Saturday, September 24, 2011

Should You Eat Like a Caveman? The Paleolithic Diet

This one goes out to Megan, a personal trainer based in London.  She's been hearing a lot about the Paleolithic Diet and wants to know the real scoop.  Here goes...

The Paleolithic Diet is also called the Caveman Diet, Stone Age Diet, or Hunter-Gatherer Diet.  It is based on what humans used to eat prior to the agricultural revolution and after humans learned to use stone we're talking at least 10,000 years ago.  Although there's considerable debate, most nutritional anthropologists agree that this includes animal flesh (four-legged, two-legged, and finned creatures), vegetables, roots, fruit, and nuts.  

Proponents of the diet claim that our ancestors thrived on these foods and had no evidence of the diseases that plague our society today; most notably, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.  They also claim that our DNA is best suited to utilize these foods and reject foods not available during that period such as grains, dairy, legumes, refined sugars and oils. They argue that our DNA has not changed but the food supply has, and we are not genetically adapted to these "new foods".  Bottom line, they feel we'd all be better off eating the foods that make our DNA happy.

The diet itself ends up being very high in plant foods (good), protein (good), and fiber (good) and contains no processed food (very good).  The downsides are the diet is inherently low in calcium (not good) and vitamin D (not good).  Some minor modification of the diet could increase calcium and vitamin D intake, or a dietary supplement could serve the same role. The diet can also be difficult to follow if you are on a tight food budget or do not have access to the limited list of foods all year round.

What does the research say?  There's really little to go on.  There have been a handful of studies, but all of them are with very few people.  One of the more interesting studies looked at the effects of the Paleolithic Diet compared to a Mediterranean Diet in folks with heart disease.  Those that followed the Paleolithic Diet reported being less hungry and they actually consumed less calories.  The researchers did not report any information about their heart disease symptoms so its difficult to conclude whether the diet is better or worse than the Mediterranean Diet for heart disease.

Other studies have shown that people with type 2 diabetes had better blood sugar control with the Paleolithic Diet versus a higher carbohydrate diet.  But again, there were very few subjects in the study so its hard to generalize these results.

There have been far greater numbers of studies showing that dairy foods, whole grains, and legumes (banned on the Paleolithic Diet) can be part of a healthy diet that reduces the risk for obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.  So based on the scientific evidence to date, there does not appear to be a strong rationale for everyone switching to the Paleolithic Diet.  That said, there doesn't appear to be a big risk in following that diet for those who find it appealing.  

Some folks will probably feel awesome on the diet and others will not....this is how our DNA really works.  Based on our individual genetics, which includes how we taste and metabolize food, some diets may be a better fit than others.  If you enjoy eating roots, vegetables, fruit, nuts, fish and poultry/meat, then the Paleolithic Diet may be worth a go for a few weeks to see how you feel.  

Has anyone tried it?  Any insights?

Good luck Megan!


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  2. Thanks Dr. T! As a mostly-vegetarian gal, the idea of giving up dairy and legumes has very little appeal so I may try a few weeks of a modified paleo-diet which would include non-fat diary and legumes. I'll let you know when/ if it happens and what happens!

  3. This article is interesting and useful. Thank you for sharing. And let me share an article about health that God willing will be very useful. Thank you :)

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