Have you heard the buzz about the Paleo diet? Or are you and your family already going Paleo? It’s an eating pattern that’s supposed to be based on the diet of the Paleolithic man. Also known as the Caveman diet, it’s a regime that avoids foods that were not available at that time – no products of modern agriculture such as dairy, grains, legumes, processed oils and sugar. Instead, only protein foods like meat and seafood, certain vegetables and fruits along with nuts and seeds are on the menu.
Advocates of this eating style say that man is not genetically suited to these modern day foods. So what’s the lowdown on the Paleo diet and how healthy is it?
Noted nutrition expert Dr. David L. Katz offered some answers at the recent “Whole Grains: Breaking Barriers” conference in Boston, sponsored by the food think tank Oldways and the Whole Grains Council. Dr. Katz, the founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Childhood Obesity, gave a presentation called, “What did Paleo Man really eat, anyway?” It’s quite different from the current Paleo or raw food movement.
Firstly, though, he commented on Paleo advocates recommending a diet which seemed to offer good health for a person whose lifespan was only about 40 years, when our present life expectancy is about eight decades. Dr. Katz also pointed out many differences between the current Paleo diet compared to that of thousands of years ago.
He also indicated that all the foods on the ancient Paleo diet were wild – from the animals consumed to all of the plant products. As a result, the nutritional profile of those foods would be very different from what Paleo followers eat now. For example, when meat was on the menu, it was from an animal that ate grasses and other greens which yields a product that’s very high in omega-3 fats. Even today’s grass-fed beef of today falls short of omega-3s in comparison. They also ate meat only occasionally, as they first had to hunt the animal down. Consequently, large amounts were indeed consumed, but over a short period of time and then the meat was gone. Today’s Paleo followers eat large amounts of meat on a daily basis. “There was also no bacon or pastrami” says Dr. Katz, who describes these options as popular Paleo selections nowadays.
He also revealed that the true Paleo diet included a lesser known and not very enticing menu option – bugs.
Because of the wild vegetables and fruits, which were a mainstay of the Paleo diet, the fibre intake was estimated to be about 100 grams – a whopping amount when you consider today’s paltry intake of about 15 grams – just over half the current recommendation for kids and adults alike.
According to another conference presenter, Pam Cureton, RDN, LDN, of the University of Maryland Celiac Program, who compared Paleo eating to a diet which contains grains, a Paleo plan can be short on nutrients, such as fibre, the B vitamins folate and thiamine and iron. Low levels of iron in the blood can go hand-in-hand with learning and behavioural difficulties in children.
Eliminating dairy products can also have repercussions on bone health later in life. Because the ability to deposit calcium into bones is the greatest during the teen years, some experts have called osteoporosis a disease of adolescence, showing up later in life. In the days of the caveman, they never lived long enough to develop osteoporosis.
But there is one aspect to the Paleo diet that makes it stand out favourably against today’s eating patterns: meals were cooked from scratch, with no junk food on the menu.
That may be one invaluable lesson we can take from our ancestors to promote good health.
Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit rosieschwartz.com for more.
Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, April 2015.