Eat Well, Be Well Part 2
That brings us to the concept of the Paleolithic Diet. This diet merges both physical anthropology (what we observe mankind has subsisted on) and human nutritional science (what modern science tells us humans need). The diet emphasizes nutrient and fiber-rich vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds, along with lean meats and animal products. It noticeably avoids excessive grains and refined sugar. Essentially one can imagine going back in time before food industrialization and modern agriculture. Humans lived on what grew and roamed wild.
Over time humans learned that seeds from various plants (grains) could be used as food, though in most cases it required some “processing” to make it digestible and nutritious. One example is the use of corn as food. Native-Americans knew by tradition that maize had to be soaked in alkali, typically ash or lime (calcium carbonate) before using as food. When corn was introduced into other cultures, like the deep southern US, the art of soaking was overlooked. The malnutrition that resulted became known as pellagra. It took until the 1930’s for science to identify the problem as a niacin deficiency. The art of soaking in lime allows the B-vitamin niacin to become available. In addition, indigenous peoples combined corn with beans or other protein sources to get all of the essential amino acids (the required protein building blocks of protein).
Though science has helped show us what is required for basic nutrition, much is lost in translation from the research lab to what is on the grocery store shelves or available at the drive-thru. When it comes to food there are lots of mixed messages coming from advertising and even the “medical experts.” Suggesting that people eat better isn’t very helpful unless you also explain why and how. I have found that to make better eating choices I had to first understand why it was important. Going back to the two great human motivators, pleasure and pain, it might help to rationalize how changing the way you eat can bring you more pleasure while avoiding pain. The key is to understand that the benefits may be delayed. An investment up front will yield dividends later by avoiding diseases such as diabetes, cancer, and stroke. There are also benefits that can manifest more quickly, such as more energy, better sleep, less pain and inflammation, and weight loss.
How does one apply the principles of the Paleolithic Diet? For some the biggest challenge is reducing grains. It’s important to recognize that not all grains are the same. Wheat is the most common grain in our food supply and is found in numerous products made with white flour. White flour is largely devoid of trace nutrients and fiber even though it is typically fortified. It is mostly starch, which is quickly converted to sugar in the body. Excess sugar is efficiently stored as fat. The consequences can be weight gain and an increased risk for diabetes. Wheat can also cause inflammation in the digestive tract, for some severe enough to cause what’s known as celiac disease. Whole wheat provides more nutrients and fiber, but still can be problematic in excess. I recommend consuming other whole grains in moderation, such as quinoa, buckwheat, and millet, while reducing wheat consumption. Sprouting or soaking improves digestibility, so buying 100% sprouted grain breads and making hot porridge for breakfast is a better alternative to white bread and cold cereals, which are heavily processed and contain added sugar. To ensure you get a complete protein, remember to include seeds, nuts, or beans in your diet, especially if you don’t eat much animal protein.
The other big challenge is getting enough vegetables in your diet. These are the dark leafy greens, cruciferous, carrots, beets, squash, peas, onions, garlic, and celery to name a few. Starchy “vegetables” like corn and potatoes don’t count. And neither does ketchup. Along with learning to cook and prepare these foods, it’s important to learn the basic art of seasoning. Herbs and spices not only provide flavor, but also provide nature’s medicine and protective phyto-chemicals. From cinnamon improving blood sugar control to oregano preventing GI infections, they are an essential part of good health. For those who find it impossible to eat enough vegetables, it would benefit you to use whole-food supplements containing green foods, fiber, and protein.
Lastly, when it comes to meat and animal products, it pays to be selective. Remember that the hunter-gatherers didn’t eat a ton of meat. But when they did it was wild and they prized the organ meats, a long lost tradition in our society. We instead esteem the grain-fed muscle tissue from a couple of domesticated animals like beef, pork, and chicken. I’d recommend eating meat a few times per week, including alternatives like bison, lamb, and grass-fed beef, along with free-ranged turkey, wild salmon, sardines, free-range eggs, and perhaps liver now and then. When it comes to dairy remember quality over quantity. Daily consumption of cow milk can be problematic, whereas fermented foods like yogurt and kefir are often better tolerated and have enhanced health benefits.
A few recent news items may further motivate your dietary transformation. It was recently reported that high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) can contain significant levels of mercury. If you needed another reason to avoid this non-food, this would be it. Along with potentially containing a neurotoxin, HFCS is already associated with increased rates of obesity and liver disorders. Concern is also being raised over the sugar substitute, Splenda, which contains sucrolose. Touted as safe by its promoters, new reports indicate it can reduce the beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract by as much as 50%. It can also alter the way the body metabolizes some medications. Ironically, the little Splenda packets labeled “No calorie sweetener” actually contain 95% sugar providing 3.31 calories per packet. This labeling loophole is also prevalent on all the products that now advertise as being trans-fat free. Reading the ingredients you’ll notice they often contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, a guaranteed source of trans-fats. How can this be? The labeling laws allow manufactures to say their products have zero trans-fats if there is less than 0.5 grams per serving. So by simply keeping the serving size small, every product can be labeled as having zero trans-fats, which is a big fat lie! The moral of this story is to read the ingredients and don’t trust the food industry, or expect the government to protect you… nutritionally anyway. Another good rule of thumb is if you don’t know what is, you probably shouldn’t be eating it. For example, here are the ingredients in McDonald’s French Fries:
Potatoes, vegetable oil (canola oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, natural beef flavor [wheat and milk derivatives]), citric acid (preservative), dextrose, sodium acid pyrophosphate (maintain color), salt. Prepared in vegetable oil ((may contain one of the following: Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, hydrogenated soybean oil with TBHQ and citric acid added to preserve freshness), dimethylpolysiloxane added as an antifoaming agent).
Unfortunately there are no McPaleo fast food restaurants, at least not yet. There are better choices when it comes to dining out, but it will be very difficult to obtain good health if you don’t prepare most of your own food. As a kick start to eating better it might be helpful to consider a brief fast. If you’re not ready for that kind of deprivation, then perhaps consider the Caveman or Cavewoman Cleanse. Eat well, live long and prosper.