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Should you eat like a caveman?

BY JENNIFER MOTL

The controversial Paleolithic or caveman diet offers some benefits, many difficulties, and not much proof of how it affects the body.

Over the past few years, the diet has sparked best-selling books and lots of scientific debate. Proponents say it’s based on their best guess of what our ancestors evolved to eat 10,000 years ago.

Backers promote eating grass-fed meats, poultry, eggs, fish, seafood, veggies, fruits and nuts. They eliminate processed meats like sausage and bacon; all grains (corn, wheat, rice, oats, barley, rye, quinoa, etc.) and all milk products (no cheese or yogurt, either). They also avoid eating beans, peas, snack foods, sugar and salt.

Some proponents, such as Loren Cordain—author of “The Paleo Diet” and “The Paleo Answer”—also promote avoiding peanuts, potatoes and hot peppers. They link these so-called “modern” foods to dozens of ailments including heart disease, cancer, infertility, diabetes, arthritis and others.

But Cordain cites only four studies of the Paleo diet supporting his position that it actually improves health. And all four studies involved only a few dozen people over a few weeks. That’s too few people and too short a time to convince me that the improved blood sugar and cholesterol levels he saw were due to anything other than weight loss.

To determine the diet’s effects, I would like to see studies of hundreds or thousands of people, and I would like researchers to track not just blood sugar and cholesterol levels, but actual rates of diabetes and heart disease over several years.

In “The Paleo Answer,” Cordain doesn’t just imply that grains, beans and dairy are unnecessary. He writes that they’re loaded with toxic “anti-nutrients.” I found these chapters disturbing.

Although Cordain cited many small scientific papers, he didn’t have large, long-term studies to back up his assertions. He did, however, have some intriguing anecdotes from people whose health improved on his eating plan.

Again, I would love to see more thorough research on hundreds of people following a Paleo diet for years to see whether the majority of folks truly did end up with  lower rates of diseases.

NUTRITIONALLY SPEAKING

The Paleo diet is difficult. And while I’m not entirely convinced it’s worth the effort, I don’t think it’s a harmful diet.

Unlike the high-protein Atkins diet, this plan is much higher in fruits and veggies and doesn’t allow junky proteins like salami.

And because it allows more fruit and thus carbs than the Atkins plan, I wouldn’t expect the kidney problems, muscle cramps and constipation found on many high-protein diets.

Still, I would encourage anyone with health problems to be monitored by a physician if he or she tries this diet, just to be sure, since it flies in the face of established medical advice to reduce meat and egg consumption.

DAIRY AND GRAINS

The food groups the Paleo cuts—grains and dairy—are not critical to life. People can get sufficient nutrients even if they avoid grains. And despite advertising to the contrary, I no longer believe dairy products are critical to healthy bones—studies show women in Japan, where dairy is unpopular, still have strong bones.

Recent studies suggest that if you get enough vitamin D, you don’t need as much calcium for bone strength. However, folks who avoid dairy need to be sure to get some calcium; green leafy vegetables can be a decent source.

That said, on a personal level, I would be hard-pressed to eliminate grains and dairy products. I love the aroma of fresh bread, and I recently learned how to make my own yogurt, which is delicious.

And although I eat some meat and chicken, I don’t find it appealing at every meal. But that’s just my preference. Meat-lovers might go bananas over this plan.

GENES AND EXERCISE

I agree with Cordain—author of “The Paleo Diet”—that our modern diet is not healthy. It’s heavy on proc-essed starch and light on fruits and veggies.

But you don’t have to go back to the Stone Age to find healthy eating patterns, and more meat is not necessarily the answer to our problems.

In fact, there are many healthy eating patterns. Drs. Dean Ornish and Neal Barnard have shown that a meatless eating plan can reduce heart disease and diabetes.

Many less-meaty traditional diets also promote low rates of heart disease and cancer: Think about the amount of rice consumed in Japan; the whale blubber eaten by Eskimos; the corn and potatoes that Andean cultures subsisted on; and the milk emphasized in certain southern African cultures.

These widely different eating plans appear to be healthy for these different populations. Whether it’s due to people’s genetics in different parts of the world or a result of all the physical activity they do is not clear.

What we do know for sure is that no matter what traditional diet people eat, when they switch to modern fast foods, they get lots of diseases.

Another important thing to point out is that our hunter–gatherer ancestors were a lot more active than we are. Even Cordain admits that a typical Paleolithic woman would tote her infant on her hip or shoulder for at least four miles while foraging for food—sounds like hard work to me.

In my experience as a dietitian, many athletes can eat almost anything and still have lower blood sugar and cholesterol than their couch-potato peers.

WHAT ABOUT THE COSTS?

I also wonder if the Paleo diet is sustainable, due to its cost and effects on the environment. Researchers recently found low-income folks who receive food stamps would not be able to afford a Paleo diet.

From an environmental standpoint, I wonder if we encouraged the whole world to adopt a high-protein diet, whether we’d have enough land to raise all the beef and chicken it would require.

It takes much more land to raise meat than to produce an equal amount of grain and beans. And already, some oceans are overfished. So from an environmental standpoint, I wonder if a high-protein Paleo diet is sustainable.

The Paleo eating plan raises a lot of intriguing questions. I hope researchers are working on a solid answer.


Jennifer Motl welcomes reader questions via her website, brighteating .com, or by email at healthyliving@freelancestar.com.

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