

The Paleolithic Diet is the first lifestyle diet that actually does come with a “Lifestyle”. The diet promotes the same activity level as our pre-agrarian ancestors. This means constant, low-grade activity (walking or light lifting). Over the last half century, we have become an increasingly sedentary society where activity comes in short bursts if at all. This constant, low-grade activity is supposed to be what our bodies were designed to do but there is just as much debate over that claim as there is over the diet itself. But really, it’s not going to hurt us to get out of our chairs now and then to stretch and walk around.

Overall, the benefits of this diet are great. It is anti-inflammatory and strictly cuts out all the refined sugar and fake foods I rant about constantly. Whether the claims of genetic predisposition are true or not I think doesn’t matter all that much. The benefits are clear and well documented. The cons with this diet are that it is extremely limiting and eliminates most of the comfort foods that people turn to. As well, it takes most people outside of their comfort zone in the kitchen and this can be very scary. The best way to try this diet for the first time would be to get a group of friends to all do it together. That way you are your own support group and you can share recipes and stories.

Thanks for reading and come back next week for another look into the world of lifestyle diets.
Dr. Ben

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