The Paleo Diet seeks to mimic the hunting-gathering menu of our paleolithic ancestors.
Modern agriculture feeds a lot of people in this country. But Loren Cordain, PhD, doesn’t think it should be feeding you – or anyone else, for that matter.
Cordain is a researcher, professor of health and exercise science at Colorado State University and author of the popular book “The Paleo Diet” (Wiley, $14.95). He believes people should be eating diets more akin to those of our early hunting-gathering ancestors, rather than those that evolved under a more civilized society.
According to Cordain, DNA evidence shows that basic human physiology and our dietary needs are about the same as they were 40,000 years ago. For him that suggests a return to nutrition that he believes would not only keep us healthy, but help us lose weight and avoid diseases like cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
The principles are both easy in philosophy and execution: we should eat only those things we can hunt and gather, and not those that are processed or produced with modern technology. That means all the lean meat, seafood, fruits and nonstarchy vegetables we can eat, with no cereals, legumes, dairy products or processed foods. “It’s the human diet,” he says. “It’s the diet we’re genetically adapted to.”
Of particular concern to Cordain are modern-processed foods, which to him, “are not real foods.
“Processed foods were what we ate while growing up. But from an evolutionary standpoint, most people ate real foods for most of their lives,” he says. “Seventy percent of foods in the U.S. diet are from foods that hunter-gatherers never would have eaten.”
Saying his concept is more about lifestyle than diet, Cordain insists people will find his program easy to follow and very rewarding.
“It’s very intuitive and easy to understand and apply,” he says. “The bottom line is that it works.” Not only are they leaner and healthier, Cordain says, “people just feel better. We got it right.”
A miracle diet?
Not so fast, says Dayle Hayes, MS, RN, president of Nutrition for the Future in Billings, MT. “There is no miracle diet, this one or any other,” she says. According to Hayes, diets like this one succeed because people are eating mostly whole foods and lean proteins and avoiding processed foods. “If it works it’s not because they’re eating like cavemen,” she says.
Hayes says there’s “nothing new about this diet. The concept of eating like our ancestors has been around for a while. It’s just a low-carbohydrate, high-protein diet in a recycled package.”
Hayes says severely restricting food groups as the Paleo Diet does causes some concern about intake of calcium and vitamin D. “It’s the balance issue that’s missing from these diets, and what’s missing from the (Paleo Diet) book,” she says. The same principles of balance also hold true for plant-based diets, she says.
Where both Hayes and Cordain do agree is in the importance of including lean meat in the diet – in Cordain’s case, the more the better. Those who shun meat, he says, are following “an incorrect (diet) model.”
Cordain, however, is cool on the consumption of modern conventionally produced beef. “Wild game is the model we should emulate,” he says.
But in denigrating grain-fed beef, Cordain exhibits some glaring errors in facts. For instance, he states that “…feedlot cattle maintain a 4- to 6-in. layer of white fat covering the animal’s entire body.” It’s actually about ½ in.
He also says, “feedlot animals are exclusively fed grains (corn and sorghum) in the last half of their lives.” Also not true; the majority of a fed steer’s life is spent on grass.
And, he states that meat from feedlot cattle “has high concentrations of omega 6 fatty acids at the expense of health-promoting omega 3 fatty acids.” Even if true, it’s virtually meaningless, as salmon has about 35 times the omega 3 fatty acids as grass-fed beef. Is it reasonable to make dietary recommendations based on beef’s omega 3 fatty acids because of how it’s raised?
After reading “The Paleo Diet” and spending two weeks on the program, I lost 6 lbs. While I spent more money on food, and more time in food preparation, my meals were more colorful and I ate way more fruits and vegetables. Even better, I got more connected to the food I put in my body.
Could Cordain have nailed it? I think Hayes identifies a bigger question.
“The real question for every diet is, can I really eat this way for the rest of my life?” she asks. “Or are you someday going to want the baked potato with your steak?”
So, while this particular writer is making dietary changes and I have no beef with Cordain’s basic idea, I won’t be joining the paleo revolution anytime soon. I’ll take some butter with that potato, please.
Sidebar: Don’t forget exercise
Joe Friel, an expert on fitness who trains Olympic triathletes, says Loren Cordain, author of “The Paleo Diet,” sold him on the concept in the mid-1990s. And he says individuals should be as aware of their exercise as their dietary program.
“Just as with diet, adopting the active lifestyle of our ancestors produces greater health and robustness,” Friel says. According to Friel, regular exercise might seem like work, but with discipline and dedication it becomes easier. Eventually, as you become adapted to the new lifestyle, it becomes easier – even enjoyable and addictive. Movement “the paleo way” mimics the types of activities our paleolithic ancestors engaged in. Thus, it includes two types of activities: aerobic and weight lifting.
Friel suggests every person do 1-2 aerobic activities they enjoy 3-4 times/week, and lift increasingly heavy weights 2-3 times/week. Beginning with just “the motivation to commit to an active lifestyle,” Friel says individuals can get on the road to better health.
“View this as a lifetime change,” Friel says, “not something that has to be adopted full-on immediately.”