Paleo Diet: Should We Go Back to Eating What Our Ancestors Ate?

Shivangana Vasudeva, NDTV  |  Updated: May 03, 2018 12:09 IST

Paleo Diet: Should We Go Back to Eating What Our Ancestors Ate?
What’s a paleo diet? It’s a blast from the past. On a more serious note, a paleo diet is all about eating what we ate WAY back in the day. A new trend that represents a very old form of eating. If your ancestors didn’t eat it, neither can you. Fair game.

The word ‘diet’ might mislead you in thinking that it is nothing more than one of those weight-loss programmes but the paleo diet promises everything from better metabolism and immunity to heart health and blood sugar regulation. In 2013, it was named as the ‘World’s Most Popular Diet’, yet it leaves most of us in doubt.

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Back to basics

The Paleolithic era was lasted around 2.5 million years and ended about 10,000 years ago with the advent of farming.  The Paleo approach confines one to the kind of food that was available in the pre-agricultural days which was characterized by hunting, fishing, and the gathering of plant foods. The diet can be tweaked to suit your needs but the core tenets of ancestral nutrition persist which includes all that they had access to.

1. High protein: Proteins are the building blocks of bones, muscles, skin and hair. Chicken, fish and eggs are all included. You are encouraged to opt for lean cuts of meat that are relatively low in fat.  It emphasizes more on clean eating and grass-fed meat.
2. More fibre: Your diet would primarily comprise of fibre from fresh fruits, berries and vegetables. Dietary fiber is essential for smooth digestion and you shouldn’t have to just depend on whole grains. Besides, non-starchy vegetables contain eight times more fiber than grains. Fruits and vegetables are valuable sources of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients that protect you against infections, bacteria and viruses.

3. Omega-3 fatty acids from fish, seafood, nuts and oilseeds.

4. Healthy oils like olive, walnut, flaxseed, coconut or avocado.

5. And, finally much less saturated fat, sodium and carbs from processed foods. It’s challenging because it restricts the consumption of sugars, dairy, grains, legumes, refined oils, starches, and alcohol which are very much a part of our diet today.  The aim is to do away with the dangers of the modern diet.

Going the Paleo way

Imagine this.

Paleolithic Period: Tall, muscular, agile and athletic.

21st Century: Overweight, stressed, sleep deprived and suffering with many preventable diseases.

Something’s definitely not right. The idea of a Paleo diet was first propagated by a gastroenterologist, Dr. Walter Voegtlin who published a book called The Stone Age. In his book, he shared how he treated his patients by replicating the ancient diet for modern times. More than ten years later, researchers and scientists gained interest in what seemed to be more than just a fleeting fad diet. Dr. Loren Cordain has years of published research on the Paleo diet which indicates it can significantly reduce the burden of lifestyle disease like type-2 diabetes, heart trouble and metabolic syndrome. Studies have shown that people following the paleo diet have low cholesterol levels, reduced diseases, controlled blood sugar levels and less hormonal fluctuation.

One of them published in the Journal Diabetologia in 2007 compared the Paleo diet with the Mediterranean Diet.  The results showed that those who followed the Paleo diet could reverse the symptoms of insulin resistance while those on a Mediterranean diet showed little improvement.

In his book ‘Paleo for Beginners’, John Chatham also highlights several benefits, “There’s more protein and fiber (without starch from grains), both are digested slowly and keep you full for longer.  They also help in burning fat faster. Omega-3 fatty acids and healthy oils are great for your heart. It’s not the amount of fat that raises your cholesterol but rather the type fat. Good fats like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated are the mainstays of the stone-age diet. Increased micronutrients like Vitamin C from fruits and veggies metabolize fat which results in burning existing stored fat. Finally, low-sugar diet can help you avoid blood sugar fluctuations and keep your energy levels constant.”

With growing waistlines, the risk of chronic health conditions is on a rise. To tackle the same Chatham explains in his book, “The Paleo diet has several key advantages for people who are looking for a safe, effective way to lose weight and keep it off. The diet recommends consuming lean proteins and fats that help build lean muscle and covert sugars in glycogen that your body can use as energy. It also recommends eliminating sugar, alcohol and processed foods that can make you overweight.”

But, does eliminating certain food groups really help? There are many theories to this. After digestion, your food places a net acid or alkaline load on your kidneys. Grains, legumes and salt are acid producers while fruits and veggies yield alkaline. High levels of acid can cause bone loss, kidney stones, high blood pressure. Moreover, carbs have always been controversial and here you're not eliminating them but substituting them with good carbs from fruits and vegetables.

Those in favour of the Paleo diet argue that grains were never a part of the original human diet, so our body is designed to function on much less carbohydrates than what we consume today. The idea is that our genes haven't evolved like our diet over time. Agricultural Revolution introduced toxins into the food chain like gluten, a type of protein found in cereals which makes it hard to digest and has been the cause of many allergies. They see Paleo diet as a way to optimize your health and wellness, not transform you into size zero.

Why low-carb diets aren't the answer

The diet has many good qualities like emphasis on leans proteins, fruits and vegetables, nuts and whole foods but not without flaws. To begin with, ‘eat this-not that’ is not a solution as it’s never the case of ‘one-size-fits-all’. “The Paleo diet can only be followed by a specific group of people, mainly non-vegetarians, as it includes a lot of fish and meat. It is not very practical, especially in India, as it says no to cereal grains which form the basis of an Indian diet. Additionally, India has a large vegetarian population,” says Dr. Ritika Samaddar, Nutritionist at Max Health Care in New Delhi.

Nutritionist Tapasya Mundhra agrees, “The Paleo diet can be good as a short term diet, which benefits anyone with insulin issues, or who is gluten sensitive, diabetic or wants to lose weight. In the long term, a high-protein, low-carb diet may not benefit all, only a balanced diet is beneficial that includes all food groups.”

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She sees some wise nutritionally wise principles in the diet but it's not good to go to extremes,“It works for non-vegetarians as it provides a balance of proteins from meats and nutrients from fruits and vegetables. But, you need to be careful as a high protein diet puts a lot of pressure on the kidneys and can affect its functions. Also, carbs are required for energy, and this diet is low on carbs. This could cause mood swings or leave you feeling fatigued all the time. A good diet should consist of 50-60% carbs, 30% proteins and 10-20% fat."

(The Ideal Balanced Diet: What Should You Really Eat?)

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Here’s another reason you may want to hit pause. The evidence that grains, legumes and dairy products are bad for your health is very weak. Legumes are a valuable source of protein for vegetarians, most of our energy comes from carbs and milk is the best source of calcium. There are alternatives but they may not stand up to their nutritional value and could lead to deficiencies leaving you to depend on supplements.

It’s tough to be consistent with a strict regime as such with quantitative limitations even for what you can eat. "The paleo diet is one which involves mostly raw foods and uses very less cooking. It can be traced back to ancient times where we had little knowledge about the various food groups, and we just ate food in its original form. In India, we may not have easy access to many exotic fruits or grass-fed meat which this diet depends on. Moreover, the balanced approach is better in terms of overall nutrition where carbs actually form the majority of your diet yet you don’t overeat,” says Nutrition and Weight Management Specialist Anshul Jaibharat.

CommentsBut if you’re serious about trying something new, she suggests, “The paleo diet can be followed for a very limited period of time, like a week or 15 days as a method of detoxification. If someone wants to transition into this diet, they should do it gradually. This can be done by increasing the number of days they follow this diet for per month, as this helps keep them motivated.”

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