The paleo/caveman/primal diet is becoming evermore popular. It claims to be more than a fad diet but what actually is it? And how is it different to the countless other diets out there? I’m going to delve into our biological and evolutionary history to discover just what makes it a lifestyle choice and not just a diet.
The paleo way of eating is about finding the perfect human diet and providing Homo sapiens with the food our genes expect for optimal health. It’s about more than just losing weight – such as increased vitality and digestive health.
Genetically identical to cavemen
Evidence from evolutionary biologists and anthropologists suggest that during the Palaeolithic Era obesity, cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and many other diseases simply didn’t exist. We call our ancestors ‘hunter-gatherers’ as they hadn’t adopted a farming lifestyle, essentially hunting and gathering everything they needed for survival. Life expectancy was low, simple accidents killed though a complete lack of health care, but those who avoided sabre-toothed tigers commonly lived for 60 to 70 years.
Genetically speaking, we are identical to our Palaeolithic ancestors. Each one of us is a direct result of 2.5 million years of evolutionary history. So what went wrong with our diet? The simple answer is farming.
Agriculture allowed us to grow grasses and harvest their seed (our grains), and that replaced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Oats, wheat, barley and rice seem to have been around us for a long time – but in reality, only 0.004% of our entire history.
Environment affects our genes
Our DNA doesn’t change, but what our genes do within us depends directly on what we do. Epigenetics tells us that there is nothing in our environment that has no effect on our genes. For example, the amount of sunlight you get, how often you relax or socialise, and the food we eat all trigger specific reactions, known as gene expression.
A study by the Spanish National Cancer Centre illustrated this by studying the effects of differing environments on genetically identical twins. In the most extreme cases, one twin with certain lifestyle was diagnosed with cancer, and his genetically identical brother remained disease free.
So, as Hippocrates said: let food be our medicine.
The umbrella principle
Megan Mccllough Keatley and her husband Brandon Keatley, in their book Primal Cravings, describe the paleo lifestyle through a simple analogy – that of an umbrella. The umbrella principle makes clear the paleo choice in a world of conflicting fads, diet prescriptions and marketing noise.
An umbrella consists of the handle, the ribs and the fabric. The handle represents the paleo lifestyle and the science that supports it.
Instead of listing thousands of foods that you can and can’t eat, the ribs establish five nutritional priorities to embrace, to minimise and to completely avoid.
Rib 1 – Eat nutrient dense, whole food
Eat anything that was available throughout human evolution, when those things were the only things considered food.
Using another metaphor, think of a car – if a substance in the fuel causes decreased performance, it would be sensible to remove it.
A lot of what we typically eat in Britain is loaded with toxins. Some are outright toxic, others can be toxic depending on dose.
Rib 2 – Eliminate grains
Grains fall into the toxic category in any amount and they unfortunately make up a large proportion of the British diet – bread, pasta, cereals, etc. Even though grains come from plants, before farming it would have burned more calories collecting the tiny seeds, ‘separating the wheat from the chaff’, and cooking them than the fuel it provides.
Besides, grains protect themselves from being eaten – they want to survive and germinate. The defence comes in the form of chemical warfare – ominously sounding substances known as antinutrients that stop the absorption of vitamins and minerals. The body’s reaction to antinutrients is to leave a bloated feeling, low energy and the occasional sore throat and bowel problems, which stop once the offenders are removed.
Rib 3 – Minimize sugar and moderate carb intake
Sugar and carbs are ‘dose-specific’ toxins, since the body is hardwired to handle them well. According to Paul Jaminet, PhD, our ancestors got 10-20% of their calories through carbohydrates and sugars. Whereas the government recommends us to eat 45-65% carbs.
Our genes deal with the excess by storing it as fat to be burned later, but the ‘later’ usually doesn’t come, as you’ve already eaten enough carbs to be over the threshold again.
The point is not demonising carbs, but, without the grains, the amount consumed will be a more natural amount and the excess fat will drip away.
Rib 4 – Know your fats, good from bad
Gary Taubes, in his book Why We Get Fat exposes the flawed science and reckless government policy that demonises the paradigm that ‘fat makes us fat’. Evidence suggests hunter-gatherers got 28-58% of their calories from fat, mainly animal saturated fats.
Not only has saturated fat never been conclusively linked to heart disease or any other health risk, it is essential for life. It makes up half our cell membrane structure, aids immune function, is essential to brain health and delivers vitamins that cannot be obtained any other way.
Now since you don’t need to pay attention to the fat content, the best cuts of meat (and often the cheapest) are fully encouraged, along with full fat dairy, cream and cheeses (though dairy from pasture-raised cows is best).
Rib 5 – Shop for the best
Get beyond the labels – organic, free-range, etc – and get to know where your food is coming from. Obviously the most natural environment for the plants and animals will result in tastier and more nutritious food.
Now the handle (eat plants and animals) and ribs (the research that supports why) are in place, next comes the fabric. This is the actual foods to eat:
Meat and fish – just about any animal or fish. ‘If it has a face, you can eat it.’
Vegetables – Any vegetable you can find. They recommend for more carbs: potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash.
Nuts and fats – Along with your choice of nuts, avoid vegetable oil, which is just seed and grain oil. Cooking fats can be olive oil, butter and bacon fat.
Fruit and natural sweeteners – Fruit is self-explanatory; use honey, maple syrup and stevia to sweeten everything else.
Dairy – Some say dairy shouldn’t be included at all (it came after the advent of farming, after all), but I like the sound of full fat milk, cream and cheeses.
So with all the fat consumed, surely you’d get fat?
The thing about paleo eating is not to bother with counting calories and watching fat intake, it’s about eating when your body tells you it’s hungry. With the right types of food your body will reach its optimum balance and regulate hunger accordingly – your body needs feeding, so feed it.
A lower carbohydrate, higher fat diet reteaches your body to burn fat for fuel. Fat is the preferred fuel for the human metabolism. It has been for most of our evolution. But our modern diet makes us dependent on a fresh source of sugar (carbs) every few hours and thwarts our ability to mobilise and oxidise fat for fuel. So, once your body is retrained to burn energy properly, eating more fat without the carbs makes you lose fat.
The 80/20 rule
Many agree that if you’re starting out on paleo, like I am, then you may be susceptible to a little slip up (in my case, the odd Starbucks Rocky Road) and this is why they recommend an 80/20 commitment for the first month. 80% of the time, stick to the umbrella; the other 20% is leeway for indulgences.
‘If you’re complying most of the time, your effort will deliver excellence even if you give in now and then.’ It’s good that those who write the literature are lenient.
So give the caveman lifestyle a go. Who can argue with evolution? We have evolved into the most intelligent species, so we need to be intelligent with our food choices. Can you afford not to?
P.S.: The experts also recommend the odd sunbed, as cavemen were probably tanned head to toe. Now, which other diet recommends that?