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There are many lofty claims being made about the benefits of the Paleo diet, but are they really true? With such a bombardment of dietary advice from so-called experts—much of it based on outdated standards and flimsy science at best—it can be difficult separating fact from fiction.
If you're the careful sort, you may want to know what the latest science says before pitching most of the food in your pantry. The truth is, no one diet is perfect for everyone. Our individual genetic backgrounds, histories, lifestyles and epigenetic factors are far too complex for one dietary edict to hold true. However, many of the tenets of the Paleolithic diet are based on sound science and good common sense.
One fact is inarguable: the standard American diet is a metabolic nightmare and is leading us down a very grim path.
Today's diet is loaded with sugar, glutinous and processed grains and chemical additives, and creates the perfect storm of inflammation, a major driver of the chronic diseases so rampant today. Many recent studies have supported the benefits of a low-carbohydrate, high-fat diet—and yes, this includes animal foods. Recent science has brought us some surprises, such as the heart-healthy benefits of eating 50 to 80 percent fat! Yes, you read that right.
As popular as the Paleo diet is, there are many misconceptions floating around, and I would like to dispel three of them right now.
1. To go Paleo, I'd have to eat a ton of meat.
Probably the most common Paleo myth is that it's mostly meat. First of all, this is not how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate, nor is it what the Paleo diet advocates. The Paleo diet is not a high protein diet, but is actually rather moderate in protein.
Animals were not the most reliable food source for our ancestors. Large game was probably hit and miss, depending on the season, geographic region, and skills of the hunter. It's more likely they relied on the plants they foraged daily, nuts and seeds, and smaller "animal" protein sources, such as insects, reptiles and rodents. Those living along coastlines, lakes and rivers had the benefit of fish.
High protein diets are risky, with protein toxicity being a serious concern—consuming too much protein can put a strain on your kidneys.
Nutrition expert Ron Rosedale, MD,[i] recommends your consuming about one gram of protein per kilogram of lean body mass. Here's how that works. If you body fat is 25 percent, then your lean body mass is 75 percent of your total body weight. You would then divide your pounds of lean body weight by 2.2 (converting pounds to kilograms), to calculate the grams of protein you should be eating each day. Keep in mind this is only a ballpark figure. Of course, if you are extremely active or pregnant, you'll need to bump this up accordingly, by about 15 to 25 percent depending on your situation.
The quality of the protein you consume is every bit as important as the overall quantity—maybe even more so. Most people get too much low-quality protein, far too many carbohydrates, and not enough high quality fats.
2. The Paleo diet is just another low-carb fad.
The most fundamental principle of the Paleo diet is returning to foods that more closely resemble those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This means organically grown vegetables, roots, nuts and seeds, fruit in moderation, and meats, fish and poultry. We should also be consuming naturally fermented foods, as the gut microflora so critical to our immune function has taken heavy losses from its assault by the Western diet.
The Paleo diet is naturally low in carbohydrates, especially carbs from sugars and starches. And this is quite beneficial for your health—actually necessary if you wish to restart your fat-burning engine, which for most of us has become quite sluggish from today's constant carbohydrate infusion.
The Paleo diet is not a fad. Various renditions have actually been around for decades, long before Dr. Loren Cordain popularized the Paleo diet with his book by that name. There are as many versions of "Paleo" as there are proponents, each with their own particular focus or orientation.
My own take on Paleo is based on what modern science is telling us about how our bodies react to certain foods. I believe you should listen to your body and put some effort into learning its language, as it will tell you what is and isn't working. This means there will be individual dietary variations for each person, rather than hard and fast rules. Diets are never one-size-fits-all, and Paleo is no exception.
Everyone has a different tolerance for sugars and starches, so you'll have to find your "sweet spot" when it comes to starchy vegetables like potatoes—particularly if you have issues with insulin resistance, which is almost the norm today.
3. The Paleo diet is bad for animals and the planet.
One area in which I am not at all compromising is my belief that we should consume only whole foods that are raised sustainably and biodynamically, whether from plants or animals. This is especially important for the Paleo lifestyle, which requires the consumption of animal products. Just as with ANY nutrition plan, there are ways of going about it that will support and nurture the planet, and ways that will not.
I am deeply committed to ecological responsibility, which includes purchasing products that come only from farmers who are raising foods naturally and sustainably, with the health and happiness of their animals receiving top priority.
Animals should be grazing on grassy pastures, not confined inside crowded buildings or fed biologically inappropriate diets of grain and soy. Today, nearly 65 billion cows, chickens, pigs and other animals are crammed into CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations) and subjected to filthy and unconscionably cruel conditions, where sickness is the norm and antibiotics are dispensed by the truckload. Any product coming from a factory farm should be avoided. Unfortunately, this eliminates the vast majority of meats and dairy on standard grocery store shelves—and this alone may necessitate a radical lifestyle change for some.
Modern day agricultural practices such as genetically engineered foods, monocropping, chemical fertilizers, heavy pesticide and herbicide use, and a wasteful food system have resulted in massive ecological degradation. Sixty percent of our planet's ecosystems are no longer capable of sustaining themselves without human intervention.[ii] We must begin working with the laws of nature, instead of against them. Our modern day farming systems play a larger role in global climate change than the entire transportation industry.[iii]
Addressing these ecological concerns should be a vital part of the Paleo lifestyle. We are responsible not only for what we put in our mouths, but for the impact it has on our planet. The earth cannot heal unless each of us is willing to do our small part.
Paleo is much more than a diet—it's a way of living that can fire up your metabolism, arm your immune system, and reverse the inflammation that over time burns a hole in your health and longevity. As with any major life change, it's important to ease into it with a generous dose of self-kindness. Realize that you don't have to be a caveman by Saturday! Jumping in whole hog can lead to stress and overwhelm, which dooms many to failure. There are ways to make changes gradually, in a stepwise fashion, feeling good about yourself along the way.
If you are interested in learning more, I invite you to read my book, Is the Paleo Diet Right for You? Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Science," available on Amazon both in paperback and digital formats.
Valerie has a Master's Degree in Psychiatric/Mental Health Nursing and is a best selling author, certified EFT practitioner, and self-proclaimed "science nerd" who is passionate about natural health. To learn more, you can visit her at http://www.valerieburke.net.