Doctor’s Tip: What about the paleo diet?
The Paleolithic (“Paleo”) diet gets a lot of press these days. It is based on the theory that what we are genetically meant to eat is what early humans supposedly ate during the Paleolithic period — from 2.6 million to 12,000 years ago. Paleo advocates argue that the reason we suffer from chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases is that we are not eating what we’re genetically meant to eat.
Paleo fans say we should be eating lean meat, fish, fruit, non-starchy vegetables, nuts, seeds, eggs and certain oils — olive, coconut and palm. They say we should avoid food that emerged after humans started farming around 10,000 years ago, including dairy, legumes (beans, lentils and chickpeas) and grains. They say that in addition, we should avoid sugar, salt, potatoes, alcohol, coffee and refined food.
All experts in nutrition agree that Paleo advocates got it right about avoiding refined food, salt and sugar. Beyond that, however, the Paleo diet is controversial, and here are some of the reasons:
• It’s difficult to determine what people ate during the Paleolithic period.
• From what we can tell, Paleo people ate whatever was available where they happened to live (e.g. tropics versus colder climates).
• The average life expectancy during the Paleo period was much shorter than it is today, so Paleo people didn’t live long enough to develop the chronic diseases many older people suffer from now.
• Humans evolved over 20 million to 25 million years, from tree dwelling plant-eaters — by 2.6 million years ago, when the Paleo period began, most of the human genome had already developed.
• On the other hand, some degree of evolution continued after humans started farming at the end of the Paleolithic period, such as genes enabling humans to break down starches.
• There is evidence that some humans were eating grains as long as 30,000 years ago — long before the end of the Paleolithic period. So why ban whole-grains?
• Meat, including fish, is linked to many diseases we suffer from in developed Western societies — including obesity, hardening of the arteries (cardiovascular disease), diabetes, inflammatory and autoimmune conditions, dementia, osteoporosis and many forms of cancer.
• During the Paleo period, environmental toxins didn’t exist. Now they do, and when you eat at the top of the food chain by eating meat and fish you get 14 times the amount of pesticides and other toxins compared to eating plants, at the bottom of the food chain.
• There are five areas in the world where people live particularly long lives, of good quality, called the Blue Zones. They all have many characteristics in common, including low-level but frequent physical activity, and eating primarily plants. But the most striking common denominator is eating lots of beans — which the Paleo diet forbids.
• Coconut and palm oil are some of the most atherogenic (causing atherosclerosis — hardening of the arteries) substances there are.
Joel Fuhrman, M.D. is well-respected in the nutrition field and has written several books, including “Eat to Live.” In his book “The End of Dieting,” he has a section titled “The Paleo Diet: Dead Like a Caveman.” He calls the Paleo diet “a passing fad.” He writes that “the high-protein diet continues to take different names and forms, gaining new legions of meat-loving devotees every generation. First it was known as the Atkins diet, then the Sugar Busters. Then it came back as the South Beach diet, and most recently the Dukan diet. Now it’s the Paleo diet. Regardless of its name or specific iteration, however, it’s always the same diet — high protein, low carb, enormous risk.”
Dr. Feinsinger, who retired from Glenwood Medical Associates after 42 years as a family physician, has a nonprofit Center For Prevention and Treatment of Disease Through Nutrition. He is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention and other medical issues. Call 970-379-5718 for an appointment. For questions about his columns, email him at email@example.com.